ישראל פולס

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 9, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

How Erdogan exploits Syrian refugees

Author: Arad Nir

So far, Israel has not made any public comments about what lies behind the wave of Middle Eastern refugees now sweeping across Europe. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proud that no illegal immigrants have gained access to Israel via Egypt since his erection of a fence along the southern border. At a ceremony on Sept. 6 to mark the start of a new fence along Israel’s eastern border with Jordan, Netanyahu said, “This is a success that almost no Western country — and very few countries at all — has been able to achieve, but Israel has achieved it, and I am determined to continue this on Israel's other borders.” At the same event, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, “We can see the stream of refugees washing over Europe. What is happening in Europe could have happened to us, had we not behaved in an intelligent manner.”

SummaryPrint Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped a wave of Syrian refugees, created with assistance to the Islamic State, would force NATO to act against Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and when that failed, he allowed the refugees to move westward to pressure Europe.
TranslatorDanny Wool

Senior Israeli political sources consider the current wave of refugees additional proof of what they call “President Barack Obama’s failed Middle East policy.” “If Obama had bombed [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, all of this would have been avoided,” said a senior source who requested anonymity. He was referring to two years ago, when Assad crossed the US president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, but instead of attacking, Obama decided on disarmament. In response to a question about what would stop the flood of refugees now, the source said, “There is no way of avoiding boots on the ground in a simultaneous attack against Assad and the Islamic State [IS].”

Israel is not only pleased that it is not along the refugees’ route, it is also experiencing a sense of schadenfreude. Europe has not held back in its criticism of how Israel is treating the Palestinians, even while it avoids responding to the collapse of Syria and Iraq. Now, however, Europe is being forced to directly contend with these nations’ collapse with the consequences having reached its own territory. The one person deemed responsible for transferring the problem from the Middle East to the heart of Europe is Turkey's former prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Israel doesn't hold this against him.

Turkey was the first country to receive and embrace the refugees when Syria’s civil war broke out four years ago. Erdogan had turned Assad from a strategic ally into his No. 1 enemy, and by receiving the refugees he believed that he could convince NATO to act more decisively against the Syrian central government. When he realized that the United States and other Western leaders were not acting with what he considered to be sufficient determination against the Syrian president, Erdogan pinned his hopes on what became IS. Every so often, the Turkish media divulged information about how Turkish intelligence supported IS, and a senior Israeli official confirmed the allegations to Al-Monitor. “He funded them,” he said, referring to the relationship between Erdogan and IS.

What the Turkish president was effectively doing was funding IS with one hand while absorbing and supporting the refugees fleeing from it with the other. Erdogan believed that the larger the number of displaced Syrians, the better his chances of convincing the international community of the need to enforce a no-fly zone across northern Syria, where the refugees could ostensibly be settled. To ensure that this would become the preferred solution, the Turkish authorities made it difficult for refugees, now numbering close to 2 million, to leave for third countries. As their numbers in Turkey reached a critical mass, NATO member states would be more likely to act, Erdogan had hoped.

The body of Aylan al-Kurdi, 3, washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey, in early September after the boat he was in with his parents capsized en route to Europe. His aunt has said that the family took the deadly journey because the United Nations had refused to grant them refugee status, and Turkish authorities had refused to grant them exit visas.

Flights from Istanbul to Munich cost much less than the exorbitant sums that the refugees are paying human traffickers. In addition, air travel is safe. The problem is that the refugees do not have visas, and it is virtually impossible for them to obtain one. 

At first, Turkey did everything it could to block the sea routes being used for illegal immigration to Europe. Later, however, with NATO refusing to take action to overthrow Assad, and with IS failing to fulfill Erdogan's hope that it decisively defeat the Alawite leader, Turkey decided to make things difficult for Europe by shifting some of the pressure there. Over the past few months, Turkey stopped blocking the refugees' movement westward. The Israeli source said that it is quite possible that the same Turkish security forces that had helped IS are enabling the human smugglers.

On Sept. 11, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius suspended his country’s honorary consul in Bodrum after learning that she had been helping refugees leave for Europe illegally. In a conversation filmed by hidden camera for France’s Channel 2, the consul, who sells refugees rubber dinghies intended for use in a pool, not the open seas by which they hope to reach the Greek island of Kos, said, “The municipality is helping with the traffic [of refugees by sea]. The harbormaster is helping with their trafficking. The governor of the district is helping with their trafficking.”

Fabius’ response was a symbolic but appropriate act against the owner of the boating store, where refugees can purchase the equipment they need to leave Turkey on a hazardous, life-threatening voyage to enter Europe illegally. The problem is that he had the wrong address.

Diplomatic sources in Israel say that none of this could have happened without Erdogan’s government allowing it. For four years, Erdogan has been taking in refugees in the hope that he could use them to overthrow Assad. Since everything he had tried had failed, and Assad remains in power (if only in control of a small part of his once-large country), Erdogan is now trying to create intolerable human pressure in the heart of Europe. The assessment in Israel is that the Turks believe that by doing this, they can force its NATO allies to deal with the root of the problem by making a concerted effort to remove Assad from the equation.

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Arad Nir
Contributor,  Israel Pulse

Arad Nir Is the head of the foreign news desk and international commentator for Channel 2 News, the largest news provider in Israel. Arad has covered international politics and diplomacy, ethnic conflicts around the world and interviewed various world leaders, decision-makers and opinion leaders. He teaches TV journalism at the IDC Herzliya and Netanya Academic College.

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