August 20, 2021 | Wikistrat

Will Erdogan Use The Threat of Afghan Refugee Flows to Extract Additional Concessions from the European Union?

August 20, 2021 | Wikistrat

Will Erdogan Use The Threat of Afghan Refugee Flows to Extract Additional Concessions from the European Union?

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will have significant consequences for Turkey’s domestic politics as well as for its international relations. In early June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started negotiations with his US counterpart Joe Biden for a deal involving the guarding and managing of the Kabul international airport by the 500 Turkish troops already stationed there. In exchange, Erdogan demanded “financial, logistical, and diplomatic” support from Washington. Such a critical role, Erdogan hoped, would have provided Turkey with leverage over not only the United States but also the European Union and NATO. In June and July, the Biden administration’s softening of its tone toward Ankara’s various transgressions at home and abroad was a sign that the deal had the potential to offer immediate dividends to the Erdogan government.

For the time being, the Turkish troops continue to contribute to desperate US efforts to secure the Kabul airport to continue with evacuations from Afghanistan, but both Ankara and Washington have recognized that there are no more grounds for a deal. Hence Erdogan has since turned to the Taliban, and his allies Qatar and Pakistan, to secure a deal for keeping a Turkish military, political, and economic presence in Afghanistan beyond the US withdrawal. Turkey has had close relations with Afghanistan for over a century, including cordial ties during the early decades of the Turkish Republic, and Ankara has an interest in not being shut out of the country and region. The Erdogan government’s positive messaging to the Taliban, and the potential steps it is willing to take, however, risk hurting Turkey’s tarnished global image further and triggering a range of negative reactions from the Turkish public at home. The Turkish opposition has already presented Erdogan and his aides’ positive comments about the Taliban as yet another sign of the Islamist outlook of the Turkish government and the misguided policies it has been pursuing, hoping to capitalize from the widespread public reaction to the Taliban’s extremist rhetoric and brutal actions.

The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate the ongoing flow of displaced Afghans into Turkey by way of Iran. Although Afghan refugee waves have sparked strong nativist and anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey, further hurting the Turkish government’s popularity, a new refugee crisis also has the potential for the Erdogan government to exploit in relations with the West. Since the 2016 Turkey-European Union refugee deal, the Turkish president has experienced firsthand the positive dividends of leveraging the threat of massive Syrian refugee flows into Europe to extract a wide range of concession from Brussels. This includes a watering down of the European Union’s punitive rhetoric and action toward Turkey as well as financial inducements. Erdogan is hoping to use the threat of Afghan refugee flows as additional leverage to extract additional concessions from the European Union. In the short run, it is still not clear whether Ankara will use a similar strategy with Washington by temporarily hosting Afghan staff who had worked in various US projects as Washington processes their US visas or settles them in third countries. Following the strong public reaction in Turkey, the United States seems to have turned to other countries, including Albania, North Macedonia, and Uganda, for such temporary arrangements.

Overall, the US exit from Afghanistan and the abandonment of the Afghan government and Afghan staff working for the United States have strengthened Ankara’s perception of Washington as an unreliable ally. This will exacerbate the Erdogan government’s pivot away from the transatlantic alliance and its values and encourage it to continue searching for deals with Russia, China, Iran, and other NATO adversaries. In northern Syria and northern Iraq, Ankara will be emboldened in carrying out cross-border attacks, expecting little pushback from Washington. Turkey will also have a firmer conviction that US troops are temporary in northeast Syria and will ultimately abandon its Syrian-Kurdish-led partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey’s multiple airstrikes against Yazidi targets, including a hospital, in Iraq’s Shingal region near the Syrian border, the first set of attacks Ankara has undertaken in the area, could be one of the first signs of the Erdogan government’s emboldened attitude in the aftermath of the US abandonment of Afghan allies.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.

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Issues:

Afghanistan The Long War Turkey