Erdogan Has an Army of Syrian Refugees, and He’s Not Afraid to Use It

“We’re determined to establish a safe zone east of the Euphrates River by the last week of September,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week, in a speech that shook both European and American leaders.

“The ideal situation is that we’ll do this with our American friends, but if we don’t reach understandings, we’ll start by ourselves. Our goal is to resettle a million Syrian refugees in the safe zone, along 450 kilometers of the [Turkish-Syrian] border.”

Addressing European leaders directly, he continued, “Either this will happen, or we’ll have to open the gates. Either you will provide us with support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone.”

After weeks of bitter disputes with the U.S. administration, the Turks have reached some preliminary understandings with the Americans. This month, they began joint patrols in the area designated for the security zone.

But a deep disagreement still remains, because America continues to aid the Kurdish rebels, who played an active role in finishing off the Islamic State’s forces and are considered Washington’s allies.

The U.S. has also rejected Turkey’s demand to establish a security zone that would extend 25 to 30 kilometers into Syria. And it is demanding a Turkish commitment not to attack the Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization affiliated with the PKK, a group that has carried out attacks inside Turkey.

Demographic warfare

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To put additional pressure on Washington, Erdogan has threatened to “open the gates” – or in other words, to let the approximately four million refugees living in Turkey cross the border into Europe, thereby ending the refugee deal that Ankara signed with the European Union in 2016. This threat is aimed at getting the Europeans to pressure the U.S. to accede to Erdogan’s demands regarding the security zone.

Turkish and American forces as conduct their first joint patrol in the ‘safe zone’, Syria, September 8, 2019.Maya Alleruzzo,AP

Under the refugee deal, the EU agreed to pay Turkey 6.5 billion euros. In exchange, Turkey promised to stop the flow of refugees through its territory into Europe. Turkey has carried out its part of the bargain fairly effectively, but it claims it has so far received only 3.5 billion euros. The EU, in contrast, claims it has already paid 5.6 billion.

But the payment dispute is a secondary issue. Erdogan, having turned his country into a safe haven for refugees, is now being forced to deal with his own people’s unhappiness over that decision, as well as growing violence against the refugees. The unrest has been spurred by a deteriorating economy, the high cost of living, a dramatic loss of jobs to the refugees, who serve as a source of cheap labor, and the ongoing costs of the refugee camps and the public services the refugees receive.

According to Turkey, it has spent $40 billion to absorb and sustain the refugees since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and it can no longer bear the burden. Consequently, it urgently needs to return a significant portion of them to Syria, which is why it needs the security zone.

Erdogan has also threatened to let the refugees go to Europe if he doesn’t get additional aid from the EU, and he has apparently already started carrying out that threat. According to reports from Greece, around 12,000 refugees reached the island of Lesbos in July and August.

But resettling the refugees in Syria also has another, unspoken, goal that threatens the country’s Kurdish regions. The Syrian Kurdish leadership accuses Ankara of trying to change northern Syria’s demographic balance so as to “dilute” the Kurdish population with Syrian Arabs and thereby prevent these areas from becoming autonomous Kurdish zones. Moreover, mixed Arab-Kurdish enclaves would help Turkey fight what it terms “Kurdish terror.”

Turkey did something similar in the Kurdish city of Afrin, which it captured in January 2018. It transferred an Arab population there, and Turkish forces took over Kurdish assets.

The demographic warfare strategy isn’t new; Syria’s Baath party used it in Kurdish regions in the 1960s. Now, Turkey apparently seeks to replicate this model along its border with Syria.

Syrians at a Turkish run refugee camp near the Turkey-Syria border, June 19, 2015.אי־פי

American diplomatic weakness

Washington is trying to block Ankara's plan by demanding that the security zone be much narrower, so as not to prevent the Kurds from managing their own lives or fragment the Kurdish area into small enclaves that aren’t territorially contiguous.

The question is what Washington will do if Erdogan sends his army, which is already deployed along the Syrain border, to seize the territory he wants for the security zone and then begins sending refugees into it from Turkey.

