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Turkey Is Forcing the West to Look at Idlib
Ankara’s cynical border move gives the European Union the opportunity to redress its past mistakes in Syria.
On Sunday, the European Union called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the conflict in Syria. The urgency was not related to the humanitarian crisis in Idlib province, but instead the growing crisis at the borders between Turkey and Europe.
Though Russian-backed Syrian regime forces have been on a rampage against opposition forces and civilians since last April, the attacks have intensified since Dec. 1, 2019. By the end of February, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said the government assault had killed nearly 800 civilians. Around 948,000 people have been displaced, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Syrian regime systematically targeted health care facilities. The only place left for civilians to run was to the Turkish border, and many were bombed during their flight. Most families sheltered in the open, and children were particularly vulnerable, with some dying in the subfreezing temperatures.
None of this has stirred the EU or the U.N. into action. On U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s Twitter account, the most recent mention of Idlib is from June 2019. Of the 1.64 million people who received so-called core relief items from UNHCR in Syria from November 2019 to January, only 13,710 people—less than 1 percent—were in Idlib, where much of Syria’s internally displaced population is located. (By contrast, 10 times as many people were reached in the regime-held governorate of Latakia.) Idlib was excluded from the UNHCR’s winter relief, shelter activities, and health interventions. None of this raised alarm in Western capitals.
The response to the government offensive in Idlib has caused David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee and Britain’s former foreign secretary, to lament the “utter failure of diplomacy and abandonment by the international community of Syrian civilians.” This follows a recent pattern: Last August, when the world’s major industrial powers gathered for the G-7 summit in France, Syria was not even on the agenda. It hadn’t featured at all in the U.S. presidential election until the Feb. 25 Democratic debate, where a question about Idlib drew desultory responses from two candidates.
Last week’s events have shaken this inertia. In 2016, after the biggest spike in migration to Europe, the EU bribed Turkey to keep refugees there by pledging 6 billion euros, equivalent to $6.6 billion at the time, in support. But as the Syrian conflict kept displacing people, Europe saw no reason to update its policy. Turkey, however, was directly affected: It currently hosts 4.1 million refugees, including 3.7 million from Syria alone. Should Idlib fall, it could have to accommodate up to 1.3 million more. The EU and the United States have offered nothing beyond expressions of concern. With anti-refugee sentiment growing at home, Turkey faced a choice: to stop the Syrian regime’s advance or facilitate the exit of those trapped in Idlib to the West.
The brazen attack on a Turkish outpost in Idlib last Thursday rendered such debates moot. The attack raised the stakes for the Turkish government: It could either withdraw its troops and face domestic anger, or it could respond with force. Mindful of the balance of power, Turkey is reluctant to confront Russia directly. It chose to humiliate Moscow by proxy instead: Over three days of relentless drone strikes beginning on Friday, Turkey inflicted more damage on the Syrian regime forces than they had suffered in years of fighting—targeting tanks, artillery, aircraft, and Russian-made anti-aircraft systems.
Still facing Western indifference toward Idlib, Ankara announced it would no longer stop refugees from crossing into Europe. Turkey is now forcing the West to address the causes of displacement or deal with its effects. Predictably, this decision has caused panic within the EU. By Monday, Greece had militarized its border, with soldiers firing tear gas at refugees. Witnesses and Turkish officials have said that Greek forces also fired bullets, killing at least one migrant—which Athens denies.
European leaders have responded with sympathy for the EU countries bordering Turkey. French President Emmanuel Macron has shown little concern for those facing slaughter in Idlib, but he has sent a message of solidarity to the Greek and Bulgarian governments. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, visited the Greek-Turkish border on Tuesday alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “The situation at our border is not only an issue for Greece to manage, it is the responsibility of Europe as a whole,” she said. “We will hold the line and our unity will prevail.” Von der Leyen has threatened to deploy the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex. The Greek Coast Guard has already faced criticism for its response after a Greek boat was filmed apparently ramming a boat carrying refugees and firing warning shots.
One way for wealthy European countries to show solidarity with Greece, a country that currently hosts between 50,000 and 90,000 refugees, is to accept a greater number of refugees themselves, reducing the strain on the Greek economy. If the EU wants Turkey to host millions of migrants, then why can’t it accept tens of thousands? The refugees are a symptom of the mass crimes the West has tolerated, particularly in Syria, but it views them as a threat. And now, it has an opportunity to address the cause and prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place.
For the three days that the intense Turkish operations lasted, Syrian and Russian planes remained grounded. When the regime air force tried to resume operations on Sunday, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet quickly shot down two Syrian Su-24s. Without air cover, the regime appeared less than formidable. On the ground, Syrian rebels made major advances. Uprisings even erupted in fallen regions like Daraa, where rebels captured several regime positions. The operations brought brief respite to the displaced Syrians in Idlib. If before these advances the Syrian government’s victory appeared inexorable, it now appeared less than certain. Russia stood down. Whether this was to avoid further provoking the Turks or to rein in its Syrian allies, it remains unclear—but it doesn’t matter. Russia’s prestige had suffered.
Events on Monday revealed that when the stakes are high, dynamic shifts have magnified impacts. As the Turkish operations wound down, Russia took immediate advantage of the lull and put its jets back in the air, killing at least 10 people in the town of al-Fuah. The Syrian regime also renewed its attacks, recapturing the strategic town of Saraqeb under Russian air cover. Russia deployed forces to Saraqeb to thwart any Turkish counteroffensive.
Still, the situation in Idlib presents an opportunity for Europe and the United States to redress mistakes and be relevant again. On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he aims to get Russia to slow Assad’s offensive. Instead of leaving the outcome of the conflict to Erdogan and Putin, the West can resolve it in the interests of the Syrian people—the morally and strategically preferable outcome. The West could raise the costs of Russia’s intransigence by enforcing a no-fly zone over Idlib. Backed by NATO air defense systems, Turkey could deter Russia. And by providing meaningful support at a time when Turkey is vulnerable, the West would gain critical leverage to demand respect for democracy and protection for the Kurds in Syria’s northeast.
Turkey’s use of refugees to command Western attention is cynical. But without it, the West refused to care about the Syrian conflict or its impact on neighboring states. When a no-fly zone was demanded by Syrians in 2012, the West balked. Now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok are calling for a safe zone in Idlib. Turkey has demonstrated how easy it would have been to ground Assad’s air force—something that would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented Syria’s mass exodus had it happened earlier.
It is tragic that fear has ultimately proved a more effective motivator than empathy. Had the West abided by its own human rights values, its ministers wouldn’t be quaking today at the sight of refugees.