12 February, 2020
By Constantin Eckner – Junior Fellow
For some time, the reports from refugee camps in Greece and Turkey died down. But the disagreements between Russia and Turkey have again led to an intensified war in Syria, which forces the European Union to act and not only fulfil its moral obligations, but also find sustainable solutions for its member states and the community as a whole.
The increasingly difficult and complex situation is the result of a dispute between Russia and Turkey that may not be resolved quickly. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan just recently criticised the joint offensive of Russia and the Syrian regime with the words: “Russia tells us they fight against terrorism. Who are these terrorists? Are these the same people that try to protect their country?” He may not know how observers could take his statement and apply it to Turkey’s own Syria operation.
Meanwhile, the agreements between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be based upon differing interpretations of the negotiated ceasefire. According to the Turkish, the ceasefire applies to all sides in Idlib; according to the Russian view, it only applies to the Syrian government and Turkey’s allies, who in Ankara have been christened the ‘Free Syrian Army’, but should not be confused with the original rebel group that had the same name. In Russia’s view, the agreement did not include the ‘Organization for the Liberation of the Levant’ (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS), which was derived from the Al- Qaeda network. At the time of the Sochi Agreement, HTS controlled 40 percent of Idlib, but now it controls almost that entire region. This is also due to the fact that Erdoğan has withdrawn mercenaries from Idlib to other sectors of the war. In the Russian view, Ankara should at least have limited the influence of HTS.
When Putin visited Erdoğan on 8 January for the opening of a pipeline in Istanbul, Erdoğan had already presented him with a fait accompli with his decision to intervene in Libya. Before his visit, Putin had made a surprise detour to Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A few days later the offensive began, while in Turkey a new ceasefire was expected to be in place by 12 January.
The offensive initially focused on southern Idlib. There, government troops took the town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man. It was the third time that a Turkish base in Syria was bypassed and cut off. In a rapid advance to the north, the troops also approached the town of Saraqib, which was attacked with barrel bombs. Government troops are also advancing west from the Aleppo city area. The aim of the offensive is apparently to control the M5 motorway from Hama to Aleppo. This would be a significant strategic asset. It is questionable whether the rebels can still hold their ground in the other parts of Idlib after such a large loss of territory.
A new refuge movement
The fighting—and even more so the air raids that preceded it—led to an enormous number of people fleeing. There are no exact figures, but it is certainly several hundred thousand. Their situation is made more difficult by the cold winter weather. In addition, the Syrian lira has lost a great deal of value, which increases the cost of diesel for heating. Many are fleeing not only from the current fighting, but also from the individual persecution that threatens them if they come under the control of the regime.
Turkey has officially already taken in 3.7 million refugees from Syria. In Turkey, shaken by a long-lasting economic crisis, the mood has long since turned against accepting further refugees from Syria. Erdoğan would like to settle refugees in the Syrian territories occupied by him on the Turkish border, where he has just driven out a large part of the Kurdish population. However, while on the one hand refugees from Idlib may be forced to accept resettlement, a collapse of Idlib calls into question the future of the Turkish conquests.
Erdoğan invaded a torn country against the will of the government and with the pretence of maintaining Syria’s unity. If Idlib falls, the Turkish president will find it difficult to justify the presence of his army in Syria for any longer. Furthermore, his allies will wonder whether he will not abandon them in Afrin, al-Bab or Tell Abyad in the same way as he abandoned them in Idlib. For this reason alone, refugees from there are unlikely to be inclined to settle in Kurdish villages and towns along the Turkish border.
A complete break with Putin would not make the situation any easier for Turkey. It is the Russian air force that largely controls airspace in Syria. Russia could also press in the UN Security Council for a withdrawal of Erdoğan’s troops. It is not for nothing that Erdoğan has remained silent for so long on the offensive. Meanwhile, Erdoğan could try to lean more on Washington. After all, American soldiers are still standing in two areas in Syria, where they partly guard oil wells. If Erdoğan is forced to pull out, the United States will be left practically alone. It remains to be seen whether a rapprochement with the US will be sufficient to maintain Erdoğans’s presence in Syria. In any case, if the government troops do not suddenly stop, Turkey faces a new refugee crisis. And the EU will not be able to stay out of it entirely.
More migrants are coming to Europe
In fact, Europe is already indirectly involved in the Syrian war once again, as the situation is dramatically worsening in the refugee camps on the Greek islands. The refugees there complain about disastrous hygiene conditions and oppressive confinement. In Chios, Lesbos, Samos, Leros and Kos alone, more than 42,000 migrants, including numerous children, are currently holding out, according to official figures. Back in April 2019, only 14,000 asylum seekers were living on the islands. Greece was one of the main destinations of migrants and refugees in Europe last year. According to UN figures, more than 59,000 of them came by sea and more than 14,000 by land through Turkey. Most of those affected are fleeing war or poverty in Syria, South Asia and the sub-Saharan region of Africa.
