Streetwise Professor

November 29, 2015

Erdogan Actually Does What Putin’s Enemies Implausibly Accuse Him of Doing: Exploiting the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:56 pm

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.


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  1. Daily Beast senior editor Michael Weiss says Assad enabled jihadists to use Damascus as a transit point in an effort to exacerbate extremism among the militant groups fighting his government.

    Comment by Anders — November 30, 2015 @ 1:24 am

  2. “The Russian elites are far more integrated in the West than the Soviet ones were, they have common ground with many on the right in Western countries, and at the same time, the West has lost its sense of mission and unity. As a result, the West is acting without the self-confidence it had and is far too inclined to see Putin as more powerful than he is.

    In Syria, Shevtsova says, Putin has three goals: First, he hopes to “break out of Russia’s international isolation … by distracting the attention of the world and the West from Ukraine and his defeat there.” Second, he wants to use Western “indecisiveness and disorientation to force the West to accept the Kremlin rules of the game.” And third, Putin wants to raise “to a new level the patriotic-militaristic legitimation of his power and thus preserve and reproduce his regime. ”

    Comment by Anders — November 30, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

  3. @Anders-Weiss is the last person who should be talking about supporting extremists, because he has been working overtime to whitewash the jihadist elements in the opposition, and pushing the narrative of imaginary “moderate, secular” opposition fighters. He has many connections with those who are flacking for Muslim Brotherhood-related groups in Syria. Furthermore, he was photographed in Aleppo with a man whom he claimed was FSA but who later joined a Salafist jihadi group.

    Then there’s the matter of his recent scoop of interviewing an alleged ISIS defector. The story was wildly implausible, and is totally uncorroborated.

    Weiss is also vicious in his criticism of the funding of others, and the opacity of their funding, but completely opaque about where his own money comes from, and he has been for years. His latest venture was funded with a seed grant from the Herzen Institute, which had all the hallmarks of a CIA operation. It allegedly shut down in 1998, and then miraculously reappeared to fund The Interpreter a couple of years ago. Just go ahead and try to find any information about it. I dare you.

    In general, Weiss attempts to pin everything on Assad (and by extension, Putin), and is blind to the true nature of those he supports. Or if he isn’t blind, it’s worse: it means he deliberately misleads about the nature of the opposition.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 30, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

  4. Professor,
    If you have not seen Putin’s hand in promoting Syrian refu-jihadis, then
    evidently you missed the Syrian bicycle brigades rolling across the border of Northern
    Norway above the Arctic Circle!

    Comment by Mudak — November 30, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

  5. I think we all ar a litle bit blinded by the fact that our Norwgian terrorist was brainwashed by the same anti-muslim hate propaganda as Secretary General of NATO , who survived terrorist attack from Putins fan-boy Behring Breivik
    Russia in ‘hybrid war’ against Norway:
    An increasingly popular route for migrants across Russia and into Norway has Oslo angered and worried as winter approaches, while commentators suspect Moscow is deliberately creating problems for its neighbour.

    Since the start of the year, around 4,000 asylum seekers have made a long detour through the far north to cross the border between Russia and Norway, which is a member of the Schengen agreement on free movement even though it is not a member of the European Union.

    By comparison, only 10 asylum seekers made the crossing last year.

    That Russia allows asylum seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour.

    Thomas Nilsen, editor-in-chief of the online regional newspaper Independent Barents Observer, says it is “a provocation” decided “high up in Moscow,” which he suggested could be aimed either at showing its muscle, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine, or to create divisions in Norway.
    With the Ukraine crisis as a backdrop, journalist Kjetil Stormak, a defence specialist, meanwhile contends it is “a hybrid war,” or a stealth aggression against Nato-member Norway.

    While the number of asylum seekers remains small compared to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising.

    In wintry conditions with temperatures already hovering around zero, more than 1,100 asylum seekers crossed the border last week alone.

    Initially, the news that migrants were making a long detour through the Arctic had a whimsical quality to it: migrants have to make the last section of their journey by bicycle because Russian authorities don’t let pedestrians cross the border and Norway considers it human trafficking to transport migrants in a vehicle.

    But the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension.

