President Erdogan of Turkey says that it’s time for Turkey to send Syrian refugees to northern Syria, currently inhabited by Syrian Kurds. Meanwhile Erdogan’s position in Turkey is weakening, both politically and economically, says Baris Karaagac
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert joining you from Arlington, Virginia this time.
President Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey announced last week that he intends to settle one million Syrian refugees in Northern Syria, which is currently inhabited by Kurds. His apparent goal is to turn the Kurdish population of Northern Syria into a minority. Erdoğan made the announcement shortly after he had reached an agreement with the United States to give him a free hand in Syria, north of the Euphrates River. When the European Union protested against Erdoğan’s plan, however, he threatened to flood the EU with Syrian refugees. He said that he would break the agreement that he has with the EU, according to which the EU sends economic support in exchange for Turkey keeping 3.6 million Syrian refugees in its territory. Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas responded to Turkey’s threats last week.
HEIKO MAAS: We have discussed this and are concerned about it. I have discussed these issues in a phone call with my Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, this week. I have once again highlighted that the EU would honor its commitments under the EU-Turkey refugee agreement that we assume that Turkey will honor its commitments as well. It has been a very constructive discussion. I believe that the situation will step by step normalize again. Of course, we talked about this and will be in close contact in order to react if necessary.
GREG WILPERT: Then, at the summit meeting that took place in Turkey’s capital of Ankara this Monday, the presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran discussed the ongoing situation in Syria. Erdoğan urged his counterparts to take more responsibility for maintaining peace in Northwestern Syria and Idlib Province. Meanwhile, within Turkey, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned from the ruling AKP Party that Erdoğan leads in protest against the party’s authoritarian policies. His departure and his founding of a new conservative party would seem to weaken Erdoğan’s position.
Joining me now to discuss the complicated situation in Turkey and Northern Syria is Baris Karaagac. He is a Lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Thanks for joining us again, Baris.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: So Erdoğan has often threatened the European Union with flooding its Syrian refugees into Europe. Do you think that this time the threat is real, or is this just another act of empty posturing? What do you think?
BARIS KARAAGAC: Well, the threat comes from some of the woes Erdoğan has been having recently. He’s having a serious trouble both at home and outside of Turkey. So a few years ago, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement regarding Syrian refugees. So in exchange of about six billion euros in aid, Erdoğan and the Turkish officials agreed to keeping and hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey. In the last eight years, many Syrian refugees have entered Turkey fleeing from the war in their own country, and now there are more than 3.6 million refugees residing in Turkey. That’s a significant number for a not-wealthy country. So the European Union in the past couple of years has contributed a bit over two billion euros, but the Turkish state has spent around 40 billion euros on the refugees.
I would like to emphasize one issue here. And that is Erdoğan and his aides, the people around him within the AKP, have played a significant role in what we’ve observed, what we’ve seen, in the Syrian context. Turkey has been supporting a number of organizations that’s escalated the conflict and the war in that country for about eight years. Turkey has financed and it provided refuge for a number of jihadist organizations that went after the Kurds and other minority groups that have been fighting the Syrian government, so and so forth. So Turkey actually has to be held accountable for these measures and Erdoğan, in the process, has used these people as a card against both the European Union and the Syrian regime itself in order to extend Turkey’s influence over the region, but in particular in Northern Syria.
GREG WILPERT: So why is Erdoğan so committed to the point of sending troops and risking his agreement with the EU to the idea of settling non-Kurds in the Kurdish area of Syria? I mean, what is it exactly that he’s trying to achieve, and what threat do the Kurds represent at the moment to Erdoğan for him to want to do this?
BARIS KARAAGAC: In my opinion, the Kurds in Northern Syria pose no threat to the Turkish state right now, but for Erdoğan this is a way to distract the public in Turkey from an ongoing economic crisis but also a political crisis of legitimacy regarding the AKP. So, and this is something that we’ll talk about in a couple of minutes, there are many cracks within the AKP itself. Two parties will likely emerge with a number of important figures, leading figures leaving the AKP and actually becoming rivals to Erdoğan, especially on the right, conservative side of the political spectrum. So this is a good distraction for Erdoğan. He’s trying to solidify the nationalist, conservative vote behind him, and then in a way reduce the casualty as a result of these high-profile leaders of the AKP leaving the party.
