As strategy in Syria flounders, Turkey uses refugee card to pressure the West

Escalation has raised the spectre of a full-blown war between Turkey and Russia-backed Syrian forces.
Friday 28/02/2020
Migrants arrive in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, February 28. (AFP)
Old strategy. Migrants arrive in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, February 28. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - With its Syrian strategy and its alliance with Russia in shambles after an airstrike in Idlib province killed at least 33 of its soldiers, Turkey allowed refugees to travel to the border with Greece on Friday in a desperate bid to enlist help by the West.

But analysts said it was doubtful whether the initiative would have the desired effect.

“Weaponizing Syrian refugees and threatening the West with new refugee waves is not the best move to rebuild trust and cooperation after years of diplomatic spats with allies," Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said by email.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “should come to realize the limits of his partnership with [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin and appreciate the historical reasons why Turkey’s security and freedom requires being part of the transatlantic alliance," he added. 

The Turkish soldiers died late Thursday in an airstrike on two public buildings south of the provincial capital Idlib, where they were spending the night, Turkish news reports said. At least 36 soldiers were wounded. Turkey responded by targeting positions of the Syrian army, killing 16 Syrian soldiers, the Observatory for Human Rights said. Ankara said 309 Syrian soldiers were killed in counter-attacks.

The escalation raised the spectre of a full-blown war between Turkey and Russia-backed Syrian forces. It also dealt a severe blow to Erdogan, who sent troops into Idlib in early February in a bid to stop a Syrian offensive in the last rebel stronghold in Syria. More than 50 Turkish soldiers have died in clashes in Idlib since then. The move has strained Turkey’s ties with Russia, Syria’s main supporter who controls the airspace over Idlib.

Moscow said the Turkish soldiers were “where they should not have been” and had been among “terrorists." Russia sent two warships to the coast off Syria.

But Russia, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the key military power in Syria, also held out the prospect of an agreement with Turkey. After a phone call by Russian President Vladimir Putin with Erdogan on Friday, the Kremlin said both men agreed to organise a top-level meeting to address the situation in Syria’s Idlib province that the presidents said was a matter of “serious concern."

Turkey struck a more bellicose tone. Erdogan’s Communication Director Fahrettin Altun said the attack on the Turkish soldiers would not deter Ankara. Erdogan told Putin that all Syrian government fighters were now regarded as legitimate targets and would be hit, news reports quoted Altun as saying.

Following the airstrike in Idlib, a spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) said Turkey could no longer “handle the pressure of newly-arrived refugees." In the early hours of Friday, hundreds of Syrians gathered in Istanbul to travel to the border with Greece by bus. Reports by state media in Turkey said Syrians were on their way to Greek territory on the land border between the two countries and were also getting into boats at the Aegean coast to cross to nearby Greek islands. Turkish border guards did not try to stop the refugees.

The foreign ministry in Ankara said “some asylum seekers and migrants in Turkey, who were concerned with these developments [in Idlib], started to move towards our Western borders. If the situation exacerbates, this risk will further increase." But the ministry added there was “no change” of Turkey’s refugee policy in general. Under a 2016 agreement with the EU, Turkey is obliged to prevent Syrians from crossing into Europe.

Turkey also asked its Western partners in NATO for help. Alliance envoys in Brussels held emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the ambassadors’ meeting was being held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows any ally to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. It is only the sixth time that Article 4 has been invoked in NATO’s 70-year history.

But there was no immediate sign that Turkey’s bid to prod Europe or NATO into helping Ankara would be successful.

The NATO meeting ended without a firm commitment by the alliance to help Turkey against Syria and Russia. Stoltenberg called on Russia and Syria to halt the offensive in Idlib and said that NATO stood in solidarity with Turkey. But he mentioned no concrete steps to support Turkey.

Stephen Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Turkey could not expect much from the US because there were many unsolved problems between the two sides.

“In the past, it would be a no brainer to help Turkey, but Washington and Ankara are so divided by a long list of grievances and there is so much mistrust that I sense that many in DC are willing to let Erdogan sleep in the bed he has made,” Cook wrote on Twitter.

Erdemir said Turkey’s reluctance to blame Russia for the death of its soldiers in Idlib was a sign that “Erdogan is still hoping to cut a deal with Putin." The Kremlin chief also appeared to want to spare Erdogan “further embarrassment," Erdemir added.

But given the escalation in Idlib itself, it was uncertain whether Turkey and Russia can come together, Erdemir said. A Turkish-Russian agreement “on a new line of demarcation and zones of control in the short run is questionable, and the chaotic dynamics of the Idlib battlefield will determine the outcome."