For Turkey, a war and a new refugee crisis

With so much focus on the coronavirus and the Democratic primaries, the media has paid scant attention to two related developments: (1) war between Turkey and Syria and (2) refugees trying to push their way en masse from Turkey into Greece.

Turkey has been at war with Syria, and by extension Russia, for a few weeks. The war stems from the push by the Syrian regime, with its usual Russian backing, into one of the last footholds of the anti-Assad resistance in the northern province of Idlib, not far from Turkey.

Turkey, hoping to avoid another mass exodus of Syrians into Turkey or up against its border, attacked. This move brought it into conflict not just with Syria but also with Russia.

Dozens of Turkish troops were killed by airstrikes, in other words by Russia. Turkish drones and artillery pounded Syrian positions throughout the region, killing dozens of Syrian troops. However, as I understand it, Turkey shied away from attacking Russians.

Turkey called for support from NATO. None was forthcoming.

In addition, the U.S. reportedly turned down a request for help in the form of Patriot anti-aircraft batteries to protect Turkish troops. It has been suggested that Trump’s negative response may have been at least in part the product of anger over Turkey’s purchase last year of the Russian S-400 missile and anti-aircraft defense system, over American objections.

Sen. Lindsey Graham called for the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone in the region. This seems like too tall an order at this point. The time for a no-fly zone was before Russia became heavily invested in this war. Had the Obama administration acted at that time, the disasters that followed very probably would have been averted.

President Erdogan’s response to the West’s failure to assist Turkey was the release of large numbers of refugees being held behind a border wall. Greece pushed back against the resulting surge of refugees. Greece and Turkey dispute whether the Greeks have used lethal force to stem the flow.

Last night on Christiane Amanpour’s PBS program, a high level Greek official said that only a small portion — 5 percent or less — of the refugees who are trying to surge across its border are Syrians. I don’t know whether this is true or what Greece’s basis for the claim is. However, one of the seriously injured refugees featured in the PBS report is Pakistani, and there is evidence of a significant Afghan presence, as well.

It’s easy to understand why neither Greece nor Europe as a whole desires more refugees, and even easier to understand why it doesn’t want entrants who aren’t from Syria, where the true humanitarian crisis is. At the same time, one can understand why Turkey, facing an influx of new Syrian refugees, wants to rid itself of a large number of its current refugees. And it’s natural that Turkey would play the refugee card in order to gain assistance from the West.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have agreed to a cease fire in northern Syria. It is Turkey that seems to have backed down, as one would expect given the extreme vulnerability of Turkish ground forces to Russia air attacks.

Russia, while desirous of good relations with Turkey in the long term, seems unwilling seriously to compromise its interests in Syria. For Putin, the solution is to seek an end to hostilities that allows Turkey to save face and that somehow minimizes its refugee problem, while at the same time enabling Syria to achieve its military goals.

Whether these objectives can be achieved remains to be seen. The current cease-fire agreement, standing alone, doesn’t seem to achieve them. It’s just a stop gap.

I don’t pretend to know all the wheels within wheels regarding either the war or the refugee question. I just think that both aspects of the story deserve our attention.

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