Turkey is once again using the displaced and the helpless as pawns in its dangerous, years-long geopolitical game with Syria and Europe. As vast numbers of refugees are forced to make their way on foot through the hills and fields that comprise Turkey’s European border, the world must act now if it is to avert another humanitarian crisis threatening to unfold in the Mediterranean.
On Friday, Ankara declared that it was opening its land and sea crossings to Europe to allow Syrian migrants and refugees living within its borders to make their way to the continent. Its decision to turn on the migrant-flow tap came shortly after an air strike by Bashar Al Assad's regime forces in Syria killed 33 Turkish soldiers stationed in the war-torn country's north-western province of Idlib.
Meanwhile, Turkey has demanded help from fellow Nato member states in its proxy war against the Russian-backed regime in Damascus – one that has yielded little else but violence and bloodshed in recent times, as well as great instability in the Middle East.
Turkey has been home to 3.7 million refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war. But even though the European Union signed a deal with Ankara four years ago – it provides billions of euros in aid in return for Ankara agreeing to stem the influx of migrants into Europe – President Recep Tayyip Ergdogan has often threatened to send some of them westwards unless the forces he backs in Syria receive more help from other countries.
This time, however, that threat seems real, with Turkish officials reportedly having rushed thousands refugees on buses to the vicinity of border with Greece, only to make them walk the rest of the way for the cameras.
Mr Erdogan’s gamble is dangerous, as the potential influx of refugees into Europe risks exacerbating the already-rising ethnic tensions across the continent. While the Al Assad regime must take the lion’s share of the blame for the larger refugee crisis, Mr Erdogan’s policies have indirectly instigated right-wing political movements in Europe bearing nativist and xenophobic agendas as well as a determination to deny permanent homes to those they say do not share their way of life or look like them.
An unfortunate manifestation of this thinking were the deaths of nine people in two shisha cafes in western Germany at the hands of a far-right extremist earlier this month.
Unfortunately, those killings have been among many such incidents of violence, mounted by right-wing extremists and jihadists alike, to rock Europe ever since refugees forayed en masse into the continent, five years ago.
Mr Erdogan’s latest attempt to apply pressure on the EU and Nato to solve the Syrian crisis is also ill-founded, given that the latest tragedy in Syria is partly of his own making. According to the United Nations, almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early December, and more than 300 have been killed, as Turkish-supported and Syrian regime-backed forces battle each other for the only territory that remains out of the regime’s control. The war has already claimed hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions more since 2011.
However, with the violence set to continue unabated in Syria’s north-west and the threat of another refugee crisis on the horizon at Europe's doorstep, it is incumbent upon all the stakeholders in Syria's future, including the EU, to come up with tangible solutions on an urgent basis.