It’s unlikely that Washington has a plan prepared for such a scenario. Moreover, it has already demonstrated diplomatic weakness in the face of Erdogan’s conduct. Ankara’s deal to buy S-400 missile batteries from Russia, which was expected to result in American sanctions, has been implemented without Turkey suffering any real punishment other than its ouster from the program to manufacture the F-35 fighter plane.

It’s hard to believe that the United States, which is trying to reduce its military presence in various Middle Eastern fronts, would launch a military conflict to stop Turkey’s takeover of parts of Syria. Nor is it likely to impose stringent sanctions that could result in Turkey quitting NATO and intensifying its strategic ties with Russia.

Paradoxically, Russia might be the one to block Turkey’s territorial ambitions, and thereby serve American policy. At first glance, Russia and Turkey seem to be close allies, with signed agreements on military and economic cooperation. But Russia, which signed an agreement with Turkey in September 2018 to establish a security zone in Idlib province, doesn’t approve of Turkey’s plan to take over Syrian territory.

Under the 2018 agreement, Turkey was supposed to remove the armed militias from Idlib and enable the Syrian government to regain control of the province. Those militias have more than 50,000 fighters. But so far, Turkey hasn’t carried out its part of the deal and is now under heavy pressure from Russia, which is losing patience.

The tension peaked on August 19, when Syrian planes attacked a convoy of the Faylaq al-Sham militia that was escorting a Turkish army column to the Morek outpost near Idlib. Turkey quickly protested to Russia, but the latter turned a cold shoulder.

According to one report, Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to answer when Erdogan called. The following week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had never agreed not to retaliate for attacks by “terrorists who shoot at us.” By “terrorists,” Lavrov was referring to the militia that was helping Turkey.

Russia fears that a wide, deep Turkish security zone would foil its efforts to help Syrian President Bashar Assad regain control over the entire country. It also fears that if a deal isn’t struck with the Kurds, they will refuse to participate in the conferences Russia is organizing to implement a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.

Erdogan and Putin give a joint press conference outside Moscow, August 27, 2019.Maxim Shipenkov,AP

If Turkey doesn’t deliver on its commitments in last year’s agreement with Russia and get the armed militias out of Idlib, Russia and Syria embark on a major military operation against these militias. That would cause a mass flight of civilians from the region, which is currently home to some three million people.

But like America, Russia is deliberating over its relationship with Turkey. On one hand, Ankara is disrupting Moscow’s plans. On the other, Russia doesn’t want to cause a rupture just when Turkey has stood up to Washington so resolutely over the S-400 missiles.

Successful maneuvering

So far, Erdogan has successfully maneuvered among the pressures from these two powers. He has exploited Turkey’s status as a key player, which stems both from the fact that it is protecting Europe from a flood of refugees and the fact that it has the power to determine the fate of the Kurdish zone as long as Washington and Moscow are reluctant to undermine it and impose their policies.

On the domestic front, too, Erdogan’s position is stable. His rivals within the AKP party have either resigned or been ousted, including Abdullah Gul, the former president of Turkey, Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister responsible for the economy, and Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister. The three of them are planning to start a new political movement, either together or separately.

Erdogan can also claim the significant decline in the inflation rate as a success for his policies, even though it is mainly attributed to a decline in consumption caused by higher prices. Turkish media reports say he soon plans to execute a cabinet reshuffle, in which his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, will be fired as finance and economy minister, though he’ll apparently remain one of Erdogan’s senior advisors.

Erdogan’s legal advisors are now trying to find a formula that would enable them to oust Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, whose election was a resounding slap in the face to Erdogan, just as they ousted the Kurdish mayors of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin in southeast Turkey on the pretense of ties to terrorist organizations.

True, the EU has warned Erdogan against taking such a far-reaching step. But he’s not likely to be concerned by the Europeans’ warnings right now, given their fear that he will flood European cities with the army of refugees at his disposal.