When it rains it pours is an old saying that can now be applied to Europe. First came the explosion of populism in Eastern Europe, accompanied by the inability of the European Union to keep a semblance of democracy in the new member countries, once vassals of the Soviet Union. Then came Brexit, an excruciating dispute with the United Kingdom that has been only partially solved. And now, the conflict with Turkey has returned with a vengeance to defy the new leadership of the European Union. Top German and EU officials rushed to Greece for talks on how to manage the massive flow of migrants to Europe.
The surging crowds at the 150-mile border between Greece and Turkey may remind Americans of the “caravans” that President Trump strived to stop at the U.S. – Mexico border, with one main difference, that the Turkish President Recep Erdogan has threatened to “open the gates” for migrants to get to Europe, if his conditions are not met. In fact, the gates are already being crashed after the Turkish government saw to it that large numbers of people could find transportation from the interior to the border. The huddled masses pushing at the border are not only Syrians, although there are 3.5 million of them in Turkey. Most of the migrants trying to break through come from Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Bangladesh and Iraq.
In 2016, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey was signed and Turkey committed to preventing migrants from reaching Greece. In addition, Greece was permitted to send asylum seekers back to Turkey. The price of the agreement was steep for the Europeans: 6.6 billion dollars to Turkey for refugee camps. Until now, less than 3 billion have been paid to Turkey. President Erdogan is playing the refugee card shamelessly. Not only is he asking for full payment at a time when the Turkish economy is tanking, he is also pressuring the E.U. to support a plan that would resettle a million Syrians from Turkey into a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria. The problem is that the area in question is home to many Kurds who have fought the Islamic state alongside the Americans. Erdogan wants to destroy the Kurdish forces and oust them from Syria. Thus, it would appear that he is bent on ethnic cleansing in addition to stopping the offensive of Russians and Syrian government forces that would cause another massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.
The situation is tragic, and complicated by the harsh intention of the new Greek government to return more people. It is a huge task since so far over 24,000 crossings have been recorded along the Evros river and in the Aegean islands. The overcrowding in the islands has reached the point that the one closest to Turkey, Lesbos, is crammed with 13,000 refugees. More and more migrants are trying to cross the strait in rickety boats and rubber dinghies. To keep them out, the Greek navy resorts to dangerous methods such as swamping the vessels and firing warning shots into the water. It looks like the only thing that can stop Erdogan from carrying through with his threat is money. It is also clear that an important party in this negotiation is Germany, especially because the French President Emmanuel Macron has accused the Turkish government of mismanaging the issue.
The wrestling match between the Europeans and Erdogan is a factor that may contribute to a dramatic political evolution in Turkey. Erdogan has been in power since 2003, when he became prime minister. Then he proceeded to eliminate his secular rivals in the military and judiciary and transformed Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. In March 2019 his regime suffered a serious setback when it lost control in many cities, including the economic capital, Istanbul. Its new Social Democratic mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, has the support of a united opposition to Erdogan and is the hope of many for a return to democracy.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, President Trump lent Erdogan a big hand when he allowed the Turkish regime to invade areas previously protected by the U.S. and controlled by the Kurdish forces. The Europeans have tried to influence the situation from the sidelines but the refugees knocking at the Union’s doors have excluded them from playing any role. The Syrian civil war is ongoing and Turkish intervention has caused a resurgence of the jihadist threat. The present passivity of the Trump administration in the face of intensified hostilities in Syria cannot last long. In the final analysis, a decision will have to be made about the rapport with Erdogan, although it is unlikely that it will be taken in an election year and in the presence of strong opposition in Congress to any deal with the Turkish “sultan.”