Some 30,000 Syrians are waiting for the chance to cross the border into Turkey after fleeing a major offensive of Russia-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the region north of Aleppo.
Turkey originally said it was ready to open its crossing at Oncupinar but has yet to do so, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying they would be admitted only “when necessary” and that Turkey should not be expected “to shoulder the refugee issue alone.”
Davutoglu’s comments, made during a joint press conference in Ankara alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggest Turkey is waiting to see how the European Union (EU) responds to the potential arrival of tens of thousands of new refugees before firming up plans on how to implementing a three-billion-euro aid package from Brussels.
“As the situation is always moving – and this offensive in Aleppo has shown how difficult and evolving the situation is – perhaps other elements will be taken into consideration,” says Jean Marcou of the Institute for Political Studies in Grenoble.
“If Turkey opens its doors, probably more than 50,000 refugees can enter into Turkey, which will also become a new wave of refugees in Europe.”
Confusion in EU refugee policy
Merkel pressed Ankara to show a “visible first project” for how it plans to implement the EU package to strengthen border controls and stop the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe, and Davutoglu said Turkey would unveil details next week.
But with various European leaders both calling on Ankara to stop the flow of refugees and also to open its border to people fleeing violence in Syria, the situation on the Turkey-Syria border reveals the confusion that reigns in the EU’s own refugee and migration policy.
“The only way to reduce the flow is to close the borders,” says Angeliki Dimitriadi, visiting fellow working on migration with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Turkey is saying, ‘if I let them in, how am I going to prevent them continuing their journey onward?’”
The thousands of new refugees seeking entry into Turkey as they flee Russian airstrikes and the Assad government’s offensive also reveals the limits of the EU’s attempt to manage the situation by offering funding to Ankara.
“[EU leaders] perceive the financial assistance as a critical solution, which it’s not,” says Dimitriadi. “And any discussions that move beyond financing – whether it be resettlement or any other form of assistance that includes relocation – is likely going to be faced with internal opposition in the EU, because we cannot agree on how to redistribute an x-number of persons within the European Union.”
Turkey facing conflicts and tensions across region
At the same time, Turkey also faces a situation in which it needs support of Western allies as it faces war with the Islamic State armed group, confrontation with the Assad government and high tensions with Moscow, namely after its shooting down of a Russian warplane last November.
“Having support from the European Union is important, not only to deal with the refugee issue, but also for Turkey to have some sort of anchor for its economy, some partners who can help Turkey if it comes under more pressure, including from Russia,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of Berlin- and Istanbul-based think tank the European Stability Initiative.
But if both Turkey and the European Union “need each other more than they have needed each other for a very long time”, neither trusts the other or is prepared to dish out favours when it comes to taking in refugees.
“They have to base their cooperation on interests, and their commitments on very specific, concrete, measurable and viable promises” about resettling refugees in the EU and helping the millions already in Turkey.
“A deal along these lines, which has been sketched out but not concluded, really needs to be reached urgently,” Knaus says. “Otherwise, both Turkey and Germany and other countries receiving refugees, will suffer enormously from the emergence of a new anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish and pro-Putin populist far right, which is benefitting from this crisis in many EU countries.”