Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

Is Turkey creating another European migrant crisis?

Ankara is escalating the war in Syria while using the conflict's refugees to extort Europe

Migrants walk along the Turkey-Greece border near Pazarkule, Turkey on March 1, 2020. Turkey has announced it will no longer close its border gates to refugees who want to go to Europe. Bulent Kilic / AFP
Migrants walk along the Turkey-Greece border near Pazarkule, Turkey on March 1, 2020. Turkey has announced it will no longer close its border gates to refugees who want to go to Europe. Bulent Kilic / AFP

Thursday’s air strike that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib marked a momentous escalation in the conflict between Turkish-supported forces in Syria and the Russian-backed regime of Bashar Al Assad. Blaming Mr Al Assad for the attack, Ankara retaliated with a range of deadly strikes of its own against regime targets.

Turkey’s situation in Idlib is precarious to say the least. Embattled, it lacks an endgame in Syria and is effectively fighting not only the Assad regime but also Russia. This is despite Ankara’s concerted effort in recent years to develop close relations with Moscow, even to the detriment of its ties with traditional western allies. Now, it is finding itself isolated with few friends in the international community to help it out of its Syrian quagmire.

Family members and political leaders attend funeral prayers for Halil Cankaya, 24, one of 36 Turkish soldiers killed on Thursday in a Syrian army attack in the Idlib area of Syria, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Funeral prayers in Ankara, Turkey on March 1 for a Turkish soldier killed in a Syrian army attack in Idlib, Syria. Burhan Ozbilici / AP

This explains why, in yet another attempt to blackmail the Europeans into helping Ankara in its proxy war, Turkey declared on Friday that its 2016 migration deal with Europe was over, pushing many of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees living within its borders for Greece and Bulgaria.

However, such recklessness on the part of Turkey will only anger Europe and harden anti-Turkish attitudes among the elites there. Europe has reinforced its borders with Turkey and taken measures to prevent migrants from entering. The reality is that Europe’s wish to stay away from the horrors taking place in Idlib is stronger than a few thousand refugees slipping through its borders.

Turkey should not expect significant US support – or the beginning of some kind of rapprochement with Washington

Ankara might take heart in the initial reaction of the US. When asked about a possible role in Syria following the attacks, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Washington’s envoy to Nato, responded that “everything is on the table”. She even expressed her hopes that the Turkish people will understand that the US is “the ally of their past and their future”. Meanwhile, the influential US senator Lindsey Graham called for a no-fly zone over Idlib, something that Ankara has wanted for years.

Nevertheless, Turkey should not expect significant US support – or the beginning of some kind of rapprochement with Washington.

Sure, the US along with Nato and Europe will continue to make strongly worded statements in support of Turkey. In a symbolic act of solidarity, Nato might offer to make one or two additional reconnaissance flights over Syria. If the administration of Donald Trump is feeling particularly generous, Turkey could even find itself in possession of one or two Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries in return for some kind of concession. But that is as much support as Turkey is likely to receive.

Despite the opinion of Senator Graham, it is highly improbable that the Trump administration would agree to a no-fly zone over Idlib or offer any other type of direct military support. For a no-fly zone to work, the US – either alone or with Nato – would have to commit forces and risk a conflagration with Russia, which will be loathed to give up its monopoly over Idlib’s skies.

President Trump, who has vowed to end “costly” wars and is about to embark on a re-election campaign, will no doubt be risk-averse to new foreign entanglements. Although he has sought to ease tensions with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent months, he might also look to avoid having any hostilities with Russia.

Undoubtedly, Ankara is largely to blame for the situation it finds itself in. For years, it has treated its traditional allies with disdain and ignored their security concerns. This includes turning a blind eye to ISIS militants entering Syria through Turkey, subverting the Iranian sanctions act of the US Congress through a Turkish state-owned bank, threatening to revoke Nato’s use of Turkish bases, purchasing the S-400 missile system from Russia despite repeated warnings of the security risks, and refusing to back Nato’s plans for the defence of the Baltics ahead of last December’s Nato summit, to name just a few examples.

Turkey’s isolation is the consequence of Ankara’s foolhardy policy of alienating the West while over-committing itself in the grinding Syrian civil war. Without strong allies, it will have little choice but to swallow the bitter pill and accept Russia’s terms for a temporary ceasefire, which will serve to consolidate the recent gains made by Mr Al Assad in Idlib.

Then, instead of taking ownership of their reckless policies, Mr Erdogan and his inner circle will declare this yet another example of Turkey being abandoned by the West.

Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London

Updated: March 2, 2020 09:29 AM

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