President Erdogan has managed to scare and tie up Europe in a poker play classic – lift visas or refugees will flood your countries.
This is another common feature between presidents Erdogan and Putin – they are masters in poker politics and more modest in real time economic and foreign policy achievements. It is suffice to look at the friends they have made and sustained over the years. A quick review in retrospect of the zero problems policies of Erdogan would speak volumes for the Turkish president’s diplomatic and policy skills when measured in new friends. Davutoglu’s dismissal might have signaled a change in Erdogan’s mindset – rapprochements with Russia, Israel and Iran are already making news headlines. But underneath this façade of events – there is a double bottom policy line, where often appearances matter more than facts.
Putin and Erdogan have many features in common, but one that is definitely key to understanding the adversary-partner relationship between the two is that they enjoy playing poker diplomacy – making bluffs and leaving opponents and partners wild guessing as to their real power and intentions.
Let’s take a deeper look in how imminent and realistic is the threat to instigate a massive exodus of refugees from camps near the Turkish-Syrian border or elsewhere from Turkey.
One of the key premises of Operation Euphrates Shield was to secure sufficient territory within Syria itself to relocate refugees from Turkey into camps in the buffer zone in the Jarablus-Azaz-Marea triangle.
Although the incursion in Syria is depicted by pro-government media as largely a success story, a close examination reveals a most dubious scene and a mixed result. Turkey’s advances into an Arab country had a ripple effect across the Middle East. Any control of Syrian territory near the border invites forced dealing with a plethora of unknowns and ad-hoc alliances on the ground.
In a notable drawback, Ankara has been trying to demonstrate that the Syrian Turkmens are its base ally, yet the raid into Jarablus has brought accusations by their leaders that the Seljuk Brigade is an “occupier”.
Henceforth the operation instead of a positive net worth is likely to lead to fresh liabilities. No one already involved in Syria is at present over enthused with being there. Neither will be Turkey.
Erdogan’s key objective is not ISIS. He is desperately trying to defuse the Kurdish time bomb, but his deeds ultimately would lead to a deadlock.
Playing the refugee trump card even within Turkey has its own limitations.
Less than 10% of all refugees in Turkey are based in camps in Southeast Turkey. The rest are scattered throughout the country with nearly 400,000 in and around Istanbul. More than half of the refugees are children.
By spreading the Syrian refugees across the country the Turkish government has been hoping to relieve the demographic pressure of the higher birth rates among Kurds. Yet settling the refugees in Turkish Kurdistan given the level of uncertainty and fighting is unlikely.
In some areas where Alawites dominate close to the Syrian border the move to resettle more refugees has brought tension along Sunni-Shia lines.
Both the Turkish government and the refugees have shifted their perception of their presence from temporary to permanent. This has prompted a search for safe modes of integration into Turkish society with a positive reading of their long-term value.
This is not the first time in history Turkey has played a buffer role between the Middle East and Europe. Following his drive to remove President Assad from power, the Turkish president launched an open door policy, which ended with more than 3 million refugees currently stuck in Turkey without access to Europe. Ankara claims that it has spent more than $10 billion over the last 5 years to provide essential and free healthcare, education and housing.
Whether Turkey has already reached its maximum of refugee absorption rates is up for debate, but it has certainly passed the mark where refugees could move on to Europe and free up space for new comers from Syria.
At the moment President Erdogan has two options – one is to raise the stakes, including bluffing with extreme scenarios on the use of the refugee weapon – and force the European Union into an appeasement policy mode – or gradually try to accommodate the art of the possible without risking a backlash, once Europe understands that the peak of the crisis is over or that Turkey is too vulnerable.
With all its flops and cumbersome rhetoric and moves while coping with the refugee hysteria, the European Union has managed in the last few years through forthcoming initiatives or trial and error policies to avoid the worst – letting the refugee crisis destroy its internal decision making process. The EU has gradually come back to a level where common sense and cooperative process are helping mitigate worst case damages and allowing a buildup of defense lines that make uncontrollable massive influx of migrants into Europe by land routes impossible.
When one compares the marching hordes of migrants across European borders via the Balkan route to the present situation of heavily guarded borders and fences, it is hard to imagine that anything out of the previous scene could happen. For all the nationalistic rhetoric and refugee scaremongering – the EU public is able to better understand and cope with a far more realistic assessment of the refugee problem and most importantly to separate and neutralize the hybrid war component in the refugee issue that was meant to block and ultimately break down the EU.
A growing number of refugees in Turkey are seeking jobs and looking for integration into Turkish society. They are not going to leave the country anytime soon or move to Europe in big numbers.
Furthermore, the Turkish government is slowly but irreversibly accommodating a more balanced look and a positive reading and practical cost-benefit analysis of the refugees’ net impact on Turkey’s economy and society. According to official government statistics, Syrian refugees have contributed to greater revenues of $5 million per day in exports to Syria, mainly via the border gates of Cilvegozu and Oncupinar.
Syrian companies established in Turkey now represent a quarter of all 50,000 new companies which open each year.
Senior government officials attest to the fact that Syrian refugees are one of the main sources for the new growth of the economy since the end of 2015 (4%). Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek says that due to their reappraisal of the role of the refugees, the forecasts for economic growth for 2016 have been increased by 0.5% to 4.5%.
Further estimates account for the additional demand and consumption that 2.7 million refugees generate with spending shifting from food and consumption goods to long-term goods, including housing stock.
The perception of the Syrian refugees is changing to a more positive gear due to them shifting business from their war-torn homeland to Turkey and to importing traditional commodities from Syria such as cooking oil, bread, flour and construction materials.
The decision of the Turkish government to start the process of granting Turkish citizenship or permanent residence status to refugees means among other things that President Erdogan is far from considering them as a liability and a tradable stock in dealings with the EU. While a more comprehensive analysis might invoke additional pressure on the internal labor market and higher unemployment rates and even greater inflation, the long-term net worth of the refugees to the Turkish economy might be substantial and positive.
With over 12,000 people arrested, over 100,000 dismissed and more than $4 billion in assets seized in the aftermath of the failed coup, GDP growth and new job creation will be impacted negatively. And with Turkey’s near desperate dependence on foreign capital inflows to keep public finances afloat against a disastrous human rights record, Erdogan can hardly afford over the mid to long-term to push his refugee scare weapon too far or to indiscriminately use it, as he threatens to do. as the consequences for him will be too disastrous.
EU companies and banks are the largest creditors, investors and contributors to the health of the Turkish economy. Turkish companies are too dependent on EU markets to risk an open conflict with the EU, which will inevitably occur in the event of the Turkish government deliberately forcing new refugee waves across the Bulgarian or Greek border. Not only will Erdogan need to use brutal force to force refugees to move across borders, – without a slim chance to reach their final destination – but such an act against the refugees will undoubtedly stir tensions and further domestic problems.
That will come at a time when the ongoing war against the Gulenists and the Kurdish regions, as well as mass detentions of journalists, human rights activists and businessmen – who have nothing to do with Gulen – are quickly eroding the sympathy for Erdogan abroad. He has unwisely exhausted the capacity of the Turkish government to deliver simultaneous success on so many fronts. Opening too many frontlines – one more with the Syrian refugees – is a shortcut to Erdogan’s demise.
The EU has already been showing signs of putting its acts together and, instead of erecting fences across the union itself, has finally come to the more reasonable and effective decision to jointly protect its borders with Turkey.
This time Erdogan doesn’t have surprise and shock on his side.
It is time that Europe calls his visa bluffs and defuses his strongest card – the refugee weapon.