Turkey Weaponizing Refugees as Idlib Fight Escalates

March 3, 2020

Turkey opens European border allowing refugees to flee, Greek military tear gases refugees. Why? To force EU to back Turkey in Syria while Russia backs Assad.

Turkey opens European border allowing refugees to flee, Greek military tear gases refugees. Why? To force EU to back Turkey in Syria while Russia backs Assad.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Refugees are now streaming over the border, the Turkish border, by land and sea to Greece and Bulgaria. The Turks had agreed to a multibillion dollar deal with the European Union to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey. So why are they opening their borders? Well, it starts with a battle in Idlib that’s really escalating. Last week, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by the Syrian military because the Turkish troops were there to aid the rebels currently trying to fight for control of Idlib. Foremost among those groups, it’s interesting to talk about, is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Now Turkish president Erdogan is stepping up the war. Now, he’s killed 19 Syrian soldiers, at least, with a drone strike on Monday.

The Turkish prime minister is trying to force the EU to support Turkey in Northern Syria and reports from Idlib speak of nearly a million people being displaced by this fighting. So as he announced Friday, he’ll open the border to allow refugees from Idlib to march straight to Europe if UE does not support him. Now he’s literally manipulating the xenophobia and racism in Europe to gather international support for his military incursions. Within hours of his announcement, NATO held an emergency meeting, condemned the attacks by the Syrian military, and started preparations for an intervention in Syria. We’ll see what that really means. And just hours ago, Erdogan announced he was flying Thursday to meet with Putin. Meanwhile, the refugees are being played with their lives, pawns in a great global conflict.

And we’re joined once again by professor Edmund Ghareeb, who teaches at the American University in Washington and at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He’s the first Mustafa Barzani Distinguished Scholar in Global Kurdish Studies at AU in D.C. His most recent book is The Historical Dictionary of Iraq, co-written with Beth Dougherty. And Edmund, welcome back, good to have you with us.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: So this is such a convoluted situation. Let’s talk a bit about what some people are positing as part of the strategy here, which is that Erdogan thinks that if he opens the floodgates, and allows refugees to come through using them, that he will force Europe to back him in Syria. Now, how real is that?

EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, there is no doubt that the President Erdogan is in a very difficult spot right now in part because of his own policies towards Syria and towards the region. But Turkey really faces a big problem. You will have about over three million refugees already inside Turkey. The fighting that’s taking place now in Northern Syria and an attempt by the Syrian military to regain control of the two main highways, one the M5 and M4, which link Aleppo, which is the economic capital of Syria, with Damascus and with Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea. So basically this attempt by the Syrian government, which has at least made some gains in opening some parts of these roads, the M4 is still blocked.

Also, there was a takeover of the city of Saraqib, a strategic city which connects both the M4 and M5. And then the Syrian opposition with the help of the Turkish military were able to regain control over last week of the city of Saraqib, which they had controlled since the early days of the conflict in Syria. But today, there are a news stories that the Syrian army has regained control over Saraqib, and so that they are going to be at least able to open one of the roads, and that there is still fighting going on in the Zawiya Mountain area, which also links a road between Aleppo and Latakia. So that is putting a lot of pressure on the Turkish government, which after the attacks began demanded that the Syrian government return to its early positions before the advances that they made. And of course, that’s highly unlikely.

MARC STEINER: But do you think that this move by the Turkish government to open borders allowing refugees in will change what the EU is doing? We saw today he saying he was going to meet with Putin, we saw that that Trump had said that he’s going to try to push the EU into giving Patriot systems and helping to help the Turks. So the question is, I mean, will this work? I mean, will the EU acquiesce? Will they continue giving money to Turkey? I mean that’s part of the game here, right?

EDMUND GHAREEB: That’s a very, very good question. Primarily because on the one hand, the Turks before the fighting started and as things appear to be, we’re going to see some escalation there. The Turkish government said that it does not need NATO, does not need the Europeans, and they have the capability to go with this conflict on their own. However, what we saw since then is that Turkey has requested missile batteries from the United States, or even from the Europeans, and they have asked NATO to intervene. Although NATO was not consulted when Turkey sent its troops inside another country’s territory and to Idlib. And now Turkey’s expecting help and saying that it’s the responsibility of NATO to help. Although, as we know, the NATO charter basically says that if a member country is attacked, then the other countries are committed to helping it. But it does not say that if you attack another country that we are to support you.

And today it became clear that the Secretary of Defense Esper said that the United States is not likely to support Turkey in Idlib militarily. Of course, the idea that there may be some logistical support, some intelligence support, maybe some equipment might be given to Turkey. But that question of the US becoming involved, that’s a very difficult… a different question. It’s very difficult. President Trump now is basically saying he’s the one who implements his promises and he has this agreed to reach an agreement with the Taliban where he’s going to pull US forces from Afghanistan. So he’s not likely to jump into another war, especially on the eve of the election.

