A wave of Russian bombing attacks on the outskirts of Aleppo allowed the Syrian regime to start to encircle the city—the last major rebel stronghold in Syria—and sent tens of thousands of Syrians streaming to the Turkish border this weekend. But the way out was shut: Under the terms of the Turkish-EU refugee agreement, Turkey is now only admitting Syrians who have a visa to enter.
But there’s a limit to how long the Turkish government will tolerate a humanitarian disaster among Sunni Muslims to pile up at its doorstep. As the AFP reports:
“Turkey has reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the refugees,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN Turk television.
“But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings… or we will open our borders.”[. . .]
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [. . .] has warned that Turkey is “under threat” from the refugee tide but said that “if necessary, we have to, and will, let our brothers in”.
And there are limits, too, to Europe’s leverage—as German Chancellor Angela Merkel found out on a “last ditch” trip to Ankara on Monday, from which she returned empty-handed. The optics of having unnamed EU diplomats saying that this particular crisis is a “litmus test” for Turkey’s seriousness about the migrant deal are terrible; so too is the option of continuing to let refugees and migrants stream unchecked into a continent and country whose people, increasingly, are just not having it anymore. And, as we have been saying all along, the elephant in the room is that even if Turkey wanted to hold up its end of the bargain, it doesn’t control enough of its borders with Syria and with the Mediterranean to do so. Those Syrians fleeing the latest developments might not be able to get over easily, but in general, Turkey can’t stop the migrant flow.
So Merkel has been reaching for increasingly either ridiculous options—such as a proposal that “echoes” a plan to ferry Syrians who land in Greece back to Turkey, process them, and then fly a small number directly to Germany and other European nations—or muscular but difficult ones, such as asking NATO, on short notice, to assist in policing the Greek border. Meanwhile, Mrs. Merkel makes statements that she’s “not only shocked, but horrified” and pleads with the Russians to respect UN resolutions concerning Syrian civilians. All of which ultimately underlines the reality that, as Germany has no plans to change the facts on the ground in Syria, Berlin is ultimately holding the short end of the stick.
The two big winners of this crisis are Bashar Assad and Vladmir Putin. From Assad’s point of view, the mass flight of Sunni Syrians would be a good thing, making it easier for him to reestablish his rule in Syria if he takes Aleppo. And Putin is no fool: He can see how the refugee crisis is destabilizing Europe in general, and the authority of Mrs. Merkel in particular. This morning, the head of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Relations speculated openly that Mr. Putin was inflaming the refugee crisis in Aleppo deliberately to topple the Chancellor. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds: Certainly, the Kremlin’s disinformation programs have been riling up Germany’s domestic debate (not that it needs much help there, after Cologne), and Putin must have been aware of the strategic value of the refugees since he first entered Syria.
The what-ifs here are tantalizing. Chief among them: What if the United States, or our European allies, had recognized sooner how serious the repercussions of leaving Syria to burn and letting Russia get involved would be? But in the real world, Mrs. Merkel and the West as a whole are now faced with a series of unpleasant choices going forward. Likely, clear leadership from Washington will be needed under the next Administration to resolve this crisis.