Erdogan Actually Does What Putin’s Enemies Implausibly Accuse Him of Doing: Exploiting the Syrian Refugee Crisis
One theme pushed very hard by Putin oppositions, including people like Garry Kasparov and numerous Ukrainian bloggers and tweeters, is that Putin is deliberately creating the refugee crisis in the EU. There is no doubt that he is benefitting, but there is no evidence that he is doing anything to create it. He gets it without having to lift a finger.
The refugee crisis is indeed creating huge political stresses in the EU that are benefiting rightist opposition parties (e.g., the National Front in France) that are sympathetic to (and in some cases, partially funded by) Russia. This redounds to Putin’s benefit, but he didn’t create the problem. The problem is largely due to the Syrian civil war, but not completely: only about one-half of the migrants swarming into Europe are Syrian. The other major contributor is European policy, notably Merkel’s grandiose humanitarian gesture, which served to open the flood gates.
No doubt Putin is pleased, but I cannot identify anything that he has done, that he wouldn’t have done anyways: for him, the refugee fallout is a happy unintended consequence. He has been all in for the Syrian government from the get go, and has supported its ruthless campaign. This has contributed to the refugee flow, but Putin would have done the same regardless.
One country that has definitely leveraged the refugee issue to its advantage is Turkey. Today, with great fanfare, Turkey and the EU announced a grand bargain whereby the EU would pay Turkey €3 billion, grant it visa free travel, and reopen Turkish accession talks. The €3 billion is to be used to improve conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey. In return, Turkey will slow the flow of refugees to Europe.
In other words, Erdogan successfully blackmailed Europe. Unlike Putin, Erdogan can exercise considerable control over the flow of Syrians to Europe. He has basically exercised no control heretofore, and Europe has been overwhelmed. They have now agreed to pay Turkey to keep them, and also given Turkey other very important concessions to make it worth Erdo’s while.
This is bad news for Putin. Putin has been trying to leverage his role in Syria to get concessions from Europe on other issues, but as I have written before, he really doesn’t have that much leverage. Erdogan has leverage, and has just demonstrated that he can and will use it. He can also use it to make the Europeans think twice about making any concessions to Putin that would compromise Turkish interests in Syria. And since Turkish interests and Russian interests are close to zero sum there, this means that he wins, and Putin loses when he uses that leverage. Erdogan has therefore proved to Putin who has the whip hand in dealing with the Euroweenies.
When it comes to Syria, Erdogan’s policy is deeply problematic, to put it mildly. His policy towards ISIS can most charitably be described as ambivalent. He is certainly not an ardent foe, and is arguably an enabler–or worse. He is far more interested in crushing the Kurds, who happen to be the most reliable anti-ISIS force in the region. In that respect, Erdogan is objectively pro-ISIS. There is a colorable case that he is subjectively pro-ISIS as well. Furthermore, Turkey has been the main supporter of the Islamist forces–including al Qaeda-forces–fighting Assad. Once upon a time, supporting groups like this would have earned a star turn in the Axis of Evil.
Domestically, Erdogan is doing his best Putin imitation of crushing domestic opposition, including the arrest of journalists. Some antigovernment figures have been murdered (e.g., the Kurdish lawyer killed over the weekend), another similarity to Russia.
Thus, there is little to choose from between Erdogan and Putin in Syria. Indeed, as bad as Assad is, the Islamists fighting him are worse, so the nod goes to Putin here.
Unfortunately, the Kasparovs and Ukrainians who are so obsessed with Putin are completely in the grips of the enemy-of-my-enemy mindset that they are going all in for Erdogan and the Islamists for Syria. They are fighting Putin, so they must be great, right?
Wrong. They are dangerous and despicable, and Erdogan does a pretty good Putin doppelgänger impression.
It is possible to oppose Putin and Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, without embracing his enemies in Syria. It is not only possible, it is necessary. Putin’s actions in Ukraine challenge the entire post-War order in Europe, and are deeply destabilizing. Indeed, they deeply challenge the Westphalian system that Putin and Russia claim to defend in Syria, Libya, the Balkans, and elsewhere, and constantly lecture the world about in the UN and elsewhere. So those actions should be opposed, and Europe and Nato in particular have to raise their games.
But that issue is completely separable from what is going on in Syria. And those whose hatred of Putin leads them to whitewash (and worse) Erdogan and the murderous Islamist anti-Assad forces in Syria are wrong as a matter of policy. This also deeply compromises their moral authority and undercuts their opposition to Putin in Russia and Ukraine.
Enemy-of-my-enemy logic almost always leads to a dead end, or worse. It prevents critical thinking, the ability to discriminate between threats, and between degrees of evil. All of that is particularly true in Syria, because siding with Putin’s enemies means siding with murderous Islamists, and a megalomaniacal would be emperor who is actually doing what Putin is only accused (rather implausibly) of doing: exploiting the refugee crisis in Syria in order to obtain political benefits from Europe.