Turkish President Recep Erdogan kept his word Saturday, Feb. 29 and opened the border Turkey shares with Greece and Bulgaria, unleashing a wave of 18,000 Syrian refugees. Erdogan had long threatened to send the refugees into the greater part of Europe if European states did not increase their aid for Ankara to support the growing influx of refugees.
Tidal Wave of Refugees, Live-streamed
As economic conditions in Turkey have worsened, so has Erdogan’s banter with his European counterparts. The two sides reached an agreement in 2016 for refugees who made it to Greece to be returned to Turkey. In return, the EU was to give Ankara 3 billion euros.
Erdogan, however, alleges that the EU has failed to deliver the full amount. Even so, this was not enough to force Erdogan’s hand and he restrained himself. Idlib, however, was the final straw.
A Syrian government force recently killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province where several factions continue to vie for control. The attack and Erdogan’s subsequent response — to throw his hands up, open the borders, and strike harder in Syria — caused the Turkish lira fell to its lowest value in nearly two years and the stock market to slide down 10%.
Erdogan: ‘We Will Not Close These Doors in the Coming Period’
To put it mildly, the Turkish president has had enough and, unable to win the battle for Idlib, he has decided to take out his fury on Europe.
“What did we do yesterday?” Erdogan said on Turkish television. “We opened the doors. We will not close these doors in the coming period and this will continue. Why? The European Union needs to keep its promises. We don’t have to take care of this many refugees, to feed them.”
According to Erdogan, 18,000 refugees had already made their way into Bulgaria and Greece; the International Organization for Migration estimated 10,000 were on their way. The entire event was live-steamed by Turkish state television in a show of defiance against European states that, according to Erdogan, have done nothing to help Ankara either with refugees or its military campaign in Syria.
Greece and Bulgaria Bear Brunt of Migrant Wave
Greece was the first to respond to the new mass migration. Having endured its own financial crisis 12 years ago and watched the Turkish economy collapse, it’s no stretch to imagine Athens is not enthused about the coming refugee influx.
“The government will do whatever it takes to protect its borders,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said.
Greek officials said they had successfully prevented 4,000 border crossings, but as Erdogan estimated the number of attempts will reach 25,000 to 30,000 this week, the struggle seems impossible.
Even before the new exodus from Turkey, Greece was grappling with the refugee problem. In February, it attempted to curb the long-term benefits of seeking refuge there. Current asylum protections extend only to three years, said Notis Mitarachi, Greek migration minister.
Furthermore, returning refugees to their country of origin will begin in the coming months following new European Commisson proposals. Already, 36,000 Syrian refugees are held in Greek camps on five islands.
Like Greece, Bulgaria is tightening its border controls with more troops and barbed wire. The fence stretching around Bulgaria has been effective in the past at keeping asylum seekers out, but under pressure, more Syrians might make an attempt to cross it.
Turkey’s Growing Conflict with Moscow
Erdogan’s frustration is likely to reach Moscow as well. Although he has opened the door for refugees to cross into Europe in a bid to force the EU to take action, Russian President Vladimir Putin is at the heart of the issue.
Turkey has been losing the ground war in Idlib as Russian-backed Syrian government forces prevail. Talks between the two factions have yielded no results. Erdogan would rather see Putin throw in the towel in Syria, but there is little chance of that happening. As long as President Bashar al-Assad is winning why would Putin give up now?
The war is only going to get worse following the attack on Turkish forces. Erdogan has reason now to send more troops and dowse Idlib in even more blood. At this point, Erdogan has few backers on the international stage, and a man with nothing to lose should be feared.