We have been here before. As in 2015-16, around 10,000 of refugees and asylum seekers are massed at Turkey’s border with Greece. Their only goal is to cross into EU territory – and hopefully make it to Germany, Sweden or elsewhere in Western Europe.
There have been ugly scenes of Greek border police using tear gas and brute force to push migrants back. Athens has deployed special forces to guard the border from unarmed, angry civilians. European leaders would rather have those Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis stay in Turkey. Even without an uptick of migrant arrivals, right-wing populists are gaining. Witness the recent debacle in Thuringia in which German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned from the Christian Democratic Union, upending Angela Merkel’s well-crafted plan for an orderly succession. The Merkels and the Macrons of this world fear that a new mass wave of migrants heading for the EU would cause electoral havoc.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows that all too well and thinks, not without good reason, he can manipulate European elites’ fears to his own advantage. By allowing refugees massing at the border he is aiming to kill several birds with one stone. First, that would distract Turkish society’s attention away from the fighting in Idlib. Second, enlist support from major European states that would otherwise prefer to keep away from the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria. Third, and more long-term, extend the 2016 deal struck with EU for another period but tweak its terms to his maximum benefit.
It is questionable whether and how Erdoğan can shift the focus away from Idlib. The brawl between the ruling AKP and opposition deputies at the Grand National Assembly on March 4 demonstrates the undeclared war against the Assad regime is and will remain a salient issue polarising the public.
The Turkish president is doing much better with regard to his second objective. German chancellor Angela Merkel has now reportedly come out in favour of a safety zone under Turkish tutelage in the Idlib province. She also blamed Putin for cancelling the proposed four-way summit with Macron, Erdoğan and herself, and half-heartedly opting for a bilateral meeting with the Turkish leader instead. Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karenbauer, until recently Merkel’s heir apparent, confirmed that Germany supports the idea of a safe zone between Turkey and Syria the chancellor is discussing with the French president. Coupled with the unprecedented visit to Idlib by US Syria envoy James Jeffrey and Kelly Craft, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, the European governments’ renewed interest in Syria is a win for Erdoğan. He would no doubt use Western support as a bargaining chip at his forthcoming summit with Putin.
The devil, as ever, is in the details. EU leaders no doubt would prefer the three million displaced Syrians cornered in Idlib stay where they are, an interest they share with Erdoğan. But there are no answers to key questions. Are Germany, France and the rest of the EU prepared to foot the bill? Can Macron and Merkel extract a commitment from Putin with regard to the putative safety zone? Can the Russian president honor it given Assad’s dogged resolve to take control of every inch of Syrian territory? What will be Turkey’s role in managing humanitarian assistance and possibly reconstruction aid to the region? Even if Putin and Erdoğan agree on a ceasefire and it holds, there could be months of diplomatic wrangling ahead. The two-day visit to Ankara by Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, and the crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic is just the start.
Turkey’s third objective concerns its ties with the EU. The 2016 refugee deal has been a cornerstone of the relationship between Brussels and Ankara, much more significant – sadly – than the effort to upgrade the customs union, let alone the stalled accession negotiations. Of the 6 billion euros pledged by the EU under the facility for Syrian refugees, 4.7 billion euros is under contract and 3.2 billion euros has already been disbursed – as French diplomat, Marc Pierini, the former head of the EU’s delegation to Turkey and now a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, recalled in a tweet.
Erdoğan’s claim that Turkey has seen none of the money, while spending 40 billion euros from its national coffers, is not true. But as much as he loves to censure the Europeans’ hypocrisy and threaten them that all 3.6 million Syrians currently in Turkey will be heading to the EU, he is likely looking for a renewal of the 2016 deal.
Again, the battle will be fought over the small print. Erdoğan is demanding that in the future the EU will be paying upfront a lump sum into Turkey’s state budget. No more tranches, contracts with government agencies, reporting, and control by Brussels. That way Ankara will be in full control over how European cash is spent. Knowing how the EU works, and in particular how rigid the rules governing its finances are, the Turkish government may find out its leverage is not unlimited. Chances are Erdoğan will get some of the support he needs from Europe but it will not necessarily be on his terms. A price he would be willing to pay will be for his allied media in Turkey, and also in the West, declaring him the winner in the standoff.