    Noting that neighbouring Finland, a member of the EU but not of Nato, has received almost no migrants via Russia, Oslo asked Moscow for an explanation but has not received a “satisfactory response,” Norwegian authorities said.

    On Tuesday, the Russian embassy in Oslo said “foreign nationals (were) free to choose the border crossing and the country of their choice when they leave the Russian Federation.”

    Agence France-Presse

    Comment by Anders — December 1, 2015 @ 8:21 am

  6. A nice potted rundown on the Syrian situation.
    Turkey and the Turks have been a problem for Europe and Russia for a long time – like hundreds of years. Turkey is not a European nation – not geographically,not culturally,not ethnically,not politically. It definitely does not belong in the EU. It only ended up in NATO because of cold war necessity. Turkey should be removed from NATO as a matter of urgency.
    No doubt that would see the end of using Turkish airbases for anti ISIS patrols but there is more than one way to kill a cat without getting into bed with other cats.

    Comment by Podargus — December 1, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

  7. NATO Must Have Turkey’s Back Walter Russell Mead

    Regardless of whether the plane was in Turkish or Russian airspace at the moment of the downing, this incident is typical of a global pattern of Russian planes testing the limits of what is possible and acceptable. Now that this pattern has produced such a clear conflict point, the U.S.—and the West, generally—must not back down.

    President Obama is rediscovering, painfully and expensively, a truth that George Kennan wrote about almost seventy years ago. A regime like Putin’s needs a hostile relationship with the United States to justify the repression and austerity that it imposes on its fellow citizens. Such powers cannot be soothed with reasonable concessions and “resets.” They must be contained, and it is only on that basis that something like a businesslike relationship can be established.

    Comment by Anders — December 2, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

  8. Posting this as December 8 when Turkey increased its confrontation with Russia/Iran by placing its troops in Iraq to defend a Kurdish training camp near Mosul. Baghdad is screaming about violation of sovereignty, and this looks like it will go to the UN.

    We are probably going to see a few things happen.

    1) Discussion that Baghdad has lost control of its country and can no longer be recognized as sovereign in much of its former borders. The de facto partition of Iraq and Syria will finally start becoming de jure, but the process of this has only just begun.

    2) UN’s inability to resolve this issue will be equivalent of Japan walking out of the League of Nations in protest to the League’s condemnation of their invasion of Manchuria. The post-WWII international order is in its last death throes. What will replace it is unknown, but the world will become a much more dangerous place for the next ten years or so.

    3) This marks the beginning of direct Turkish intervention in the Middle East. Turkish troops entering Syria sometime in the next year has greatly increased.

    4) A direct Russian-Turkey conflict is minimal as Putin unlikely wants a confrontation/war with Turkey over Syria. Neither do the other great powers want this. It’s possible Iran will do something however. A major war in the Middle East is now possible.

    5) The US and Europe needs to start real discussions on what to do about Turkey in NATO if Erdogan will continue to act like this. His unilateral actions are causing troubles for the Alliance. Chances are good in the next five years the other NATO members ask Turkey to leave, but only after they debate secretly up and down to the benefits and costs of such an action.

    Comment by Chris — December 8, 2015 @ 11:22 am

  9. Don’t worry be happy GassPutin are soon bankrupt – Putin’s Wars Cost

    Of course, that rather evident fact hasn’t deterred Putin from boosting military spending. Military spending is now at levels not seen since the days of the Soviet Union. (Yes, that Soviet Union, which was eventually dissolved and bankrupted.) It’s one thing to interfere with Ukraine, a country close to home. But it’s quite another to begin to engage in strikes in the Middle East.

    1. Transfer the Mediterranean gas to Greece and then pipeline it to Europe: Greek Prime Minister Tsipras raised this option with Netanyahu during his unexpected visit to Jerusalem on Nov. 26. He proposed linking the Israeli gas fields, especially the largest Leviathan well, with the Cypriot offshore Aphrodite gas field and Egypt’s Zohr Mediterranean field, and so make it possible to transfer the gas to Greece and from there to Europe.
    Tsipras maintained that the European Union, of which Greece is a member, would consider taking part in the construction of the new pipeline networks together with the gas terminals necessary for exporting it.
    2. Transfer the gas of all three countries via Turkey.

    Comment by Anders — December 9, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

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