By: Burak Bekdil
Turkey’s Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has threatened Europe several times with “sending millions of refugees your way.” Turkey would apparently like to see more progress in the talks to grant it admission as a full member of the European Union. At the moment, these membership negotiations have stalled. He may also wish for Western support — from the EU, the United States and all of NATO — for his ideal architecture to install Turkey in northwest Syria.
As Turkish servicemen were recently killed in Syria, with direct Russian military involvement, it is probably safe to assume that the support Erdoğan is seeking, both directly and indirectly, is “support for a NATO ally against Russian aggression”. In addition, Erdoğan would also most certainly like the West overlook his massive democratic deficit, and to help Turkey secure even more dominance over the Greek islands off its coast, as well as its claims on the gas fields beneath the eastern Mediterranean.
On February 27, the Turkish government finally pressed the button to execute the threat: Millions of (mostly Syrian) migrants on Turkish soil were now free to travel to Europe; Turkish border gates were now open.
Why did Erdoğan decide now to resort to the “nuclear option” in his country’s deeply problematic relations with the European Union? It seems, bizarrely, that Erdoğan decided to punish the EU because he was angry with… Russia.
When, on February 27, Syrian forces, backed by Russian air support, killed 34 Turkish soldiers in the Idlib area in northwestern Syria, the event seems to have sent shock waves through a Turkish public, who were already split: between a fiercely nationalistic rhetoric that supports the “heroic mission” that took Turkish troops into Syria, and a rational questioning of the wisdom of confronting Syria and Russia — and Iran — in what looks increasingly like a Syrian quagmire. There also may well have been concerns that public unrest over coffins wrapped in the crescent and star flag could erode Erdoğan’s declining popularity even further.
For Turkey, open confrontation with Russia is not an option. In November 2015, the last time Turkey tried punishing Russia, which had placed sanctions on Turkish businesses after Turkey downed a Russian jet, the move brought Erdoğan to his knees: in a rare show of repentance, Erdoğan apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin for having brought down the Russian Su-24 fighter jet in Syrian airspace.
A marriage of convenience followed: Cold War-era foes became “strategic partners” — a title crowned by a deal that Turkey would buy Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air defense systems at the expense of Turkey’s defense procurement bond with its NATO allies. Since the Su-24 crisis, Russia, for Erdoğan, has remained “untouchable.”
Cornered by an angry public after the deaths of the 34 soldiers, Erdoğan needed to find a non-Russian adversary to attack, to distract Turkish anger away from him and toward a different chosen target. What better target than the EU, with which most Turks have a love-hate relationship? Opening Turkey’s border gates and flooding Europe with migrants would be sure to please the average Turk, who hates to be living with 3.6 million or so Syrian refugees and — to benefit the chauvinistic Turkish psyche — loves the idea of teaching the Europeans a lesson. The masses always seem to love it when their leaders resort to hostile and patronizing rhetoric against the Europeans.
Echoing Erdoğan’s “angry-in-Syria-but-hitting-Europe” psychology, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamdi Aksoy warned Western nations, including the EU, that if the situation in Idlib deteriorates — in other words, if you do not help us in Idlib you will have even more refugees on your doorstep — the wave of refugees and migrants could continue. “Some asylum-seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move toward our western borders,” Askoy said. “If the situation worsens, this risk will continue to increase”.
Ömer Çelik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling party, concurred. “Turkey is no longer able to hold the refugees,” he said.
Tens of thousands of these migrants (not only Syrians) were given free bus rides from Istanbul to Turkey’s land borders with Bulgaria and Greece, about 150 miles west of the city.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu chimed in on March 1, that, in a span of three days, 100,000 refugees had already crossed the borders into Europe, but his declaration seems to have been more propaganda talk than reality. The whole effort looked more like a media stunt than a genuine, well-planned campaign to send hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe. (In 2015, when the migrant crisis was at its peak, an average 10,000 people a day landed in Greece.)
Shortly after Erdoğan announced his move to open Turkey’s floodgates, Greece shut down its land and maritime borders with Turkey. At the border crossing, hundreds of migrants, in a situation that is truly tragic, faced barbed wire fences and smoke grenades. Some migrants, stuck in the no-man’s land between Turkey and Greece, tried, to escape the smoke, to return to the Turkish side, only to be turned back by the authorities there.
Greece, meanwhile, said that its security forces had prevented 7,000 migrants from entering Greek territory by land at the border crossing. “The Greek government will do whatever it takes to safeguard its territory and protect the European borders,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas announced. Athens then mobilized additional troops at the border crossing. By the weekend of February 28, Greece was operating 52 Navy ships to guard its islands close to Turkey. On March 1, furious migrants clashed with Greek riot police. Officers fired tear gas at the migrants; some, as they sought to force their way into Greece, threw rocks at the police and wielded metal bars against them.
Landings on Greece’s islands appeared to be quieter. Greek police said that at least 500 people had arrived by sea on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, near the Turkish coast, within a few hours. On Lesbos, locals prevented a boat full of migrants from landing.
Meanwhile Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency, said it was on high alert and had deployed extra support to Greece. “We … have raised the alert level for all borders with Turkey to high,” a Frontex spokeswoman said. “We have received a request from Greece for additional support. We have already taken steps to redeploy to Greece technical equipment and additional officers”.
Europe, unfortunately, to protect its liberty and sovereignty, needs to fight back. It must refuse to accept Erdoğan’s hostages. Securing maritime borders in the Aegean Sea is often a difficult and expensive task, but not militarily impossible. If the first groups in this mini-exodus from Turkey face a serious blockade rather than warm and welcoming locals, potential migrants would be discouraged from taking such a perilous trip.
What Greece alone could achieve, without help from the EU, would be limited: Greece has 1% of the EU’s population but is processing 11% of all asylum applications. Heavyweights from the EU should act quickly to help Greece and Bulgaria seal their borders with Turkey — by financing border security programs, sending additional patrolling personnel and equipment, and by transferring technology and gear for a safer border between Turkey and Europe.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.