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Backed into a corner by the Kremlin

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
March 3, 2020

Two megalomaniac autocrats have maneuvered themselves into a political cul-de-sac, and the European Union doesn't know what to do, writes Alexander Görlach.

Vladimir Putin meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Presidential Press Service

The so-called EU-Turkey refugee deal is off. Thousands of asylum-seekers have made their way to the Turkish-Greek border after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear he would not stop them from illegally crossing into the EU.

Erdogan has claimed "hundreds of thousands" are on their way, and threatened to send up to 1 million to the border. But so far, reliable sources have indicated that some 9,000 to 30,000 migrants have gathered in the no-man's land separating Turkey and Greece.

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach is a guest columnist for DW, The New York Times, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and WirtschaftswocheImage: Harvard University/D. Elmes

The present situation illustrates once more what happens when autocrats overestimate their abilities, take on too much and then maneuver themselves into a political cul-de-sac: Erdogan, the self-styled regional hegemon, used to depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin's support — yet now pursues a foreign policy agenda contrary to Moscow.

The erstwhile allies have become adversaries, and a direct confrontation would have unforeseeable consequences. Turkey's allies have expressed solidarity with Erdogan and promised their support for the country that is being backed into a corner by Russia, which callously bombs Syrian hospitals, schools and residential areas, forcing up to a million people to flee north.

Turkey, meanwhile, already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Read more: Migrants stuck on EU doorstep: What is Germany doing?

EU has failed to prepare

But what is the situation in the European Union, where countries are committed to acting multilaterally and following the rules, for the benefit of humanity? Well, since the 2015 refugee crisis, the bloc has failed to prepare for another escalation of the Syrian conflict. And now, it finds itself — just like Turkey — at Russia's mercy. Who knows, maybe this common adversary will help Turkey and the EU overcome their differences?

At the end of the day, people are made to suffer from the 19th-century-style imperial power politics at play in Syria. Instead of a fact-based, rational, international crisis intervention, Russia seems to believe that only war will solve the Syrian conflict.

Read more: Migrants at Turkish-Greek border: 'We want another life'

Besides, Putin will be happy to project his military might and his view that a "strong leader" who puts his foot down is better suited to solving conflict than liberal states who prefer classic diplomacy in conflict resolution.

It will be slowly dawning on Erdogan what it means to break with former allies. But Europe would be well-advised not to gloat and instead join forces with Turkey to finally work out a solution to the problem they have been putting off for years.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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