Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strategy in Syria is collapsing, as Russia’s intervention puts Turkish allies there on the defensive, and the European Union becomes ever more frustrated with Ankara’s inability to stem the refugee tide.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ankara on February 8 to discuss the growing refugee problem, with more than 30,000 Syrians amassing on the Turkish border, fleeing a fresh offensive by the Syrian army on the city of Aleppo. According to some reports, last month alone 70,000 refugees arrived in Greece from Turkey.
Merkel, who is under increasing pressure at home to reduce the number of migrants seeking refuge in Europe, held talks with Erdogan and her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu. The German chancellor’s visit to Turkey, the second since October last year, took place shortly after the European Union approved €3bn in funding to help Ankara cope with the refuges.
Ankara, which says if has already spent more than $10bn to look after 2.5mn refugees from Syria, is now caught between the EU and the US, with Brussels urging Turkey to keep its doors open to the refugees, while Washington pressures Ankara to seal off its borders to prevent the free movement of Islamic State militants.
The situation is getting worse in Syria and becoming more complicated for Turkey with each day passing. Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Bashar al-Assad regime’s forces have made gains over the past weeks against the Syrian rebels around Aleppo, triggering a new wave of refugees.
The rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo are still home to 350,000 people, and aid workers have said they could soon fall to the government, Reuters reported on February 7. The Syrian army advanced further towards the Turkish border on February 8 in a major offensive backed by Russia and Iran that rebels say now threatens the future of their nearly five-year-old insurrection against Assad, according to the news agency.
Turkey says it should not be expected to shoulder the whole refugee burden alone. Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus on February 8 warned: “The worst-case scenario in this region in the near future is the exodus of a new wave of refugees of nearly 600,000 to Turkey’s border”.
Since the war in Syria began five years ago, Turkey has kept its doors open for people fleeing the civil war there. But this time Ankara says it will only take in those 30,000 refugees newly arrived at its orders if absolutely necessary, and instead will provide aid to the refugees on the other side of the border.
Turkey and the EU are well aware there is no swift solution to the refugee crisis until the war in Syria ends or at least the conflict de-escalates, but the changes of peace at the moment look very slim. UN-sponsored Syrian peace talks have been suspended until February 25 because of the Syrian government forces’ assault on Aleppo.
Turkey, which actively supports the Syrian opposition groups, sees Assad regime, together with the Russian military campaign, as the root cause of all the troubles. The government is also, on the other hand, concerned about the growing influence of the Kurdish opposition forces there, which has led to speculation that Ankara is considering sending troops to northern Syria.
Last week Ankara and Moscow exchanged strong accusations, with Russia claiming that Turkey is preparing a military incursion into northern Syria, while Turkey accused Russia of committing war crimes there.
“What is happening on the Turkish-Syrian border gives grounds to think that Turkey is preparing a military invasion,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on February 4. Turkey is trying to conceal its illegal military activity on the border with Syria and cancelled an agreed Russian observation flight because of that, Russia’s Defence Ministry further claimed.
Ankara rejected the claims out of hand. Turkish forces are not preparing to invade northern Syria, the Turkish Prime Minister's office told CNN on February 4. “Simply they [Russians] are diverting attention from their attacks on civilians as a country already invading Syria," the source said.
Turkey’s foreign ministry explained that Ankara rejected a Russian request for an observation flight over its territory under the Open Skies Treaty, because an agreement could not be reached on the mission plan.
Ankara is also unhappy about the increased cooperation between Washington and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.
The PYD’s military unit, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has been Washington’s most effective ally against Islamic State. But, Ankara considers the PYD as a terrorist organisation because of its close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The government in Ankara fears that the Syrian Kurds’ territorial gains in northern Syria could spark separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish minority. But would the government in Ankara go as far as sending troops to Northern Syria to undermine and isolate the Syrian Kurds?
Experts think that a Turkish incursion is very unlikely. “The Russian claim does not translate into the realities on the ground,” Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and a former special-forces officer, told bne IntelliNews.
Gurcan noted that Turkey should follow closely the developments in Aleppo and the territorial progress of PYD forces. However, he does not regard Turkey’s intervention into northern Syria as likely.
Turkey cannot take such a step without the approval of the US, according to Gurcan. “Otherwise, it would take a huge risk. And considering the current circumstances, the US would not let Turkey take such a unilateral action on the ground.”
According to Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major now serving as a security analyst at Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV, Turkey would not be directly involved in the Syrian civil war.
“This [Russian] propaganda is just a tactic to create further pressure on Turkey. Especially when considering the intensifying terror attacks of the PKK inside Turkey, it would be unwise to shift the focus onto northern Syria,” Ozcan told bne IntelliNews.
