August 17, 2021


TURKEY: Afghan crisis leaves Erdogan empty handed

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 5 mins)
  • The Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan’s capital has effectively killed Ankara’s plans to use Turkish forces to operate Kabul international airport after the withdrawal of NATO allies.
  • The “airport mission” was Erdogan’s (weak) card to try to mend ties with the US and show that Turkey is a precious ally that cannot be ignored.
  • While a large influx of Afghan migrants is unlikely, Ankara is deeply concerned as the refugee issue has become politically toxic.

Turkey has been forced to drop plans to take over security at Afghanistan’s Kabul international airport after NATO’s withdrawal and given the pace of the Taliban advances and the messages it has conveyed to Ankara. Turkey had portrayed the airport mission as a potential area of cooperation with the US that could lay the groundwork for targeted cooperation in the future. The idea was originally raised by President Tayyip Erdogan when he met US President Joe Biden at the NATO summit in June.

The two countries had been in talks over the plan for some time, but no deal was reached as Turkey kept raising the bar about the economic and military assistance it requested from the US in exchange for the mission. The rapid advance by the Taliban insurgents has scuppered Erdogan’s plan to use Turkish forces (around 500 troops on the ground in a non-combat role) to manage and secure Kabul’s airport as a card to ameliorate Turkey’s frayed ties with the US and other NATO allies, which have been strained over several issues.

Opposition parties in Turkey had already criticized the government’s plan before Kabul’s fall, and they are now saying such a mission would put Turkish soldiers at risk and are calling for their immediate withdrawal amid the uptick in violence. It is also worth noting that polls suggest that most of the Turkish public is also opposed to any military deployment in Afghanistan.

Erdogan has now to decide whether to proactively engage with the Taliban or adopt a more cautious approach. Given Erdogan’s personal ambition to be regarded as the leader of the Muslim world, he could be tempted to try to become some sort of international “patron” of the new regime in Afghanistan. While both sides share an interest (especially if the situation in Afghanistan remains chaotic) in suggesting that they have more in common than they actually do, the reality is that most within Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) do not consider the Taliban as kindred. Nor is there much sympathy for the Taliban among AKP voters. It is also doubtful that the Taliban consider Turkey as a true and genuine friend.

However, the most immediate and salient question for Ankara is how to approach the challenge posed by an increasing wave of Afghan nationals attempting to migrate to Turkey through Iran amid growing uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future. Up to 1,000 Afghans have entered Turkey illegally via the eastern borders with Iran over the past few months as the Taliban increased their hold on Afghanistan. According to data from Turkey’s Interior Ministry, more than 30,500 Afghan nationals have entered the country so far this year. For a country already playing host to four million refugees, the situation is causing alarm and stocking tensions

Feeling the pressure, Erdogan on 15 August urged an international effort to bring stability to the war-battered country. Meanwhile, Ankara recently decided to expand the construction of a modular wall along its border with Iran to cover the entirety of the 300-kilometer frontier. So far, around 150 kilometers of trenches have been dug for the wall, with further plans to erect watchtowers, install cameras and deploy more troops and drones to boost security.

On the political front, the issue of hosting refugees has become a major polarizing factor in Turkish society, largely fueled by the economic turmoil and rising unemployment. Turkish public opinion is openly against any further arrivals, particularly from Afghanistan, whose culture and customs differ markedly from Turkey’s. The debate on the future of the refugees has heated up since main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said in a viral video last month that if his Republican People’s Party (CHP) were in power, it would send the Syrian refugees back in two years.

Hostility towards migrants is also surfacing frequently, sometimes violently as anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise across Turkey. Mobs attacked Syrian homes and businesses for two consecutive days in the capital Ankara last week after a street fight erupted between some Syrian migrants and a group of Turkish locals. Reports of similar incidents, often fake or misrepresented, circulate daily on social media.

Given the domestic backdrop, Ankara is unlikely to consider a deal with the EU concerning potential Afghan refugees like it did in the past in relation to Syrian refugees. The EU Facility for refugees in Turkey program (Brussels agreed in June to allocate further funding for EUR 3.5bn to cover the period until 2023) is increasingly regarded as “hush money” for keeping the Syrian refuges inside Turkey, while EU countries do nothing to stabilize the region and treat the country as an unequal partner.

Hard-pressed domestically and seeking to extract the most, Erdogan could threaten Europe with a flood of refugees just like in the past. However, this possible threat is not particularly credible. To reach Europe, many borders must be crossed and crossing them has become much harder than it was a few years ago due to the walls and fences built, the improved technology and the greater deployment of border guards.

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