Analysis

Erdogan Warns That Turkey Alone Cannot Withstand Another Wave of Refugees

The Turkish president wants a security zone established in northern Syria, but the U.S. objects Turkey having sole responsibility out of concern for Kurdish allies

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during his party's campaign rally in Ankara on February 20, 2019.
Adem ALTAN / AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Tuesday that Turkey would not be able to withstand on its own another wave of refugees.

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“Building high walls with barbed wire is not the way to prevent illegal migration. … Keeping Syrian refugees within Turkey’s borders cannot be the only way of solving the problem of migration,” Erdogan said at a conference of countries participating in the Budapest Process, a forum established to find common solutions to the refugee problem. 

Erdogan’s words were meant mainly for the ears of European Union countries that are signatories to an agreement with Turkey on refugees, but which are still refusing to grant Turkish citizens visa exemptions, one of the key components of the agreement.

Threatening to allow Syrian refugees to continue into Europe is not new, arising every time Turkey discusses implementing its agreement with the European Union. The threat is meant to pressure the EU to grant the visa exemptions, but Erdogan’s words are also addressed to Russia and Iran, who continue to push for military action in Idlib province, where tens of thousands of militia rebels are concentrated, including radical Islamists.

According to understandings reached by Turkey and Russia, military action was postponed to allow Turkey to try and persuade the radical militias to leave the area peacefully, but so far Turkey has not managed to change the situation on the ground.

The Idlib province is the last significant holdout that is keeping the Syrian army from controlling the entire country, thus also constituting a stumbling block for reaching any diplomatic solution. Turkey is rightly concerned that fighting in Idlib will create a new and big wave of refugees that will cross into Turkey, as well as leading to another large-scale massacre.

Erdogan has been proposing for some time now that a security zone be established in northern Syria, controlled and monitored by Turkey and serving as a temporary refuge for refugees now living in Turkey. Russia and the U.S. agree in principle to establishing such a zone but the U.S. objects to Turkey having sole responsibility, out of concern that its forces will take action against Kurdish forces that are still considered to be U.S. allies.

Efforts are being made to find a formula for establishing a multinational monitoring force in northern Syrian provinces bordering Turkey, but Turkey is resisting this since it wants a free hand in fighting what it defines as Kurdish terrorist militias. It seems that in the absence of an agreement that is acceptable to the U.S. and Turkey, the U.S. will find it difficult to adhere to the schedule set by President Trump for the withdrawal of American forces from Syria.

According to Erdogan, Turkey has already invested $37 billion of its resources in absorbing and keeping more than 3 million refugees, but the economic aspects of the refugee problem are secondary to its desire to set up the security zone against Kurdish militias. Possible modes of action that will allow a squaring of the circle, with Turkey safeguarding its southern border and solving the Idlib province problem while preventing large scale military action, were discussed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Sochi on February 14, on the same day a U.S.-initiated conference was held in Warsaw, aimed at coordinating action against Iran.

According to reports from Sochi, the three countries are planning joint action to clear Idlib of radical Islamist groups, but the means for achieving this or a timetable for military operations were not specified. Coordinating military action with Iran and Russia deepens the rift between Turkey, a member of NATO, and the U.S., which is occupied mainly with finding tactical solutions which would enable a peaceful withdrawal from Syria, with no diplomatic or strategic plan and without defining its future strategic interests there.