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  • Writer's pictureThomas Cole

Erdogan’s Syria problem and the EU dimension

On Thursday last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who announced that Turkey would “open the borders” for Syrian refugees, escaping fighting in Syria to enter Europe, in response to his failed attempt to win around European and NATO allies to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria to help Turkey in its campaign in northern Syria. This came after 33 Turkish troops lost their lives in Idlib province in North-Eastern province, following attacks by Syrian army forces of Bashar Al-Assad (backed by Russia) on Turkish-backed fighters and their positions.

The situation in Syria is complicated, where Turkey and Russia have been involved for many years, backing different sides in the conflict, with an agreement last year that they essentially divide up the country in de facto spheres of influence between them, with Russia backing the Assad regime and Turkey supporting anti-Assad rebels and also those fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria, with Turkey fearing the creation of any kind of viable Kurdish state, with its own large Kurdish population in Turkey.

The situation gets complicated further with Turkey, despite being a NATO member, having moved towards Russia in recent years with President Erdoğan agreeing to buy a missile defence system from Russia, itself a move unwelcomed by the Trump administration in the United States. Under NATO’s article 5 clause, an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all, although with Erdoğan having moved towards Russian President, Vladimir Putin, any kind of agreed reaction by the other NATO members to help Erdoğan, in light of the attacks against Turkish troops, by a Russia-backed regime seems fanciful, given that this could lead to direct hostilities between NATO and Russia, something for which there is little appetite. It is within this context, that President Erdoğan made his statement last week, wishing to try garnering a response, especially from his European partners to do more about the crisis in North-Eastern Syria, where to date, according to the UNHCR, Turkey has taken in over 3.5m Syrian refugees. With the fighting in Idlib continuing, Erdoğan’s Government is concerned that this could lead to further Syrian refugees making their way toward the Syrian-Turkish border, where out of all countries, Turkey has taken more refugees dislodged by the conflict than any other country (close to 66% of all Syrian refugees).

In early 2016, with European countries struggling to contain the refugee crisis and with a political backlash in many EU member states along the Western Balkans migration route to the welcoming policy taken in particular by the Merkel Government in Germany in 2015, President Erdoğan spotted an opportunity to try advancing his country’s own long-stated aim of moving closer to the European Union. The Deal which the EU struck with Erdogan’s government essentially outsourced its own migration policy to Turkey, coming at a time of weakness in the European Union, following the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent €-zone crisis as well as the rise of populism across the bloc and an inability to properly manage its external borders. In what was seen as a political coup by Erdoğan at the time, the 9-point agreement saw Turkey agree to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, whilst in return, the EU would offer €6bn in assistance for the refugees. In addition to this, the EU promised an upgrade to the EU-Turkey customs union, visa-free access to the Schengen zone, so long as it deemed that 72 technical criteria were met by Turkey - to date they have not been – and that the EU accession process with Turkey would be speeded up. However, following the fall-out and Erdoğan’s reaction to the failed coup d’état in July 2016, the EU de facto put the accession process with Turkey on ice.

Fast-forward almost 4 years and Erdoğan finds himself in a trickier position. With European countries not interested in getting involved in Syria (despite new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen pushing the EU as a “geopolitical actor”) his moves towards Vladimir Putin seem to have been called into question following last week’s attacks. Erdoğan is not sitting as comfortably politically as he would like: Following a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election in June last year, which the opposition won, he has to be careful about getting bogged down in a Syria conflict which has been raging for almost a decade on its southern border, especially when Turkish lives start to be lost.

EU leaders have been clear that they wish to see Turkey uphold its side of the deal which was struck in 2016 and with spring and summer approaching, the last thing they want is a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis. It is under these auspices that the Greek Government has made protecting the Greek-Turkish border a priority, with Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a show of strength, visiting the border - which Greece has closed - with von der Leyen as well as European Council President, Charles Michel and European Parliament President, David Sassoli this week. For the EU, the dynamics of 2020 are different to those of 2015, where the EU’s approach is now, above all, to protect its external borders as to opposed to taking any kind of humanitarian approach. As to whether the numbers of Syrian refugees trying to leave Turkey for the European Union increases will have to be seen in the coming weeks and months but for Erdoğan, knowing full-well the EU dynamics of the situation, it is a lever which he is prepared to pull. As regards Idlib province, reports suggest that 1m people may have been displaced since December and Erdoğan will find himself in the position of having to weigh up what his options are, in particular if his European allies continue to show a lack of interest in getting involved. A meeting between Erdoğan and Putin on Thursday may well present a first solution, with talks between Putin, Erdoğan, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and French President, Emmanuel Macron, tentatively scheduled for Friday.

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