by Payman Shamsian
The number of registered refugees in Turkey has exceeded three million, which makes it the largest sanctuary in the world. This number is terrifying, not only for human rights organizations or Turkey’s government, but also for European leaders. It is clear why human rights institutions are concerned: this number shows the size of the world’s greatest ongoing humanitarian crisis. Turkey’s government is concerned because it has to deal with these refugees inside the country. Is Europe concerned by this number because of the humanitarian causes that it champions around the world? No, European leaders are in a panic because they are afraid of Turkey letting all these refugees come to Europe. And Turkey’s Erdogan is well aware of this fear.
Since last summer, which many Europeans are likely to remember as the time of “refugee/immigrant crisis,” Europe has tried in multiple ways to halt the inflow of refugees mostly coming from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan . It tried to close the borders. It appealed publicly to refugees not to come to Europe. And it tried hard to educate potential asylum seekers about the physical risks they would undergo in making the trip. None of these attempts has worked so far, given the fact that the number of arrivals remains immense, about 150,000 people so far this year.
Europe now sees Turkey as the only power that can keep the refugee flow contained in the Middle East. Of course, by adopting harsher policies against refugees and deporting them back to Turkey, Europe is undermining its normative power as the world’s most well known defender and promoter of human values. At the same time, the presence of large numbers of refugees in Europe highlights the internal weaknesses and defects of the European Union.
To extract itself from this predicament, Europe essentially wants to make Erdogan its immigration-enforcement officer for the Middle East. In the two summits that have been held between EU and Turkey so far, Brussels has promised 6 billion euros to help Turkey deal with the refugees inside its territory. The policy of “one in, one out” is the simplistic solution of European and Turkish leaders to the refugee crisis.
In this game, however, Turkey declines to play the fool, as Erdogan put it. Since, at this point, the refugee card is the strongest card for Turkey to play, Erdogan wants to play it for all it’s worth.
What is Turkey Doing?
At the moment, Turkey is struggling with serious domestic and foreign-policy challenges. Yet another deadly explosion—blamed on the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) this time—has caused multiple casualties in Istanbul. Both Istanbul and Ankara have already been hit twice this year. Coupled with the increasingly bloody conflict in the Kurdish southeast, Turkey’s national security appears more and more at risk.
On the international level, Turkey seems lonelier than ever. Erdogan, who once dreamed of reviving the Ottoman Empire, can count on virtually no one to support it. Since the onset of the civil war in Syria, the relationship between Iran and Turkey has steadily deteriorated. Turkey’s relations with the U.S. are getting colder by the day due mostly to the increasingly close relationship between Washington and the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation. And Russia was on the verge of war with Turkey just a couple of months ago.
On top of all this, Turkey has squandered some of the trump cards its foreign policy has traditionally held in winning concessions from allies and adversaries. Ankara, for example, can no longer count on its membership in NATO as diplomatic leverage. When Turkey deployed troops to northern Iraq a few months ago, its NATO partners – along with Arab countries led by Baghdad itself – urged it to remove them expeditiously. Although Turkey complied, it failed to win any concessions in return, as Erdogan had hoped. On another occasion, Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet close to its border with Syria last November largely backfired, resulting not only in Moscow’s installation of advanced anti-aircraft systems in Syria, but also shaking NATO’s confidence in Ankara as a reliable ally. Indeed, the incident gave rise to fears that Erdogan, whether deliberately or not, was capable of dragging the alliance into a serious confrontation with Moscow.
Similarly, while Turkey plays a key role for the West as a strategic corridor for the trans-shipment of Caspian Sea and Central Asian energy resources to Europe, it has been unable to effectively use this card during the on-going crisis. In part, this is due to circumstances largely beyond its control, including the release of Iranian oil to the European market following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded in July by Tehran and the P5+1. With Iran beginning to supply Europe, the continent’s reliance on oil and gas shipped through Turkey has naturally diminished. Moreover, the existing surplus of energy resources on the global markets, partly due to Saudi oil production policies, has not helped. The slackening of Turkey’s own spectacular economic growth rates in recent years, however, has also damaged its leverage in this area.
At the same time, Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world has declined significantly, thanks to the Gezi Park protests two years ago, Turkey’s miscalculations in Syria, the renewal of hostilities against the Kurds, and the president’s own barely disguised authoritarianism. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader is now struggling with an unprecedented legitimacy crisis both inside and outside his country that has greatly reduced Turkey’s appeal as a model of a Muslim democratic state.
In this context, the refugee crisis is something of a godsend for Erdogan despite the huge burden it has placed on Turkey. He is trying to depict Turkey as the main victim of a crisis that somehow justifies his heavy-handed policies inside and outside of its borders. Several months ago, Erdogan intimidated the EU by implicitly threatening to flood Europe with refugees unless Brussels agreed to a number of conditions, including lifting the visa requirements for Turkish visitors to EU countries, accelerating Turkey’s EU accession, and easing European pressure and muting its criticism over human rights issues. Now, even after the recent takeover of Zaman, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper and one of the AKP’s main critics, the EU seems to be acquiescing.
Erdogan uses the same method of blackmail and fear-mongering to win elections, attack his opponents, and suppress its critics at home. He warns that IS and Kurdish terrorists are infiltrating the refugee flow with the purpose of wreaking havoc in Turkey itself. This, in turn, justifies the increased repression, further incites nationalism, and fuels ethnic and sectarian divisions.
In other words, the priority for Turkey is not the refugees per se, but the political and geopolitical gains that they can be used for. Refugees offer a golden opportunity for Erdogan to continue and intensify his blackmail abroad and his repression at home, though it’s unclear how long he can survive by pursuing this strategy.
Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Payman Shamsian graduated from Central European University in international relations. His research revolves around the relationship between Iran and Shia groups, Turkey, Syria, the EU’s external policy towards the Middle East, and immigration.