Syrian Bodies Have Become Erdogan’s Latest Bargaining Chip with the EU

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Ozan Kose

Just days before getting what he has long been asking for, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asked for more. In a speech just three days before joint border patrols with the US began, Erdogan revealed a new plan – and a worrying potential scenario. If the European Union did not support his plan to move a million Syrian refugees to territory along the border he would, he said, “open the gates.”

This a serious threat and for millions of Syrians, a particularly cruel one. With a single speech, Erdogan has declared he is weaponizing Syrian bodies against the EU and has no compunction about doing so in order to get his way politically.

“Our goal,” he said, “is for at least one million [Syrians] to return to the safe zone.” This “safe zone” doesn’t yet exist, but Turkey envisages it as a border area hundreds of kilometers wide and patrolled by American and Turkish troops, to which Syrian refugees from within Turkey could be returned. Turkey would build towns there, he added, “in lieu of tent cities here,” where they could settle.

But if the EU did not help, Turkey would not carry the burden alone, he said. “This either happens or we will have to open the gates.”

Opening the gates means allowing Syrian refugees to head into Europe, either by sea to Italy and Greece, or via the land route through Bulgaria and the Balkans. It means ending a 2016 agreement between Ankara and the EU that stopped migrants crossing into the EU in return for billions of euros in aid. It is not an idle threat and it would have severe consequences for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees inside Turkey. Certainly, many are willing, and even desperate enough, to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. But many have found refuge, however imperfect, in Turkey, and would be unwilling to leave. Opening the gates would create a hostile environment that would push many of them out.

By threatening to “open the gates,” the Turkish president is in effect threatening to strip protection away from hundreds of thousands of desperate men and women and force them to continue their search for refuge and safety. For Syrians, this is cruel politics.

For the EU, this is a problem of the utmost gravity. There is no need to spell out the consequences; the EU is all too aware of them. Four years have passed since the height of the refugee crisis, a crisis so severe it has had an enduring effect on the politics of the continent. The current political crises in two of the EU’s most pivotal states, Italy and the UK, were both inflamed by the migrant issue. No wonder the Greek prime minister was the first to respond, deploring Turkey’s attempts to “threaten Greece and Europe.” In August, the number of arrivals on Greek islands from Turkey soared for the first time in years to 7,000, a harbinger of what might be to come.

Erdogan is not using his threat to open the gates solely against the European Union. His weaponization of Syrian bodies is also aimed squarely at two other enemies: militant Kurdish groups on the border and his domestic opponents. In the same speech, the president asked for logistical support so that “we can go build housing 30km deep into northern Syria.” It may sound like an arbitrary figure, but it is not.

On September 8, American and Turkish armed vehicles crossed into Syrian territory to patrol a “safe zone” along the border region. Kurdish groups currently control the area, but Turkey is determined to drive them out, arguing that Kurdish militants are coordinating with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

For the US, the patrols are sensitive and Washington has tried to delay them as long as possible. On paper, the US is allied with the Syrian Kurdish groups that fought ISIS in the region. Yet every time it has come down to a choice between the Kurdish groups and Turkey, the US has sided with its NATO ally.

For now, the patrols are only taking place just across the border, beyond the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. But Turkey wants the safe zone to go much further – as far as 30km into Syria. With the US unwilling to do so, Turkey has turned to a new way of expanding the footprint of its troops.

The plan for east of the Euphrates would be to establish schools and hospitals and build housing, which is what happened in the Syrian city of Jarabulus, a two-hour drive west of Tel Abyad. Turkish troops would protect these areas and the Syrians living there but also put some vital distance between militant groups and Turkish territory. In essence, Turkey would use Syrian bodies to keep Kurdish militants far away from the border.

Also in Erdogan’s sights are his opponents at home. Public opinion in Turkey is shifting against Syrian refugees, even in areas such as the southeast near the border, where Syrian investment has brought jobs. By loudly proclaiming his plan, he is pre-empting opposition calls for Syrians to go back to Syria. The man who first brought the Syrians in is now the one pushing them out.

Such rhetoric about the problems incurred in hosting refugees is already creating a hostile mood within Turkey, enough to have persuaded many Syrians to leave. But Erdogan needs a bigger solution, and fast. Even as he gets his way – broadly speaking – with the US at the negotiating table, he has chosen that very moment to up the stakes and play for what he really wants, which is, in effect, to annex part of Syrian territory. And he is prepared to use Syrian bodies as bargaining chips to get it.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.