Turkey playing realpolitik with refugees

All actors, local and internation­al, know exactly what they expect to gain from Syria’s war and with that, logic of Turkey’s contro­versial actions becomes clearer.

2016/02/12 Issue: 43 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Once more we watch as thousands of desperate Syrians fleeing nearly certain death in Aleppo are refused respite with Turkey blocking entry to tens of thousands of people on its southern frontier.

“Turkey has reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the refugees,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared: “If necessary, we have to, and will, let our broth­ers in.” However, Ankara has built a camp on the Syrian side of the border and sent truckloads of aid to freezing, rain-soaked refugees — all bit-part solutions to a much bigger problem.

Turkey holds a strong stick with which to beat back criticism: It has accepted more refugees than any other country. It has lost hundreds of its civilians to Syria-related terrorism in the past six months. It is struggling with its own political identity and a resurrected war with Kurdish separatists.

All actors, local and internation­al, know exactly what they expect to gain from Syria’s war and with that, the logic of Turkey’s contro­versial actions becomes clearer. Its leaders once proclaimed Turkey would welcome all in need of help but that was when the war in Syria could be won or lost. Now, with so many competing interests involved and no side able to land a knock-out blow on the battlefield, no victory, for any entity, looks possible.

As such, Turkey’s realpolitik has swung into action, chiefly in the shape of strong-arming the European Union over the refugee crisis.

Turkey in January, for the first time, launched a visa regime for Syrians entering from third countries to help slow the flow of refugees launching off Turkey’s coast for Greece. It did so in order to be seen to be making some effort to pay back the European Union’s $3.3 billion payout. But it realises it is locked into the Syria war for the long term and as such, has chosen to play the realpolitik game, inevitably at the expense of thousands of freezing Syrians.

Turkey is using the refugees, and the harsh winter weather battering them, as a trump card against the European Union, in the same way it did to get Wash­ington to come on board with a Syrian aerial campaign when thousands of Kurdish civilians in Kobane were facing certain slaughter by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in 2013. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting Erdogan for the second time in four months, this tactic appears to be working.

Erdogan has come to the con­clusion that because of United States’ apparent disinterest and Kurdish militias’ strength across northern Syria, the war — as it appears today — is unwinnable for Turkey and so has turned his attention to places and people where he can exert influence and extract promises and conditions. He knows popular support and sympathy towards the despera­tion of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing war has worn thin among the US and European public as much as it has among Turks.

And so he has turned to Europe, a continent desperate to placate its national populations fearful of further mass migrations of refugees. He knows Europe can and will part with cash. He knows that Europe is divided enough for right-wing elements to pressure Merkel and others to cede to his demands — whatever they may be in the coming months.

Erdogan sees extracting conces­sions from Europe as a way to ce­ment his long-term legacy in Tur­key. By securing an easing of visa requirements for Turks travelling to Europe, he hopes to gain votes at home that will allow him to establish the presidential system of government and total political control he so badly craves.

Syrian refugees in Turkey fear the Turkish government has started to turn on them follow­ing a suicide bombing by a Syrian national in January and the afore­mentioned visa requirements. For these desperate refugees, that may be just the beginning.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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