What just happened? Cynicism, fear, and the manipulation of reality
Updated: Feb 29
Developments, 29 February 2020
Erdogan announces Turkey ‘has opened its borders’
He claims ‘18,000 people have crossed’: Greece says it has ‘stopped 4,000’
Greek border police continue to teargas men, women and children on its ‘land’ border with Turkey
UPDATE, 29 February 2020.
As of 2pm EET today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that despite yesterday’s clear statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, and assurances from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey had not only ‘opened its border’ with the EU, but that this would ‘remain open’.
He claimed 18,000 people had already crossed the border and that this would rise to 30,000 men, women and children by the end of today.
Erdogan claimed that this was because – as we explained below, and on numerous previous occasions – the EU had ‘failed to keep its promises’, including failing to pay the €6bn it promised Turkey by the end of 2018.
In this, he is in fact correct. The EU simply has not met a single one of the promises made to Turkey in the illegal EU/Turkey Deal, as we predicted it would not, and have consistently documented since the Deal was signed in March 2016.
However, we are still far from sure that this is in fact the reason for the Turkish government’s decision. Indeed, we are far from sure whether any of Erdogan’s statement is entirely correct.
One claim Erdogan made was that ‘Turkey cannot keep feeding’ refugees. This statement is a dangerous and incorrect piece of – frankly xenophobic – rhetoric.
First, because the vast majority of refugees in Turkey are absolutely not ‘fed’ by the Turkish government.
As early as December 2017, the Syrian Barometer, a study on (solely Syrian) refugees living in Turkey, found that 800,000-1m Syrian had jobs, compared to a total population of 3.58m Syrian men, women and children (the figure today): this is absolutely in keeping with one person per ‘family’ working. Syrian people in Turkey are, on the whole, far from costing Turkey anything, working to support themselves and one another.
Secondly, because of those 3.58m Syrian refugees, just 64,000 – less than 0.16 per cent of the refugees in Turkey – are ‘looked after’ in refugee camps or accommodation.
Thirdly, because even without the EU payments – and we must stress, Erdogan IS correct on those: the EU has paid just €2.5bn of the €6bn it promised Turkey it would hand over by 31 December 2019 – aid organisations have also channeled money into Turkey, spending well over €3bn in Turkey between 2014 and December 2019.
And finally, because all the available evidence suggests that far from being an ‘economic burden’ on Turkey, Syrian refugees in fact saved Turkey from recession in 2015, 2016 and 2017. To a certain extent, for three years, not only did Turkey not ‘feed’ Syrians, Syrians arguably helped ‘feed’ Turkey.
Even aside from the dangerous and incorrect rhetoric, however – a standard trope in Turkish politics at present (the major difference between Erdogan’s AKP and the more ‘liberal’ CHP which is its major opposition is that Erdogan’s party consistently describes Syrian people as a ‘burden’ which Turkey must ‘shoulder’ while CHP describes them as a ‘burden’ which must be ‘sent away’ from Turkey) – it is far from clear how much of what he claimed is to be trusted.
Because his claim that ’18,000’ people had ‘crossed the border’ appears to be directly contradicted by the Greek government, which says it has ‘stopped’ 4,000 people crossing, and a total of 151 people actually managed the sea crossing to the Aegean islands yesterday. This is a significant and disturbing difference, enough to make us question a great deal of Erdogan’s ‘announcement’.
We must also note that while Erdogan claims this ‘decision’ (which has in the last 24 hours been specifically and publicly denied by other Turkish government members) is based on the EU’s ‘failures’ (and once again, he is correct to argue the EU has failed) he has in the past consistently stopped short of ‘opening the borders’ as a result of the EU’s abysmal behaviour, despite repeated threats to do so.
If he and the rest of his government has opened Turkey’s EU border – and here we should suggest the possibility that the government might argue that ‘not changing its policy’ could stretch to ‘keeping the borders closed (illegally) as long as the Deal is in place and both sides are keeping their promises within it’: that is, the Turkish government might seek to argue that the Deal’s ‘failure’ is in fact not a ‘change of policy’ on its part – it seems extremely unlikely that the EU’s terrible behaviour is in fact the major reason.
