- - Saturday, March 21, 2020

Rahm Emmanuel, once former President Obama’s White House chief of staff, is remembered for saying that politicians should never let a serious crisis go to waste. While the European Union is trying to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the trade effects of Brexit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is following Mr. Emmanuel’s advice by blackmailing the EU and trying to rope NATO into his scheme.

In 2015, nearly 2 million Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees passed through Turkey into the EU. The refugee flood aimed itself mainly at Germany and, because the EU’s “Schengen Agreement” enables free passage between almost all of its member states, as many as 1 million reached there. The flow was ended by an agreement between the EU and Mr. Erdogan’s regime for which the EU paid Turkey about $6 billion. Currently, about 4 million refugees are being maintained in Turkey.

On Feb. 28, Mr. Erdogan again opened the gate to Europe, telling the tens of thousands of refugees near the border between Greece and Turkey that they could enter the EU through Greece. Greek border police resisted the sudden surge but Mr. Erdogan’s action was enough to commence another immigration crisis. Violent clashes broke out at the Turkish-Greek border prompting Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to say that Europe was paying the price for being absent from the wars in the Middle East and urging the EU not to give in to Mr. Erdogan’s blackmail.

Mr. Erdogan ramped up the pressure on the EU, saying that he rejected the EU’s offer of an additional $1 billion and that the EU should take a “fair share of the burden.”

Mr. Erdogan’s idea of a “fair share” of the burden goes far beyond the refugee issue. The refugees, and the money he can extort from the EU for keeping them in Turkey, are a side issue. What Mr. Erdogan wants most is to force the EU to join his military campaign in Syria. 



Turkish forces have pushed far into Syria and have directly engaged the force of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Turkish aircraft have downed at least two Syrian aircraft and Turkey’s ground forces are fighting for control of Idlib. They have come close to confrontation with Russian forces in that area.

Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan reached an accommodation with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent an outbreak of fighting between the two nations. There was every reason for them to do so. Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a treaty about five years ago to jointly preserve Syria’s Assad regime, and in 2018 Russia and Turkey agreed to a de-escalation zone in part of Syria. Note well that Syria is not party to either agreement. Russia, Iran and Turkey are jockeying for position while they carve up Syria. 

But that accommodation will not prevent further Syrian-Turkish fighting. During the first week of March, a Syrian air attack killed 34 Turkish troops. At that point, Mr. Erdogan threatened Syria with greater losses if its forces failed to pull back to the borders Syria held in 2018.

Mr. Erdogan, in a speech to the Turkish parliament, made clear his linkage of the refugee issue to his military ambitions in Syria. He said, “If European countries want to resolve the issue, they must support Turkey’s efforts for political and humanitarian solutions in Syria.” 

Mr. Erdogan’s idea of support for “political and humanitarian” solutions in Syria is to enable Turkey’s expansion of its territory into much of Syria. The form of that support was made clearer in Mr. Erdogan’s March 9 meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. The two discussed the idea of NATO helping Turkey in Syria. They reached no agreement for one simple reason: Turkey — like Russia and Iran — is an aggressor in Syria. 

The idea that NATO has any obligation to help Turkey conquer parts of Syria is laughable. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty provides that Turkey — were it attacked — could invoke that provision’s obligation for mutual defense. But Turkey hasn’t been attacked: It is engaged in a war for conquest in Syria, seeking to rid the area of Kurdish forces and whatever Syrian forces stand in its way. 

Mr. Erdogan knows he cannot either invoke Article 5 or otherwise obtain military help in Syria from the EU nations. He has complained — and the EU has acknowledged — that it has been absent from the Syrian war. But unless he is willfully ignorant of the facts, he must understand that the EU — the members of which comprise the majority of NATO member nations — shot their last bolt in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi nine years ago. The EU nations have little or no ability to come to his aid even if they wanted to. 

Mr. Erdogan’s blackmail scheme may succeed in extorting more funds from the EU. His talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron continue, and the two EU leaders may yet surrender to his threat to release another flood of refugees. 

Like all blackmailers, Mr. Erdogan won’t be satisfied with whatever additional funds the EU pays him. When the coronavirus pandemic is over, Mr. Erdogan will find another crisis to exploit. His ambitions — both political and geographic — have no limitations except his ability to pursue them.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.” 

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