The offensive launched by Russian- and Iranian-backed forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in February to capture Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region forced almost one million people to flee their homes, causing the biggest single displacement of the nine-year civil war. Now, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has forced Turkey to recalibrate its usual approach to displaced persons and how it takes advantage of circumstances in Syria.
Over the duration of the conflict in Syria, Damascus and its allies have had a notorious track record for weaponizing forced displacement of civilians to put pressure on Turkey and other adversaries. Ankara has had a pattern of leveraging displacement and refugees in its relations with the European Union and the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) that control sections of northeast Syria. In response to the mass exodus from Idlib, on February 29 the Turkish government followed through on its 2019 threat to “open the gates to send 3.6 millions of refugees” to Europe by lifting border controls with Bulgaria and Greece.
For Syria, Russia, and Iran, forcing the residents of Idlib toward the Turkish border during harsh winter conditions was a calculated strategy aimed at pressuring Ankara. The Turkish government had already been overstretched by the upkeep of 3.6 million Syrians hosted under a temporary protection regime and troubled by a spike in anti-refugee sentiment among the electorate. Even before the latest Idlib offensive, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initiated a policy of deporting Syrian asylum seekers and voiced plans to resettle a million refugees in northern Syria.
Damascus and its allies calculated that the plight of Idlib’s residents forced to flee their homes, with reports of children freezing to death near the Turkish border, would also spill over to and put pressure on the EU, where officials have been wary of a new wave of refugees and their potential impact, namely the rise of xenophobic populists.
Unable to cope politically and economically with yet another wave of displaced Syrians, Ankara tried to push back in Idlib with force. The Turkish government first found itself in intense military clashes not only with pro-Assad forces but also with Russia, and then at the negotiating table in Moscow. In between, Ankara tried to leverage Syrian refugees to induce support from its Western allies. A spokesperson for Erdoğan’s ruling party declared on February 28 that Turkey is “no longer able to hold refugees,” followed by the Turkish president’s announcement the next day that his country’s borders with Europe were open. Just as Russia expected, it did not take long for Erdoğan to drag the EU into the crisis, and he warned that Brussels “has to keep its promises” since Ankara was not “obliged to look after and feed so many refugees.”
In the first week of March, Turkey started bussing asylum seekers for free to the Greek border and allowed others to cross the Aegean Sea to Greek islands, suspending its commitments under a 2016 deal with the EU. Marc Pierini, the former EU ambassador to Turkey, called Turkey’s policy, “the first-ever refugee exodus, albeit a limited one, fully organized by one government against another.”
Turkey’s weaponization of refugees seemed to force EU members into action. On March 1, under pressure of the humanitarian catastrophe on the Turkish-Greek border, Athens suspended asylum applications for a month and the EU called for an emergency meeting on the deepening Turkey-Syria crisis. Although Erdoğan’s leveraging of refugees ultimately failed to win political and military support for his Idlib campaign from Turkey’s European allies, he nevertheless secured a March 9 summit with top EU officials and a March 17 videoconference with British, French, and German leaders. Erdoğan hoped that the leveraging of the refugee crisis would not only allow him to reboot the refugee deal with Brussels, providing him additional funds, but also a visa liberalization deal that he has sought for a long time.
While negotiations were continuing on the EU-Turkey front, coronavirus was making headways on both sides of the border. Turkey confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 11, becoming the last major economy to report an outbreak. The Turkish public, however, was suspicious of a government cover-up, as until that point Turkey was the only unaffected country in the world with a population larger than 50 million. The precarious conditions of refugees on Turkey’s borders with Syria and the EU, and the risk of a coronavirus outbreak among them, further heightened anxieties.
As the potential costs of a coronavirus epidemic began to outweigh the potential benefits of weaponizing refugees, attitudes began to change in Ankara. On March 7, only eight days after announcing that Turkey will no longer stop refugees who want to go to Europe, Erdoğan ordered the Turkish coast guard to prevent migrants and refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece. As of March 13, Ankara started to wind down its policy of moving migrants to the Greek land border and began bussing them back to Istanbul. The same day, a Turkish court sentenced three human traffickers to 125 years in prison, one of the harshest penalties on record. In an ironic turn of events, nineteen days after trying to force Greece and Bulgaria to open their borders to asylum seekers, Ankara announced on March 18 its decision to close its land borders with both countries to exit and entry, shortly after it confirmed its first coronavirus death. On March 27, Turkey’s interior ministry announced that it has removed all the remaining migrants away from the Turkish-Greek border, “as a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
Besides anxieties about a coronavirus outbreak, a key factor that led to such a dramatic reversal of Turkey’s strategy is the hardening of the attitudes in Europe. Seeing that European voters were ready to endorse the strictest measure to keep asylum seekers out during a coronavirus pandemic, EU governments adopted a tough stance, even if it meant letting refugees drown in the Aegean. Hence, when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis raised the possibility of “a win-win solution going forward,” calling for a revision of the multi-billion migration deal between Turkey and the EU, he also warned that such an arrangement would not “happen under conditions of blackmail.” Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, struck a similar tone in an op-ed published on March 29: “neither Greece nor the EU will engage with Turkey under duress, threat or blackmail. Maybe the time has come, especially given the difficult situation we all face with the pandemic, for the Turkish leadership to realize that its extortion diplomacy has ceased to be effective.”
Paradoxically, the onset of coronavirus did not have a similar restraining effect on Ankara’s policy toward the displaced populations of northeast Syria. On March 21, Turkey-backed armed groups interrupted the flow of water from the Allouk water station to SDC-controlled regions of northeast Syria, where close to 500,000 reside, including tens of thousands of internally displaced persons sheltered at camps. UNICEF warned that the “interruption of water supply during the current efforts to curb the spread of the Coronavirus disease puts children and families at unacceptable risk.” The Turkish government reportedly interrupted waterflow to receive more electricity to the regions under its control, as part of a Russian-brokered a deal that guaranteed drinking water to SDC-led areas in exchange for power supply.
Ankara calculates that a coronavirus outbreak caused by internally displaced persons who have no access to water in northeast Syria would not spill over to Turkey, and hence poses a negligible risk to the Turkish public compared to the risk posed by destitute asylum seekers stuck in the no man’s land between Turkey and Greece. This might end up as a dire miscalculation. As a spokesperson for the World Health Organization warned on March 8, Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to an epidemic. An International Rescue Committee official added that the situation was “especially ripe for a spread” of the virus. Similarly, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington cautioned on March 9 that the challenge of tracking or preventing the spread of the coronavirus among displaced Syrians is “a mission impossible.” It would, therefore, be prudent for Ankara to unwind its leveraging of displaced Syrians in the war-torn country’s northeast as it has already done so in Turkey’s northwest border region.
Over the course of the nine-year civil war in Syria, a long list of state and non-state actors have taken advantage of the flow of displaced persons to advance policies, extract concessions from counterparts, and impose costs on adversaries. This process has exacted an untold level of physical and mental suffering on the Syrian people. The growing risk of a coronavirus pandemic, however, is slowly forcing decision-makers to factor in the potential costs they are likely to incur as a result of an outbreak in the territories they control. The realization that what afflicts Syria’s vulnerable populations is not something that can be contained or ignored has been made clear, as the COVID-19 disease is now poised to afflict others in the region and beyond. These circumstances should be a wake-up call for regional and global actors to take urgent and concerted action to bring an end to the suffering in Syria that has gone on for too long.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.