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Turkey is Creating a Refugee Crisis to Gain Political Leverage

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Brussels on Monday to attend meetings with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen.

What Was the Purpose of Erdogan’s Visit?

Erdogan traveled to the Belgian capital with a dual purpose; on the one hand, he wanted to establish more NATO for Turkish actions on the Syrian Front in order to counterbalance the one-sided Russian support to the Assad regime and leverage his position towards President Putin; on the other hand, Erdogan wanted to further exploit the immigrant crisis he has created in the Greek-Turkish border. He wanted to bring forward once again some of the core Turkish demands, such as visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the European Union and also vast funding for Turkey provided by the EU institutions.

Using a Humanitarian Crisis for Political Leverage

What we need to stress out here, is how Ankara managed to fully weaponize the migration crisis and pursue geopolitical goals through a humanitarian disaster they created. Erdogan has demanded that Syrian Forces stop their advances towards the Turkish borders, re-seizing the Syrian territory that has been until recently occupied by anti-government forces and where Turkey established a buffer zone.

The Turkish President even provided an ultimatum to Damascus, threatening that unless they comply with the Turkish demands until the end of February the Assad forces would be under full attack. Erdogan was relying on Moscow to proceed with this plan since any such action without Air Force support — meaning Russian tolerance for his strategy — would be suicidal for Turkey. As the Kremlin has not changed shifts at all and the time of the deadline was approaching, President Erdogan activated the “refugee crisis plan”, claiming that the tense situation in Idlib has created this problem and NATO alongside the EU should support Turkey. Erdogan has achieved to draw public attention from his failed strategy in Idlib to the refugee crises and the tension in Greek-Turkish border, and this has not been the case just in Turkey, but also all across Europe – and even worldwide.

Turkey’s False Promises to Refugees

After the Turkish government advised that the borders to Greece would open and everyone could enter Europe, the world witnessed thousands of people rushing to the Turkish-Greek border trying to enter Greece. The Greek authorities boosted the security measures in the borderzone and the vast majority of the prospective migrants have been stuck at the border for days. Once many realized that it would be improbable to make it to the neighboring country, many attempted to get back to Turkey, only to face the Turkish authorities who were pushing them to either keep trying or settle there, creating a potential no man’s land and a massive open “refugee camp”.

Erdogan’s Cynical Use of Human Suffering as an Instrument of Blackmail

Erdogan has been using migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a foreign policy tool and a means of blackmailing Europe to promote Turkish interests. He has been widely criticized for this. Following the Brussels meeting, Greek media highlighted Erdogan’s failed strategy and almost presented the EU reaction as a slap in the face to Turkey, however, this is rather not exactly the case.

The real sentiment is that Turkey did not manage to press Europe to the extent Erdogan wanted, however, the EU reaction has been quite mild, as all parties would like to work on measures to extend the 2016 migration deal between Turkey and the EU. There have been no “punishment” implications from the EU side, with regards to how Turkey has weaponized this humanitarian crisis.

The EU’s Lackluster Response to Turkish Intimidation

On the contrary, High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu were in contact shortly after the meeting to address the problem and work on a common solution. A few days ago in a hypocritical move, Erdogan called the Turkish authorities to stop people from entering Greece using maritime routes through the Aegean isles, over security and safety concerns and also suggesting that the Turkish stance over the refugees flows in the land borders with Greece doesn’t violate the 2016 agreement, which was focused on the Greek islands.

The unfounded notion that Turkey has been marginalized by the West and that strict measures have been adopted to condemn the Turkish exploitation of thousands of people in need has been further disproved by the statements of NATO Secretary-General following his meeting with President Erdogan. Jens Stoltenberg has expressed NATO’s full support to Turkey and advised that the on-going crisis is a “common challenge that requires common solutions”. Apparently, the Secretary-General has legitimized the Turkish course of action, downgrading Ankara’s role in the making of the crisis and treating both NATO members, Greece and Turkey, as equally responsible for the current situation.

The steps that Ankara has taken so far indicate that the current Turkish administration is willing to follow a ruthless foreign policy where human rights do not particularly matter and people’s tragedies can be cruelly manipulated and used towards political ends. Greece rushed to welcome and publicize the Western and EU’s supposedly harsh reaction against Turkey, but for now, it seems that there have been no actual measures against Erdogan’s strategy.

The developments on the ongoing negotiations between Turkey and the European Union will eventually show if Europe is ready and determined to truly tackle the Turkish misconduct, but current signs do not point in this direction.