DAESH, the refugee issue and rationalization of Turkish-EU relations

Published 21.11.2015 02:13

Concerning terror attacks in Turkey and the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, directed at the indifference of Western public, said: "If you don't bother when terror is playing havoc in this part of the world, one day it might knock on your door too." Sadly, with the heinous terror attacks in Paris taking the lives of 130 civilians last week and the potential attacks that were narrowly prevented in Germany, the actual terror threat seems to have reached mainland Europe. As suggested by many leaders at the G20 summit in Antalya, time is passing to develop a coordinated, collaborative international response to the expansion of global terror networks, but transcending geopolitical rivalries are easier said than done.

For years Turkey has been suffering from the salvos of externally supported terrorist groups such as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the PKK, but the EU preferred to disregard calls for anti-terror collaboration coming from Ankara. Administrations in Berlin and Paris have been particularly tolerant toward the operations of leftist groups in and around Turkey providing terrorists and their mentors safe heavens, comfortable financial movement and even political guidance. Similarly, the U.S. and EU were pretty much indifferent when DAESH formed out of al-Qaida in Iraq and rapidly expanded with the participation of Saddam Hussein's former intelligence security elite to control large swaths of land from Mosul to Raqqa. Pragmatism also dominated when DAESH was becoming one of the major regional actors along with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is another regional actor with organic terror links, forming occasional alliances with Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and regional and global powers to weaken the moderate Syrian opposition on the ground.

Calls from Erdoğan and the Turkish government to remove Asad from power with an international coalition fell on deaf ears even when the dictator was massacring thousands of people with chemical weapons. Therefore, the coalition effort against DAESH after it acquired control of major oil fields and formed an illegal oil-trading network; established a "state" based upon seizure of financial assets, heavy taxation and hijacking, and created a digital propaganda hub for jihadi terrorism was too little too late. The failure of the international community, and particularly the U.S. administration, to act quickly to remove Asad and formulate a credible strategy against DAESH contributed to the aggravation of the refugee crisis, which placed an enormous social and financial burden on countries in the region. Turkey alone had to take in around 2.5 million refugees – 500,000 in Istanbul – with crucial repercussions in domestic political debates and complications for security arrangements. Ankara's calls for greater Western financial support to improve the services provided to refugees and accelerate their social integration were also constantly disregarded up until the explosion of the mass refugee exodus to the EU. EU leaders led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel were convinced to partly revise their conservative positions on the refugee issue only after the publicized coverage of civilian deaths in the Mediterranean, but the changing mood after the Paris attacks indicate that a structural relaxation of EU refugee policy will not be easy in the medium term.

All these observations take us to a critical conundrum whereby the Syrian war, the struggle against DAESH and the refugee crisis are interrelated in complex ways and all require coordinated international action. Incidentally, Turkey is located in a sensitive geopolitical crossroads that renders its involvement and active participation essential for meaningful progress on all these three fronts. Therefore, the grudging acceptance of EU leaders to work with Turkey whether they like it or not was not a surprising move and could open a new chapter in Turkey's long saga of relations with the EU. Yet Ankara wants to be seen as an equal, credible and trustworthy partner that could contribute to the development of new strategies for a peaceful solution in Syria, the progress of the international struggle against DAESH and other terrorist organizations and the gradual solution of the refugee issue. Conventional European pragmatism to conceptualize Turkey as a buffer zone to keep the troubles of the Middle East away from civilized Europe are bound to fail, as shown by the dramatic unveiling of the Paris attacks.

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