Europe lacks leverage over Turkey amid Erdogan migrant threat

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As European governments decry Turkeys offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the EU on Thursday that Ankara will let millions of migrants flow into the continent unless Europe halts its criticism. Analysts say the threat exemplifies the lack of influence European powers have over Turkey.


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Turkeys military assault on Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provoked a wave of condemnation from European capitals as it entered its second day on Thursday, including French President Emmanuel Macrons call for Ankara to “put an end to it as quickly as possible”.

But Erdogan is holding a Damoclean sword over Europe: “Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: If you try to frame our operation as an invasion, our task is simple – we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” the Turkish strongman said in a speech to his party the same day.

His country hosts 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War – and in a 2016 deal with the EU, Ankara agreed to stop these migrants from going to Europe in exchange for €6 billion and visa-free travel for Turks.

“Have you ever kept any promise you gave us so far? No!” Erdogan continued, addressing the EU.

When a reporter asked Macron for his views on Erdogans browbeating rhetoric, the French president said that he had “nothing more” to add to his previous comments, with an incensed look on his face.

Erdogan saw weakness in European powers

European countries “need to co-operate with Turkey on key issues, such as managing refugees”, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Funds Ankara bureau. This is a key reason why they “dont have much leverage” over Ankara.

“Its likely that Erdogan would make life difficult for Europe if Europe made life difficult for him,” noted Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy.

“Turkey is committed to its course of action and the die has been cast; even the kind of stringent sanctions contemplated by some US senators wouldnt be sufficient to change the contours of Turkeys policy at this stage,” Eissenstat continued.

Erdogan sees the PKK – the Kurdish group linked to the SDF and classified as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States – as an “existential threat to Turkish territorial integrity, and hes not concerned about Western opinion for this reason”, added Reilly Barry, a Turkey researcher at Harvard University.

This is not the first time Erdogan has engaged in ferocious diplomatic disputes with European countries. He accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of using “Nazi measures” when Germany stopped some Turkish ministers from campaigning there for a 2017 referendum, and he barred the Dutch ambassador from returning to the country after the Netherlands enacted similar measures the same year.

“Erdogan saw weakness in European powers when they let such insults slide,” said Simon Waldman, a Turkey specialist at Kings College London and British think-tank the Henry Jackson Society.

“This is the exact opposite of Russia,” he continued. “After Turkey downed a Russian jet flying by the border of Syria in 2015, the ferocious response of [President Vladmir] Putin and the heavy sanctions Russia imposed earned Moscow Erdogans respect.”

Turkey forgetting priority of IS group

Nevertheless, this time European leaders have made it clear that they see Turkeys actions as flying in the face of their interests, most notably when it comes to ongoing efforts to eliminate the Islamic State (IS) group.

“Turkey is forgetting that the priority of the international community in Syria is the fight against Daesh and terrorism,” Macron complained, using an Arabic term for the IS group.

Indeed, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces hold thousands of jihadist fighters in prisons across the northeast of the country. The Syrian Kurdish autonomous region said in a statement on Thursday that a Turkish bombardment hit a prison containing captured IS group fighters, which would appear to contradict Ankaras promises not to compromise the campaign against the terrorist group – although the statement made no mention of any prisoners escaping.

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