Sunday

18th Apr 2021

Analysis

Russia's Syria tactics imperil EU-Turkey migrant plan

  • Aleppo, once home to over 2 million people, risks being emptied on the "Grozny model" (Photo: gov.uk)

Events in Syria raise doubts as to whether the EU-Turkey migrant plan is still relevant. They show the need for solidarity, but there’s little of that and few options on how to stop Turkey's “nightmare”.

The bomb blast in Ankara on Wednesday (17 February), which prompted Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu to cancel his EU summit trip, underlined that national security is a bigger priority for Turkey than the refugee crisis.

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  • Syria border camp: Russia is "weaponising" refugees, Turkish intelligence says (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

For Turkish police, it bore the hallmarks of Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK, which has been fighting on and off for 30 years to create a Kurdish homeland in south-east Turkey.

Turkish people, who lived through waves of PKK attacks in the 1990s, are stoic. But the latest bomb went off in a new context.

In the past four months, Russian air strikes have helped PKK sister groups the PYD and YPG to conquer territory in northern Syria.

If they capture the town of Azaz and join up their “cantons” along Turkey’s southern border, they will have the makings of a Russia-backed de facto state adjoining PKK heartland inside Turkey.

Russian strikes have also helped Syrian regime forces to besiege the city of Aleppo. If Azaz and Aleppo fall, Turkey will have no way to supply the Free Syrian Army, or other friendly rebels in Syria, losing its say over the future of the war.

If Azaz and Aleppo fall, it will also prompt hundreds of thousands more Syrians to flee to Turkey and the EU.

“It’s a nightmare,” a Turkish source told EUobserver. “It’s never happened in the history of Turkey, to be surrounded by Russia in the north and in the south.”

An EU source described the situation as “disastrous”.

“Everything’s changed since we drew up the [migrant action] plan,” the source said.

“We thought we would pay Turkey the money they asked for and they would do the dirty work [of stopping refugees]. But the EU money is starting to look irrelevant.”

The next Ukraine?

Sinan Ulgen from the EDAM think tank in Istanbul says Russia’s actions in Syria resemble what it did in Ukraine.

Russia-backed militias created two de facto entities in Ukraine’s Donbas region, which Russia is using to destabilise the rest of the country.

Ulgen told EUobserver that a new Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border could become a second Donbas, but he said Turkey was more resilient than Ukraine.

“Donbas isn't a bad analogy. But Turkish statecraft is more advanced … so it wouldn’t pose the same kind of existential threat,” he said.

Mark Galeotti, a US scholar of Russian affairs, disagreed. He said “the idea that the Kurds are some tame Russian proxies is very far from the truth”.

But he said that if the West allowed Turkey to shell Kurds in Syria with impunity, it could “make the Kurds into Russian clients”.

Sources also note that the YPG opened an office in Moscow in February and that the PYD leader, Salih Muslim Muhammad, visited Russia last year.

“Six months ago, the Kurds were playing on all fronts, with the EU, the US, and Russia, to get arms and money. But today Russia has them on a leash,” the EU source said.

'Psychological blow'

There is some disagreement about the comparison with Ukraine, but there is common ground among Turkish and EU sources on Russia’s use of refugees to destabilise both Turkey and the European Union.

A Turkish intelligence report leaked to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet on Tuesday said Russia was trying to “weaponise” migrants.

A Turkish security source told Hurriyet that Russia’s bombing of schools and hospitals in Syria was designed to make people flee on the “Grozny model” - referring to the 1990s conflict in Chechnya, when Russian bombardments emptied Grozny, the Chechen capital.

A second EU source told EUobserver there was a risk that Russia would reignite Ukraine hostilities to prompt a new wave of Ukrainian refugees.

A third EU source noted that Russia was already letting Middle East migrants cross into Finland in a further “psychological blow”.

PR 'gimmick'

Davutoglu was due to discuss refugee resettlement with a German-led group of 10 or so migrant-friendly EU states in Brussels on Thursday.

The resettlement project is a top-up initiative to an EU-Turkey “action plan” drawn up in November.

The plan was meant to see Turkey stop migrants from going to Greece in return for €3 billion, visa-free travel, and restarting EU-Turkey accession talks.