Gurcan agrees. “Russia adopts a proactive stance on its Syria policy and it aims to give a pre-emptive rhetorical strike by claiming that Turkish forces are preparing to invade northern Syria”, says the security analyst.
Turkey’s intervention would not stop the refugee inflows and would only put Ankara at odds with its Western allies and risk a military confrontation with Russia.
Meantime, Europe does not care much about Turkey’s Kurdish problems as its immediate concern is to find more effective ways to prevent more refugees from arriving at its doors.
"Turkey has a moral if not a legal duty to provide protection to those fleeing persecution”, said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on February 6. “The support that the EU is providing to Turkey, among others, is aimed exactly at guaranteeing that Ankara can protect and host people that are seeking asylum,” she added.
In December, Brussels pledged to revitalise Turkey’s long-stalled membership talks, liberalise the visa regime and give €3bn in financial aid.
In return, Ankara vowed to take the necessary measures to limit the flow of migrants to Europe. Ankara has promised to improve the living conditions of the refugees, granted them work permits to encourage them to stay in Turkey.
Another top EU official, commissioner Johannes Hahn, asked Turkey to do more to cut the number of migrants reaching Greece. Turkey must show results by the time EU leaders meet for a summit on February 18-19, said Hahn. "The action plan was agreed more than two months ago and we are still not seeing a significant decline in the number of migrants," the EU's enlargement commissioner told Reuters after an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Amsterdam attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The European Commission will publish on February 10 a report on Turkey's progress in implementing the migrant deal, according to Reuters.
Merkel’s short visit to Turkey on February 8 was designed to exert more pressure on Ankara, but there appears to have been little real progress.
Germany and Turkey decided to take a set of measures including a joint diplomatic initiative to try to halt attacks on the Syrian city of Aleppo that have triggered a new wave of refugees.
Germany is ready to fulfil its part in lending support to Turkey’s efforts within the framework of a joined task that needs to be defined, Merkel told reporters in Ankara. “We will use the Nato defence ministers’ meeting scheduled for February 10 to talk about the situation in Syria as well as whether and to what extent Nato can help in monitoring the situation at sea and lend support to Frontex [the EU border guard agency] and Turkish coastguards.”
Merkel refrained from presenting a clear timeframe for delivery of the EU funds. “We need to work on this. We need to make sure there are not too many bureaucratic hurdles”, she said.
For his part, Davutoglu said that Turkey would inform Brussels next week on the initial projects it plans after receiving funds from the EU. But he added that no one should expect Turkey to take on the burden of the refugees issue on its own.
“This is a last-ditch effort by the chancellor to push Turkey to get serious about the plan,” a senior EU diplomat told the Financial Times. “They have taken some positive steps but the numbers are still high. That is the only a litmus test.”
The migration crisis is in fact becoming a litmus test to see if Turkey’s is a reliable partner. On the day Merkel was holding talks in Turkey, a leaked memo exposed the simmering tensions between Ankara and Brussels.
Back in November, when Turkey and the EU were negotiating a deal on the migrant crisis, Erdogan threatened to flood Europe with refugees, a Greek website euro2day reported.
The purported minutes of a tense meeting, published by the news website, clearly showed mutual distrust between Erdogan and top EU officials, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk. According to Reuters, the meeting took place in Antalya on November 16 while the G-20 summit was being held.
Erdogan asked whether the EU would provide €3bn or €6bn in funds over two years. When Junker confirmed the amount would be €3bn in total, Erdogan said: “Turkey did not need the EU’s money anyway”. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses. If you say €3bn for two years, no need to discuss further”, the Turkish president threatened.
When Juncker reminded Erdogan that the EU had postponed the progress report on Turkey until after the November Turkish election at his request, and had been criticised for the delay, Erdogan claimed that the delay did not help the Justice and Development Party (AKP) win the elections. “Anyway, the report was an insult”, Erdogan scolded.
In the delayed report published on November 10, Brussels emphasised the overall negative trend in the country's respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights. After several years of progress on freedom of expression, there had been serious backsliding over the past two years, said the report.
At the meeting, Erdogan also complained about the slow progress in accession talks. “Most Turks do not want to become members of the EU because of reports like this,” he said, adding that no chapters had been opened despite Turkey’s progress.
He insists the EU has done nothing for Turkey. “We have waited for 53 years, and you have been mocking us”.
At one point Juncker stressed the urgency of striking a deal within two weeks, saying that “we are working hard and we have treated you like a prince in Brussels”.
Erdogan’s response showed that his confidence that the EU needed him more than he needed the EU: “Like a prince? Of course, I am not representing a third world country”. He also asked: “so, how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?”