By Barbara Slavin
As the European Union struggles to find a way to reduce the inflow of Syrian refugees to manageable proportions, it is under pressure to downplay human rights violations by Turkey and Russia.
Turkey, which has lost much of its democratic luster in recent years because of a crackdown on political opposition by the ruling Justice and Development Party, last weekend took control of Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper, Zaman. The paper was one of the few still openly criticizing Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan.
European response was muted, however. The likely reason: ongoing negotiations with Turkey over Syrian refugees. On Tuesday, the E.U. and Turkey announced a tentative deal that would legally resettle one refugee from Turkey for every illegal migrant returned to Turkey from Greece.
Swamped with more than a million Syrian and other refugees in the past year, including many who have made the perilous voyage to Greece from Turkey and then pushed on deeper into the continent, Europe may also be more willing to consider Turkey for EU membership as a way to persuade it to keep more refugees there.
Erdogan’s flouting of democratic rules should be a disqualifier for entrance into the E.U., but his power to turn off or on the refugee tap could trump such moralistic niceties. Already, the refugee crisis is challenging the democratic bona fides of some of the E.U.’s newer members who were once part of the Soviet bloc. Barbed wire is going up across the Balkans replacing the open borders that Europe once championed.
Turkish commentator Yalcin Dogan wrote in the online publication T24, “All this intense meeting traffic can be summarized as follows: Europe is bribing Turkey. Forget about democracy, civilizational values, etc. It is not their turn today. As long as the refugees stay in Turkey, it does not matter what the Turks do at home. This is a direct bribe. Shame on you, Europe!” (translation provided by Mideast Mirror).
Russia, meanwhile, has enjoyed watching Europe flail under the weight of migrants from Syria and other war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries. Furious at E.U. sanctions imposed because of his military intervention in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has the power to dial up or down the refugee flow depending on what he does in Syria.
Lately, Putin is playing nicer, agreeing to a diminution of hostilities in Syria and stopping the indiscriminate bombing he launched last September ostensibly against the Islamic State (IS) but actually against less extreme enemies of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
With Assad now looking more secure and more of Syria under Damascus’s control, Putin can afford to pause and allow the United Nations and other agencies deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian cities and towns.
So far, the E.U. is holding the line on Russia sanctions, but one wonders how much longer that solidarity will last if Russia resumes the bombardment in Syria and tens of thousands more Syrians flee to Europe.
Meanwhile, Russia has grabbed equal if not top billing in multilateral negotiations over a possible political solution to the Syria war. Arab diplomats speak admiringly about Putin’s show of strength and the improved performance of the Russian military since it got bogged down in Afghanistan 30 years ago. At the same time, regional confidence in outgoing President Barack Obama’s commitments continues to wane.
The Obama administration has also hesitated to confront Erdogan forcefully despite his increasingly anti-democratic actions. Turkey remains a member of NATO and the U.S. needs access to Turkish bases to pursue its priority, an air campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. has called the seizure of Zaman “troubling” but State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday, “Turkey is a NATO ally, and Turkey is a key partner and a friend on many levels and on many issues, not the least of which is the fight against Daesh [IS] in Syria in particular. And we’re not going to see eye to eye with them on everything.”
There are two ways in which the U.S. could diminish the Turkish and Russian ability to blackmail Europe.
One is for the U.S. to take in far more Syrian refugees than the paltry few thousand admitted so far. The Obama administration has promised to accept 10,000 this year but could easily double that number without compromising required background checks.
Despite xenophobic rhetoric by Republican presidential candidates, legally admitted refugees are not a threat to US national security. Most terrorist acts in this country have been committed by native-born Americans radicalized on the Internet.
A second way for the Obama administration to help the Europeans is to intensify efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syria war. This will require more pressure on Syrian rebel groups and their Gulf backers to accept a settlement but also an insistence with Russia and Iran that Assad cannot remain in power beyond a transitional period. During the current diminution of fighting, demonstrations against his rule have revived, showing that Assad cannot bomb and torture his way into legitimacy.
The U.S. should also try harder to convince Turkey to seek a peaceful resolution of differences with its Kurds, whose Syrian brothers and sisters have been the most effective fighters against IS.
For the crisis to be resolved, Saudi Arabia needs to stop escalating a rift with Iran that is threatening to destabilize more countries, including Lebanon. The recent Saudi decision to declare the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization and to force many of its Persian Gulf Arab allies to do the same will only diminish their influence in Lebanon and magnify that of Iran while making it harder for Lebanese factions to govern.
The Saudis also need to find a way to wind down the war in Yemen, where Saudi bombing has brought millions to the brink of famine and strengthened al Qaida and groups linked to Islamic State. There was encouraging news on Tuesday that Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen have traveled to Saudi Arabia for peace talks but it remains to be seen what they will achieve.
Recent elections in Iran have bolstered the government of President Hassan Rouhani and could facilitate regional diplomacy. It is incumbent on all parties to at least try harder to end conflicts rather than stoke them. The refugees inundating Europe would surely be happier to remain at home if their lives were not at risk.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.