The Greek border crossing of Kastanies, or “Chestnuts,” was until last week a sleepy place under Balkan poplars, where the Evros river slowly wound its way from Bulgaria to the sea, demarcating the frontier with Turkey as settled by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. A couple of miles away, the minarets of Edirne’s great mosque rise above the flat woods and farmland, looming over a border crossing now shrouded in tear gas and punctuated by the sounds of stun grenades and rifle shots fired in the air.
The furthest edge of the European Union has recently become the centre of the continental bloc’s attention; and what happened in Kastanies is reverberating in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, as Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, humiliated by the loss of at least 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib, takes his rage out on Europe.
Since the multi-billion Euro refugee deal with Europe in 2016, Erdogan, like Gaddafi before him, has wielded the prospect of unleashing an unstoppable wave of migrants as a threat against the soft, rich and disunited European powers he incessantly rails against.
Until now, the threat has always worked, both for extracting Danegeld at will from fearful European leaders, especially the perennially pliant Angela Merkel, and for ensuring European acquiescence to his military adventures in Northern Syria. Among them, the January 2018 invasion of the Kurdish region of Afrin, and the October 2019 invasion of the country’s Kurdish-dominated northeast each saw hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians flee their homes in the face of war crimes carried out by Turkey’s rebel proxy militias and a systematic Turkish campaign of ethnic cleansing and forced demographic change.
But this week, when Erdogan finally pulled the trigger, European leaders did something few expected, least of all the Turkish despot himself: they said no, and pulled together in what became the first display of European diplomatic unity and common purpose since Brexit unsettled the fragile union.
Erdogan had hoped that European leaders would support his faltering war against the Syrian government and its Russian backer in the county’s northwestern Idlib governorate. Here Assad’s forces, backed by brutal and indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians as well as the mixed rebel and al-Qaeda-linked jihadist forces backed by Turkey on the ground, are regaining territory lost in the first years of the almost decade-long war, causing one million civilians to flee their homes in the process.
Erdogan’s propaganda channels, like the state-run broadcaster TRT, linked the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of migrants at Greece’s border with the humanitarian crisis in Idlib, claiming that the huddled masses seeking to gain entrance to Europe were fleeing Russian and Syrian government bombing. Despite this claim being boosted by well-meaning Western commentators, it is entirely untrue. The dispossessed of Idlib remain trapped in Idlib, barred from entering Turkey by the second-largest wall on earth, manned by Turkish border guards ordered to use lethal force to prevent their entry.
Instead, the flow of migrants who appeared at Greece’s border demanding onward passage to the UK, Germany and Sweden were drawn from the migrant underclass of Istanbul and other Western Turkish cities, mostly Afghans from the country’s Hazara Shia minority working in the country’s booming sweatshops as well as Pakistanis, Moroccans and other recent migrants drawn in by visa-free travel to what has become the easiest point of access to the European Union.
Lied to by the Turkish state, which informed them that Europe’s borders were now open, they were then bussed to the border in free coaches laid on by the Erdogan government for this sole purpose. When they realised that the border was closed, they attempted to gain entry by force, hurling rocks and tear gas grenades at the Greek soldiers and police guarding the border, or rushing weak sections of the border fence as Turkish police fired tear gas at Greek officials to distract them, and used armoured cars to pull down the border fence.
The images of an angry mass of mostly economic migrants attempting to enter Greece by force, urged on and openly supported by Turkish security forces, have awoken a strong feeling of patriotic and indeed nationalist sentiment in Greece, where the new conservative government has directly labelled the events at the border as a form of hybrid warfare, in which Erdogan utilises migrants as weapons and the Turkish and international media as a force multiplier to secure his aims.
Civilian hunters, fishermen and military reservists from border villages have formed semi-official patrol groups along the frontier, capturing and detaining migrants who have broken through and handing them to the Greek army and police for immediate return to Turkey. Convoys of military reinforcements trucked to the frontier have been met by applauding crowds as they trundle through the towns and villages of Greece’s border regions, where many Greeks see the sudden, forced migrant crisis as part of Erdogan’s longstanding campaign to weaken Greek sovereignty over areas of the nation only liberated from long centuries of Ottoman rule in 1913, and which Erdogan repeatedly threatens to take back under Turkish control.
It is unclear why Erdogan attempted to achieve his goals in this precise fashion, using unhappy humans as weapons in a manner directly contradicting claims that this crisis has its roots in Syria. Greek government statistics disseminated to journalists last week asserted that of the 252 migrants who had then been detained after illegally entering Greece over the land border, 69% were from Afghanistan, 19% from Pakistan and only 4% from Syria- fewer than the 5% from Turkey itself.
If Erdogan had wanted to round up a sufficient number of genuine Syrian refugees to hurl at the border, he could easily have done so. But by weaponising a random assortment of migrants of dubious or non-existent refugee status, the Turkish government not only weakened its case to be acting out of a humanitarian desire to assuage Syria’s human misery, but has also weakened the entire concept of asylum in the eyes of European observers and voters.
The Greek government’s response, halting all new asylum claims, whatever their merits, until the end of the border crisis and immediately returning all new arrivals to Turkey, has met with the warm approval of Europe’s political mainstream. Greece has been termed Europe’s “shield” in a newly warlike turn of phrase, and €700m of support for new border infrastructure has been pledged, as well as hundreds of personnel to repel attempts to enter what is now an officially sanctioned Fortress Europe.
The massive disjunct between the Turkish government’s narrative of events at the border and that witnessed by journalists on the Greek side has also highlighted the sadly now firmly established weaponisation of media in 21st century conflicts. In attempting to expand the Syrian war to the frontiers of Europe, Erdogan also expanded the online meta-conflict to the sphere of European politics, a trend which will not enhance ordinary consumers’ trust in the news they watch and read.