Secondly, and I’ve talked about it before for The Real News Network, this is an ongoing foreign policy of the Turkish state since the early years of the republic, since the 1920s and ’30s. Turkey is opposed to any form of polity to be established by the Kurds in the region. Remember that Turkey has been fighting a war against Kurdish insurgents within Turkey since the early 1980s and that cost the lives of more than 40,000 people. So there’s significant paranoia on the part of the Turkish public that a Kurdish-led polity, a political body in Northern Syria, will pose a risk to the survival of maybe the Turkish state or that will contribute to the efforts of independence of Kurds within the Turkish state. But also, this is a continuation of Turkish foreign policy, and also of course an internal policy towards Kurds. Ahmet Davutoglu, who just defected, who just left AKP, has played an important role in what has transpired in Northern Syria recently. So I don’t know if we should be talking about Davutoglu right now or do you want to talk about Northern Syria [crosstalk]?
GREG WILPERT: Actually, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about next. I mean, how do you explain his resignation and his criticisms of the AKP and the people that share that critique? I mean, is this the real reason or is there something else going on?
BARIS KARAAGAC: First of all, I find it very hypocritical that a person like Ahmet Davutoglu is talking about democracy, freedom, consistency, so and so forth. He is the main architect of Turkish foreign policy towards Syria in particular, and towards the Middle East. This person served as an advisor to Erdoğan for years, and then he became foreign affairs minister in 2009. He served in that position until 2014, and then he became the prime minister and he remained in that position for about two years. During this time, especially during his premiership, he was the main architect of Turkish foreign policy towards Syria, which has been referred to as New Ottomanism and I call it this way as well, according to which Turkey tried to extend its influence over territories that used to be controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Many atrocities have been committed within this foreign policy framework, both in Turkey against the Kurds in particular, but especially in Syria through a number of organizations, jihadist organizations, that the Turkish state supported and financed and also provided arms with. So Ahmet Davutoglu is a war criminal, just like Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, and he participated, Davutoglu, in everything that Erdoğan did for years. So now he comes out and starts to criticize Erdoğan and people around him for being undemocratic, for being an authoritarian, so and so. This is very hypocritical. When Davutoglu was prime minister for two years, he passed a number of laws that were criticized by the opposition because these people were saying that he was trying to turn Turkey into a police state.
So these people have nothing to do with human rights, nothing to do with democracy and the political party he’s about to found, establish with a number of defectors from the AKP, I am confident that it will have nothing to do with any of these values.
GREG WILPERT: Now, you have suggested that former Prime Minister Davutoglu’s resignation and of other leading figures in the AKP and the forming of a new party, that this is basically a sign of kind of a cracking in the system of governance of Erdoğan. Now, but he recently held a summit in Ankara, and he also had this border deal with the United States, which seems to show that he is keeping good relations both with Iran, Russia, and also the United States at the same time. In other words, he seems to be doing a pretty complicated balancing act here. Wouldn’t that actually bolster his position also within Turkey?
BARIS KARAAGAC: That’s his hope, so in foreign policy, I think he would pursue a policy and an attitude of de-escalation. Turkey has been in conflict with both Russia and the United States in the past few years, but now we see efforts to mend that relationship because Erdoğan is having a lot of trouble domestically. So he doesn’t want more escalation, but at the same time, as I said, he’s been very harsh towards especially the pro-Kurdish HDP, Peoples’ Democratic Party, within Turkey. And also, he is trying to separate the main opposition party, the CHP from the HDP, by appealing to the nationalistic sentiments within Turkish public. Now, Kurds are the main, again, the enemy for the Turkish state. And through that othering, process of othering, he is trying to again solidify the nationalistic vote.
But I am not sure if it will help him that much because there’s a really severe economic crisis in Turkey. Unemployment levels are very high. There’s significant both private and public debt. So it is quite normal now that some people are leaving the ship, but at the same time, at the same time, I need to emphasize another important point. Erdoğan is still in control of the Turkish state. He is in control of the intelligence. He is in complete control over the police as well as the military. So, even if there are cracks, I don’t see him collapsing in the very near future. He will give a fight and these are the signs.
But I forgot to mention one issue. His threat to the European Union also is related to now the vulnerabilities of the Turkish economy and public finances. Turkey can no longer finance Syrian refugees. As I said earlier, there are close to four million— we don’t know the exact numbers— close to four million Syrian refugees, and this has also led to significant anti-Arab sentiment and racism within the Turkish public, and many peoples have started to blame Erdoğan for this situation. So he wants to create a so-called safety zone in Northern Syria, an extended safety zone, by expelling Kurds and their allies right on the Syrian border east of the Euphrates River and he wants to locate – place about a million Syrian refugees there. So this is an attempt to appease, to appeal to the Turkish public that some of these people will leave Turkey.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, well, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there for now. It sounds like a very dangerous situation and we’re going to continue to follow it, of course. I’m speaking to Baris Karaagac, a Lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Thanks again, Baris, for having joined us today.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me, Greg,
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.