The Greek government seems to be failing to get a grip on the issue—and the EU also once again appears to be paralysed by the humanitarian crisis. There is a need for action right now. The EU has already left the arrival states alone to deal with the problem: in 2015, thousands of people arrived in Europe unchecked. Time is running out to prevent another crisis, because the number of migrants illegally crossing from Turkey to Greece is increasing again. This could make the situation even worse.
The EU sees itself as a community of values. That creates two expectations: first, no inhumane conditions in the camps should be tolerated in the long term. The situation is on the verge of exploding, as there is no food, no doctors, a lot of violence and an overall tilted mood. Not only the situation of the refugees, but also the hardships for the residents demand European solidarity. Secondly, the crisis requires that countries such as Greece or Italy, which are arrival states for refugees and migrants simply because of their geographical location, are not left alone with the burden.
In protest against overcrowded migrant camps, there was a general strike on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos in January. With this strike, the mayors and associations of almost all industries and professions demanded immediate help. Regional politicians and trade associations declared that the government in Athens should make sure that the migrants who come daily from Turkey are brought to the mainland after their registration on the islands,.
If the EU closes its eyes to the needs of refugees and residents on the Greek islands, it risks losing its credibility for good. In this specific case, it cannot rely on Greece to comply with the rules of the asylum system because the country is still recovering from an economic crisis and is simply overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. But even beyond that, the current action could have a general political effect: even in other crises, countries not directly affected could then refuse to find a solution.
If the Greek government, in its distress, gives in to the pressure from the islanders and takes the refugees to the mainland without further precautions and a well-thought-out plan, this could have an unintended effect on the refugee movement. If this is the only solution, it is to be feared that an equally high number of refugees will arrive at the islands soon. Greece on its own is currently not in a position to examine asylum applications and send people back to Turkey.
This would aggravate the situation—which would ultimately be felt not only in Greece but throughout Europe. As in 2015, the flight movement could get out of control and many of the migrants will try to travel on from mainland Greece. The Balkan countries are not prepared for this either. If Greece and the EU do not get the situation under control, then the Balkan route will also come under massive pressure again. The solution may be to set a deadline and send back the people who come after it. In order to achieve this, Greece need more staff to be able to carry out the examination and asylum procedures in a short period of time and to create decent reception conditions. The migrants who arrived in Greece before the deadline could be distributed from the mainland to other EU countries. Many countries have already agreed to accept migrants.
The refugee deal with Turkey threatens to burst
From the EU’s point of view, the controversial deal with Turkey from 2016 brought decisive relief in the refugee crisis, but this agreement is at risk. The EU must be careful that the refugee deal does not collapse. If no one can be sent back, then the EU will not fulfil its side of the deal. From Turkey’s point of view, this is a failure. Turkey would then also have no reason to position more policemen at the external borders.
The deal makes sure that Greece is allowed to send back all migrants who have been illegally transferring to the Greek islands via Turkey since March 2016 and who are not granted asylum. In return, the EU has promised to legally accept another Syrian for each returned Syrian. Turkey will receive additional financial support totalling six billion Euros for the refugees. If the deal collapses, the likelihood of a new refugee crisis in Europe increases.
It is clear to all concerned parties that the refugee crisis has only been resolved temporarily and that the EU does not yet have a robust asylum system that would prevent new chaos in the event of a sharp increase in influx. That is why there is constant talk of reforming the asylum system. If the EU now ducks away again, however, any efforts are pointless.
If Europe does not get the situation in Greece under control, all talks on reforming asylum and border policy in the EU are doomed to failure. If the EU is not able to manage asylum policy in countries where there are agreements in place, then it will not manage it in other countries of arrival with which it has not come to any agreements yet.
While the influx of Syrian refugees creates the most immediate stress with regards to Europe’s asylum system, the ongoing war in Libya is likely to put additional pressure on the continent in the foreseeable future. In the refugee crisis of 2015, the European Union showed itself to be unprepared, even though the writing was on the wall because of the growing influx since 2013. What followed was a tensile test for the community. The resulting polarisation continues to have an impact in many societies to this day. If Europe were to slip into a similar situation again, it could have serious consequences for both the member states and the community as a whole.
Image: Syrian refugees and migrants pass through Slovenia, 23 October 2015 (Source: Robert Cotič/MagentaGreen/Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Slovenia via CC BY 3.0)