26th Oct 2021


What does Erdoğan want?

  • Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is putting fresh pressure on Europe, by opening his borders for refugees to leave (Photo: Council of the European Union)

"Shameful...unacceptable....blackmail...dictator." European leaders didn't spare their words to condemn Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after his decision on Friday (28 February) to open its border with Greece and let refugees enter into Europe.

On Monday, Erdoğan stepped up his game warning that "millions" of refugees would come to Europe.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

He also said he refused €1m in extra cash, saying "we don't want this money".

Despite this statement, former Nato secretary-general Willy Claes said on Belgian television that Erdogan is "a dictator" and that "all he wants is money".

But if it is true that Turkey doesn't want extra money from the EU, why did Ankara cancel its deal with the EU and open the borders for refugees?

The answer lies obviously not in Greece, but in Syria, where Turkey has started fighting with Syrian troops in the Idlib province.

Why is Idlib important for Turkey?

In order to understand the importance of Idlib, we have to go back to 2011, the year the Arab Spring, or Arab Revolution started.

After the fall of Arab dictators like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, it became clear that the elections would be won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdoğan was seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of how democracy and Islamism could become a success.

When Erdogan went to visit Tunis and Cairo in September 2011, he was greeted in the street by masses chanting "Erdoğan, Saladin", referring to the Muslim hero against the crusaders.

Together with Ahmet Davutoglu, AKP's new ideologue, Turkey's foreign minister and later prime minister, Erdoğan started dreaming of a kind of new Ottoman Empire - not by invading countries, but by making regional alliances with Muslim Brotherhood governments.

The timing was right, as the relations with the EU and the accession talks were starting to go down the drain.

Erdogan saw in the Arab Spring a new opportunity to take up a regional leadership.

However, after mistakes by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi - and certainly after his disposition by the Egyptian army - that dream was shattered.

It divided the Middle East in two big alliances: the revolutionary alliance of Muslim Brothers, Turkey, and Qatar on the one hand; and the anti-revolutionary alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other.

Where Egypt under Morsi initially supported the Syrian rebels and opposition against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Cairo changed camps under the new Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates followed slowly and also stopped supporting rebel groups in Syria, while US president Barack Obama took his hands off Syria in 2013, by not carrying out promised attacks.

This means that, since 2014, only Turkey and Qatar were still supporting the Syrian opposition. In 2017 Qatar had to quit too, as the anti-revolutionary alliance led by Saudi Arabia started a blockade against the country.

Turkey stands alone

For more than two years Turkey has been the only country that still supports and helps the Syrian opposition on the ground, in a battle against the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Russia and Iran.

In September 2018 Erdoğan reached an agreement with Russia's president Vladimir Putin to make the last Syrian area under rebel control, Idlib province, a demilitarised zone.

Assad and Russia would not attack Idlib, while Turkey would disarm the jihadi groups that were party brought to Idlib from Aleppo, after its destruction.

In spring 2019 Assad started to violate the agreement, but in the summer Putin and Erdoğan reconfirmed it.

At the end of last year, Assad's army started bombing the Idlib region again. It even took one of its main cities, Saraqib.

The bombings targeted schools, hospitals and densely-populated areas, for two purposes: first to demoralise the population as quickly as possible, and secondly to start a new movement of refugees, in the direction Turkey, and Europe.

By the end of January 2020, almost one million refugees had fled to the Turkish border, where they live in improvised camps in the freezing cold.

Erdogan wants new deal with Putin

Turkey has not many options. If it pulls out of Idlib, it leaves a population of around three million people in the cruel hands of Assad's army.

After all these years of support for the Syrian opposition, that is not an option.

Erdoğan could open his borders and let all refugees in. But for a country that already hosts 3.6 million officially-registered Syrian refugees (20 times more per inhabitant than Europe) and that has serious economic problems, that is not an option either.

If Europe would be prepared to share the burden and host at least a percentage of these one or two million refugees, then Erdogan might maybe consider this. But as we know, Europe flatly refuses even to consider this.

Turkey could also try to start a full-blown war against Assad's army in Syria. But as Assad has the backing of Russia and Iran, that would be a war that cannot be won.

The only real option for Erdoğan is to reinstate the agreement with Putin, and make Idlib again a demilitarised zone, where refugees can go back home.

Erdoğan literally said so during a party meeting in Ankara on Monday.

Putin might agree with such a deal. Or he might not, and say he cannot control Assad.

For Erdoğan it is clear that European and American support is needed in order to for him to be strong enough during his negotiations with Putin on Thursday.

In short, it looks like Turkey has opened its borders in order to wake up Europe and force it to support Erdoğan in his negotiations with Putin.

Sending refugees to Europe might not be the subtlest way to get Europe on his side, but Erdoğan also knows that the EU is slow - often too slow for the geopolitical chess game.

However, it is doubtful if Europe has understood the message.

While on Tuesday, the US ambassador to the UN paid a visit to the Idlib region on the Turkish-Syrian border, EU Council president Charles Michel, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Parliament president David Sassoli went to visit the Turkish-Greek border.

While EU leaders' first instinct is to show support for EU member Greece, it is not exactly the right border to visit for a self-proclaimed (in von der Leyen's words) "geopolitical" EU.

Erdogan warns Europe of new migration crisis

Turkey's president Erdogan said more violence in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib would trigger a new migration crisis "felt by all European countries."

Erdogan: refugees will enter Europe unless EU does more

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Ankara will "open the doors" for refugees and migrants to enter Europe unless it does more to help. The EU says it won't help Turkey create a so-called "safe zone" in north-east Syria.


Now in EU interest to work with Turkey on migration

The EU's reluctance to take in hundreds of thousands more refugees means the bloc's best option is to try to renew migration co-operation with Turkey - even if this leaves a bitter taste in its mouth.


The Hagia Sophia and the global battle of symbols

The Turkish president's decision to restart Islamic worship services in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia last Friday is not innocent. So how should we react? By doing the opposite - and make Cordoba's famous Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba a museum.

EU adds new 'dark red' zone to travel-restrictions map

The European Commission has proposed additional measures to limit non-essential travel within and to the European Union - amid fears over more transmissible mutations triggering a new surge in cases across the bloc.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. How to break the political deadlock on migration
  2. Hedegaard on the hazards of stalling climate action
  3. Belarus exiles in EU fear regime-linked murderers
  4. No place for Polish 'war' rhetoric, Commission says
  5. Nine countries oppose EU gas market reform
  6. EU-UK impasse on top court in post-Brexit customs talks
  7. Erdoğan orders out US and EU ambassadors
  8. EU banks play 'major role' in deforestation, report finds

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us