Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, speaks during a news conference with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, not pictured, in Budapest, Hungary. (Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

(Bloomberg) -- Among the throngs who showed up at Turkey’s Pazarkule border gate looking to cross over to Greece and a new life was Mohammed Riza Ansari, a 31-year-old construction worker.

In common with many camped out in the no-man’s land on Sunday, Ansari had slept in the open since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkey was opening its western border to Europe in response to refugee pressure from Syria. Like many of them, he wasn’t fleeing the Syrian war at all.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

“I like it here but I can’t get by in Turkey anymore, there’s no work for me,” said Ansari, an Afghan who has been living in central Turkey for seven years. “My parents and siblings were killed in the war in Afghanistan. I have nothing left to lose. So when I heard they opened the doors, I was like, I’m going to give it a shot.”

Turkey’s 3.6 million registered Syrians make up two-thirds of the country’s migrant population, yet only a fraction showed up at the western border after Erdogan said they were free to cross. The danger for European Union governments is that the battle raging for the last rebel holdout in Syria unlocks a fresh wave of refugees who pass through Turkey into Europe and turn Erdogan’s threats into reality. The present fixation on Turkey’s EU frontier may thus be misplaced, and the real risk lie on its southern border with Syria.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

Brussels Concern

Given the shifting fortunes on the battlefield and the uncertainty of what’s happening at Europe’s southeastern borders, change could come rapidly. Should the ongoing military campaign by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces result in the fall of Idlib, more than 2 million refugees could be on the march - with Turkey pledging not to stand in the way.

A major concern in Brussels is that the unfolding crisis on the Greek-Turkish border is just a small taste of what may happen if there is another exodus of refugees from Idlib, according to one EU diplomat. In that case, Erdogan is expected to open the floodgates, triggering a major migration crisis in Greece and across Europe, the diplomat said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Turkey and Russia have emerged as the two main powers determining Syria’s future after President Donald Trump decided to withdraw American forces from the country. Yet in the absence of European powers, Ankara feels increasingly alone as it faces a growing cost in Syria, where it is fighting Assad’s forces. With Russian air power backing Assad, Turkey’s army lost at least 36 soldiers in the past week, bringing the death toll to more than 50 in February alone.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

In response, Turkey’s president, who has long complained that Europe hasn’t been supportive enough even as Ankara purportedly spent $40 billion on refugees, said he would open the borders for anyone who wants to travel to neighboring Greece and beyond.

Only it’s not that simple. Erdogan may yet need European support as he gears up for what will likely be a historic meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the future of Syria, set for Thursday. His tactic of threatening European powers with unleashing refugees has been met with anger, in a reminder that Turkey depends on Europe economically and financially and so his hand is not as strong as it may seem.

In an unusually blunt statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she could understand Erdogan expecting more from Europe, but that she found it “unacceptable” the president and his government were dealing “over the backs of refugees” rather than with EU leaders. Merkel said she’d have further talks with Turkey on how to “find a balance of support from the EU.”

A senior member of Merkel’s party said the chancellor may meet with Erdogan, Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron as soon as Friday to discuss the war in Syria and the threat of a refugee crisis.

“There’s a lot of signaling and provocation going on” behind Turkey’s decision to open western borders for refugees, according to Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. He noted the large discrepancy between the still small numbers that have left Turkey and the government’s lurid talk of more than 100,000 on the march.

We’re far from the migration crisis of 2015 in terms of numbers of people on the move.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

Bustling Neighborhoods

There is a simple reason behind Syrians’ unwillingness to take a risky journey through the EU border that Greece forcefully defends: they have a lot to lose after settling in Turkey. Official estimates put the number of Syrians born in neighboring Turkey since their parents were displaced by the nine-year civil war at about half a million. Istanbul today is home to bustling Syrian neighborhoods, where local businesses thrive in part thanks to trade from the Syrian community.

Hence Erdogan’s decision to open the doors “mostly appeals to irregular migrants from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, who risk deportation, more so than the Syrian refugees,” said Murat Erdogan, a professor at Istanbul’s Turkish-German University who studies migration and who is no relation to the president.

Back in 2016, Erdogan agreed to stop the flow of migration after an agreement with the EU led by Merkel that included a pledge of 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to help alleviate Turkey’s fiscal burden from hosting millions of Syrians. That deal brought an abrupt end to the crowds of refugees commonly seen on the country’s 2,800 kilometer (1,740 mile) Aegean coast. Erdogan on Monday said it was the EU that had failed to meet its obligations, and that Turkey no longer wanted funds the bloc was belatedly offering.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

“Asylum seekers and refugees are free to leave where they are and choose the country they want to live” under international law, Erdogan said.

That stance, if maintained, threatens a return to those scenes of desperation if Idlib falls. Syrians with little to lose, like 71-year-old Mohammed Haboul from Aleppo, are already prepared to try to cross into Greece. He took a 16-hour bus ride from southern Mersin province with his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren after he heard the border was open.

“I like Erdogan, I think he is a good leader, a good Muslim, unlike Bashar al-Assad,” said Haboul. “But the problem is that the economy is really bad here and we can barely get by.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

Also read: Erdogan Accuses Greece of Killing Migrants Crossing Its Border

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