Is Turkey right on Idlib and refugees?

Turkey’s military has likely been preventing an unprecedented massacre in Syria’s last rebel-held province, while Greek and European authorities have appeared to violate international law in recent days by blocking new refugee arrivals, creating scenes of violence and chaos along the Greek-Turkish border.

Following a Syrian government strike that killed some 35 Turkish soldiers last week, the Turkish government launched a major offensive against Russian-backed Syrian forces in Idlib, while also encouraging refugees within Turkey to head for the Greek border and cross into Europe.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara needed more support in managing the humanitarian situation in Idlib, where as many as 3 million displaced people are caught between advancing Syrian troops and the Turkish border. He also said Turkey had been carrying the refugee burden alone for nine years, and warned that those millions of displaced would soon be headed to Europe.

Hours later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in January signalled Berlin’s willingness to help fund Turkey’s refugee resettlement plan, appeared to agree with the Turkish leader. “We need a ceasefire in Idlib,” she told reporters, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. “We also need a safe zone for hundreds of thousands of Syrians on the border with Turkey."

Erdoğan has come under considerable criticism in recent days for using refugees as a tool to force the European Union to come to its aid on Idlib. And with its years of support of various rebel groups, including jihadists, many observers argue that Turkey helped exacerbate the Syrian war and the refugee problem, as explained by former senior U.S. State Department official David Phillips in Ahval this week.

Many also see why the West might be reluctant to help Turkey, pointing to a laundry list of offences in recent years: accusing the United States of masterminding the 2016 failed coup; holding Americans hostage as a negotiating tactic; calling European leaders Nazis; and buying Russian S-400 missile defences despite repeated U.S. and NATO warnings, to name a few.

Yet Turkey has shown considerable generosity in taking in some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country, and hosting them for years, even as their welcome has worn thin. In addition, Turkey is yet to receive more than $3 billion of the $6.6 billion the EU promised as part of the 2016 deal spurred by an earlier refugee wave.

“For me it is hard for the West to throw stones at Turkey when it hosts close to 4 million refugees,” economist and analyst Timothy Ash wrote in a Sunday tweet. “We need to do something about Syria rather than close our borders and blame Turkey.”

Migrant arrivals spiked at Greece’s land border and on its Aegean islands over the weekend, even as Greek authorities sought to stop the crossings and vowed to refuse all asylum applicants for a month. Border forces have clashed with thousands of migrants along the border, using tear gas and water cannons.

On Monday, the Turkish government released video that appeared to show Greek Coast Guard vessels blocking the advance of migrant boats coming from Turkey as soldiers fired warning shots into the water. Men on smaller boats menaced the migrants with paddles and fired shots into the air.

“Men, women and children seeking safety are shot at; their boats pushed back towards High Seas,” UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard said in a Monday tweet, pointing out that this was not a scene from World War Two. “This is EUROPE in 2020.”

The U.N. High Commission on Refugees issued a statement calling on Greece to refrain from excessive or disproportionate force and reminding Greek and European authorities that neither the international convention on refugees, nor European Union law provides any legal basis for suspending the granting of asylum.

The human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe called for urgent action to deal with the crisis. The European Council president was expected to visit the Greek-Turkish border on Tuesday with Greece’s prime minister, while EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet this week to discuss the crisis.

In Syria, many analysts agree that the Turkish military is all that has stood between the millions of displaced civilians in Idlib and the wrath of President Bashar Assad’s forces, which are backed by Russia and Iran.

“Turkey is correct to say that it has prevented a massacre in Idlib and/or another wave of refugees,” independent Syria analyst Kyle Orton told Ahval.

If Turkey had pulled back from Idlib, he said, Syrian forces would most likely have retaken the province with a strong reliance on Russian air power, which would have created a death toll into five figures and forced the remaining displaced toward the Turkish border.

“Ankara would then have faced a devil's choice of admitting a million and more Syrians, further destabilising its domestic situation, or keeping the border closed and seeing a massacre on a scale that's novel even for Syria's war,” said Orton.

Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation, largely agreed. Without Turkish support, rebel groups in Idlib, led by al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), would likely have fallen to the Syrian advance, either after a pitched battle or negotiated handover.

“It's very hard to imagine any scenario at all for Idlib, retaken or not retaken, that wouldn't result in a lot of fighting, incarceration, abuse, and killing,” he said, pointing out that many of Idlib’s displaced are Assad opponents who have fled fighting in other provinces.

“There are a lot of people in the Idlib region who would be unwilling to surrender to Assad, or too afraid to do so. Many would likely be jailed, tortured, and in some cases killed if the area is retaken.”

As tensions grow along Turkey’s borders with Syria and with Greece, all eyes turn to Thursday’s meeting between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at which they will discuss a possible Idlib ceasefire.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.