During the long Cold War period, Turkey basically utilized its geographical position and used it as a bargaining chip in its relations with the Western world. The deal at that time was clear and understandable: Turkey needed foreign aid for its growth and it had its strategic location and military capacity to offer in return. The decade after the end of the Cold War, did not, in fact, add new instruments to Turkey’s foreign policy folder. But the AKP government was quick to grasp the subtleties of foreign policy, utilizing anything that could benefit them and help prolong their incumbency.
In the previous piece, I examined the policy of balancing that the AKP has been employing since 2016, an old policy with new instruments. In this op-ed, I will analyze a totally new policy, blackmail, that the AKP was very capable of pursuing.
Different levels of blackmail
Sliding into authoritarianism, the AKP has resorted to new foreign policy tools, the most effective of which seems to be blackmailing its opponents. But when it comes to human beings being treated as bargaining chips, it is morally a despicable act, whoever becomes part of it. This is what Turkey and its opponents have been doing for some time.In Turkey’s newly discovered foreign policy, individuals, the masses and even terrorist groups were utilized as part of a bargaining process.
Foreign individuals as weak targets
Since the coup attempt, in the absence of the rule of law, the AKP government arrested foreign nationals on alleged charges of conspiracy, terrorism and being involved in the coup plot. The most notable of these people were US nationals, Pastor Brunson and Serkan Gölge, a NASA affiliated engineer, and German nationals, journalist Deniz Yücel and human rights activist Peter Steudtner. Despite the serious charges leveled at these men, they were all released after serving some time in Turkish prisons. Trump declared publicly on two different occasions that those two American citizens were released after his talks with Erdoğan and thanked him in the presence of news reporters, stressing the fact that there is no rule of law in Turkey. Both Yücel and Steudtner were part of the bargaining between Erdoğan and Merkel, and Turkey wanted to trade them with Turks arrested on similar charges in Germany and some of the critical figures of the Gülen movement who sought refuge in this country after the botched coup attempt.
Turkey also tried to use the same method when it came to the Greek soldiers who were arrested after crossing the Turkish border. Greece was furious over the incident, arguing that they inadvertently strayed across the border due to bad weather. Turkey used them as bargaining chip to exchange them with the coup plotters who sought asylum there and whose extradition back to Turkey was refused by Greece. However, after facing pressure, Turkey had to release these two soldiers.
The Syrians as a strong bargaining chip
While the AKP government was not successful in its attempts to use individuals as bargaining chips in smaller matters, when it comes to playing big, i.e. the 3.6 million Syrians who reside in Turkey, it definitely had the upper hand.
It is ironic that Turkey itself once faced the same problem when in 1953, then-communist Bulgaria tried to punish Turkey through the forced migration of Turks. But after half a century, it was the AKP that realized the convenience of using the Syrians to achieve its political goals.
The Erdoğan government realized that Germany, a country strained by immigration, is especially vulnerable to the pressing migration issue. With the numbers of Syrian refugees piling up to the millions in Turkey, and Merkel under pressure because of her liberal approach to migration around 2015, Erdoğan used the refugee card, saying that he could put the Syrians in buses and send them to Europe. This was a nightmare scenario that forced the EU to make a refuge deal with Turkey in March 2016. The deal officially envisaged the economic aid of six billion euros and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens in return for Turkey holding the Syrians. However, the unofficial and most crucial part of the deal was that the EU stopped criticizing the AKP government for its violation of human rights and it move towards authoritarianism. In the post-coup climate of cracking down on the opposition, Erdoğan needed a free hand (the US, under the Trump administration, had already declared that it was not interested in democratization anymore) and Merkel wanted to defuse the pressure concerning immigration domestically.
Therefore, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of the refugee flow into Europe in return for Erdoğan’s consolidation of its authoritarian rule without the pressure from the EU. This has been, from an ethical perspective, one of the worst deals in the history of the EU in every aspect. In fact, the EU had a history of making such deals. In 2008, a similar agreement was made between Italy, under Berlusconi, and Gaddafi, in which Gaddafi’s Libya would stem the flow of refugees in return for five billion euros of economic aid. The EU made another deal with the UN-backed government in Libya in 2017 which was renewed this November. So, the only policy that the EU could develop was to keep refugees away from its continent and shoulder only a tiny part of the costs of keeping them in camps in desperate and inhumane conditions.
It seems that Erdoğan emerged as the clear winner in this newly-discovered policy. The AKP government was able to turn the adverse effects of its failed Syria policy into a strong bargaining card that has been used effectively against both Germany and the EU. Erdoğan went has used the Syrian card on almost every occasion. When the EU rejected financing the “safe zone” that Turkey was planning to create in northern Syria and when the EU criticized Turkey’s incursion into Syria, Erdoğan openly stated that Turkey would open the floodgates and pour Syrians into Europe. So far, despite Erdoğan’s vociferous style and Greece’s complaints that there is a rise in the number of refugees that cross the Aegean, Turkey has held to the EU agreement, which has made Erdoğan a valuable asset for individual EU members.
It is a shame for both sides that a policy of blackmail based on human lives has worked fine for the last three years, while in the past, the parties involved were reluctant to implement many of the agreements regarding Turkey’s accession in the EU.