Thousands of people are moving from Turkey to Greek borders in a desperate effort to enter Europe, with clashes being reported between them and Greek authorities who are struggling to push them back. Turkey is determined to take it to the limit, in order to make up for President Recep Erdogan’s failed gamble in Idlib. Let’s have a look into how things ended up like this.
Turkey’s Devious Diplomacy and Cynical Weaponization of Migration
It’s been a while since Turkey started playing the refugee card in order to gain leverage and achieve its geopolitical ambitions. A remarkable number of refugees are already within Turkish territory and Erdogan has never omitted to highlight this fact, portraying Turkey as a country that makes a colossal effort to handle the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, the Turkish President has been thinking all along that this vast number of immigrants and refugees in Turkey could be his plan B, in case he reached a stalemate in his political brinkmanship.
Erdogan gave a deadline of Feb. 29 at midnight to the Syrian Army to stop advancing towards Idlib and the rest of the territory across the Northern Syria border where Turkish forces are stationed. Turkey has established its de facto presence in this area through a buffer zone, with continuous efforts over the last two years and is not willing to give up these gains. From the very first moment of this warning, the Turkish administration was aware that an expanded military operation against the Assad regime would not be viable without Moscow’s approval. As time was ticking away and Russia kept the same rigid disapproving stance towards Ankara’s desires, Erdogan realized that this was the right moment for his back-up plan.
Besides, the Turkish President has proved to be a “man of his word” when it comes to ultimatums, looking back at the Turkish military operations against the Kurds. Apparently, this time the Turkish administration has misjudged the situation in Syria, however, and Erdogan simply would not allow this development to ruin his image internationally.
A Chaotic Situation at Greece’s Borders
The situation along Greek borders is deteriorating exponentially. Since the Turkish President announced on Saturday morning that the people pilling up for all this time in Turkey could now make it to Europe, thousands have been moving to the Greek-Turkish land borders. In fact, Turkey is encouraging all these people to move to Greece, letting false news spread and implying that the Greek authorities may allow them to enter the country. Thousands of people — with just a fraction coming as refugees from war-torn Syria — will seek to grab the opportunity and make it to Europe through Greece. There are reports that Turkish authorities are also facilitating the transfer of the masses via buses and other means of transport from Turkish cities to the borders with Greece.
In the midday of Saturday 29 February, the people trying to cross the border reached four thousand, while at the moment official reports indicate that this number has jumped to over thirteen thousand. If the situation keeps developing this way, we will be talking about tens of thousands sooner than anticipated. The Greek Government should decisively tackle the problem before this number becomes unmanageable. At the moment, a coordinated between Greek police forces and the Greek Army is taking place. The authorities have enhanced the border barricading while the army and police units are trying to push back the crowds using tear gas and firing warning shots. Police sources have confirmed approximately 100 arrests during Saturday and reported that almost 10,000 people have been denied entry to Greece. Many locals, who are familiar with the complex terrain of the area, have also rushed to assist the authorities in this demanding effort.
The Greek-Turkish borderline is covering an area of over 200 km. Most of this territory is ran by the river Evros, which constitutes a natural border between the two countries. There are only a few parts where the river does not define the border and one of those locations is the place where the crowds are now gathering, a small area between the villages of Kastanies and Karaağaç. Even though there is one main point of entry, the total accessible borderline in this part is over 10 km (map). If the numbers of the people gathered eventually reach the tens of thousands and all this front line is utilized to gain access, then the work of the Greek forces will be even tougher and complicated — in fact it will be almost impossible. Not to mention the instances of desperate people that are already trying to enter Greece by crossing the river.
In the meantime migrant and refugee flows in the Greek Aegean islands have started increasing once again; the efforts to enter Greece through maritime borders will also keep raising in the days to follow considering the favorable weather conditions.
What to Expect in the Coming Days
An urgent meeting of the Greek National Security Council has been called by the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and will be held on the evening of Sunday 1 March; Greek administration is looking to implement an appropriate response to the crisis through the coordination of all the relevant entities, including the Police, the Armed Forces and the FRONTEX personnel deployed in Greece. Greek PM has also contacted the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, seeking assistance for the ongoing crisis. Both of them alongside other European leaders stressed out their full support to Greece, however the way that this support will be actually materialized remains to be seen.
On the other hand, there is no chance for Turkey to stand down unless their goals have been met. Erdogan is currently trying to put pressure in the EU and get it to act as a mediator in the Syrian front. Since no agreement with Russia has been achieved, Ankara is seeking to reinstate its position through different channels. Greece should consider that Turkey is not — and will not be — willing to accept any of these people back without securing European support for their operations in Syria. If the reaction of Europe does not meet Erdogan’s expectations, then Athens should be ready to manage the worst-case scenario in which tens of thousands of people will try to forcefully enter the country.