Accelerated by social media, the Syrian War has blurred the distinction between protagonist, activist, analyst and journalist like no previous conflict. As various factions and proxy militias battle on the ground, this meta-conflict between western commentators rages on social media, as each side, radicalised by the secret DM groups in which they communicate, attempts to sway the public narrative in their chosen direction.
Consequently, those journalists and commentators keen to promote Western military intervention in Syria on behalf of either the civilians or armed rebel groups of Idlib have uncritically shared Turkish narratives of desperate Syrians pleading to enter the safety of Europe, despite their almost total lack of correspondence with reality.
As Stalin learned nearly a century ago, and other dictators have realised since, Western journalists will quite happily ignore the evidence of their own eyes if doing so allows them to flaunt their humanitarian and progressive values, a situation drastically exacerbated by Twitter.
Yet whatever the merits of Western military intervention in Syria, the dire situation of the country’s civilians will not be improved by allowing Turkish-resident Afghan and Pakistani economic migrants to enter Europe en masse whenever Erdogan deems it useful. Instead, by eroding the already-waning attachment of European voters to the very concept of asylum, Erdogan’s cynical border gambit will do great harm to those genuine victims of conflict, now and in future, who need it most.
What Erdogan did not realise is that the Europe of 2015 no longer exists, shunted into distant, unrecoverable history by the political hangover of that year’s refugee crisis. The wave of right-wing populism that has eviscerated Europe’s once dominant centre-left now threatens the continent’s centre-right, causing mainstream conservatives to shift dramatically rightwards for their own survival. In 2015, right-wing populists in Hungary and Poland were shunned outliers in the European system, written off as aberrations from an only semi-liberalised Mitteleuropa. Five years later, right-wing populists are the rising challengers even in the continent’s western heartlands.
In France, only a few percentage points separate Le Pen from Macron for dominance entering next year’s presidential election. In Italy, the likelihood is that Salvini will assume power within the next year or so, most likely in coalition with the far more radical Brothers of Italy party. In Spain, the outlandishly Francoist VOX party seeks to enter coalition government with mainstream conservatives nationally, as it already has in Madrid.
In Sweden and Finland, the heartlands of the Nordic social democracy so beloved by British and American liberals, right-wing populist parties seeing to halt migration and overturn the liberal consensus are the most popular political forces in each country.
In Germany itself, the entire political system has been paralysed by the rise of the right-wing AfD party in response to Merkel’s handling of the 2015 crisis, with Merkel taking six months to form a government after the 2017 election, and German politics now reducible to a series of experiments in unlikely and unstable coalitions just to keep the populists out of power.
The country has also been shaken by a series of extreme right-wing terror attacks against both ethnic minorities and pro-migration politicians alike, and a rolling drumbeat of alarming incidents of radicalisation within the German security forces, like the 2017 Day X plot in which troopers in the German equivalent of the SAS allegedly conspired to assassinate liberal politicians, including the country’s president, and launch a guerrilla campaign against the state.
In Austria and Denmark, the onward march of right-wing populism has been halted, but only by centrist governments of right and left adopting the rhetoric and policies of the populist right, including a zero tolerance approach to illegal migration. It is little wonder that Orban himself has declared the European Union’s reponse to this crisis a moral victory: the policies he was shunned for in 2015 are now the stated policy of the European Union as a whole, with Europe’s mainstream conservatives falling over themselves to claim Greece’s hardline border policy as their own.
This is not, as an aside, the Europe that Britain’s FBPE contingent so idealised during our own long-running political crisis, but it is the continent’s political mainstream for the foreseeable future. Given that the majority of Afghan and Pakistani migrants will have aimed for the UK as their ultimate destination, drawn by long-existing communities of fellow kin and a facility with the national language, it is ironic that at the same time Turkish police were firing volleys of tear gas at their Greek counterparts to enable their entry, Dominic Raab was in Ankara declaring his full-throated support for Turkish foreign policy, despite the fact that its success at Europe’s borders would direly threaten his own government.
The European Union — with the exception of Merkel’s Germany, lumbering distractedly and painfully towards geopolitical irrelevance — has finally awoken to the threat posed to the continent by a Turkish autocrat lurching from one self-engineered crisis to another in his desire not to relinquish his hold on power.
Threatened at home by a secular Kemalist section of the electorate dissatisfied at the country’s bloody and so far unsuccessful war in Syria, by the presence of millions of refugees, by slow-motion economic collapse and by the country’s growing slide into authoritarian Islamism, Erdogan survives only by engineering crises which pit the Turkish nation against the world. Switching from the United States to Russia to Europe and back again as the existential foe of the moment, Erdogan’s Turkey is the greatest destabilising factor in our near abroad.
Claiming that Turkey’s borders as settled by the 1923 treaty are too small to contain the might and needs of the Turkish nation, Erdogan has effectively annexed large chunks of northern Syria, expanded its military presence in Iraq and Libya, claiming them to be within the Turkish “borders of the heart,” and threatens constantly to invade and annex Greece’s eastern islands.
It is only by chance that the 2016 coup attempt against him failed and that Turkey avoided a serious civil conflict, and Europe will need to be similarly fortunate to avoid being dragged into a conflict of the autocrat’s choosing in the near future. The chances of a peaceful transition of power away from Erdogan are exceedingly slim, and Europe, including Britain, will need to reassess its relations with its unhappy neighbour sooner rather than later, a process begun, it seems, at a sleepy Balkan border crossing the Turkish strongman last week turned, on a whim, into a battlefield.