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Turkey Twisting Europe’s Arms Through Syrian Refugees – OpEd

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Since the Ukrainian crisis that saw the fall out between the US and Russia, there is a rapid domino impact on the world order. Somewhere the fight Russia has put up against the western liberal order has impacted other countries as well and the essence of multipolarity is becoming stronger. The western liberal order stands threatened to be dismantled, including the unilateral hegemony of the US.

The impact of it can be seen in the dissent within the trans-Atlantic security architecture of which Turkey is a member. The NATO in one hand and the European Union (EU) on the other is struggling for oxygen to survive. In this complication, Europe’s neighbourhood, the West Asian region, which has been under turmoil for decades and the down spiral that continues since the Arab Spring of 2011 has opened the Pandora’s Box of further complications within the NATO allies, Turkey versus the other allies. 

Turkey decades long desire to become a member of the EU has further complicated the situation for the West. It is because the West has accepted Ankara as a NATO ally however has not yet given it’s long due of membership of the EU. The victory which the incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a populist leader from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) (an Islamist leaning party), had achieved based on the EU reforms of freedom of religion and freedom of speech etc. has encouraged the Turkish government to move the country towards an Islamist one, dismantling the Western aspect of the country.

President Erdogan has been testing the West’s especially the EU’s commitment towards Turkey in making a member of the EU. The Syrian crisis has been a best example for the Turkish leader to show his citizens as well as to the world the partisan policies of the West, including the EU.

This crisis has highlighted the discontentment and frustration of Turkey against the West. In 2015 when there was a large exodus of Syrian refugees due to the battle between the Syrian government and the opposition parties, Turkey helped Europe from stopping the refugees flooding the continent. Ankara’s actions was highly appreciated by the international community and also showed the country’s commitment towards trans-Atlantic peace and stability.

In lieu of this, Turkey was promised by the EU an aid of € 6 billion. However, Turkey complains that only € 3.2 billion was realised which is not enough. Europe’s so-called going back on its promise of aid as well as not receiving support from its NATO allies during Ankara’s battle against the Syrian Kurds including in Idlib has further pushed Turkey to a disgruntling position. 

Turkey who wanted to garner support from the NATO and EU by playing the card of growing close to Russia seems to be falling apart. Though these two countries are trying to balance their growing bilateral relationship however their opposing support to the conflicting parties in Syria are becoming a major hindrances in halting of the civil war as well as in their bilateral relationship. Ankara and Moscow agreed upon a new ceasefire on 8 March, however President Erodgan added that Turkey reserved the right to “retaliate with all its strength against any attack” by Damascus. Hence, even if there is a ceasefire and a temporary halt however, the fight between the Turkish government against the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government and the crisis over the Syrian refugees stays. 

Turkey’s tactics of twisting Europe’s arms by threatening to open the borders for the refugees is to get help from the EU and NATO against the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government (indirectly against the Russians). Also, if the Syrian government takes over Idlib than “another Gaza” like situation arises for the Turkish government where they will have to financially support the refugees. Already, the Turkish government is feeling the pressure domestically because of poor economic growth, high inflation, unemployment etc. With more Syrian refugees that further complicate the domestic situation, Turkish president stands to lose his popularity within his country as well as in the Arab world. Hence, trying to pressure Europe to win some favours work domestically for President Erdogan (for the time being). How far it will be successful is doubtful. 

*Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of the World Affairs. 

Disclaimer: The opinions are that of the author and not that of the Council. 

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