Written by: Julie Schneiberg
Running his democracy with a “You vote, I win” mentality, president Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey earned himself comparisons to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. President Erdoğan, who co-founded the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) party, has been holding power since the early 2000s. He was criticized for failing to support humanitarian and women’s rights, blocking free speech and censoring media, and dismembering Turkey’s secular identity. In addition to these anti-democratic measures, Erdoğan held a 2017 referendum in which he earned 51 percent of the vote to expand his presidential powers, potentially allowing him to remain in office until 2029. Many international election committees question the validity of the referendum. Despite this, Erdoğan often managed to slide under the radar of the international community until recently, when ongoing tensions between Turkey and Syria heightened. The Syrian civil war has affected Turkey from both proximity and direct involvement. However, the conflict has recently heightened, triggering Erdoğan to resort to desperate measures in order to get an international response.
Since the beginning of the war, Turkey has actively backed the Syrian opposition and condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though violence is nothing new amid Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Government retook large amounts of land with the support of Russian airpower. These actions forced Turkish troops into conflict in early 2020. A recent airstrike attack, which left fifty-five Turkish soldiers dead, sent Erdoğan to a breaking point. With Turkey overwhelmed, Erdoğan pleaded for help from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in mid-February. He later attended a conference with NATO and European Union (E.U.) leaders in an effort to ease tensions between Turkey and the organizations. Erdoğan told reports in Brussels, “we expect concrete support from all our allies in the fight that Turkey has been carrying out alone … NATO is in a critical period during which it needs to clearly show support.” His requests came with an authoritarian flare.
President Erdoğan employed a threat, wherein he promised to open Turkey’s Western border and allow thousands of refugees into Greece, and consequently the rest of Europe, after the conflict escalated with Syria. Turkey was not bluffing either: the state provided thousands of free tickets on “shiny Mercedes-Benzes buses” to take refugees from Istanbul to the border. In addition, Turkish-run media followed the buses to live-stream the hordes of families arriving at the border and pushing off toward the Greek isles. Erdoğan’s release of hundreds of thousands of migrants, desperate for a chance at life in Western Europe, has been ridiculed by many and amid a global pandemic, no less; however, it may be justified.
The Syrian civil war has been ongoing since early 2011, displacing millions from their war-torn homes and scattering them across continents. In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, numerous European countries pledged to accept refugee quotas. Turkey followed Germany and Sweden in terms of numbers, but many other countries accepted large numbers of refugees, often not out of the kindness of their hearts but rather from peer pressure sent by other states and humanitarian organizations. Turkey also acted in self-interest by accepting so many refugees unwanted by other European nations in an attempt to become an EU member state. While Erdoğan can be criticized for many things, his willingness to accept refugees is not one of them. About 15 percent of Syrian’s pre-civil war population lives in Turkey. In support of Erdoğan, Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute said, “you Europeans have been free-riding our backs for years now, and as the situation grows more serious, our problem is now your problem.” This is precisely Erdoğan’s argument. Turkey took millions of refugees from Syria, easing the load for the rest of Europe. Now, Turkey is struggling to manage the conflict and wants a favor in return.
These influxes of refugees in 2015 were not without protest from the Turkish citizens, and some scholars argue it empowered alt-right politicians and strengthened their followings. Therefore, the political climate in 2020 may be worse for hopeful migrants than those seeking asylum in 2015. Erdoğan knows this, and he’s using it as leverage.
Erdoğan’s NATO request is a valid one. Turkey’s geographical position makes it especially vulnerable to the ever-increasing conflict in Syria, and NATO’s main purpose is for member states to defend one another in times of conflict and war. As a NATO member, Turkey reserves the right to request military aid. However, the way Erdoğan sought out aid makes observers evaluate his position as a democratic leader. Not only did he use threats in order to gain attention, but he used the lives of tens of thousands of people in an effort to do so – ultimately playing on their desperation for security and using it as a way of fear-mongering.