Although 56 per cent of Turkish public opinion does not support Turkish foreign policy regarding Syria, due to the way Turkish government managed the human crisis (and spent its money), the population agrees on the necessity on persisting to solve this problematic situation. And thus does Europe. Following the Summit of EU leaders on October 15th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an emergency trip to Turkey, where she needed to recruit the Turkish side to stop the flood. Both for Europe and Turkey, the hope is that this could lead to an open and comprehensive dialogue which could eventually end with a pragmatic – and profitable – cooperation.
On August 9th 2011, almost six months after the protests that have degenerated into a full-fledged civil war started, the Turkish Prime Minister, who was then the Foreign Minister of the country, was sent to Damascus by his boss Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to meet with the Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. Davutoğlu is said to have urged Assad, who at the time Erdoğan affectionately called “my brother”, to embark on reforms that would open the way for a power-sharing arrangement, most significantly with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, to avoid “a fate similar to other Arab dictators”. The Syrian dictator “refused to take the advice”.
Since that ill-fated meeting, which reportedly lasted for six hours, Turkish foreign policy in Syria has been characterized by a fervently anti-Assad demeanor. Turkey today has no ambassador in Syria and rejects any effort to mesh with the Syrian regime. In the light of the events that ensued, many are now questioning that position. While Turkey is labeled the “two-way jihadist highway” and Islamic State-affiliated suicide bombers – most of whom, if not all of them Turkish nationals – are exploding in Turkey’s cities – with the most recent attack during a “peace rally” in Ankara – 2.1 million Syrians remain refugees in Turkey. Some of these people are seemingly transiting, yet probably the vast majority will be staying for good.
Several polls reflect the unpopularity of the government’s Syria policy. According to a recent study, which is one of the many examples recording similar or higher figures, 56 per cent of Turkish public opinion does not support Turkish foreign policy regarding Syria. More strikingly, another study shows that only 11 per cent of the public supports continuation of unconditional acceptance of Syrians escaping war. The government has declared that Turkey has spent 7.6 billion dollars for aiding and accommodating the refugees, of which only a fraction, well under three hundred thousand, are inhabiting the government controlled camps on the Turkish side of the approximately 900 km long border. The percentage of Syrians in Turkey, a country of 77.5 million inhabitants, amounts to about 2.7 per cent of the population. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey compares to, for example, the entire people of Somalia moving to the United States or the total population of Malawi to the European Union (EU).
The circumstances surrounding the Syrians are problematic for Turkey not only because of the sheer size of the influx itself. The legal framework is also murky. So far, the “geographical limitation” Turkey has enforced – while being a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – characterizes Turkey’s policies. This limitation, under which Turkey officially recognizes refugees only if they are coming from Europe, is upheld by the subsequent legislation of the country. As a result, the Syrians in Turkey are granted a “temporary protection” and only recognized as asylum-seekers. Therefore, they are not able to benefit from the protection that international law officially provides to refugees in full.
Another contentious issue concerns transparency when it comes to the administration of refugee camps hosting Syrians. Camps are governed, amongst others, by the Ministry of Interior Directive number 62, titled “Directive Regarding the Admission and Accommodation of Nationals of the Syrian Arab Republic and Stateless Persons Residing in the Syrian Arab Republic Arriving Turkey In Order to Seek Mass Asylum” which is in force since March 2012. The said Directive is not only undisclosed to the public and international organizations, but was also meticulously kept away from scrutiny by the members of parliament of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition force. CHP’s repeated official requests to examine the Directive have been denied by the parliament, and the CHP representatives, among others that include European civil society representatives, were only occasionally allowed to visit camps that government officials had previously approved. Coupled with questions about the consequences the government open-door policy will have on both the unfolding of the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s security, this scrupulously maintained secrecy contributed to heighten concerns with respect to Turkey’s “Syria policy”, in general, and refugee policy, in particular, at home and abroad.
During 2015, as an increasingly anxious Europe watched “more than half a million refugees” arriving at its doorstep, the pressure on Turkey’s politics has increased. However, with more than 3000 people drowning in the Mediterranean in search of safety and the European press flooded with images of bodies of dead children, the lack of empathy for the tragedy started to disturb public conscience in the EU. After all, it seemed the right time to remember that Syria, by virtue of the European Neighborhood Policy, was also officially recognized as a European neighbor.
Following the Summit of EU leaders on October 15th German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an emergency trip to Turkey. Under intense pressure created by a record low approval rating, Merkel needed to recruit the Turkish side to stop the flood. There came what some would regard as the indecent proposal.
