Ankara’s response to the bombing that killed 34 Turkish soldiers has caused a new regional crisis that reaches the doors of the European Union. These are some of the keys to the last shock wave of a war that has lasted for nine years.
Why have thousands of people arrived at the Turkish-Greek border?
Turkey shares its southern border with Syria and is the country with the most Syrian refugees, with 3.7 million. About nine years into the war, the return of the refugees to Syria is still not certain, says the UN. Ankara and Damascus this month staged a war escalation in the rebellious Idlib province (northwest Syria and bordering Turkey), where a bombing killed 34 Turkish soldiers on Thursday. It is the worst attack suffered by the Turkish Army, which this month has lost at least fifty military personnel deployed in Syria.
In the midst of the economic crisis, the weight of the Syrian refugees has become a drag on the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara assures that, in the last eight years, she has spent more than 30,000 million euros from her budget on hosting.
After the attack on his troops, the Turkish president has threatened the European Union with opening the doors to Syrian refugees who from their territory want to emigrate to Europe if it is no longer involved in the Syrian humanitarian crisis. On March 18, 2016, the EU signed a pact with Ankara by which it agreed to return migrants to their territory in exchange for a € 6 billion aid package. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, another had to be legally resettled in the EU according to vulnerability criteria. Turkey pledged to take all necessary measures to close the migratory routes controlled by the smuggling mafias.
What is the relationship between the opening of the border and the offensive in Idlib?
Ankara keeps its southern border with Syria sealed. At its gates, one million people out of the three million sheltered in the Syrian province of Idlib, the epicenter of the fighting right now in the country, are crowded in camps. It is the last of the country’s 14 provinces that is beyond the control of the Bachar el Asad government.
Those who fight against the Syrian Army are an amalgam of armed groups, among which jihadists predominate, protected by Turkey. Against them, in Idlib, are fighting the Syrian regular troops, who have launched an offensive with the support of Russian aviation to expel a jihadist alliance led by the local branch of Al Qaeda. Turkey and the UN accuse Syrian aviation of bombing hospitals and the civilian population. At least 300 civilians have died since December. More than a million civilians have moved to the Turkish border, in a gigantic and painful exodus in which 80% are women and minors.
Why is Turkey intervening in Syria?
At the beginning of the Syrian war, Turkey positioned itself on the side of the rebels among whose ranks it finances and supports various factions of greater or lesser degree of Salafist radicality opposed to El Asad. Europe also accuses Ankara of having allowed thousands of jihadist fighters to cross its territory to fight in Syria. In the past year, Turkey has opened two fronts in its neighboring country: to the northeast it tries to create a 30-kilometer buffer zone free of Kurdish-Syrian militias, which it regards as terrorists for its ties to the Turkish PKK.
In Idlib, Turkey maintains 13 observation posts, as agreed with Damascus and through Russian mediation in the Sochi pact of January 2018. The agreement established a “demilitarization” zone from which Turkey undertook to shed the estimated 10,000 Fighters from the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) – which runs the local al Qaeda – out of the 20,000 less radical Salafist faction militiamen that Ankara supports. However, HTS has imposed itself on the rest of the insurgent factions, taking control of the province.
For its part, El Asad promised to stop the bombings in this densely populated area of civilians. As the war on this front intensifies and, therefore, with the agreement on wet paper, Turkey fears a new wave of refugees in its territory.
Why does Russia support El Asad?
Moscow’s alliance with the El Asad family in Syria exceeds three decades. The maritime base it maintains in Tartús is the only Russian access to the Mediterranean. It was precisely when the war front approached this strategic base, in 2015, when Russia entered the war, sending its fighters in support of the Syrian Army. With his intervention he says he wants to stop jihadist terrorism in Syria, where several thousand of his nationals are fighting, and thus avoid contagion to his country.
The Syrian war has provided a field to experiment with new weapons and training (the Kremlin claims to have rotated up to 48,000 soldiers). Moscow has expanded its military presence in Syria with the construction of a new naval base and several air bases, such as that of Jemeimim (near the coastal Latakia). Russia has become the main mediator on the complex and internationalized Syrian board by negotiating with all actors: Israel, Turkey, Iran and the international coalition against ISIS led by the United States.
However, the latest rounds of negotiations with Turkey to ease tension in Idlib have failed. As Ankara threatens to launch a large-scale offensive along with allied insurgent factions against the Syrian Army, Moscow on Friday dispatched two warships equipped with cruise missiles to the Syrian shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
How has Europe reacted?
Two thirds of the 900,000 migrants who arrived on the European coasts in 2015 came from Syria and many of them have been received in Germany. Now Europe has tightened control of its borders and coasts. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias requested an extraordinary call from the European Union’s foreign ministers to discuss the situation on the Greek-Turkish border. Last week, 14 Foreign ministers called for an end to the violence in Idlib. Greece is committed to doing everything necessary to protect its borders from migratory pressure from Turkey. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has hinted at the possibility of closing its borders in the south of the country to curb the migration crisis, as he did in 2016.