Last Thursday, Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million Syrian refugees into Europe” if the European Union dares to call Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria an actual “invasion.”
The threat comes in the wake of President Trump’s decision to move approximately fifty to one hundred U.S. troops – following a call with Erdogan last Sunday – out of the way of a planned Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria.
Regardless of how one judges the president’s decision on Syria, Erdogan’s blackmail attempt should gravely concern both Europeans and Americans. After all, the Islamist Turkish leader had threatened to “open the gates” before.
The 3.6 million figure is much larger than the approximately 1.3 million migrants/asylum-seekers that poured into Europe in 2015, either through Turkey, across the Mediterranean from North Africa, or the EU’s eastern frontier. That wave followed the outbreak of the bloody civil war in Syria and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, both of which occurred in 2011.
A vast majority – almost one million – headed to Germany, encouraged by chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-arms policy. Although Merkel waxed optimistic, telling Germans that “we can do this” (Wir schaffen das), her people were increasingly skeptical. That is because the refugee/migrant wave was followed by a wave of Islamist terrorist attacks and sexual assaults and rapes as well as other crimes. The refugee crisis also prompted the Obama administration to increase refugee caps and take in more refugees.
Since Europe is still struggling to integrate the previous migrant wave, a fresh one, nearly three time larger, is likely unsustainable and will certainly destabilize the continent. If Erdogan – who is not a particularly trustworthy partner – does “open the gates,” the Europeans, international pro-mass-migration NGOs, and many American politicians (mainly Democrats, as well as some Republicans) will no doubt plead for the United States to take in some of the refugees and to massively increase refugee caps. (In fact, a bipartisan group of Senators has already been pressuring the Trump administration to bring in more refugees.) So far, that scenario has not materialized, but it continues to hang over the West like the Sword of Damocles.
So what can the U.S. do to preempt a potential deluge that would undoubtedly affect our country as well? First, the United States and Europe must lead an effort to protect vulnerable populations who, like the Kurds, might be imperiled by a Turkish invasion, or by a resurgent ISIS. This is best accomplished creating safe zones within Syria. This is unlikely given the President’s wish to leave, but that may change due to public pressure.
The threat of crippling sanctions against Turkey is another powerful tool in our arsenal. So far, the President has hit Turkey with sanctions, hiking steel tariffs to 50 percent, immediately halting trade negotiations (for a $100 billion deal) with Ankara, and sanctioning Turkish officials in response to Turkey’s actions in northern Syria. In addition, we should work with the Europeans – and in particular with Greece and Bulgaria, which border Turkey – to harden border security and preempt a potential migrant wave. Troop and naval exercises along Turkey’s land and maritime borders with our Greek and Bulgarian NATO allies may also send the appropriate message to Ankara – that the U.S. will actively oppose any attempts by Erdogan to cynically use Syrian refugees as pawns in his game – and would beef up the EU’s emergency border defenses in southeastern Europe. Erdogan has made it clear that the U.S. and the Europeans need a plan to avoid getting caught off-guard.