Originally published under the title "Turkey's Latest Threat: Give Us Safe Zone or We Send Refugees to EU."
For a year, Turkey has threatened a military operation into eastern Syria, an area that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are partners of the US-led coalition against ISIS. In the absence of a new military adventure for Ankara's government, Turkey's leader has decided to threaten to send refugees to Europe, in a replay of 2015. This callous and cynical threat won't sit well with Syrian refugees in Turkey, who increasingly see themselves as being used as a tool by the government while being abandoned in Idlib.
In a series of comments a day after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implied the country had a right to nuclear weapons, he has now said Turkey must be given a "safe zone" in eastern Syria or "we will have to open the gates [to Europe]. Either you support us or no one should feel sorry. We would like to host one million refugees in the safe zone."
The comment reveals how Turkey now views its policies among Idlib, Moscow, eastern Syria, the US and Europe as all linked.
For instance, Turkey had sought out Russian air defense S-400s as part of a kind of brinkmanship with the US, hoping to pressure the US to leave eastern Syria. Then when Russia actually sent parts of the S-400 to Turkey in July – and the US appeared to end Turkey's role in the F-35 program – Turkey changed its narrative to claiming that it could still acquire the US Patriot air defense system and the S-400. The Patriot deal, which Washington had signed off on in the fall of 2018, now seems dead as well.
Turkey also thought that it could switch from the F-35 to the Russian SU-35 and Su-57, and Erdogan went to see Russian President Vladimir Putin in late August, when they ate ice cream and joked. But Syrians in Idlib were facing a new Assad regime offensive, backed by Russia, and the Syrians were angered that Turkish observation posts in northern Syria were not doing anything but observing their defeat.
The Syrian rebels, backed by Turkey, have become dependent on and loyal to Ankara. Tens of thousands of Syrian rebels signed up in January 2018 to fight alongside Turkey in its invasion of Afrin, where Turkey said it was fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey wants to settle a million Arab Syrian refugees in Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria.
Syrian rebel fighters now feel exploited. They feel they were sent to fight Kurds in Afrin while their villages are recaptured by the Syrian regime. Turkey says that it will take over part of eastern Syria and return the mostly Kurdish region of Rojava to its "true owners," while sending a million mostly Arab Syrian refugees into eastern Syria as a kind of consolation prize for losing part of Idlib.
Thousands of Syrian rebels said they would be willing to fight the SDF either in Manbij or near Tel Abyad. But the Syrians now wonder if Turkey is just bluffing the Americans. Angered by the ice cream diplomacy in Moscow, Syrian protesters came to the Bab al-Hawa frontier gate between Idlib and Turkey's Hatay province and protested last week.
Turkey senses the US is dragging its feet on creation of a 'safe zone.'
The US assured Turkey in early August that a "safe zone" would be created rapidly with a "security mechanism" whereby US Defense Department members would sit with their Turkish counterparts and hash it out in Ankara. But weeks went by, and Turkey now senses the US is slow-playing its hand.
The SDF meanwhile says the safe zone is progressing. It's "nothing more than a name," said Ankara, seemingly disgusted by being, in its view, deceived again. Turkey has said since July 24 that it has "no patience" for US stalling. It won't accept another Manbij of joint patrols and no changes on the ground. It wants Turkey's soldiers in eastern Syria and refugees being sent there, regardless whether those refugees are from there.
Every day brings new threats from Ankara, and attempts to get something from either the Americans or the Russians. It's like the good old days of the Cold War, when countries could try to play both sides. The difference is that Putin and Trump may understand Ankara's limited options better than their predecessors 50 years ago understood Vietnam and Castro.
Ankara already has a sunk cost in the S-400 deal. Trump understands sunk costs. Putin understands that Turkey needs Moscow now. Moscow can turn up the heat in Idlib any time it wants by unleashing the Syrian regime and ending any Turkish air use of the skies over Idlib. And with a flick of a switch, it can turn off that expensive, as yet unused, S-400 radar sitting in Turkey.
So Ankara has decided that the last card in its deck is the refugee card to be played in Europe. The EU has been paying Turkey to keep refugees from "flooding" Europe. In 2015, when one million people including many Syrians came to Europe, it helped fuel Brexit and other populist movements. It also led to terrorist attacks and fear of terrorism. So a Euro dealwas signed for €3 billion in 2016-2017, and another €3 billion in 2018-2019. But in late August, 1,000 refugees left Turkey and arrived on Greek islands in the Aegean Sea fueling fears that the deal is coming apart, and that Turkey will encourage millions of Syrians to go to Europe unless Ankara gets what it wants.
Germany's reluctance to get involved in eastern Syria is due to Turkey's pressure.
It appears likely that Germany's reticence to get involved in eastern Syria, where Trump wants European countries to back fill a US withdrawal, is due to Turkey's pressure. France may step up, but the UK is stuck in Brexit chaos and can't commit to eastern Syria. The US meanwhile has said it wants to draw down in eastern Syria, and is worried about the thousands of ISIS members being held by the SDF. Trump says Europe must take them back.
Turkey doesn't think the US or Moscow will budge, and Ankara's leadership is gambling now on the EU budging. But it's not clear how threatening Europe will get the US to give in on a safe zone with Turkish boots on the ground in eastern Syria, which could potentially anger the US and SDF partners and cause a new crises similar to December 2018, when the US said it was leaving.
If the US does leave eastern Syria, it appears the SDF would have to sign a deal with the Syrian regime handing a big win to Damascus, Russia and Iran. The US, involved in tensions with Iran, doesn't want that.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.