PM Davutoğlu, a Turkish counterpart who knew what he wanted, greeted Merkel. Davutoğlu had four priorities on his agenda: introducing a burden sharing arrangement based on equality; lifting the visa restrictions to Turkish citizens; restarting the accession negotiation and re-including Turkey into the EU framework. Amidst heightening criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record and accusations of the government’s increasing authoritarianism, and risking alienation with Turkey’s pro-EU liberals who have fallen out with Erdoğan and his AKP, Merkel gave Davutoğlu what a commentator called a “Faustian embrace”. As Merkel delicately asserted her reservations, she nevertheless did not refrain from saying that “everything was on the table”. The duo agreed, in principle, to set out an “action plan”. It is also reported that Merkel hinted at financial aid of 3 billion euros to Ankara aimed at supporting its efforts towards Syrians. Many saw the offer, which is too ambiguous to comment on yet, as a cold-hearted political calculation to encage Syrians where they presently are, effectively halting their efforts to find refuge in Europe. This seemingly renewed spirit of cooperation is suspected to be based on an unprincipled approach disregarding the values that the EU claims to represent. The emerging framework might seal Turkey’s status as a buffer state for the EU, while setting the latter on the path to becoming “fortress Europe”.
Undoubtedly, putting itself in the position of becoming a buffer state was Turkish foreign policy’s own doing. However, despite the mutual disillusionments of the past decade, and the obvious lack of interest and support for EU membership in Turkey, strengthened by the occasionally blunt anti-EU rhetoric of the AKP leadership, there is still reason to believe that the potential Turkey–EU framework could regain its momentum. Europe is still the largest business and foreign-trade partner of Turkey, and Turks still believe in cooperation with the EU. A recent poll showed that the EU is the preferred international partner of the Turkish population and the Turkish elite’s support for Turkey-EU cooperation is at 73.2 per cent. Under the current circumstances, any opportunity providing an incentive to EU-Turkish relations should be welcomed. However, such efforts, in the event that they fall short of leading to a renewed accession process without a solid probability of membership as the outcome, might risk to further distance the parties, tainted by the moral burden of more human suffering paid in Syrian lives.
No doubt Europe should engage Turkey. Not doing so has already proven counterproductive for both sides. However, it should do so with honesty and a comprehensive approach. What is needed is a constructive and comprehensive agenda leading to the sustainable resumption of the process that would also provide a solution to the human tragedy stemming out of Syria. Issues pertaining to the state of human rights, press freedom, freedom of expression and association in Turkey, as well as issues concerning trade and business, including Turkey’s inclusion in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, should be tackled. When accompanied by a sudden rapprochement of the kind that has been recently displayed, acts like delaying the announcement of the annual report of the Commission which is “expected to contain heavy criticisms” until after the elections of November 1st, and tying incentives like an aid package of 3 billion euros to issues like lifting visa restrictions, does lead to the impression of a “stinking deal” as one analyst characterized the Davutoğlu–Merkel meeting. Helping Turkey shoulder the humanitarian effort is unquestionably the right thing to do. However, in Turkey’s current political climate that act should definitely be carried out through a solid mechanism that strikes a fine balance between Turkey’s sovereignty and the need for overseeing transparency and accountability on how money is spent. The EU should not allow itself to be diminished to an instrument in Turkey’s polarized domestic politics, neither should it give the impression that it is strategically politicizing a humanitarian issue. This is unfair to the European ideal itself and undermines the very values the EU has rested its soft power upon. Turkey-EU relations definitely merit more than that.
Without an open, comprehensive dialogue it would be very hard to convince the Turkish public that Merkel’s visit indeed marks the start of a genuine process that merits their support rather than a vessel for an indecent proposal. With Greek Cypriot and French blockages of certain chapters still in place; with visa issues still tied to the acceptance of the readmission agreement by Turkey, and with no clear framework for solution to any of the issues regarding Turkey’s membership in sight Turkey’s public opinion will continue to be skeptical about the EU’s “real intentions”. That would not be good news for anyone.
It is true that Turkey is still a potential exporter of labor, is a transit country, is increasingly becoming a destination for refugees, is neighbor to a civil war which involves a mass of belligerents including jihadists, is itself turning into a recruitment ground for extremist fighters, and is paying the price for, until recently, condoning porous borders. Furthermore Turkey’s absorption capacity when it comes to refugees is under pressure. As a matter of fact, if the EU abstains from seriously engaging Turkey, the country might become part of the problem instead of the solution. However, it is not wise to hope that the barrier that Turkey is hoped to represent, will hold and that Europe’s ‘demons’ will be kept away just by maneuvering around the real issue. Therefore, it would be wise for all to try and capitalize on Turkey’s potential and future through serious commitment rather than by hoping that money and pragmatism will save the day, and the future.