For that, as we outlined yesterday, in the unaltered piece below, we must look to the ongoing situation in Idlib, and the international community’s response – or in fact lack of response – to it.
We will also note that Greek border police continue to teargas refugees at the border, who are now stuck in a militarised zone between two nation states, without shelter or food. They are being gassed by the world’s richest ever political bloc, without having even committed a crime. This was unacceptable yesterday, and remains so today.
This is a ‘first-response’ analysis of the events in Turkey, Greece and Northern Syria since 9.30pm (EET) last night (27 February 2020).
Did the Turkish government actually relieve security on its border with Greece?
If so, what led to this?
What does the Turkish government want?
We have previously argued, on a number of occasions, that Turkey would not ‘send’ refugees to the EU over either disagreements about the EU/Turkey Deal or Turkey’s (largely insane) ‘North Syria Safe Zone’ concept because this ‘card’ is too strong to throw away on either.
Today, however, we have seen what could cause that card to be ‘played’ (though in fact, may not yet have done so).
The question is, has it been? And how might ‘we’ – meaning European nations – and we, meaning humanitarian organisations, respond?
1) Events – 27-28 February 2020
Last night, (27 February 2020) forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad launched a strike against Turkish soldiers in the Balyun region of Idlib province. It killed at least 33 and injured another 32 people.
The attack was made just after a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had ended with the latter ruling out a ceasefire between his, Assad’s and Iranian forces, and the Syrian rebels.
Within hours, the Turkish government declared it would respond with strikes against Assadist positions in Idlib.
In a story originally handed to Reuters news service, it added – and this received rather more coverage in Western media despite being based on comments from an originally unnamed ‘source’ described as a 'Senior Turkish government official' – that it was ‘no longer able to hold refugees’: effectively claiming that men women and children hoping to leave Turkey for Europe would be allowed to do so.
In one version of the story, carried by Middle East Eye, the ‘spokesman’ – revealed some 18 hours later to be a spokesman not of or for the Turkish government itself – said that Turkey’s borders with the EU and with Syria would be opened for 72 hours, in order to allow anyone who wanted to leave Idlib and reach Europe to do so, and to prevent ‘another Rwanda’ in Syria.
In less than 24 hours, both announcements had had direct consequences. In Idlib, Turkish military, using ground forces and drone strikes, has – according to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar – launched strikes against ‘200 targets in Syria’. As well as destroying military hardware and vehicles, Akar said, Turkish forces had killed 309 soldiers loyal to Assad.
In Turkey, men, women and children originally from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, began to make their way towards the Turkish border with Greece.
This morning, an estimated 300 people walked from Edirne, Western Turkey, to the Turkish border with Greece. Reports suggested no-one on the Turkish side hindered their progress (though we will certainly come back to this).
By 2pm EET, the Greek government had already sent reinforcements to the Evros region to bolster its ‘border guard’ and those guards were teargassing refugees (because of course they were) in the militarised zone between the two states, and preventing them from entering Greece.
We should repeat. The Greek government, a democratically-elected administration in the EU in 2020, has ordered its police force to teargas innocent men women and children, who are behaving peacefully and attempting to exercise their right to enter and claim asylum in the country of their choice.
Reports from Istanbul claimed the Turkish government was ‘encouraging’ refugees onto buses to the country’s West coast, recommending they should travel to Europe this way (rather contradicting claims that the land border had been opened) at a cost of either 30TL (€4.39/$4.81/£3.75) or absolutely nothing (again, an unusual contradiction, given the ‘price’ was so regularly reported).
By late afternoon, two boats carrying refugees had landed at Lesvos, a far lower number than in the peak months of last year, but rather more than ‘normal’ for February.
The border with Syria remained closed, and according to local sources, scrutiny at crossing-points had actually increased.
2) Situation: Idlib
To understand a little better what might have made the Turkish government react in this way (and we must stress, it may not have done), or at least what might have led AKP to inform news sources that it would, we should look first at the situation in Idlib.
