The Unfolding Humanitarian Catastrophe in Idlib

Despite Turkey’s violations of democratic norms, the humanitarian situation in Idlib requires the international community’s support.
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Idlib, Syria on 12/19/2019. © SS Studio Photography / Shutterstock

On February 28, Turkey opened its borders with the European Union in the wake of the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria. In response, Greece and Bulgaria stepped their border protections, insisting that they would not admit any Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war. In the meantime, the EU called on Ankara to uphold the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement to curb migration into Europe.

Turkey announced on March 1 that it would no longer prevent refugees from leaving its country. While Ankara claims that around 80,000 have already left, the International Organization for Migration puts the number of refugees waiting at Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece at around 13,000 at the start of March. Greek officials said on March 2 that a Syrian child drowned when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos.


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Ankara’s determination to keep the border open despite the risk to human life is yet another example of refugees being used as bargaining chips. Having failed to persuade Russia to convince the Syrian regime to withdraw to the Sochi ceasefire line, Turkish policymakers and pro-government commentators recently called on the EU and NATO for help.

At the moment, it is difficult to predict whether the movement of refugees to the EU’s external borders will trigger a crisis comparable to 2015, when at least 1 million migrants crossed into Europe. The question demanding immediate attention lies elsewhere. It should be no surprise that Ankara uses refugees to further its foreign policy ambitions. Turkey has been increasingly doing this since 2012, especially against the EU following the March 2016 agreement on formal cooperation over migration control. Ankara’s deployment of refugees as a bargaining chip with the European Union is, in fact, a direct outcome of the EU’s externalization policies.

Turkey currently appears strikingly indifferent to the possibility of being blamed by the international community for triggering a humanitarian crisis, which is certainly on the cards given the EU’s determination to keep refugees out and the poor conditions of refugee camps on the Greek islands. In one stark example of this attitude, the Turkish public news channel TRT Arabic published a map showing possible paths for refugees to reach Europe.

Distracting From Foreign Policy Failures

Ankara’s indifference should motivate policymakers in Europe to ponder over Turkey’s lack of capacity to strategize its medium- to long-term foreign policy goals. Turkish foreign policy, especially in Syria, has been a series of tactics devoid of a coherent strategy. As the case of Idlib clearly demonstrates, tactics may postpone problems but cannot solve them.

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Clashes between the Turkish military and Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran have escalated since December 2019. This was arguably inevitable given Turkey’s misreading of the nature of its relationship with Russia and its unwillingness to relinquish its maximalist position of holding onto Idlib as leverage to keep other areas in Syria under its control, including Afrin and between Ras-al-Ayn and Tal Abyad).

The extensive coverage by pro-government media of refugees rushing to the land and sea borders should also be interpreted against this backdrop of short-sighted foreign policy. The focus on refugees leaving Turkey is intended to divert attention away from the death of Turkish soldiers. It also allows the Turkish government to mobilize public support amidst increasingly negative sentiment toward refugees across the political spectrum.

On March 1, for instance, homes and businesses of Syrian refugees in Maras, Turkey, were attacked by local residents. On February 28, Tanju Ozcan, the mayor of Bolu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), announced that the municipality would organize free transport to Edirne, a Turkish city near the borders with Bulgaria and Greece. Similarly, some bus companies call the rides from Istanbul Esenler bus station to the border cities the “journey of hope.”

Does the EU Have Options?

In Idlib, Ankara insists on holding onto the areas that are currently under its control and possibly connecting these with a “safe zone” along the Turkey–Syria border. Such a safe zone would not only host internally displaced persons (IDP), but it might also help Turkey‘s repatriation efforts, so Ankara seems to believe. In other words, opening the borders to the European Union for refugees is a tactical move to pressure the EU to support Turkey in Idlib.

Significantly, Turkey is committed to keeping the Turkey–Syria border closed to IDPs from Idlib. Since December 1, 2019, fighting in the last remaining Syrian opposition stronghold has forced at least 900,000 people from their homes, 500,000 of them children. For some, this has been the sixth or seventh displacement since the civil war in Syria began in 2011. Tens of thousands of people currently live in makeshift tents, public buildings and out in the open. Another 200,000 people are expected to leave soon. Moreover, if Idlib were to fall in the hands of the Syrian regime, violent repression would be inevitable.

Preventing this unfolding humanitarian disaster is an ethical obligation. It is undeniable that Ankara, as one of the central actors, lacks commitment to democratic norms and values. Turkey cloaks its foreign and domestic policy objectives in humanitarian talk, but it does not hesitate to violate humanitarian principles.

Yet the humanitarian reality on the ground requires the support of the international community. The EU should intervene in coordination with NATO to bring mass-scale humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Idlib. This could force Turkey to pull back from its maximalist position of retaining control in Idlib and provide protection to civilians against the aggression of the Syrian regime. The European Union could make a possible coordinated intervention conditional on Turkey restoring the provisions of the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement.

*[The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions related to foreign and security policy. This article was first published on the SWP website.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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