Having already abandoned constructive engagement with Turkey’s allies and partners over the last three years and instead resorting to merely being a spoiler and blackmailer in dealings with his interlocutors, Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will not hesitate to gamble away the lives of vulnerable migrants and wreak havoc in sheer terror to intimidate the European Union.
Unlike many who believe Erdoğan is keen to secure visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, I don’t believe he cares about that prospect at all. For a man who has turned Turkey into an open-air prison where his own citizens including professionals, intellectuals, and educated people risk their lives to make it to Europe because they face persecution and are arbitrarily barred from travelling abroad, Turkey having visa-free travel to EU member states means nothing.
Moreover, Erdoğan no longer needs such a perk to mobilize his constituency to vote for him as he has already designed the political and media landscape to favor his political choices no matter what the opposition does. He has stifled the right to dissent, cracked down on all opposition groups, orchestrated a total subordination of the judiciary, sidelined Parliament and consolidated his grip on the Turkish media. There is no election that looms on the horizon, either, perhaps with the exception of a referendum that will give him an imperial presidency.
Therefore, just to be on the safe side, one must take Erdoğan at his word on sending refugees to Europe’s doorstep and prepare a contingency to that effect. The EU has already adopted some countermeasures, especially on its southeastern flank to stem the possible wave of refugees in case Turkey pushes the button to mobilize them en masse. It remains to be seen how effective those measures would be in withstanding to such a move. Erdoğan will surely exploit every avenue including but not limited to deliberately creating humanitarian tragedies to ensure negative coverage of the EU in the European and international media.
Turkish Islamists under his leadership first ran a successful test on triggering a humanitarian crisis using refugees against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. When the first 250 or so Syrians fled to Turkey’s border province of Hatay in April/May 2011 with the help of Turkish intelligence operatives, Ankara thought this would be a perfect card to play in delegitimizing the Syrian government. The government started building very modern facilities to create an incentive to fleeing refugees and refused to return them despite assurances provided by the Assad government at the very outset of the conflict.
The same tactic was used in the summer of 2015 during which thousands of migrants started to cross the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands on a daily basis. The human wave, encouraged by clandestine operations planned by Turkish intelligence and carried out by human smuggling networks, caught the EU off guard and unprepared to handle the flow in big numbers. It took German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead the drive in offering 6 billion euros in refugee funds to the corrupt Turkish president to halt the flow. The EU also granted Erdoğan’s wish to share the spotlight at the EU leaders summit so that he can brag about how grand his standing is to the Turkish audience for domestic political consumption.
After the signing of the refugee deal, Erdoğan helped the migrant flow drop to a daily average of 94 migrants in a very short period of time, from the 1,740 that were recorded just weeks before the deal was struck. That showed the government could handle the flow very easily if it really wanted to. Yet Erdoğan has since grown frustrated with the way the funds from the EU are being transferred on a project-basis disbursement as opposed to his desire to spend as he pleases and channel it to his business cronies. He was also angry about benchmarks that the previous government of Ahmet Davutoğlu agreed to, from revising antiterrorism laws to an action plan to combat corruption. These two key demands would have undermined the corrupt patronage system Erdoğan has built in order to survive and taken away the key tool to persecute his critics and opponents.
Using the failed coup as a pretext that led to massive purges, arrests and dismissals, Erdoğan has transformed the navy, coast guard, gendarmerie and police force – all key enforcement elements that are mandated with tackling illegal migration and human smuggling networks — into his own partisan pawns to do his dirty bidding. Therefore, he could very well orchestrate another wave, creating a headache for European politicians. Turkey is currently hosting some 4 million refugees, although officially it says only 3 million, with the bulk coming from Syria. It would not take much to convince some of these refugees to march towards Europe. When Erdoğan publicly raised this threat of forcing migrants to European borders, his henchman Galip Öztürk, a convicted murderer who owns Metro, one of the country’s largest coach lines, volunteered his fleet to transport all refugees to border areas.
What is more troubling is intelligence reports indicating that radical militants including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) embedded themselves in refugee groups and crossed into Europe. It is highly likely that the Erdoğan regime, which has helped arm and fund these groups in Syria for the last five years, probably sent some operatives to European cities. If it is any indication, Erdoğan’s repeated remarks stating that Germany, Belgium, France, Austria and other European states will undoubtedly be hit by terror strikes soon suggest he knows something. His open threats may carry some weight given the fact that the ISIL militants who went on terror sprees in France and Belgium had all been hosted in Turkey at some time in the past.
The only way to deal with Erdoğan’s threats is to hit him head on, and hard, letting him know that he will be charged with crimes against humanity if he does make good on these threats. Erdoğan is an insecure tyrant who is terrified of accountability and being called to account. That is why he turned the judiciary upside down after he and his family members were implicated in huge corruption investigations in December 2013. He was taken aback when a prosecutor in Italy decided to pursue a probe against his son Bilal on money laundering charges, and had he an outburst during an interview with Italian TV. He is quite concerned about the upcoming trial of key graft suspect Reza Zarrab, his business associate who has been indicted in New York by federal prosecutors. He panicked when German investigators arrested and indicted his close aide on espionage charges. Legal action will send a message to Erdoğan that the EU really means business.
Erdoğan must be made aware of the red lines that he simply cannot cross by systematically violating rights and freedoms, suspending the rule of law and trampling democratic principles simply because he holds the refugee deal over the heads of European leaders. At the same time, Brussels must send a strong message that the Turkish president cannot get away with incessant anti-EU bashing and deliberate provocation of anti-Western sentiment, not just among the 80-million-strong nation but also in Turkey’s neighborhood and among expatriates living in Europe. The EU must insist on restoration of the rule of law, the release of all political prisoners, the return of confiscated properties to their rightful owners and respect for the free and independent media. Otherwise, further engagement with Erdoğan will serve nothing but to appease him, embolden him to be more aggressive with the EU and provide carte blanche for Erdoğan to stir up serious troubles for Europe.