By Dr. Alexander Goerlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
The strife on the Turkish-Greek border is escalating, with refugees being targeted by tear gas on the Greek side. The intent is to stop the refugees from illegally crossing the border to Europe. Images of such scenes – with men, women and children engaged in hopeless battle with Fortress Europe – are meant to force the Continent into letting moral considerations guide its actions. This drama was provoked by Turkish ruler Recep Erdogan’s suspension of Turkey’s border security and his announcement that refugees would be able to cross the border to Greece without hindrance by the Turkish police and border guards.
President Erdogan miscalculated in Syria’s ongoing power struggle. Russia now has the upper hand in a civil war in Syria that has lasted nine years. In order not to lose face in domestic politics, Mr. Erdogan has initiated a conflict on a second front, with the European Union, to distract from the events in Syria. According to his announcements, hundreds of thousands set out toward the border immediately after he issued his decree. In actual fact, it is thought to be between 9,000 and 30,000 people. They are now stuck in the no man’s land between Turkey and Greece as playthings of Mr. Erdogan’s calculus of power. Syrian refugees have long been viewed in much the same way by the Russian ruler Putin, who has driven refugees from Syria toward Turkey by bombing residential neighborhoods, schools and hospitals.
It is primarily this interaction between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin that is responsible for the current escalation: Both describe themselves as strongmen, tough, masculine leaders who each purport to have God on their side. Theocracy is thus pushing aside democracy and the rule of law. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin ridicule as “liberal” and “cosmopolitan” the rule-based operation of an international community founded on treaties. The cul-de-sac into which Mr. Erdogan has maneuvered himself could – one may hope – inspire him to rethink the matter. One populist “strongman” act will readily come to an end when two illiberal leaders come into conflict with each other. And the interests that Russia and Turkey are pursuing in Syria could not be more different.
By supporting the Assad regime, Russia gains vital access to the Mediterranean. Mr. Putin, basking in the splendor of the former Tsarist empire and in the glory of Russian Orthodoxy, hopes to expand his influence in the Near East. The Biblical sites found in Israel are thus of interest to Mr. Putin and his narrative of a religious, illiberal Russia.
Mr. Erdogan, on the other hand, wants to establish himself as the regional hegemon and successor of the Ottoman Empire. Mr. Erdogan and the influence he can exert would thus embody the return of the Ottomans who once ruled the Holy Land. In this case too, the idealization of an imperial past is the inspiration for current political maneuvering. Through expanded influence in Syria, Mr. Erdogan in addition hopes to establish firmer control over the Kurds in the region and prevent them from founding their own state.
The pact between Turkey and Russia only lasted until their common opponent, the United States of America, was out of the way, and then the two set about dividing up influence over Syria. But Turkey has found itself falling behind. Now it needs the support of its allies – and the allies should link their support to appropriate conditions. There must be an immediate end to blackmail as a political tool at the expense of refugees. In return, of course, the European Union must vigorously aid Turkey with housing and caring for the refugees. Around 3.6 million are already in the country. By grandiosely announcing that he was suspending border security, Mr. Erdogan may have encouraged thousands of additional refugees to enter Turkey. Since Greece is keeping the border closed, these people also will remain in Turkey.
Whatever view of these developments one may have, the political decision-makers of the EU nations have signaled that they are not prepared to take in refugees. The only possibilities under discussion at the moment are taking in unaccompanied children and families with children. But even that much only has a chance if a European agreement can be reached. When it comes to refugees, the interests of the EU and Turkey are identical. Unlike Russia, both have an interest in ending the conflict in Syria, which would end the movement of refugees to Turkey. This common interest must be emphasized much more clearly. At the same time, it is essential for Turkey, a NATO member country, to receive the support of its allies in order to end Russian aggression against Turkey. The greatest risk lies in the bearing of the Turkish ruler, who is not referred to as “sultan” for no reason: Overcome by a sense of omnipotence and confident in the support of his allies, he might presume to take a step that would make military confrontation unavoidable, with unforeseeable consequences.
As a further stipulation, the Europeans might require Mr. Erdogan to refrain in the future from making use of Turkish mosques in Europe and other institutions for propaganda purposes. Turkey currently uses these institutions to influence the Turkish community in the European diaspora. Since around 1.5 million Turkish citizens live in Germany who can vote at home, Germany – as well as Austria, with around 110,000 Turkish citizens – has repeatedly been the scene of contentious events sponsored by Mr. Erdogan and the AKP party. In Germany, parliament members of Turkish origin have even been insulted and disparaged by Mr. Erdogan. This must stop.
Despite all obstacles, the present situation might be a moment of rapprochement between Turkey and Europe. Expectations must be carefully calibrated, for Mr. Erdogan will not become a democrat overnight. But their common interests have enough force behind them to reactivate the dormant friendship between Europe and Turkey.
Dr. Alexander Goerlach is a Senior Fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an affiliate in the “In Defense of Democracy”-program by the F. D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University.