The Syrian Civil War has been underway since March 2011. In that nine year period, Bashar al-Assad, who looked certain to lose until the Russian air-force came to support him in late 2015, has used his own land and air forces, as well as the ground forces of Hizbollah and Iran (and more than 80 illegal militia groups) and in the last four and a half years the Russian air force, to attack civilians (a war crime) as well as armed resistance groups in the state.
As the war progressed – and particularly as Russian intervention gave him the advantage - one strategy he has used is to ‘corral’ people out of one area of Syria in order to attack them in another (this is, in fact, the same tactic used by Franco in the Spanish Civil War) under the pretence of ‘offering people a chance to stay and support Assad’ (they are often arrested and in some cases never reappear) or leave and live elsewhere.
Idlib is the last of these areas. In 2011, before the outbreak of the war, the region had a population of roughly 1.2m. Most estimates suggest 3.2m people now live there, though a survey taken in November 2018 estimated a figure of closer to four million.
The majority of the region’s population, then, are people who fled Assad and his allies when they took over other parts of Syria.
The province was, until forces loyal to Assad began to attack it, still largely free of his rule. Much of it was ‘governed’ by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a militia-cum-organisation which certainly started out as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, but later developed into an ‘independent’ force in the region. Many other armed groups are also present, however, including the FSA.
In September 2018, when Assadist forces had spent more than a month gathered on the Idlib border and shelling the province, Turkey and Russia agreed the zone would be demilitarised, and effectively neutral. As part of this deal, Turkey – which backed (and still backs) several anti-Assad groups in the region – sent troops to ‘observe’ activities there.
As with every single ‘de-escalation’ or ‘de-militarised’ zone set up by Russia in the course of the war, the agreement was broken by pro-Assad forces. On 19 September, just one day after the deal was signed, those forces attacked positions held by HTS, claiming the group was required under the terms of the deal to leave Idlib altogether (it had refused on the grounds, it claimed, that only it was stopping Assad’s forces entering and killing people to take over the principality).
Between October and February, a series of sporadic attacks on Idlib were launched by Assadist forces, while HTS remained in many – though fewer – locations within the region, in part because the National Front for Liberation, the region’s second largest group, signed a deal with it after it came under intense fire from pro-Assad forces. It is a bitter irony that this appeared to prove both Assad and the HTS correct.
In late April and early May 2019, the Russian and Syrian air forces launched a series of airstrikes in Idlib, moving the UN to warn of a ‘bloodbath’ and ‘civilian slaughter’. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and attacks continued consistently on the province, in which schools, hospitals, market-places and civilian homes were attacked by pro-regime forces and the Russian air-force.
These attacks have continued through December 2019 and the first two months of this year, with the rebel groups systematically losing ground and strategic strongholds. The impact on civilians has been particularly harsh, with more than a million men, women and children forced to flee their homes, many being targeted even as they drove north.
These people effectively now have nowhere left to run. To their north, a border wall (supported by the EU as a part of the EU/Turkey Deal signed in March 2016) denies them the right to enter Turkey, or travel beyond Turkey to Europe, while behind them Assad and the Russian air force continue to smash their way north.
Camps in the province’s north are now enormously overpopulated and as people are sleeping outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, Mark Lowcock, UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief confirmed on 19 February that ‘Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold.’ Those who have not, continue to suffer cold, hunger and disease.
Early on Thursday (27 February), a National Liberation Front spokesman Naji Mustafa announced that in a rare victory against Assad and Russian forces, rebels had retaken the strategically-important town of Saraqeb, in Idlib’s north-west.
It is almost certainly in response to this success by the Turkish-backed group that Assad’s forces killed the 33 Turkish soldiers.
3) What does Turkey want?
The Turkish government’s opposition to Assad has lasted throughout the Syrian Civil War, and it certainly regards the attack on its soldiers – officially in Idlib as ‘observers’ – as an attack on itself as a nation.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Turkey has called for a NATO response to defend it from further attack, including possibly strikes designed to remove Assad from Idlib and the Syrian border region with Turkey.
