For a war that’s supposedly been won, Syria continues to bleed refugees at an alarming rate. Idlib, a city in the country’s northwest, is the final rebel holdout that keeps Bashar al-Assad—and his Russian backers—from complete victory in his country’s nine-year civil war. While the West has largely disengaged from the Syrian conflict, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued his offensive in the country, both to prevent Kurds in neighboring Syria from successfully establishing a territory for themselves (and flame the nationalist dreams of the roughly 15 million Kurds already residing in Turkey) and as a way of ensuring that his country doesn’t get flooded by yet another wave of refugees—as it is, Turkey is hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
But the fighting in Idlib hasn’t been going particularly well for the Turkish strongman. That’s led him to take action outside Syria; he’s pushed some of those refugees his country is currently hosting toward the border with Greece as a way of getting Europe back in the Syria game, and he’s gone to Moscow to strike a tentative truce with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither move ensures the fighting will end in Idlib; and if the violence intensifies, upwards of 1 million-plus people could end up being displaced.
What Happened This Week:
Erdogan has realized that Turkey can’t defeat Assad—and by extension, Russia—alone. The problem is that Erdogan has spent the last half decade being a continual thorn in the side of Europe, and he went into Syria against most NATO members explicit wishes. What’s more, Ankara has also taken provocative action against NATO by purchasing the Russian S-400 anti-missile systems, which compromises the Western-weapons systems NATO uses (and is incompatible with them in any case). Needless to say, neither the U.S. nor Europe have been tripping over themselves to help out Ankara lately.
Erdogan knows this. But he also knows that Europe’s more immediate concern is refugees—back in 2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey to keep Syrian refugees on the other side of the Aegean Sea in exchange for €6 billion… a deal Erdogan has threatened to tear up repeatedly whenever he feels Brussels isn’t responsive enough to his demands.
After years of threatening to unleash the refugees his country hosts upon Europe, Erdogan has begun encouraging thousands of refugees to approach the Greek border and attempt to cross into Europe. In response, Greece has suspended asylum applications for at least a month, and increased military presence on both land and sea. It has also taken action by firing tear gas and live rounds to scare off refugees from attempting to force their way through—Turkey contends that a refugee was even killed by the proceedings, which Greece vehemently denies. Despite the grim scene, Greek actions have been supported by the EU, whose top leadership—including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Parliament David Sassoli and European Council President Charles Michel—joined Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the border this week in a sign of solidarity. Brussels has also earmarked €700 million to help Greece deal with the situation.
While this was playing out to Turkey’s West, Erdogan travelled North to meet with Putin and strike a tentative ceasefire over Idlib. At best, this will bring a short-term lull to the fighting there, but is far from a permanent solution given the competing interests of Turkey (keep the Kurds down and keep refugees to a minimum), Assad (wrest back complete control of the country no matter how many refugees it takes and kick out any foreign powers that aren’t Russia or Iran), and Russia (keep Assad in power and keep everyone else on edge… with or without refugees).
What Happens Next:
Erdogan can’t really afford to host any more refugees, either financially or politically. This ceasefire buys him some time and eases the immediate threat of another million people crossing the border into Turkey, but it does not provide a permanent solution to the Idlib mayhem.
The deal buys Europe time as well, as Erdogan will refrain from pushing more refugees up against Europe’s borders. Ceasefire deal or no, Erdogan wants three things from Europe. First, he wants Brussels to lean on Russia to stop its support of Assad troops in Idlib. Second, he wants the E.U. to start playing a more active role in helping internally displaced people in Syria (primarily to keep them from coming into Turkey). Third, he wants more money from the E.U. to deal with Syrian refugees in both Syria and Turkey.
But Europe has no interest mixing it up with Putin over Syria, where it’s become clear Russia’s president is far more committed to driving the final outcome there than the Europeans are. European member states are also maximally divided on whether to impose more sanctions on Russia (many of whom rely significantly on trade with Russia), making increased sanctions on Russia over its actions in Syria a non-starter.
However, Europe does want to avoid a repeat of its last immigration crisis, so it’s likely Brussels will hand more funds over to Turkey to manage refugee flows… if Turkey agrees to uphold the migration deal (and if they can agree amongst themselves the funding sources during already-tense budget negotiations). Brussels is also willing to work with Turkey on dealing with Idlib refugees, but is less inclined to help the refugees Turkey has caused by launching offensives against the Kurds in Syria.
All of which is to say—the events of this week are likely to provide a brief reprieve for both Turkey and Europe from more refugees, but one that is unlikely to last. And this respite comes at the cost of officially giving Putin the power to determine what happens in Idlib, and hence Syria. Keep an eye out for warming weather, too—as the weather improves to make crossings by sea easier and human smugglers are able to restock the supplies they need to resume operations, migration problems are likely to rear their head again.
The Key Fact That Explains It:
70.5%: That’s the number of Turkish voters who believe people seeking asylum are hurting their country’s economy, which helps explain Erdogan’s increased desperation on the refugee front.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That Europe will passively fall victim to another refugee crisis the way it did a half decade ago. While Europe remains vulnerable to another migration crisis, the E.U. is under new leadership, one with grand ambitions for a more unified and assertive European Union on the global stage. Step 1 for this new E.U. is defining and protecting its borders, which starts with Greece. Hence the strong show of force from both military and political leaders on Greece’s borders with Turkey this week. Step 2 is Brussels making clear that it has little patience to deal with the geopolitical games of both Turkey and Russia, which often attempt to threaten and bully Europe into adopting its preferred policies. This is not the Europe of 2015 or 2016… or so Europe hopes.
The One Thing to Say About It at a Dinner Party:
Erdogan has spent the last few years taking a page out of Putin’s playbook—take every geopolitical opportunity that presents itself, even if it doesn’t fit into an overall strategy. But that strategy doesn’t work when you’re playing against someone who has the exact same strategy, who is stronger, and has been playing the game longer and better than you for years now.