Exclusive: Turkey and the Islamic State are exploiting the Syrian refugee flow into Europe to achieve their own ends, playing off the Continent’s fear of what a Muslim influx will do to political stability, explains Andrés Cala.
By Andrés Cala
Over a million refugees and migrants poured into Europe in 2015, mostly Syrians, and more than 150,000 have joined them so far in 2016, the majority by crossing into Greece from Turkey. Most are simply fleeing war and turmoil in the Middle East, but these human waves are also being exploited by the Islamic State to spread chaos into Europe and by Turkey to advance its own regional agenda vis a vis Europe.
In the face of the worst refugee crisis since World War II, Europe – led by an erratic German Chancellor Angela Merkel – entered into a morally and legally dubious deal with Turkey in which humans have become bargaining chips and pawns. As of March 20, immigrants entering Greece illegally were being deported to Turkey in a so-called “one-for-one” mechanism. For every returned Syrian, another of the nearly 3 million in Turkey will be legally relocated in Europe, up to 72,000, but even that number is causing difficulties.
Europe’s goal is to slam its doors to the refugee crisis that is upending domestic politics across the Continent and driving countries to close intra-European borders, unwinding the freedom of movement that has been a central pillar of the European Union. Europe seeks to stop the flood of refugees by plugging the Greek hole through which 85 percent of the immigrants arrive. But in doing so Europe is disregarding its responsibility to millions escaping violence mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that the Western alliance has failed to resolve and, in some cases, started or fueled.
The central role of Turkey as the bridge to Europe has given Ankara special leverage over the process. Some might even call it coercion or blackmail, threatening to open the gates if the European Union doesn’t comply with Turkey’s demands for money or favorable treatment.
In exchange for accepting deportations from Greece, Turkey will get 6 billion euros in aid from Europe to care for the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey, on top of Europe agreeing to approve visa-free travel for Turkey’s citizens after some conditions are met and promising to jump start a fast-track process for Turkey’s E.U. candidacy for membership.
On one level, Turkey genuinely does need the money. It says it has already spent $10 billion since 2011 harboring Syrian refugees. But Europe is also perfectly capable – just not willing politically – to deal with the refugee crisis within its borders.
By refusing to do so, Europe is not only sacrificing its humanitarian principles but it is empowering extremists and other warmongers in Syria who are exploiting Europe’s reaction against Muslim refugees to win the allegiance of already alienated Muslims living in Europe.
In other words, Europe is letting the Islamic State wield the refugee crisis as a powerful propaganda weapon, exposing the anti-Muslim bigotry that has risen to the surface in country after country as they slam their doors on desperate families seeking safety and work.
At this point, European leaders are just desperate to save the E.U., not as much from refugees but from the divisiveness that the refugee crisis has spread across Europe. E.U. leaders are concerned about far-right, anti-immigrant, and anti-E.U. parties that are gaining ground, especially after the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks. The E.U. leaders see the danger of a new authoritarian populism along the lines of the fascism that devastated Europe last century.
This fear may be overblown, but the refugee crisis has once again brought to the surface the ugly face of European nationalism that for decades has been submerged under modern European principles of tolerance and humanism. Replacing that cultured image of Europe is a scowling reaction among many Europeans who say the arrival of African and Middle Eastern immigrants will disrupt the cultural balance and the welfare generosity of many European countries.
But Europe’s deal with Turkey – money and other concessions in exchange for restricting the flow of refugees – is giving populist parties even more ammunition to advance their anti-E.U. goals, including the upcoming referendum in Great Britain on exiting the E.U. These very public debates – and their sometimes raw anti-Muslim sentiments – play into the hands of the war of religions script that the Islamic State thrives on.
The refugee crisis also is at the center of Turkey’s gamesmanship as it veers between holding back the refugees and letting them head for Europe. That leverage fits neatly into Turkey’s strategy to scuttle ongoing Western and Russian peace efforts with the Syrian government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds out hope that he can still engineer the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and have him replaced by a Sunni leader allied with Turkey.
While complicating the already complex Syrian conflict, Europe’s refugee response is doing little to help the refugees as it dumps the responsibility onto other countries. There are some 4.6 million Syrians alone spread across Syria’s neighboring countries, mostly Turkey but also Jordan and Lebanon.
Desperate migrants are finding alternative – even more dangerous – routes into Europe, such as crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy, going from Morocco to Spain, and even sneaking across from Russia to Finland. The death toll from such risky approaches to Europe is high. More than 3,700 people remain unaccounted for in 2015.
Though the Greek entry is considered the safest route, there have been horrific cases there of migrant boats capsizing and scattering drowning victims along beaches. And, with the onset of warmer weather, the flow is sure to increase.
Europe’s deal with Turkey also has drawn complaints and legal questions from the United Nations and all major humanitarian agencies, as well as courts and governments. A key flaw in Europe’s reasoning is that while it may pretend that Turkey is a safe country for refugees, many reports indicate otherwise.
The E.U. Commission this week sharply criticized member countries for failing to honor even the discrete commitments to relocate 160,000 refugees already in Greece and Italy by the summer of 2017. Less than 1 percent of the commitments have been met after nearly a year. To underscore the point, last weekend, Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos, ground zero of the refugee crisis, and returned to the Vatican with 12 refugees, half of them children.
But even excluding humanitarian considerations, Europe is going to bed with an increasingly authoritarian figure in Turkey’s President Erdogan, who is trampling basic human rights at home, including freedom of expression. Erdogan continues to consolidate power while facing widespread accusations that his intelligence services have aided extreme jihadist elements inside Syria, including the Islamic State.
Erdogan, who has reversed Turkey’s longstanding policy of official secularism, also is using his new-found leverage from the refugee crisis to gain some revenge on Europe which began backing away from closer ties to Turkey as it became an increasingly religious state under Erdogan. Now, most Turks also reject the idea of full E.U. membership, which would run counter to Turkey’s current ambition to become the dominant power in the Muslim world.
But Erdogan is flexing his muscles by making the E.U. revive the idea of a Turkish candidacy for full E.U. membership, which is something that European nations, starting with Germany, would not accept at this point. A more important perk for the Turks would be visa-free travel to Europe.
And to add insult to injury, there is the anecdotal, but powerfully symbolic scandal over Jan Bohmermann, the German comedian who called Erdogan a “goat-fucker,” along with a long list of other insults in a satirical song that he broadcast on German TV, acknowledging beforehand that he might be breaking the law.
Merkel decided on Friday to allow Erdogan to use a Nineteenth Century law to seek criminal charges against the comedian, a prerequisite to take his case to German courts. But the public, political parties and even coalition members criticized the Chancellor for bending to Erdogan and undermining the principle of freedom of expression.
After all, Europe is the place which strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of expression as it published insulting images of the Prophet Mohammed. But – with Erdogan playing the powerful refugee card – apparently the Turkish president is off limits to ridicule.
Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.