Since September 2015 and the start of the refugee crisis, Turkey has blackmailed the European Union—both implicitly and explicitly. Far from the spirit of the accession process, the Turkish leadership is now thriving on permanent confrontation with the EU.
Even the 2016 agreement on refugees—a €6 billion facility under which Turkey hosts Syrian refugees—resulted in never-ending criticism from Ankara’s top leadership. Since then, there has been a massive regression in Turkey’s rule of law.
What little mutual trust was left seems to have been swept away in the dust of war in northeastern Syria.
On October 10, tensions went up a few notches when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Meanwhile, the uncertainty over the control of jihadist prison camps has become the dominant preoccupation of EU leaders.
EU leaders have many theoretical options at their disposal. However, having any leverage on Turkey’s decisions is uneasy because a one-man-rule system is now in place, in which Erdoğan’s high-pitched nationalist narrative is part of his fight for political dominance at home.
The latest military operation is largely driven by the president’s choice to silence the mounting political opposition, counter the growing dissent within his ruling Justice and Development Party, and hide the acute economic crisis.
But the political effect of the military campaign is already clear: in many respects, Turkey has played into the hands of Russia. The main result is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops are now deploying close to the Turkish border at the towns of Qamishli, Kobane, and Manbij, led by Russian forces and in agreement with the Syrian Kurds, in order to gradually box in the Turkish forces around their entry points and later push them back.
Ultimately, the Russian-Iranian goal of reinstating Damascus’ control over all borders has been made a lot easier by Ankara’s impetuous move.
Seen from Brussels, Turkey’s incursion has adverse consequences for Europe’s security: It could free hundreds of dangerous, currently imprisoned jihadists with links to the so-called Islamic State and to terrorist attacks on EU soil since 2015; it has triggered a new humanitarian crisis in eastern Syria and western Iraq; it plays into the hands of Moscow and Damascus; and it splits NATO. In addition, the Turkish president has once again moved his country into the most adversarial posture toward the EU.
There are several short-term options for the European Council, where Turkey’s military operation will be discussed when it convenes in Brussels on October 17 and 18:
- The EU should reinforce the custody of jihadists in the vast triangle still under the control of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Whether this can be done by the anti–Islamic State coalition forces (to this day, British, French, and U.S. troops are still present in the area) is a tough question. But action is needed in order to avoid that jihadists escape and head to Turkey or Europe.
- As Assad’s troops effectively regain control of Syria’s northern border, the EU should work to avoid further bloodshed, human suffering, population displacement, and the ethnic engineering that has been witnessed in Afrin (which will be an endless source of trouble in the future). Together with Russia, the United States, and the UN, a multilateral dialogue should stabilize the military situation, ensure the safety of the Kurdish population, and accommodate Turkey’s security concerns. Whether Moscow or Damascus—the main beneficiaries of Erdoğan’s military campaign—will listen is an open question at this point.
- The EU should work toward alleviating the human suffering in two ways: 1) Continue the dialogue on EU assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey until a political settlement on the future governance of Syria will offer opportunities to talk about real resettlement; 2) provide cross-border humanitarian assistance to populations currently displaced in Syria and in northwestern Iraq.
The October 14 statement by EU foreign ministers on Turkey’s military operation was firm and principled, but narrow in scope. The upcoming European Council meeting should reinforce a strong and cohesive EU attitude. Actions should be launched as the EU, not just as France or Germany.
If the sanctions option is preferred, they should be implemented in a way that doesn’t help Turkey’s leadership reinforce its nationalist, anti-European narrative.
Arms embargoes, as symbolic as they are, will not impress much unless they are EU-wide. Conversely, postponing large EU investments in Turkey, as Volkswagen did on October 15 with its €1.3 billion planned factory, would be a more meaningful option. Measures within NATO will inevitably follow later, but mostly on different grounds, such as on the eventual deployment of Russian S-400 missiles in Turkey.
More broadly, members of the European Council have a duty to think strategically.
They do not only need a firm narrative or to react to the situation created by Turkey, they also need to factor in several game-changers: A U.S. foreign policy disrupted by an erratic president, a Turkey in deep domestic crisis, a Russia patiently asserting itself in the region, a Syrian president making a comeback as he regains control of more Syrian territory and borders, an Islamic State potentially rising from the ashes, and a Kurdish people at risk of being ignored once again.
In other words, EU leaders should position the European Union in the new Middle East landscape. This is what European citizens expect.