If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes he can bully European leaders by provoking a fresh migrant crisis in southern Europe, then he would be well-advised to think again. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)
If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes he can bully European leaders by provoking a fresh migrant crisis in southern Europe, then he would be well-advised to think again.
Ankara’s announcement that it is once again opening the floodgates to allow millions of refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war to travel to south-eastern Europe in search of refuge has been taken to persuade European leaders to back Turkey’s increasingly desperate situation in Syria.
Having launched an ill-considered military offensive against the Assad regime in northern Syria, Mr Erdogan now finds himself facing the consequences of his action, with regime forces, backed by Russia and Iran, waging a highly effective campaign against the Turks, which has so far resulted in the deaths of scores of Turkish troops.
In addition, Turkey’s decision to deploy thousands of troops to Idlib province in northern Syria has resulted in a fresh wave of refugees fleeing across the border into southern Turkey, where Turkish officials are already struggling to cope with the estimated four million Syrian refugees that have already sought sanctuary in the sprawling refugee camps.
One of the main reasons that Mr Erdogan now finds himself facing this difficult predicament is that he has badly underestimated the nature of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When Turkey took the controversial decision last year to purchase Russia’s state-of-the-art S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, Mr Erdogan calculated that it would herald new era of friendly cooperation with Ankara’s long-standing rival in Moscow even if, by pressing ahead with the deal, the Turks risked jeopardising their relationship with NATO, which bitterly opposed the deal.
There was certainly an expectation in Ankara that improved relations with Moscow would result in better cooperation between the two countries on the post-conflict settlement in Syria, especially regarding Turkey’s desire to establish a safe zone in northern Syria.
Yet, as the recent escalation in fighting has demonstrated, the Russians’ main priority is to support the Assad regime in its attempts to regain control of the last remaining rebel stronghold in northern Syria. Thus the Russians now find themselves in a direct confrontation with Turkish forces in Idlib province, where the Turks are trying to protect a number of Islamist militias committed to overthrowing the Assad regime.
If the current crisis facing Turkey is entirely of Mr Erdogan’s own making, that has not prevented the Turkish president from trying to deflect attention away from his own mishandling of the conflict by seeking to provoke a new migrant crisis in Europe.
Mr Erdogan used this tactic to great effect five years ago when, in response to Turkey’s decision to allow more than a million Syrian refugees to travel to Europe, he succeeded in persuading the European Union to pledge six billion euros to Ankara in return for allowing the refugees to remain on Syrian soil.
Yet, to judge by the initial response from European leaders to Mr Erdogan’s latest attempt to blackmail them, it seems that, this time around, the Turkish leader’s ploy is unlikely to deliver the desired result.
For a start, a meeting of NATO ambassadors called last week to discuss the increasingly vulnerable position of Turkish forces in Syria ended with expressions of sympathy for the Turks, but little else. Other NATO member states are simply not interested in getting involved in a conflict that might result in them being involved in a direct military confrontation with Moscow.
Mr Erdogan is also about to discover that there has been a hardening of attitudes among European leaders about dealing with unwanted migrants since the Turkish leader last used his blackmail tactics five years ago.
At a meeting of EU ambassadors this week to discuss the migrant crisis, officials expressed their outrage at Ankara’s behaviour.
Nor can Mr Erdogan expect any support from Germany, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to the last migrant crisis by opening Germany’s doors to an estimated one million refugees, a decision that seriously undermined her political popularity.
These days, senior politicians in Mrs Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats take a more hard-nosed approach to the migrant issue, with one senior party member warning the migrants this week, “There is no point coming to Germany. We cannot take you in.”
Europe might have fallen for Mr Erdogan’s bully-boy tactics in the past. But all the evidence from the latest migrant crisis suggests they are not about to do so again.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.
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