But even the initial plan is struggling to get off the ground.

Turkey is annoyed that Italy kept the plan on hold until last week by refusing to unblock money unless the EU deducted its contribution from its national debt limit.

The EU is annoyed that Turkey hasn’t taken a first step.

EU diplomats say the flow of refugees to Greece went down from 2,000 a day in January to "tens or hundreds" a day in February, but they say it’s mostly due to bad weather.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who works the Carnegie Europe think tank, says Turkey isn’t willing to crack down on people smugglers because it profits from the €2 billion-a-year smuggler industry.

He said Turkey’s call for a Nato surveillance mission in the Aegean Sea was a PR “gimmick”.

Jan Techau, another Carnegie Europe expert, said the Nato ships would do little more than “expose Turkey's inaction”.

'Great embarrassment'

The mistrust between Turkey and both the EU and US goes deeper than the wobbly migrant plan.

After a 10-year freeze in accession talks, Turkish leaders have lost faith that the EU will ever let it join.

They feel betrayed by US and EU overtures to Syrian Kurds and also feel let down by a lack of EU and US support for a no-fly zone or a ground offensive in Syria.

The bad will was on show last week when euro2day.gr, a Greek news agency, published transcripts of Erdogan’s talks with EU leaders last October.

It said Erdogan told the EU: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time, and we can put the refugees on buses.”

For Pierini, it spoke volumes that Erodgan had not disowned the quotes.

“We thought the leaks were a great embarrassment for Turkey and Erdogan. But he said: ‘No, No, I said it and I repeat it’,” Pierini said. “Erdogan is in this kind of mentality at this point.”

No go on no-fly zone

The new threats to Turkish national security pose questions on whether the EU-Turkey migrant plan is still fit for purpose.

For Ulgen from the Istanbul think tank, Russia’s actions make the “principle” of the plan more relevant than ever.

He noted that if Azaz and Aleppo fall and refugee numbers balloon then Turkey’s “expectations from the EU will go up”.

But he said there was “no appetite” in Turkey to scrap the plan because “it enshrines the principle of burden-sharing … it’s the only agreement we have to jointly manage the crisis”.

An EU source said Germany, the refugees' main EU destination, is beginning to see that Turkey needs more than EU money for nicer migrant camps.

He noted that German chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday told German media she would back “a type of no-fly zone” in Syria.

But EU and Turkish sources said Russia would veto the move at the UN, and that new Russian air-defence systems in north Syria have created a no-go zone for Turkish or US jets.

“It was a good idea, but in 2011 or 2012,” one diplomatic source said.

An EU source said that stationing a Nato deterrent force in south-east Turkey on the model of Nato’s deterrent force in the Baltic Sea region might be a better option.

'In ruins by summer'

Whatever happens next, the stakes for both Turkey and the EU could hardly be higher.

“We’re in the same boat now. If Turkey sinks because of Russia, then the EU will also sink [because of refugees]. But some EU politicians and officials don’t seem to get it,” the EU source said.

A senior EU official said Germany would be “in ruins by summer” if Turkey failed to stop the migrants.

“We have to get a grip on who’s coming in,” the source said.

A senior EU diplomat said the nightmare scenario for Europe was if Germany closes its borders, creating bottlenecks in the flow of refugees from Vienna to Athens.

“If we want to maintain a common asylum policy and if we want to maintain Schengen [the EU’s passport-free travel area] then we have to reduce the numbers of people coming in and Turkey is key to this,” the diplomat said.

Opinion

Nato enters the migration control business

A new Nato operation in the Aegean Sea raises the question of whether stemming the flow will, in effect, mean collective expulsions that deny people the right to seek asylum, says Human Rights Watch's Bill Frelick.

EU reacts to Russia PM's 'Cold War' speech

The EU’s top diplomat says there’s no new Cold War with Russia. France and Germany agree. But Lithuania and Poland are less sure. "It’s a hot war," Lithuania says.

Opinion

Time for EU to face responsibilities on Syria

Five years after Syrians first took to the streets, it's time for EU leaders to stop acting like selfish, short-termist populists, by making sure the ceasefire sticks and refugees find safe harbour.

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