Turkey has encouraged Syrian refugees to move to Europe as part of a policy that appears to use refugees to wring concessions and support from European countries for Ankara’s role in Syria. In late February, Turkey opened the border for refugees to go to Greece and began prodding them to leave within a 72-hour window. Within days, Greece was forced to contend with more than 10,000 refugees trying to cross by land and sea.
European Union (EU) countries and Turkey signed a deal in March 2016 after more than 1 million people sought to get to Europe via Turkey, many of them crossing through Greece and eastern Europe to Germany. The deal, criticized by human rights groups, saw the European Commission agreeing to pay Turkey billions of dollars to keep the asylum seekers in Turkey. This also gave Turkey a ready-made way to leverage policies by using the apparent threat of a new refugee crisis to get concessions from Europe.
At the heart of the problem was that European states, besieged by internal, often anti-migrant populist politics, needed Turkey to reduce the flow of people. By 2019, Ankara had become increasingly frustrated with its failures in northern Syria. It had taken over areas of Syria by invading the largest Kurdish area of Afrin in January 2018, after having moved soldiers into Jarabulus and areas of Afrin in 2016 and 2017. In a growing crisis with Washington, Turkey also attacked the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2019. When European countries criticized Turkey’s operations, Ankara threatened to send refugees to Europe.
This has created a vicious cycle that enables Turkey’s strategy in northern Syria by linking it to European countries who have no interest in backing Ankara’s role in Syria. Yet Ankara doesn’t seem to know what its end goal in Syria is. It initially sent troops to Syria to fight what it described as “terrorists.” Ankara asserted last year that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is linked to the SDF and that NATO should back its war on “terror” in Syria. In October and November 2019, Turkey threatened numerous times to send refugees to Europe if the EU criticized its attack on Kurdish areas.
Ankara has faced a new crisis since January: The Russian-backed Syrian regime attacked Syrian rebels in Idlib. An estimated 900,000 Syrians fled the fighting, and Turkey sent forces into Idlib hoping to deter the Syrian government’s attacks. Instead, Turkish soldiers were killed. On Feb. 27, Turkey decided to weaponize the refugee issue and open the borders. The next day, refugees were on boats heading to Greece. Turkey pushed media coverage of the refugee situation, even showing maps for refugees and explaining how to get to Europe, as a way to pressure the EU.
However, Ankara never told European states precisely what it wanted. Ankara says it wants U.S. Patriot missiles but it is buying Russian S-400 air defense — while Russia backs the Syrian government’s offensive.
The weaponization of refugees has not worked, except to cause European countries to hold an emergency meeting in early March. Although some voices in Europe have expressed sympathy for Turkey’s predicament, given that Turkey hosts around 4 million Syrian refugees, they don’t appreciate threats and blackmail that utilizes people to achieve support.
The tragedy unfolding on the Turkey-Greece border is one where refugees are used as pawns in a larger game between Turkey, Russia the EU and the Syrian government. Refugees have a right to apply for asylum in European states or Turkey, but the current policy appears to view them as expendable. This is a result of EU states not having a common policy on what to do about the refugee crisis in the long term.
Throwing money at Turkey is a temporary measure. Four million Syrian refugees and 900,000 people displaced in Idlib represent a large community that will not return home anytime soon. Enabling Turkey to use these refugees as a threat against Europe only creates crises that are destined to continue. Ankara’s use of refugees against NATO allies also is unprecedented.
On March 5, Ankara and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib, but the ceasefire doesn’t change the overall problem: Turkey’s irresponsible attempt to pressure Europe by using people who are victims of the war in Syria.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.