Syria Turmoil Pits EU Against Neighbors as Russia Bombs Fall

Updated on
  • EU President Tusk savages using refugees as political pressure
  • Russia rejects no-fly zone proposal, Erdogan wants `safe zone'

Syria’s crisis continued to spread beyond its borders as the European Union’s president savaged his neighbors for using refugees as a political weapon, Russia rained missiles on the country and the stream of migrants kept coming. 

A day after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose nation has an open-door policy for its more than 2 million Syrian refugees, European Union President Donald Tusk said that some countries are turning the flows into a “dirty business or a political bargaining chip.” Turkey had previously accused Russia of contravening its airspace as part of its unilateral bombing raids in Syria.

The Syrian collapse is turning the country into an arena for Russia, Turkey, Iran and the U.S. to jockey for regional power, while unleashing the biggest refugee crisis upon Western Europe since World War II. The crisis is stirring up political tensions well beyond the Middle East’s borders. Turkey Monday called in the Russian ambassador after Russian warplanes violated its air space, while the U.S. says President Vladimir Putin is entering a quagmire that he’ll only make worse.

“We are slowly becoming witnesses to the birth of a new form of political pressure, and some even call it a kind of a new ‘hybrid war,’ in which migratory waves have become a tool, a weapon against neighbors,” Tusk said in Strasbourg on Tuesday. He didn’t identify any specific countries.

Welcoming Hand

The waves of refugees fleeing Syria overland and via leaky ships in the Mediterranean present the EU with one of the biggest geopolitical challenges in its 58-year existence. The 28-member bloc is divided over policy, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel extending a welcoming hand and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, at the other extreme, saying mass immigration will cause unemployment, crime and terrorism.

Russia Tuesday rebuffed calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, saying it would breach the sovereignty of Syria’s government under President Bashar al-Assad, who’s supported by Moscow. Erdogan, on the other hand, said he’d discussed the creation of a "safe zone" in Syria with Tusk.

Russia’s military foray into Syria is its first outside the former Soviet Union in more than three decades. Officials from Moscow ruled out sending troops to take part in ground operations in Syria, a day after the head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee hinted volunteers could go to fight, including some who took part in the conflict in Ukraine.

Shaming Europe

In opening Turkey’s border unconditionally to millions of Syrians, Erdogan provided a humanitarian service that drew public shame upon the inaction of Europe’s leaders. That decision, however, is increasingly laced with distrust, as Turkey’s government watches passively while desperate migrants flee its coastal towns in cheap rubber boats, and threatens Europe that millions more could be on the way.

“Mutual insincerity now underpins Turkey-EU relations," Wolfango Piccoli, managing director at Teneo Intelligence in London, said by e-mail. It’s "hard to see how they can reach any meaningful deal over such a controversial and intricate matter." Meanwhile, Russia’s "reinforcement of the Assad regime and the consolidation of separate areas of control is more likely to prolong the conflict by forcing a stalemate."

The tension was evident as Erdogan visited Brussels this week to seek support not only for the refugees, but for Turkey’s interests in Europe and for its Syria policy, which differs from that of Western allies by focusing on the removal of Assad. The issue is compounded by European doubts about Erdogan himself, a leader who’s presided over a deterioration in nearly every gauge of Turkey’s democracy since coming to power in 2002.

Following Erdogan’s visit, the EU on Tuesday put out proposals for a joint “action plan” on migration with few details. While the EU offered 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to help Turkey shelter new arrivals, it failed to win a Turkish pledge to halt the onward flow of migrants.

"I can fully understand why some of us are very critical, are skeptical when it comes to Turkey,” Tusk said in his speech on Tuesday. "Whether we want to lecture Turkey today, or whether we want Turkey on board to tackle the refugee problem -- I know that this is a very dramatic dilemma."