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“The Spirits that We Called, Now our Commands Ignore.”

Turkey’s incursion into Syria, the EU’s condemnation thereof, and the expectable weaponisation of a short sighted deal.
October 25, 2019

By : Julian Vierlinger


By now one could safely say that there has been a fair amount of precedent for actions in complete absence of precedent when it comes to foreign policy decisions of the White House. The US abandonment of an important strategic ally in the fight against violent Jihadism — the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — is yet another instantiation of this logic. With the outcome of both the current ambitions of impeachment and next year’s presidential election more than unclear, it seems to be high time to abandon the long standing European reliance on American firepower to protect Europe from MENA unrest, and to replace it with a European policy that takes matters into its own hands. In order to do so, however, the Union has to stop compromising its bargaining power for the sake of short-term solutions to problems that need long-term strategies. The EU’s 2016 agreement with Turkey, widely reported as the “refugee deal”, is a prime example of such a course of action.


In short, the refugee deal is an agreement between Ankara and the EU member states aimed at “stopping the flow of irregular migration via Turkey to Europe” , to “break the business model of [people] smugglers” and to “offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk” . Concretely, the agreement stipulated that any migrant who would illegally cross from Turkey into Greece should be returned to the former — and that for every successful repatriation of the sort, Europe would take one Syrian refugee and allocate him to a European country. In addition to that, Ankara assured that it would take strong measures to impede the development of any new migration routes on land or sea, as well as implementing policy that would render Turkey less of a point of transit, and more a final destination. The EU, in return, agreed to pay around six billion Euros (of which roughly three were supposed to be dedicated to refugee aid), to upgrade the two countries’ customs union, to ease visa procedures for Turkish citizens entering the EU, and to — shamed be he who thinks evil of it — “re-energise the accession process”. In other words, the EU outsourced the eastern share of its migration problem.


Fast forward to October 2019. The US commander in chief announces the withdrawal of its troops (a mere 250 personnel) from Kurdish controlled Syria, and thus freeing the way for Ankara’s long-standing ambition to eradicate what it considers the PKK’s southern outlier. Ankara launches its forces, and terms the incursion “Operation Peace Spring”. European states are quick to respond to what they consider a looming massacre — and President Erdogan, in a fervent speech to AKP functionaries, activates the trap: “Hey European Union. If You attempt to label our operation as an invasion, it’s simple: we will open our borders and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”


At any rate, should Operation Peace Spring turn into a bloodshed, the loss of face for the international community — and specifically Europe in times of the Trump presidency — is something the EU’s foreign policy image in the world would probably not be able to recover from.


The EU is thus reaping what it sowed. As it rendered its entire strategy of mitigating the eastern theatre of the migration crisis a function of Ankara’s goodwill, the persistence or collapse of said strategy is now dependent on the severity of the EU’s reaction to Turkey’s aggression. Europe’s leaders now have to face the choice between responding decisively or giving the Turkish forces a pass. The first option threatens to throw Eastern Europe back into full blown migration crisis — and one of far bigger proportions than 2015, whose socio-political consequences were substantial already — while having the uncomfortable side effect of having essentially gifted Turkey 6 billion euros of European tax payers money. The second option, in turn, would have grave strategical consequences, and a long-term political effect that is hard to evaluate as of now. Firstly, there is a substantial amount of imprisoned DAESH fighters (many of them of European origin) in Kurdish controlled jails right now, whose passage into Turkish hands gives a powerful bargaining chip to Ankara, specifically in light of the latter’s proven aptitude to utilize jihadists for their cause in Syria. (In general have the ongoing hostilities eroded the security of Kurdish controlled prisons outside of the Turkish “security zone” and led to the escape of a fair amount of prisoners, which will doubtlessly lead to an increase of terrorist activity in the region.) Secondly, leaving an outright offensive war unpunished threatens to set a dangerous precedent, and to pave a way for a “new normal” of regional power politics which could possibly open the door for all kinds of destabilizing military action. Thirdly, Europe would lose its last stake in the eventual rebuilding of Syria, as the abandonment of the SDF has pushed the latter back into the hands of the Iranian-backed regime, who seems little prepared to give in into foreseen conditions of democratic concessions to political opposition in return for European aid. At any rate, should Operation Peace Spring turn into a bloodshed, the loss of face for the international community — and specifically Europe in times of the Trump presidency — is something the EU’s foreign policy image in the world would probably not be able to recover from.


No matter the eventual outcome of the current quagmire, the EU should learn its lesson: if the bloc actually aspires to become a serious player on the global political theatre (which it has to) it cannot continue to compromise its position by short-sighted foreign policy. Specifically in the dynamics of migration, solutions have to be sought internally, and not in circumstantial partnerships with regimes known for their inconsistency — such as Turkey. In general, a migration policy that aspires to be long-term and comprehensive is not something that can be outsourced — even less so in conditions of political instability, where MENA countries allegiances are both a vector of internal dynamics, and an ever-changing geopolitical environment. Current aspirations to find a Mediterranean solution on Libyan soil, for example, should — in light of the above — be scrutinized intensively.

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