German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hot-footing to
Istanbul last weekend was capped with a U-turn regarding
Turkey’s much sought-after membership of the European Union. In
a surprise move, Merkel
announced that she was now in favor of pushing for Turkey’s
accession to the EU, when only a few weeks ago she had
reiterated her opposition to its membership.
“Turkey holds the cards,”
declared the German news outlet Deutsche Welle. And it’s
hard to disagree with that, given Turkey’s pivotal role in
Europe’s migrant crisis, which has seen the biggest mass
movement of people since the Second World War. Some 600,000
refugees have reached EU borders this year alone, according
to the International Organization for Migration.
Most of the human exodus has come through
Turkey, which is currently accommodating
2.5 million refugees. Most of those have stemmed from the
nearly five-year conflict in Syria, on Turkey’s southern border.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and
his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are pressing home the
opportunity presented by this crisis, by getting the EU to
accept that it “needs Turkey” to halt the flow of refugees.
That’s why Merkel and other high-ranking EU officials have in
the last week showed a newfound attentiveness to the government
Before she flew to meet Erdogan and Davutoglu
last Sunday, the German Chancellor
said that “all options were on the table.” The
leaders subsequently said they had worked out an “action
plan” which will be finalized over the coming weeks, with
more high-level meetings planned in Berlin and Ankara.
What is known is that Merkel is now backing
revitalized talks over Turkey’s accession to the 28-member EU.
Negotiations had been mothballed since 2005 owing to
EU concerns over Turkey’s human rights record and Ankara’s
repression against its minority Kurdish population.
Another apparent concession from the EU
confirmed by Merkel is the granting of €3 billion ($3.4 billion)
in aid to Turkey for accommodating its refugee numbers – said to
the largest in the world currently. Ankara claims that it has
already spent $8 billion in caring for refugees on its
A third concession that Ankara is demanding is
for the EU to back its long-held demand for setting up “safe
zones” in northern Syria. Merkel demurred on the subject while
holding a news conference with Davutoglu, but the Turkish
premier was not holding back on the issue.
“The establishment of secure zone within
Syria is Turkey’s must,”
said Davutoglu. “That’s why I repeated the necessity of
the creation of a secure zone in Syria and keep the refugees
inside their country,” he added.
Turkey has been strenuously advocating the
creation of a so-called safe zone in northern Syria since the
war erupted in March 2011. But both Washington and its European
allies have up to now balked at the idea. That’s because to
maintain such a buffer territory inside Syria, which by
definition means the exclusion of Syrian government forces,
would require a major military intervention by the Western
powers. It would, in effect, be a no-fly zone
requiring American and NATO warplanes to enforce, as well as
troops on the ground.
But the worsening migration crisis has shifted
the calculus, and appears to be giving Turkey decisive leverage.
Merkel in particular is under pressure to staunch the flow of
refugees. Her previous “open door policy” to asylum seekers is
rebounding badly since other EU member states are refusing to
share more of the burden.
This week saw more anti-immigrant protests in
Germany held by the right-wing Pegida movement. And it’s not
just the far-right that is mobilizing. Even centrist Germans –
many of them core supporters of Merkel’s Christian Democrat
Union party – are growing in anxiety over the influx of
poll found that only one-in-three Germans back Merkel’s
With Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia
closing their border crossings, tens of thousands of
refugees are facing hellish conditions as winter approaches, and
many are pushing on with desperate journeys to Austria and
Germany. Media footage of migrant families
freezing in muddy fields battling with riot police is
putting the image of the EU in the dock of international public
opinion. The crisis is becoming untenable, and Merkel is
evidently compelled to do something about it.
Turkey seems to be emboldened to apply even
more leverage. Speaking after Merkel’s departure, Davutoglu
warned that his country would not become “a concentration camp.”
The prime minister
told Turkish media: “We cannot accept an understanding
like ‘give us the money and they stay in Turkey’.” With
notable defiance, Davutoglu added: “I told this to Merkel,
too. No one can accept Turkey becoming a country like a
concentration camp where all refugees live.”
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR,
reported that the number of migrants leaving Turkey for
Greece and thence to wider Europe has increased in recent weeks.
That suggests that the Turkish authorities may be using a tacit
policy of opening refugee traffic to Europe, in the cynical
knowledge that the resulting flow gives Ankara greater
negotiating power with the EU.
If the EU, under Merkel’s direction, accedes
to Turkey’s demand for setting up safe zones in northern Syria,
then that has ominous implications. Turkey has previously called
for the zones to penetrate close to the strategically important
northern city of Aleppo. The safe zones would also be used as
sanctuaries for “anti-government rebels.” Turkey and
its Western allies refer to these rebels as the “moderate”
militants of the “Free Syrian Army.” But it is an open secret
that the FSA is but a fictional cover for extremist jihadists of
various Al-Qaeda groups and Islamic State.
The Turkish government of Erdogan and
Davutoglu is believed to be a key sponsor of the extremist
mercenaries in the Western covert regime-change operation in
Syria. Turkey has served as a main transit route for foreign
jihadists and weapons, according to Turkish opposition parties
and the Syrian government.
While Ankara may claim that the setting up of
“safe zones” is primarily motivated by assisting civilians
displaced in the conflict, it seems clear that the real agenda
is to give the regime-change mercenaries cover from military
assaults by the Syrian government forces.
With Russian warplanes now striking hard in
support of the Syrian government against the various extremist
brigades, a no-fly zone established along Turkey’s border would
put NATO forces in direct conflict with Russia’s military.
The German government may well
suspect that Turkey has its own agenda of prosecuting overt
schemes against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. But as the
European migrant crisis intensifies, Merkel, it seems, is caught
over a barrel. She needs to stem the refugee crisis urgently,
especially with discontent growing among her own population.
However, if she concedes to Ankara’s demands
for “safe zones” that could, in turn, lead to the Syrian
conflict escalating to untold levels, with NATO pitted against
There is a more straightforward and effective
alternative. One that has been spelled out by Syria’s Assad and
Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is, for Washington and
its allies, including Turkey, to desist from their criminal
regime-change machinations and to respect the sovereign
government of Syria.