Obama, Merkel and Turkey’s Syrian border

Obama, Merkel and Turkey’s Syrian border

According to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Turkey sets the “best example” in how it hosts the refugees who have been fleeing the five-year-long civil war in Syria.

He said that during a visit to refugee camps in the southern border province of Gaziantep along with other ranking EU officials and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 23. 

Merkel, as the European leader who initiated (in October 2015) a deal (signed in March) between Turkey and the EU on stopping the illegal trafficking of migrants into Europe in return for reactivating the integration process, has also been praising Turkey’s role.

Despite criticism from Turkish opposition parties that Merkel managed to convince President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to keep some 3 million migrants in Turkey for 3 billion euros of burden sharing, the government sees the deal as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the EU. Actually, the deal suggests another 3 billion euros by 2018 if things go as planned.

The first step of the deal went through without major problems. As the scheme on the readmission of unregistered migrants from Greece to Turkey and from Turkey to the rest of EU began, human smuggling decreased sharply, as an EU report on April 20 acknowledged. That means Turkey has fulfilled its first responsibility.

Now comes the second step; a step which will be a test for the EU to keep its promises. The same report suggested that if the Turkish government fulfilled the criteria by May 4, the procedure to provide visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the EU would begin. Davutoğlu has already said that the criteria would be completed by then. If that step is completed, it would serve as a confidence-building measure between Turkey and the EU, as well as for the rest of the deal.

EU leaders can see that as long as the deal works, the migrant influx, at least via Turkey, will be under control. But that is not the whole story. Perhaps that is why Merkel has endorsed the Turkish suggestion (for the last four years now) that a safe area for refugees on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey should be considered by the international community.

Turkey’s border with Syria is not a peaceful place, especially over the last two weeks. Almost every day the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been launching rockets at the border town of Kilis, killing Turkish people and Syrian refugees, whose number in the town has already surpassed the number of locals. Turkish artillery has responded to ISIL but that doesn’t stop the growing discontent of the people in the town.

Merkel knows for sure that without military protection, a safe area for refugees in Syria would not be possible; they might be subject to attacks from not only ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra, but also Syrian regime forces. Russia, backed by China as two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, is against that. Russia has a military presence and two bases in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. There is also the serious confrontation between NATO member Turkey and Russia over the downed Russian jet last year.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a BCC interview aired on April 23 that he has been against a military intervention against the Syrian regime from day one. That brings to mind a question about why the Turkish government promoted the safe zone suggestion, knowing that the Americans would not subscribe to it.

The U.S.-led coalition (which operates from bases in Turkey) aims at ISIL and al-Nusra targets in Syria amid a disagreement with Turkey over the ground role of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which is the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against the Turkish government for more than three decades. Obama also said he didn’t think that the fight against ISIL could be won in a short period of time, at least not by the end of his term.

Therefore, Merkel’s endorsement of the Turkish position regarding a safe area in Syria borders are perhaps the words that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would like to hear, but not likely to serve any concrete outcome. 

The only positive outcome of the ongoing diplomacy now could be a further rapprochement between Turkey and the EU, not only for the benefit of both but also for a small de-escalation of regional tension.