What does Turkey want from Europe in Syria
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 5, the European Union’s foreign ministers will also gather for an informal meeting in Croatia, where they will discuss the military escalation in Syria as well as the renewed refugee pressure along the Turkish-Greek border. They will debate what Ankara wants and how to respond to Turkey – and Russia.
Slapping the face of its friends and then asking for help is not the right approach, a European diplomat told me, referring to Turkey’s decision to open its Western border to the passage of refugees and its continuous criticism of Europe’s stance on the refugee buildup on the Greek border.
But Turkey’s move could also be interpreted as a wakeup call to an emergency.
The situation in Idlib in Syria’s northwest is dire, and Turkey cannot tolerate lethargy from the West as news of fallen soldiers continues to come.
So what is it that Turkey wishes to achieve by “opening the gates?” Does it want more money, and assistance for refugees? Obviously, it won’t say no to that, but what Turkey wants immediately is “strong backing” from its Western allies against Russia.
Many European countries think the trouble Turkey got itself into was its own making. Indeed, Turkey decided to support the dissidents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and provided assistance to opposition forces when the uprising against the regime turned into a bloody civil var. It opened its doors to civilians fleeing the war and ended up hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
Despite warnings from its Western allies not to trust Moscow and Tehran, Ankara went ahead and signed the Sochi agreement with Iran and Russia amid its frustration at the West’s inaction in helping end the civil war or easing Turkey’s refugee burden.
Now, it is seeking the help of its Western allies against Russia for an agreement its allies were not very warm on from the beginning.
But the blame game can go on and on. Turkey can criticize European leaders for giving in to populist leaders and halting legal migration to Europe, for remaining inactive against Russian gains in Syria and for lacking a clear policy against Russia in the big picture.
Indeed, what is the role of Idlib in the big picture? This is the question European foreign ministers need to find the answer for. Is it worth picking a “fight” with Russia? If it isn’t, what are the consequences of accepting Russian victory in Syria and abandoning Turkey in its confrontation with Moscow? To what degree will this help the interests of individual countries, the bloc as a whole and NATO?
There are eight NATO member countries contributing to the multinational battle group deployed in the tiny Baltic state of Lithuania, reflecting the alliance’s show of force against Russia. The more multinational it is, the stronger the message is. Can we expect a similar show of solidarity from NATO?
It looks difficult. Some countries believe Turkey is blackmailing Europe by sending refugees to the border and European capitals can’t appear to give in to blackmailing.
But what some see as blackmail could also be interpreted as a desperate call for help.
Yet is Turkey the only desperate country suffering from the consequences of the war in Syria? No doubt, EU foreign ministers will be looking desperately tomorrow to Moscow waiting for a positive outcome from the Putin-Erdoğan meeting. But any positive outcome that might emerge from Moscow will be temporary and Turkey will inevitably renew its demand for “strong backing.”
This backing might come in the bilateral form, like the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems from one of the countries that have it available, rather than in the framework of NATO.
But as Europe calibrates its response to Turkey with an eye to questions like “Are we rewarding Turkey despite its mistakes?” and “Are we giving in to blackmail?” European countries should also be thinking of how Russia will read that response.