It has reopened talks with Putin to discuss further possibilities for a pause in attrition in Idlib, and argued strongly for a no-fly zone in the principality.
What is less clear is its position on its borders and the wider issue of refugees in Turkey and internally-displaced people in Syria.
To begin with, late on Thursday (27 February), a story appeared in Middle East Eye which claimed a ‘senior Turkish official’ had spoken directly to the news source, saying Turkey would open its land borders with both Syria and Europe for 72 hours, in order to allow anyone in Idlib who needed to escape, to travel across Turkey and into Europe.
The implication of this was that the Turkish government (as it then seemed) believed that it could not possibly be expected to shelter 1-3m more Syrian people on top of the almost 4m refugees already living in the state, but it would allow them to cross to the EU.
The ‘senior official’ added that Turkey would not ‘stand by’ and ‘allow another Rwanda or Bosnia’ to happen in Idlib – a call both for the EU to allow refugees from Idlib, who would otherwise be massacred, to enter, and to its NATO allies to help it withstand attacks from Assad and the Russian air force; possibly even to defeat both in the state, to prevent any further massacre.
We should note that, as far as it goes, this was not an unreasonable call.
The UN is one of a vast number of observers which has witnessed Russian and Assadist war-crimes in Idlib, the pattern of destruction is certainly ‘herding’ men, women and children into an ever-smaller area and if comparisons with Rwanda or Bosnia seem dramatic, they are – or should be – uncomfortably close also to genuine possibilities given the position of the respective armed forces, and the situation of the people of Idlib at this moment.
It is also not entirely unreasonable for Turkey, a single state with a population of 80m people, the twentieth largest economy in the world, and the world’s highest refugee population, to ask the EU, a bloc of 28 (soon to be 27) nations, with the world’s second largest economy and a population of 508m people, to offer some assistance.
However, there were a number of inconsistencies with the Middle East Eye story, not least that it is extraordinarily unusual for an ‘announcement’ of policy by the Turkish government to be made by a single, unnamed, source, and that the plan seemed virtually impossible to deliver.
How, for example, could Turkey guarantee that ‘only’ people from Idlib would be allowed to pass, if the borders were ‘open’? What would happen to any of those unable to cross within the 72-hour period? And without prior agreement from the EU, what would happen to those who did cross?
Roughly an hour earlier, a similar story, also quoting an unnamed ‘senior Turkish official’ was issued by Reuters. This piece claimed only that Turkey was ‘no longer able to hold refugees’ and would open its borders with the EU. No mention was made either of the Syrian border, or over which time-period this might happen.
This story was slightly more believable, not least from a logistic point of view – though of course it also had the enormous flaw of quoting an unnamed ‘senior source’.
And this is where the crux of the events of the last 24 or so hours really lies.
Because the Turkish government, in an increasingly untenable position regarding Syria, has felt (with some justification) increasingly deserted by NATO (a situation which began with NATO refusing point-blank to back Turkey after it claimed Russian fighters flew into its airspace, and brought one down. In the aftermath, Russia sailed a naval ship through the Bosphorus, which cuts Istanbul in two, carrying on its deck a naval officer carrying a bazooka on his shoulder), a situation which has intensified since the US’ decision to unilaterally-withdraw from Syria.
It believes, with some justification, not only that Assad is a danger to Syria and it, but also that Russia is not a reliable ‘broker’. It increasingly understands that without significant backing there is little it can do to prevent either an all-out massacre of people it has – at least in part – pledged to protect from Assad and Russia, a new mass entry of people across its borders, or a menacing enemy on its borders.
It understands clearly that it cannot directly request assistance from the US, whose president ordered the withdrawal from Syria against the recommendations of his own military advisors and claimed ‘other NATO members’ should ‘do more’.
So one option it had, in the face of open attacks on its soldiers – there by international agreement – by Assadist forces, was to play its ‘card’: the enormous number of refugees within its borders.
We will of course come to the enormous cynicism of this as a tactic in a moment.
