Researcher in EU and UK Politics
Graduate of London School of Economics -
The ongoing war in Syria exacerbates the refugee crisis every passing day. The Syrian regime and Russian air strikes in Idlib have increased the refugee flow on the Turkish border. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled north from Idlib to the Turkish border.
A UN official said more than 1,000 civilians were killed in and around Idlib's demilitarized zone in northwestern Syria in the last four months.
Turkey is concerned that the regime’s assault on Idlib will push hundreds of thousands of people stuck close to its borders, and create a new refugee crisis at a time when public opinion in Turkey has turned with unease toward the 3.6 million Syrians already living in Turkey.
In order to prevent another refugee influx, Turkey has proposed to establish a safe-zone at 30 km (20 miles) into northern Syria where it’s planning to build housing, provide humanitarian support, and relocate thousands of refugees, in addition to providing safety and security for the Syrian refugees. Turkey and the United States agreed last month to jointly create a safe zone in northeast Syria, from which the PKK terror group's Syrian arm PYD/YPG are expected to withdraw. However, Washington's foot-dragging has continued to delay the project, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed his dissatisfaction that “the safe zone remains in name only.”
The president’s criticism of the international community came as a warning to the EU that if Turkey is not provided with sufficient support to deal with the refugee crisis, it would allow safe passage to the refugees on their way to Europe.
In some international circles, Erdogan’s statement has been perceived as a bluff to obtain concessions both from the US as well as the EU on the safe zone, but for others who have closely followed the Turkish president, this rhetoric can turn into a reality. The burden is getting heavier for Turkey and the virtue of patience has its limits. If Ankara does not get the assistance that was promised before, there is nothing more to be done but open the gates.
Ankara and Brussels signed an agreement in 2016 to find a solution to the influx of refugees heading to the EU. Under a 2016 agreement with the EU, Turkey imposed stronger controls to halt the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe. The deal involved a total of 6 billion euros in financial aid to be given to Turkey alongside visa-free travel for Turkish citizens throughout the EU.
The EU has been the main beneficiary from the migrant deal, which likely prevented turbulence all over Europe. While Turkey has been paying the price of hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees at a cost of almost $40 billion since the advent of the crisis, the EU has been watching from a distance and leaving all the burden on Turkey. Turkey has already fulfilled its responsibilities more than enough and yet, the EU still free-rides on Turkey’s sacrifice and treats the country as a “refugee depot.”
The EU should be well aware of the fact that in a scenario where there is a renewed migrant crisis, the EU would be one of the most affected parties and this could pose major problems for ruling parties, which are still recovering from the political effects pertaining to the refugee influx in 2014.
The recent arrival of 600 refugees in the Greek Island of Lesbos, which is the highest single inflow since the height of the migrant crisis makes the case for increased attention by European decision-makers. Therefore, the EU should end its complacency and assume greater responsibility in the solution of the crisis. The latter requires not only financial backing but also political, diplomatic, security and technical support.
Turkey’s safe-zone project provides a perfect opportunity for the resettlement of refugees in the area. This will not only stop migrants flowing into neighbouring countries but also reduce pressure on Turkey and create a new settlement for displaced Syrians in northern Syria.
However, Turkey’s calls were constantly ignored since the Obama administration, and now Ankara is concerned that the current talks are reaching a stalemate once again. Therefore, the EU needs to step up and fully take on its responsibilities because Turkey has gone out of its way to help the international community in managing the Syrian refugee situation.
Reaching a political solution in Syria and assisting Turkey to establish the required safe-zone in northern Syria is, thus, a European strategic concern too. Therefore, President Erdogan’s warnings in regards to the safe-zone need to be taken seriously because a potential mass refugee influx will no longer be an issue for Turkey. Instead, it will become a major one for the EU.