Jump directly to page content

Idlib’s Unfolding Humanitarian Catastrophe

Point of View, 02.03.2020 Research Areas

Turkey’s decision to open its borders with Europe is a tactic to pressure the EU for support in Idlib. Despite Ankara’s violations of democratic norms, the humanitarian situation in Idlib requires the international community’s support. An assessment by Sinem Adar.

On 28 February, Turkey opened its borders with Europe in the wake of the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria. In response, Greece and Bulgaria stepped their border protections, insisting that they would not admit any refugees. In the meantime, the EU called on Ankara to uphold the EU-Turkey Statement. Turkey announced on 1 March that it would no longer prevent refugees from leaving Turkey. While Ankara claims that around 80,000 have already left, the International Organization for Migration put the number of refugees waiting at the Pazarkule border at around 13,000 on 1 March. Greek officials said on 2 March that a child drowned when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos.

Pressuring the EU for support in Idlib

Ankara’s determination to keep the border open despite the risk to human life is yet another example of refugees being used as bargaining chips. Having failed to persuade Russia to convince the Assad regime to withdraw to the Sochi ceasefire line, Turkish policy-makers and pro-government commentators had in recent weeks been calling on the EU and NATO for help.

At the moment, it is difficult to predict whether the movement of refugees to the EU’s external borders will trigger a crisis comparable to 2015. The question demanding immediate attention lies elsewhere. It should be no surprise that Ankara instrumentalizes refugees to further its foreign policy ambitions. It has been doing so, increasingly, since 2012, especially against the EU since the March 2016 agreement on formal cooperation over migration control. Ankara’s deployment of refugees as a bargaining chip against the European Union is in fact a direct outcome of the EU’s externalization policies.

Ankara currently appears strikingly indifferent to the possibility of being blamed by the international community for triggering a humanitarian crisis – which is certainly on the cards, given the EU’s determination to keep refugees out and the poor conditions in the camps on the Greek islands. In one stark example of this attitude, the Turkish public news channel TRT Arabic published a map showing possible paths for refugees to reach Europe.

Distracting from foreign-policy failures

Ankara’s indifference should motivate policy-makers in Europe to ponder Turkey’s lack of capacity to strategize its medium- to long-term foreign-policy goals. Turkish foreign policy, especially in Syria, has been a series of tactics devoid of coherent strategy. As the case of Idlib very clearly demonstrates, tactics may postpone problems but cannot solve them. The military conflict between Turkish forces and Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran has flared since December 2019. This was arguably inevitable given Turkey’s misreading of the nature of its relationship with Russia and its unwillingness to relinquish its maximalist position of holding onto Idlib as leverage to keep other areas under its control (Afrin and between Ras-al-Ayn and Tal Abyad).

The extensive coverage by pro-government media refugees rushing to the land and sea borders should also be interpreted against this backdrop of a short-sighted foreign policy. The focus on refugees leaving Turkey is intended to divert attention away from the death of Turkish soldiers. It also allows the government to mobilize public support amidst increasingly negative sentiment towards refugees across the political spectrum. On 1 March, for instance, homes and businesses of Syrians in Maraş were attacked by local residents. On 28 February the mayor of Bolu, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), announced that the municipality would organize free transport to Edirne, close to the borders with Bulgaria and Greece. Similarly, some bus companies call the rides from Istanbul Esenler Bus Station to the border cities the “journey of hope” (umuda yolculuk).

Does the EU have options?

In Idlib, Ankara insists on holding onto the areas that are currently under its control and possibly connecting these with a “safe zone” along the border. Such a safe zone would not only host internally displaced persons, but might also help Turkey's repatriation efforts, Ankara seems to believe. In other words, opening the borders to the European Union for refugees is a tactical move to pressure the EU to support Turkey in Idlib.

Significantly, Turkey is committed to keeping the Syria-Turkey border closed to IDPs from Idlib. Since 1 December 2019, fighting in Idlib has forced around 950,000 people from their homes, 500,000 of them children. For some, this has been the sixth or seventh displacement. Tens of thousands of people currently live in makeshift tents, public buildings and out in the open. Another 200,000 people are expected to leave soon. Moreover, if Idlib were to fall in the hands of the Assad regime, violent repression would be inevitable.

Preventing this unfolding humanitarian disaster is an ethical obligation. It is undeniable that Ankara, as one of the central actors, lacks commitment to democratic norms and values. Turkey cloaks its foreign and domestic policy objectives in humanitarian talk, but does not hesitate to violate humanitarian principles. Yet, the humanitarian reality on the ground requires the support of the international community. The EU should intervene in coordination with NATO to bring mass-scale humanitarian assistance to the IDPs in Idlib. This could force Turkey to pull back from its maximalist position of retaining control in Idlib and provide protection to civilians against the aggression of the Syrian regime. The European Union could make a possible coordinated intervention conditional on Turkey restoring the provisions of the EU-Turkey Statement.

This text was also published on fairobserver.com.