But first we should note that Turkey feels its sole fragment of ‘power’ over the EU is the latter’s seeming terror of Syrian (and other) men, women and children (we shall also revisit this).
Under such circumstances, we should be clear that the Turkish ‘response’ within its own borders was designed to ‘force’ EU NATO members to ‘back’ it on Idlib: to join with Turkey both inside Syria and in requesting US aid in the state.
The question is, did Turkey actually do this?
4) What actually happened? (part one: international response)
The question arguably has two parts: did Turkey convince anyone, and what – if anything – has it actually done?
Both, unfortunately, cannot be fully answered yet.
In terms of the ‘international’ response, we will first note that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told international media this morning that Vladimir Putin had called Recep Tayyip Erdogan to express his sorrow at the killing of Turkish soldiers in Syria, claimed he would ‘act to avoid such tragedies’ occurring in future and that Russia would ‘do everything to provide security for Turkish soldiers’ deployed in Syria.
Late this afternoon (talks ended soon after 6pm EET) delegations from Turkey and Russia met in Ankara to discuss ‘next steps’. The Turkish negotiators demanded a ‘sustainable ceasefire’ as well as for Assad’s ground-forces to ‘retreat to the borders’ set under the demilitarisation of Idlib in September 2018.
Given that Russia has been an active, enthusiastic and open combatant in Idlib for the period which began the day after that agreement was signed, it is unsurprising that as yet, Russia has not agreed to these requests.
Instead, Putin’s spokesman Dimitri Peskov announced that the Russian and Turkish presidents ‘may meet’ in Moscow on ‘5 or 6 March’.
NATO called a press conference in which its Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed NATO’s ‘ongoing support’ for Turkey in Syria and the wider region, adding that the organisation ‘Condemns the continued and indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib.
‘I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N. efforts for a peaceful solution,’ calling for a return to the September 2018 ceasefire situation.
He later told media that: ‘We have agreed to maintain measures already in place to bolster Turkey's air defences. NATO allies provide support for Turkey today. We augment their air defences, we have AWACS planes helping to patrol the skies and we also have port visits and provide support in other ways.’
This is far less than the Turkish government had hoped for, and might have expected. It also runs the (real) risk that Erdogan, facing what may reasonably be perceived as a shrug (even if it is justified by a wider perspective on global affairs) will be forced once again to turn to Russia – an active combatant on behalf of Turkey’s rival who wishes to wipe out Turkey’s allies in Syria – as an ‘honest broker’. This has not benefited Turkey, or more importantly Syrian men, women and children, at all in the last four and a half years.
At 4.16pm EET, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary of NATO member state the UK, condemned the deaths of the 33 Turkish soldiers, saying: ‘There is no justification for such blatant disregard of international law or basic human decency. Building on new sanctions announced earlier this month, we will work with our international partners to tighten this screw further until these crimes stop.’
He also called for a UN Security Council emergency session on the situation in Syria, which will be held at 11pm (EET) this evening (Friday 28 February). But as Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, an active combatant in the Syrian Civil War, and has used its veto consistently on all measures designed to censure Assad or reduce his ability to wage war, it is extraordinarily-unlikely the Council will even be able to issue a verbal condemnation.
Finally, the European Union. At a little after 2.30pm (EET), an EU statement simply demanded Turkey ‘honour its commitments’ regarding refugees entering the bloc.
This, too, is of course far from what the Turkish government desired, and with the same potential impact of Turkey feeling increasingly marginalised and isolated in international affairs, as well as in a genuinely dangerous situation.
We must, at this point, also note that for the EU to claim that Turkey must ‘honour its commitments’ is more than a little breath-taking.
The EU wrote and pressured the Turkish government into signing the EU/Turkey Deal which directly breaches international law on at least two counts. And it has itself not carried out either of the promises it made to the Turkish government under that Deal – it has still not yet paid Turkey all of the €6bn it promised to have paid by the end of 2018, nor has it granted Turkish citizens visa-free travel across the EU (there are in fact good reasons why it has not done the latter, but the EU, not Turkey, wrote the Deal, and included this as one of its obligations).
