Turkey’s Perilous Frontier Game
Mariano Giustino 10 June 2020

Border security is the axis on which, since its creation in 1923, the Turkish Republic’s foreign policy has rotated for over fifty years. Turkish foreign policy has developed this objective over time, following the evolution and changes of the international system over the decades since the 1920s.

Yet Turkey now appears to need a foreign policy that is more flexible than ever and a softer policy approach in the current phase in which it must manage the emergency created by the Covid 19 pandemic, as well as an economic crisis that is simultaneously becoming increasingly serious. Such change, however, clashes with president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s still aggressive rhetoric.


Words of fire

In recent years, Ankara has adopted a foreign policy suited to the consolidation of domestic power, characterized by greater interventionism so as to pander to Islamist rhetoric according to which underdevelopment is the result of Western colonialism and persisting exploitation by foreign powers.

This is why Erdoğan speaks of a “Geography of the heart”, referring to the geography in which Islam has asserted itself. He speaks of a humanitarian Islam that supports those who suffer. Erdoğan’s AKP is mobilised from the Balkans to Central Asia, from Africa all the way to Latin America, using a “moral” and “humanitarian” diplomacy that relies on the positive sentiments and the solidarity of a “good Islam”.

Among recent events, it is worth taking note of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s reaction to a joint statement concerning the eastern Mediterranean and Libya issued by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, the UAE and France’s Foreign Ministers.

These five countries are clashing with Turkey over seabed prospecting activities for the extraction of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, maritime borders and Libya. The Turkish Foreign Minister has accused the five countries of wanting to cause “regional chaos and instability.”

Using the very harsh language often used by the government in domestic politics, he described these five countries as having “fallen into a delirium” as ‘their agendas are being disrupted by Turkey.” France was also accused of wanting to try and establish  “a state of terror in Syria”, damaging Turkey’s security and of being the patron of this “axis of malice,” a metaphor that is a reminder of the speech made in 2002 by U.S. President George W. Bush when he called Iran, Iraq and North Korea the “axis of evil.”

Yet Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric does not seem to only be restricted to France, the United Arab Emirates and the other countries of the so-called “axis of malice”, but rather extended to other players in the Eastern Mediterranean, ranging from the Middle East to North Africa. It includes the United States and Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomous regional government, currently involved in mediation between rival Syrian Kurdish groups to try and reach a reconciliation agreement in view of a resumption of peace negotiations that are hoped to take place soon.


Friends again?

Right in the middle of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, Turkey’s president realised, however, that reconciliation with the United States and the European Union was necessary to address a monetary crisis seriously worsened by the pandemic emergency. This crisis also obliged Turkey to use its foreign currency reserve, almost depleting it, and the country is now in search of agreements involving currency swap lines with Washington and other European nations.

Ankara’s recent conciliatory messages to the United States, Europe and Israel seem to be aimed above all at overcoming the many stalemates in foreign military scenarios in which Turkey is involved, from Syria to Libya to northern Iraq.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a godsend in this sense, because it provided Turkey with a pretext for postponing the activation of the S-400 Russian air defence system scheduled for April.

The postponement makes it much easier for President Donald Trump to have a lenient attitude towards Erdoğan, although he is still under pressure from Congress which is demanding sanctions.

As a gesture of solidarity in fighting the pandemic, in late April, Ankara sent medical equipment to Washington.

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on the other hand, also expressed a desire to assist the Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey’s alley in wartorn Libya.

In the meantime, relations seem to be getting better between Turkey and Israel. In an article published on May 21st on a Turkish website, Roy Gilad, the Israel’ Embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires in Ankara, emphasised the common interests shared by Turkey and Israel and supported a normalisation of relations. Furthermore, Israel abstained from signing the May 11th joint statement issued by Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, France and the United Arab Emirates which denounced Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and this was considered a revealing signal by many.

Ankara would like to draw Israel to its side in the energy match being played out in the eastern Mediterranean so as to increase the balance it has managed to establish by signing a maritime demarcation agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord. This cooperation is made difficult due to unresolved problems, such as the Palestinian issue, in their bilateral agreements.


The great bluff of refugees

Even the message that Erdogan sent the EU on Europe Day, May 9th, can be seen as revealing a change of strategy. “I hope that the EU, which has assumed a discriminative and exclusionist attitude towards our country on various issues to this date, has now understood that we are all on the same boat… we are determined to attain full membership in the European Union.” As everyone knows, the process involving European Union candidacy failed de facto in 2013 when Turkey took a sharp authoritarian turn. This statement, however, sounded decidedly conciliatory if one considers that only three months earlier Brussels had literally been threatened.

At the beginning of March, the Turkish authorities had organised the transfer of a few thousand refugees living in the country to the Edime border with Greece, between Pazarkule and Kastanies. About five thousand refugees had been told that they would have found the border with Europe open. But this was not true. The borders were locked down and, armed to the teeth, the Greek police had brutally rejected them supported by extreme Right-wing militants from Golden Dawn.

At the end of March, after about three weeks spent living in extremely difficult conditions with very little hygiene and camping outdoors, the 4,600 refugees who were camping along the Greek border were removed by Turkish security forces and taken by bus to refugee centres along the Syrian border and on the Aegean coast.

This operation revealed two other lies told by the Turkish government concerning this operation. The first was the one told to the refugees. Applying security measures implemented to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Turkish Interior Ministry had told them they would be quarantined for two weeks and then allowed to freely leave the country. This never happened and the refugees now fear they will be returned to their countries of origin.

The second lie was in Erdoğan’s threat to “flood Europe” with a wave of migrants coming from Syria, namely a sizeable share of the about one million people who had taken refuge in Turkey following the siege of Idlib.

Those who reached the Greek border to try and get into Europe were actually just a few thousand refugees compared to about four million who live freely in Turkey and of which 3.6 million are Syrians. And there were indeed very few Syrians at the Greek border. Those refugees were illegal immigrants who had been living in Turkey, some for a few months and others for years, all without permits or jobs and who therefore couldn’t wait to get to Europe because they were leading such terrible lives, sleeping outdoors and  wandering around the country.  64% of them were Afghans, 19% Pakistanis and Tagiks, 5.4% Iraqis, Iranians and Algerians, 2.6% Somalis and only 4% were Syrians.

Among them there were also a number of Turkish citizens, some suspected of belonging to Gülen’s network and others simply unemployed, wishing to go to Europe to look for work and send money home to their families that were unable to survive.

It was unlikely that Syrians who had been living in Turkey for some time would be prepared to face the risks of crossing over into Europe, which, as they know all too well, had closed its borders. In fact, most of them have learned the local language, have a job or have opened a restaurant or a market stall or a Kebab shop. Their children attend Turkish schools or universities and so it seems extremely unlikely that they would risk their lives to travel to Europe. All this has been confirmed in a study published by Professor Murat Erdoğan available on the “Perspektif” website.

Conclusions. The news that the borders had been opened did not result in the massive arrival of refugees, except for those who had been unable to settle in Turkey.

Hence Erdoğan’s strategy to terrify Europe with the threat of an imminent invasion of refugees turned out to be a real and proper bluff. He made it seem as if he had a chance to flood the EU with migrants, but in reality, he was never in such a position.

Having failed in his attempt to “use” his borders as a geopolitical weapon, for the moment all that is left for Erdogan to do is protect what manoeuvring space he has for his authoritarian domestic policy and adventurous foreign policy, seeking to improve relations with his strategic allies behind his “verbal fire”.


Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP

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