Turkey can’t be a barrier to refugees and radicals forever
“Absorption capacity,” was a term used by the European Union as an argument against Turkey’s aspiration for membership. “You are too big, and we have already enlarged beyond our capacity; the door remains officially open, but actually, it is closed” was the gist of the message.
I wrote it before; I have to write it again. The same concept can be used by Turkey when it comes to hosting refugees: “They are too many already, we cannot welcome more of them; the door remains officially open, but actually, it is closed.”
Turkey has been shouldering the financial burden of 3.6 million refugees who live in Turkey and of tens of thousands of internally displaced refugees within Syria. With the deterioration in the economy, it has come to the limit of its economic benevolence. But more importantly, it has come to the limit of its social benevolence. Had the dire economic situation not taken a toll in terms of electoral losses, the financial dimension might not have caused that much trouble.
While Turkey’s economic troubles are not caused by the burden of refugees, the more that people in the street feel the negative effects of the ailing economy, the more they blame the government’s Syrian refugee policy. The reaction to refugees has also played a role in Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) losses in the municipal elections last March.
As a result, a potential new flow of refugees from Syria due to Russian-supported regime offensives in İdlib is ringing the alarm bells in Ankara.
While the government would refrain from formulating it like that, the current point of concern should be less the “refugees” and more the “radicals.”
The Bashar al Assad regime has been pushing the opposition forces, made of different groups, towards the Turkish borders. Opposition forces and their families include radical elements among them, and it has proved difficult for Turkey to make the distinction. However, Turkey cannot be left alone in handling the “radical jihadist” problem just because it has been supporting some of the many different opposition forces.
Turkey can serve as a barrier for Europe against refugees, but can it serve as a barrier for jihadists? Or should it be left alone while doing that?
There is, for instance, a growing problem posed by the huge numbers of foreign jihadists and their families stranded in Syrian camps. It is unacceptable that many European countries like France and the United Kingdom are dragging their feet in repatriating their nationals as they might pose a threat to their societies.
But it was European governments which failed in preventing them from radicalizing and then stopping them from joining the war in Syria. Europeans criticized Turkey for letting them pass across Syria without explaining why they let them pass from their own borders.
Perhaps European policy was to get rid of them in the expectation that they would perish during the war. It happens that not all have died, and they are not going to evaporate into thin air.
Stranded in camps, they live in inhumane conditions, which could further radicalized them.
Some of the European countries still continue to focus on the military dimension of the fight against ISIL. Denmark, for instance, has recently decided to deploy military force in Syria. But the nonmilitary dimension of the fight against ISIL is equally critical. And that is not just limited to repatriating ISIL members but to also be actively involved in finding a political solution to the war in Syria, or working on formulas that can ease the tension.
Whether Turkey has followed in the past the right or the wrong policies in Syria is currently irrelevant. Leaving Turkey alone in its balancing acts with Russia and United States could be costly.
Supporting the YPG, Syrian Kurdish forces whose affiliation with the illegal PKK is no longer contested, while remaining deaf to Turkey’s security concerns is not helpful. Some European capitals might find it hard to stop their assistance to Syrian Kurds, but that does not prevent them from accommodating Turkey’s demands.
Antagonizing Turkey on YPG and expecting it to stand as a barrier against refugees and radical elements from reaching Europe is not sustainable.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent statement that Turkey will be forced to “open the gates” is simply the confession that Turkey is at absorption capacity and that if it were to crumble under the burden of refugees and the weight of security problems, the negative consequences will be felt from Athens to London.