We might also note that the Deal itself exists solely so that the EU could avoid its duties and commitments under international law to allow any person who wishes to, to enter the state of their choice and apply for asylum.
‘Honouring its commitments’ may well be something Turkey could do better, but the EU is far from entitled to make that demand.
5) What actually happened? (part two: Turkey, Syria, Greece and refugees)
There is, however, a further question to be asked – one which has not, to the best of our knowledge, been asked elsewhere.
What actually happened in the last 24 hours?
Because it is far from clear whether the Turkish government actually did any of the things it appeared it had claimed it would do – at least regarding Syrian and other refugees – in the Reuters and Middle East Eye pieces, even though many people inside and outside of Turkey certainly believed and may still believe it did.
To begin with, the Middle East Eye piece.
We know for certain that Turkey absolutely did not open its border with Syria today. No people from Idlib have been allowed to enter Turkey, and none are (yet) making their way across Turkey to take advantage of its ‘open’ (we shall also come to this) border with the EU.
This simply did not take place.
That is not to say it definitely won’t, and as humanitarians there is a clear reason to hope it absolutely will, because people there are tired, starving and freezing to death and may very well be murdered by heavy weaponry unless someone does something to stop that happening as soon as possible.
But it has not. Perhaps it will. But it did not today.
With the Reuters story, which focussed solely on Turkey’s border with the EU, things are far less clear.
In the immediate aftermath, there is absolutely no doubt that people believed the border was ‘open’ – at least on the Turkish side.
As noted above, people were photographed walking from Edirne to the Evros river in the hopes of crossing to the EU, and far less convincing – but not entirely dismissible – stories of coaches laid on by the Turkish government to the coast were certainly believed by many inside Turkey and beyond its borders (there were in fact images posted online by people on some buses, claiming ‘more than five’ left Istanbul today).
We do know for certain that the Greek government sent police to reinforce its side of the ‘land’ border, and announced extra coastguards would also be deployed to (absolutely illegally) prevent people from crossing the sea.
We also know that the ‘reinforcements’ were not sent to aid the process of helping ‘extra’ people enter and apply for asylum, but – doubly illegally – to teargas refugees and prevent them crossing into Greece.
But no actual public confirmation came from any named member of the Turkish government, or its border security and coastguard teams. And for all the photos of people walking, or lines of coaches, there was nothing which appeared to show any actual border crossing point.
That is not to say no-one crossed the border today, just that we cannot be certain that they did so because the borders were actually open.
And then shortly after midday (EET), Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy told television and other journalists that ‘There is no change in our country's policy towards refugees and asylum-seekers.’
This, remember, was the first person to have made a comment and actually be named in doing so.
Soon after, it was revealed that the person who had told Reuters and Middle East Eye that Turkey’s border with the EU (and in MEE’s case, also with Syria) would be open, was in fact not a ‘senior official of the Turkish government’ but Omer Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s political party, AKP. Of course, AKP is the party of government, but this does not make Celik either a ‘senior government source’ or even a ‘government spokesman’.
And at 5.25pm EET, the EU’s foreign policy high representative Josep Borrell announced that he had ‘received assurances’ from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Turkey would stick to the ‘obligations’ placed on it by the EU/Turkey Deal.
So given all of this, what actually happened?
There are a few possibilities. The first is that this may simply have been Celik speaking out of turn.
This could explain the fact that he was not named in the first pieces, but it is relatively hard to believe that there was absolutely no knowledge from anyone in the Turkish government that Celik would speak to a (arguably ‘the’) major international wire service, and even less that if the government was particularly unhappy about it, it would not have immediately recalled the statement and offered an alternative.
The second is that the Turkish border with Greece is simply ‘undefendable’: that is, once the announcement was made, even though Turkish government had absolutely no intention of opening the border (perhaps hoping the images of people moving might scare the EU), its patrol staff were simply overcome, incapable of stopping them.
There are some questions about how easy it actually is to defend a border (as well as some about how reasonable it is to defend the least dangerous parts of it, pushing people to risk their lives on far more dangerous crossings) but these are perhaps best addressed another time.
