BRUSSELS - Retreating in the face of Greece standing firm - and expecting more money from the European Union - Turkey bused thousands of refugees and migrants from the border between the countries after a two-week tense standoff that raised fears of a conflict.
The EU had tweeted support for Greece but excluded Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis from a showdown meeting in Brussels with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who broke the terms of a 2016 swap deal with the bloc by sending the refugees and migrants to the border and told them to cross over.
Greece didn’t back down, posting riot police and Army units on the border where tear gas was fired back-and-forth and Molotov Cocktails hurled over the fence at them from the Turkish side, and with patrols rounding up those who got across the Evros River there.
Erdogan opened his border after the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an area of northern Syria they had invaded.
That led him to fear more Syrians would flee their country’s civil war and come to Turkey, which is holding about 3.3 million of them and as he said he would no longer abide by the deal and opened the gates on his side.
He left Brussels without getting EU officials to revise the deal but The New York Times said Turkey is expecting to get more money from some 3 billion euros ($3.34 billion) being withheld from a 6-billion euro ($6.68 billion) pledge.
The EU had been reluctant to be tough on Erdogan, fearing he would keep his threat to open the orders but even after he did there were no sanctions imposed, apparently emboldening him further after he had sent ships to drill for oil and gas off Cyprus with limited response.
Greek officials said the number of attempted border crossings had dwindled from thousands a day to a few hundred, and none were successful on March 13 as tear-gas barrages kept up, the paper said.
In a likely quid pro quo further signaling a truce, Turkish officials said three human smugglers found responsible for the death of a Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed back up on a beach there after a boat headed for Greek islands capsized, were sentenced to 125 years in prison.
Turkey though had even after that let traffickers keep sending thousands more refugees and migrants to five Greek islands near Turkey’s coast, technically violating the deal but with no real response from the EU which sent patrols but otherwise mostly just watched.
The jail sentences, The Times said, was Erdogan’s message he would again enforce the deal that was also supposed to bring visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens and a faster-track entry process for his country to join the bloc, in process since 2005.
On at least one occasion, Turkish officials even forced migrants to leave. In a video clip filmed onboard a bus ferrying people to the border, reluctant migrants were shown being forced off the vehicle at gunpoint by officers in plain clothes, and beaten when they resisted and told to try to cross the border, the report added.
INVASION BY ANOTHER NAME
Marc Pierini, a former European Union envoy to Turkey, called it “the first-ever refugee exodus, albeit a limited one, fully organized by one government against another,” before Greece walked tall and guarded the EU’s border with Greece.
The New Democracy government also suspended asylum applications for a month, kept the border closed and said any migrants and refugees who managed to cross on land on the islands would be sent back to their countries of origin.
Human rights groups decried the new get-tough policy but the government said it had to act, the country holding some 42,000 refugees and migrants on islands in camps and centers critics said were inhumane.
The Times, after claiming Greece was operating a secret “black site” detention center and roughing up refugees and migrants who were caught and sent back across the river, now asid that Turkey was trying to create a crisis by having its security forces fire tear gas over the border fence at Greek riot police and Army units.
Turkish officials gave journalists videos of aggressive Greek responses to migrants. Mr. Erdogan accused Greek officials of behaving like officials in Nazi Germany but the paper said the Turkish side was just as belligerent.
Footage captured by the paper showed Turkish security forces standing aside to allow migrants to tear down part of a fence dividing Turkey and Greece and another video shown by Germany’s Deutsche Welle showed a Turkish vessel ramming a Greek Coast |Guard vessel in the Aegean, and a Turkish armored vehicle ramming a border fence.
The Turkish Interior Ministry then sent more guards to the border — not to prevent people from leaving without documents, but to stop Greece from returning them by force, according to the Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu.
Policy analysts told the paper that Erdogan’s use of refugees and migrants as political weapons hadn’t worked as Greece was able to rally support, if only in the form of tweets and press releases, and that Turkey’s tactics made EU officials get their backs up a bit.
SHOW THE MONEY
“The problem is that because of the blackmail used by Turkey, getting an agreement from the European Council is going to be more difficult,” said Pierini, now an analyst for Carnegie Europe, a research organization.
Erdogan said the EU had made it difficult for him to contain the refugees and migrants by holding back money with the sides discussing it in Brussels before the meeting broke off with no results but Turkey expecting a revision and the release of more funds.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said the meeting with Erdogan had been a “good start” in restoring normalcy at the Greek-Turkish borders although Bloomberg reported nothing of substance achieved beyond talk.
“Migrants need support, Greece needs support but also Turkey needs support, and this involves finding a path forward with Turkey,” she said. “Clearly we have our disagreements but we have spoken plainly and we have spoken openly to each other about these.”
The EU likely to eventually agree to send more money to Turkey to help with challenges posed by the refugees and migrants incursion, Pierini said, giving Erdogan a kind of pyrrhic victory after he sent them to the border.
His strategy may undermine his effectiveness in further dealings with the EU after he used his ace card, the report said, with several countries wanting a tougher response and Greece seeking sanctions that didn’t come.
“Greek-Turkish detente has been one of the cornerstones of geostrategic relations in the southeastern Mediterranean — and the potential of this collapsing is alarming to the region and Western allies,” said Ian Lesser, Vice-President of the German Marshall Fund.
All this has happened as NATO, the defense alliance to which Turkey and Greece belong, has refused to intervene and saying it wants no part of the dilemma between its partners despite other Turkish provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greece’s sovereignty.