MARC STEINER: So what’s going on now, though? You have Russia in the mix. Russia backs Assad, clearly, and has been backing Assad for a long time. They didn’t say anything when the Turkish government went across the border into Kurdish territories. They made a $400 million deal with Turkey for an air defense system. But now the conflict is literally between Russia, Syria on one side and Turkey on the other. So where can this go? I mean, what could this lead to? I mean, and also given that Erdogan’s talking about seeing Putin sometime this week.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Yes, Erdogan was trying to get the Europeans and the US to support him. Once he realized that the Russians were supporting the Syrian position, particularly because the Russians believed that Erdogan did not fulfill his promises, his commitments, according to the Sochi agreement. They were supposed to separate the radical from the moderate forces in Syria. It was supposed to disarm or at least take away the heavy weapons from Al-Qaida and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which you mentioned earlier. They were also supposed to help open the two main highways to traffic for trade M4 and M5. And he did not fulfill these, so the Russians believed that, although that was supposed to take place before the end of 2018, that the Turkish government had more than one year and a half to do that. And they did not implement it, so they decided to support the Syrian government stand.

Now President Erdogan decided that this would threaten his position, his ambitions, his role in Turkey, and of course the groups that he supported, members of the Syrian opposition inside Syria. So he decided to challenge the Syrian Army. And with the support of the Russians, what we saw is that there was an attack that took place against Turkish forces where 33 soldiers were killed, and tens of soldiers were wounded. Now, interestingly, the Turkish president did not blame the Russians. He blamed the Syrian army. And that meant that although he had recently angered President Putin, he did not want to break the ties with Putin, especially if he could not count on Western support. But he went to the Ukraine. He said he would help train the Ukrainian army. He also said that the Crimea should be returned to the Ukraine, which of course infuriated the Russians. So that’s another issue.

So what he is trying to use now, as you pointed out, the refugees, this is a potent weapon against the Europeans. The Europeans found out that having this large number of refugees is likely to have tremendous effects on the domestic politics of the European countries–whether it’s Germany, whether it’s Italy, whether it’s Greece, whether it’s France–for two reasons. One, because there are terrorists who could join these refugees, and we have seen attacks in a number of European cities. The second factor is the rising xenophobia within some of the European countries because of this influx of foreign refugees, mainly Syrian refugees. And so as a result, we see today that the Greek government has decided it’s not going to allow any what they call illegal refugee or immigrant into their territory. And they’ve sent their troops as well as their police into the area to prevent this influx of refugees.

The European Union also is in a difficult spot. On the one hand, they know that they are being manipulated, they are being pressured by Turkey. And in fact, they find themselves in a very tough position with their own domestic populations and amongst themselves. Because some of the Europeans, particularly the East Europeans, take a much tougher line against influx of refugees. So now they have to decide whether they are going to support, provide assistance and aid for Turkey, or whether they’re going to help Turkey in its Syria campaign. I find it difficult to believe that the Europeans are going to become involved in another confrontation in Syria, particularly since they have had problems recently with Turkey as a result of an agreement between Libya and Turkey concerning the oil and gas in the Mediterranean, which brought conflict between Greece and Cyprus and Egypt with Turkey. And also because of the Turkish intervention in Libya and supporting the government in Tripoli. These are issues which are of a great deal of concern to the Europeans.

MARC STEINER: It is. We don’t have time to do this today, but it’s really interesting. We said that complexity’s all part of what’s happening now. It’s almost how… We’re watching the shadow of the Ottoman Empire rising in the mist.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Yes.

MARC STEINER: All right. Let me just close with this very quickly. In the middle of all this, we can’t forget the weaponizing of refugees, and the situation of the refugees in Syria and Turkey at this moment; and living in the camps in Greece and Bulgaria. And hard camps, really. That’s a piece of this and all the politics that we also come out to get.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Yeah. That’s the tragedy. I think the real tragedy of what’s happening in Syria. That we’re seeing also a lot of hypocrisy on the parts of different countries which speak about caring for refugees and wanting to solve the problem of the refugees and help with this humanitarian crisis. But in reality, we find that many countries are closing their doors. Which to a certain extent, you can understand that in some places. But nevertheless, the fact that there are severe sanctions on the Syrian populations, very harsh sanctions, the Syrians are paying a very heavy price both within their own country and in a number of other countries. Lebanon, for example, is a small country of four million people. It has about one and a half million Syrian refugees.

MARC STEINER: Right.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Turkey is a country of close to 18 million people, much larger territory, and complaining about three and a half million refugees. And of course that’s also a legitimate concern, because the Turkish population were becoming very angered, very much angered by the presence of Syrian refugees. And also by the rumors that president Erdogan may give citizenships to many of these Syrians to help him electorally inside Turkey. And in fact, that’s why we saw this defeat of the AK Parti. In part, that’s one of the main reasons the AK Parti lost control of cities like Istanbul, which is almost like a third of the population of Turkey. And Ankara and a number of other major cities.

MARC STEINER: It’s a complex story. And Edmund Ghareeb, I appreciate you taking time with us here at The Real News and helping us unpack it.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And of course, it’s one of the stories we will be staying on top of. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. Take care.