A third possibility is that the border staff – including even those in management positions – woke up and like everyone else, checked the news. It is possible (though quite unlikely) that they simply felt they should let people cross because they had read or seen on TV that this was what was expected of them today. One would imagine that this ‘confusion', however, could be quite swiftly and simply overcome, with an e-mail or phone call to each unit office.
Finally, and perhaps most likely, the Turkish government might – having threatened to ‘end the Deal’ several times with virtually no impact whatsoever (and in fact very little real inclination to do so) – simply decided to take the threat to a ‘new level’.
In this scenario, the government – for the reasons outlined in Section 3) – deliberately issued a slightly confusing, anonymous statement late on a Thursday night. By Friday morning, with no extra effort from it, the story is all over national and international media. It is read by refugees, who make their way to the borders, where they can leave Turkey.
By early afternoon, the government announces that in fact, it is absolutely committed to the Deal, and (even though it is illegal) preventing men, women and children leaving Turkey for the EU.
The ‘benefit’ of this strategy to the Turkish government is that it shows several things: first, that there absolutely is a desire by a large number of people to travel to the EU, something the government knows very well the EU is (entirely irrationally) terrified of. The government is able to show that it takes some effort to prevent people from crossing: that it is working hard to keep its side of the 'Deal'.
Second, that the government believes the situation it and Idlib are in is vitally important and requires the world to pay attention (in fact, the world – at least the EU – paid far more attention to the ‘threat’ of refugees arriving: if anyone comes out of this whole situation worse than the Turkish government; and they do, it’s the EU), even if it has to break an international agreement to make it.
Third, that the situation in Idlib will lead to more men, women and children escaping Syria in desperation. In fact, this third point is reinforced by the other part of Aksoy’s statement:
‘Developments in Idlib, which have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, have increased the (refugee) pressure on Turkey. Some asylum seekers and immigrants in our country, who are concerned about the developments, started to move towards our Western borders. If the situation worsens, this risk will continue increasingly.’
This statement is not absolutely true (they in fact moved because the news told them they could) but it contains a great deal of truth: both that the situation in Idlib is causing people to think about their ‘next step’ (as we have written about in previous guidance notes), and that as things worsen there – which they are doing daily - more people are likely to decide the time to take that step has come.
So did the Turkish government do something? Yes, it did. Did it do what it said it was doing, what the internet reacted to in furore, and the EU with fear? Almost certainly not.
In the end of course, we will not know for several days – maybe more than a week – how many people actually achieved the crossing today. Those who came by land and actually made it over the border are most likely to be those who did not hang around to be ‘counted’, while those who went to the coast may well be caught up in the ‘waiting system’ operated by smugglers on the Turkish seafront.
But we must note here that this was, on the Turkish government’s behalf, an extraordinarily cynical thing to have done.
It has led to hundreds of people being teargassed and stranded in a militarised zone – a situation the government was absolutely aware was the most likely outcome. It undertook a piece of game-playing using desperate, refugee men, women and children as pieces and it should receive the gravest of condemnation from any right-thinking human being.
‘Should’. Because the only people to have behaved worse – outside of Idlib itself – are the EU.
The EU once again saw people coming and ran to the Turkish government, ‘demanding’ it ‘did something’. It teargassed men, women and children who had broken no law and were simply attempting to find somewhere decent to live.
The Turkish government has behaved with breath-taking, horrifying cynicism. It has played with people’s lives and safety, in an effort to prove a point – and it has not entirely succeeded.
Whenever it feels its point has been proven, it will likely agree to arrest the people in the militarised zone and force them back into Turkey. This was not a measure designed to protect people, help them, or promote their human rights.
But the EU, as it has at every moment since February 2016, has seen Turkey’s insupportable behaviour, and surpassed it.
Today, Friday 28 February 2020, the richest political bloc to have existed in human history, was faced with a few hundred desperate men, women and children, travelling on foot, looking for somewhere to stay.
It teargassed them.
We cannot continue to stand by and let this happen.