Erdogan’s refugee gambit

Ankara hopes that a new financial agreement with the European Union will promote a positive image of the economy and reverse the decline in support for the Justice and Development Party

Presidencia de la República Mexicana CC BY

“What is Erdogan trying to do?” Nearly all the texts and emails I received from colleagues and journalists contained the same sentence after Turkey decided to open its border for refugees to cross into Europe, effectively halting the 2016 migration deal between the country and the European Union.

I rarely have a chance to see into the Turkish president’s mind, let alone speak on his behalf. And, other than the fact that our birthdays are two days apart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and I have very little in common. But, nonetheless, let me try to explain why Turkey seems to have reneged on the migration deal – and what it is trying to achieve, as well as the challenges for all involved.

It is no coincidence that the abrupt decision to open the border has come at a time of massive mobilisation of Turkish troops in the last rebel-held territory inside Syria, Idlib. Turkey aims to prevent a wholescale onslaught by Russia and the Syrian regime there, which would drive some of its 2.7 million inhabitants towards the Turkish border. The majority of Syrians who live in Idlib have family members who joined the ranks of the opposition or fled from other parts of Syria to escape the Assad regime. As they will not go back to regime-held Syria, and with the Turkish-Syrian border firmly sealed, they are trapped. Already hosting 3.7 million Syrians, Turkey does not want to be in a position to have to accept more.

Erdogan’s first motivation is to gain European support, politically and financially, in his quest to establish a safe zone inside Idlib, in preparation for a potential influx of internally displaced persons.

Domestic considerations are also a factor in Ankara’s decision to push migrants towards the border. With news of Turkish casualties from the Idlib front and the government’s Syria policy under growing public scrutiny, Erdogan must also hope that polemic on migration will shift the domestic debate away from Syria and towards Euro-bashing. An attack that killed 36 Turkish troops last week has fuelled a bitter internal debate on Turkish engagement with Syria. Turks are known to rally behind their troops enthusiastically in times of hardship; previous Turkish incursions in Syria against US-backed Syrian-Kurdish forces have been popular. But, this time, entering the Syrian war in its final stretch has caused enough criticism for the government shut down Twitter for 24 hours and ban anti-war gatherings. To Erdogan’s critics, the crisis in Idlib is a consequence of his failed Syria policy – and not a “fight against terrorism” as they believed previous incursions to be.

Syrians who live in Turkey have a legal status and work permits; they are now part of the social fabric in many Turkish cities

Then, of course, there is Turkey’s desire to renegotiate the 2016 refugee agreement with the EU for a new tranche of financial aid. Erdogan has long complained that the EU has not lived up to its end of the bargain, even though the bloc has already paid Turkey around half of the €6 billion specified under the deal and the rest is, according to EU officials, already “contracted out” to be paid by 2022 Here, domestic political considerations have merged with financial ones. Turkey’s refugee policy is unpopular and, at a time of economic downturn, many Turks see Syrians as the cause of their predicament, taking up a refugees-out narrative. This is also the reason why the government is wildly exaggerating the number of refugees who have left Turkey – to as much as 140,000 – while EU officials discuss crossings of the Aegean as being “in the thousands”.

Facing real budgetary difficulties and jittery markets, Ankara hopes that a new financial agreement with the EU will promote a positive image of the economy and reverse the decline in support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Europe’s regulatory framework, which only allows for payments to specific institutions and projects (as opposed to a direct payment to the Turkish government) has long frustrated Ankara. And Erdogan hopes that his government can gain more autonomy over the funds this time. On Tuesday, the Turkish president said that the EU “offered €1 billion but we already spent €40 [billion]”. This signalled that a behind-the-scenes negotiation was under way, following a visit to Ankara by EU High Representative Josep Borrell and European Council President Charles Michel.

The ongoing negotiations focus on Syrian refugees in Turkey, but those lining up on the Greek and Turkish borders also include young men from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, and Iraq. Syrians are a minority in the new wave of migration – and there is a good reason for that. Syrians who live in Turkey have a legal status and work permits; they are now part of the social fabric in many Turkish cities. And, since the border is firmly sealed, no new wave of Syrian refugees will come through.

In Moscow last night, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to nail down a ceasefire in Idlib. A lot is at stake for Turkey – and for Europe. Over the past month, Ankara has mobilised almost 10,000 troops in Idlib and is now fighting the Syrian regime – and, effectively, the Russian military – for control of the area. If they fail, more Syrians will move north, potentially forcing their way through Turkey’s tall concrete border wall in the south.

If the ceasefire holds, Europeans must not only become serious about offering a new financial package to Turkey but must also revise the humanitarian side of their Syria policy. As a new phase in the war has already begun, a ceasefire in Idlib should serve as a cue for this shift. Starting with Idlib, European leaders must start thinking creatively about stabilisation and reconstruction in war-torn Syria – and, yes, they must do so before the war is even over.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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