The battle of Idlib on the Greek coast – Sept. 06, 2019

Last Saturday, about 15 boats carrying more than 500 refugees from the Turkish coast, mainly Syrians, arrived in Lesvos suddenly and unexpectedly. This event met with the immediate reaction of the Greek government, first of all to the Turkish ambassador to Athens, condemning it and reminding him of Turkey’s obligation to comply with the agreement to prevent the flow of refugees signed with the European Union on March 21 2016.

This came just hours after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s announcement in a press conference where he noted that the battle in northern Syria would cause Syrian refugee waves to Europe and Turkey would not stop them. Although the number of arrivals on the Greek coast is not large enough to require swift action, what is happening is not uncontrolled, but it is a message from Turkey, and to understand it we need to look beyond Greek geography.

It is known that fierce fighting is in progress in northern Syria for nearly four months between the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, and the armed Syrian opposition close to Turkey. Although Russian-Turkish relations are at their best at this period, there are some disagreements between the two countries over the future of this region. Both sides are trying to protect their interests in the best possible way.

There are two main Syrian files for Turkey: one concerns Kurdish militias in northeast Syria and its affiliation with the PKK terrorist organization, and the second relates to refugees. Turkey is trying to maintain its influence in Syria to work on these two issues. So far, it has been able to reap the effects of this influence, reaching an agreement or initial understanding with Washington on creating a safe area in northeastern Syria.

As part of that effort, Ankara was able to absorb American rage over the purchase of the Russian S-400 system. On the other hand, for Russia the Syrian archive is of great strategic and geo-economic importance. It therefore uses all diplomatic and military means to bring it to an end and completely eliminate the presence of the armed Syrian opposition from Syrian territory.

Earlier last month, the Assad regime and Moscow were able to make progress in the northern Syrian countryside of the Hama province and take control of about 10% of the Syrian opposition’s territory. This rapid progress prompted Erdoğan to call Putin to discuss the situation in northern Syria and then visit Moscow. This visit included many issues, most notably Syria, the Turkish stream and the Russian Su-35 and Su-57 aircrafts.

An exclusive source assured me that Erdoğan is also discussing with Putin the possibility of Moscow’s involvement in the development of an advanced Turkish aircraft to start in 2023. On the Syrian issue, they agreed that the two countries would continue their cooperation, exchange of information and coordination in the field. Ankara also asked for a credit for a period of time until the creation of safe zones in eastern Syria agreed with Washington.

Returning to what happened on the Greek coast, some would consider that Erdoğan is trying to send a message to Europe that the battles in northern Syria will lead to a huge wave of refugees estimated at 2 million and that Turkey will not bear the burden of it. But the reality is more dangerous, especially for Greece.

Due to my knowledge and my study of the Middle East and Syria in particular, I find that what is happening in Idlib is perfectly coordinated between Turkey and Russia. For whatever is going on there, there is an agreement between Ankara and Moscow. Therefore, Ankara is able to prevent Moscow from continuing its military operations in the region.

So, if there is a wave of refugees in the near future, it will not be far from Turkey’s planning. Last Saturday’s flows and those that followed are proof that the Turkish government is controlling smuggling networks to Europe.

Turkey’s message is clear: it can use refugee card against Europe whenever it so wishes and Europe must have an open mind in Turkey’s interests in a number of areas, notably gas in the south-eastern Mediterranean and later in Cyprus.

In Athens we suffer from politicians and analysts who see the world from Kastelorizo’s coast to Corfu. However, Greece’s sensitive strategic position among the three large continents is directly influenced by the fluctuations and crises that occur in them. The files of Cyprus and the gas of the Southeastern Mediterranean are the prelude to other issues that Ankara may use in the future, such as the Aegean islands, which I personally believe will be the focus of attention in the next phase.

In this complex setting, Athens is in dire need of strong allies to support its position on these issues. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ recent visit to Berlin, in my opinion was not as positive as needed. What is needed now by the current government is more drastic regional and international moves, notably to Washington, Tel Aviv and Paris.

The refugee crisis is not confined to the boundaries of Greek geography – as the Greek government rightly proclaims – but Europe as a whole must assume its responsibilities. It is worth noting here that the Turkish threats were met with complete silence on the European side and as if Athens were alone against this madness.

In conclusion, the new government must hurry to reinstate the agreement on preventing refugee flows to the table and demand substantial changes and responsibility from all EU countries if Turkey fails to meet its obligations.