“Shameful…unacceptable….blackmail…dictator.” European leaders didn’t spare their words to condemn Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan after his decision on Friday (28 February) to open its border with Greece and let refugees enter into Europe.
On Monday, Erdogan stepped up his game warning that “millions” of refugees would come to Europe.
He also said he refused €1m in extra cash, saying “we don’t want this money”.
Despite this statement, former Nato secretary-general Willy Claes said on Belgian television that Erdogan is “a dictator” and that “all he wants is money”.
But if it is true that Turkey doesn’t want extra money from the EU, why did Ankara cancel its deal with the EU and open the borders for refugees?
The answer lies obviously not in Greece, but in Syria, where Turkey has started fighting with Syrian troops in the Idlib province.
Why is Idlib important for Turkey?
In order to understand the importance of Idlib, we have to go back to 2011, the year the Arab Spring, or Arab Revolution started.
After the fall of Arab dictators like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, it became clear that the elections would be won by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan was seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of how democracy and Islamism could become a success.
When Erdogan went to visit Tunis and Cairo in September 2011, he was greeted in the street by masses chanting “Erdogan, Saladin”, referring to the Muslim hero against the crusaders.
Together with Ahmet Davutoglu, AKP’s new ideologue, Turkey’s foreign minister and later prime minister, Erdogan started dreaming of a kind of new Ottoman Empire – not by invading countries, but by making regional alliances with Muslim Brotherhood governments.
The timing was right, as the relations with the EU and the accession talks were starting to go down the drain.
Erdogan saw in the Arab Spring a new opportunity to take up a regional leadership.
However, after mistakes by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi – and certainly after his disposition by the Egyptian army – that dream was shattered.
It divided the Middle East in two big alliances: the revolutionary alliance of Muslim Brothers, Turkey, and Qatar on the one hand; and the anti-revolutionary alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other.
Where Egypt under Morsi initially supported the Syrian rebels and opposition against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Cairo changed camps under the new Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Sisi.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates followed slowly and also stopped supporting rebel groups in Syria, while US president Barack Obama took his hands off Syria in 2013, by not carrying out promised attacks.
This means that, since 2014, only Turkey and Qatar were still supporting the Syrian opposition. In 2017 Qatar had to quit too, as the anti-revolutionary alliance led by Saudi Arabia started a blockade against the country.
Turkey stands alone
For more than two years Turkey has been the only country that still supports and helps the Syrian opposition on the ground, in a battle against the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Russia and Iran.
In September 2018 Erdogan reached an agreement with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to make the last Syrian area under rebel control, Idlib province, a demilitarised zone.
Assad and Russia would not attack Idlib, while Turkey would disarm the jihadi groups that were party brought to Idlib from Aleppo, after its destruction.
In spring 2019 Assad started to violate the agreement, but in the summer Putin and Erdogan reconfirmed it.
At the end of last year, Assad’s army started bombing the Idlib region again. It even took one of its main cities, Saraqib.
The bombings targeted schools, hospitals and densely-populated areas, for two purposes: first to demoralise the population as quickly as possible, and secondly to start a new movement of refugees, in the direction Turkey, and Europe.
By the end of January 2020, almost one million refugees had fled to the Turkish border, where they live in improvised camps in the freezing cold.
Erdogan wants new deal with Putin
Turkey has not many options. If it pulls out of Idlib, it leaves a population of around three million people in the cruel hands of Assad’s army.
After all these years of support for the Syrian opposition, that is not an option.
Erdogan could open his borders and let all refugees in. But for a country that already hosts 3.6 million officially-registered Syrian refugees (20 times more per inhabitant than Europe) and that has serious economic problems, that is not an option either.
If Europe would be prepared to share the burden and host at least a percentage of these one or two million refugees, then Erdogan might maybe consider this. But as we know, Europe flatly refuses even to consider this.
Turkey could also try to start a full-blown war against Assad’s army in Syria. But as Assad has the backing of Russia and Iran, that would be a war that cannot be won.
The only real option for Erdogan is to reinstate the agreement with Putin, and make Idlib again a demilitarised zone, where refugees can go back home.
Erdogan literally said so during a party meeting in Ankara on Monday.
Putin might agree with such a deal. Or he might not, and say he cannot control Assad.
For Erdogan it is clear that European and American support is needed in order to for him to be strong enough during his negotiations with Putin on Thursday.
In short, it looks like Turkey has opened its borders in order to wake up Europe and force it to support Erdogan in his negotiations with Putin.
Sending refugees to Europe might not be the subtlest way to get Europe on his side, but Erdogan also knows that the EU is slow – often too slow for the geopolitical chess game.
However, it is doubtful if Europe has understood the message.
While on Tuesday, the US ambassador to the UN paid a visit to the Idlib region on the Turkish-Syrian border, EU Council president Charles Michel, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Parliament president David Sassoli went to visit the Turkish-Greek border.
While EU leaders’ first instinct is to show support for EU member Greece, it is not exactly the right border to visit for a self-proclaimed (in von der Leyen’s words) “geopolitical” EU.
Published by EUObserver on March 4, 2020.