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Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has fought his civil war in a manner intended to create large numbers of international refugees – such as these stranded asylum seekers seen here at Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece in Edirne, Turkey on March 3, 2020.THE NEW YORK TIMES/NYTNS

No phrase captures the moral vacancy and political cruelty of our moment as much as “the weaponization of refugees.”

It is exactly what has been done to hundreds of thousands of traumatized people, deliberately bombed out of their Syrian homes in order to turn them into human threats, then ushered out of their shelters by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in order to turn them into a source of political blackmail, before being repelled – and in at least one case killed at gunpoint – by European forces under orders to view them as dangers.

As a result, thousands of families are stuck this week in the strip of land between the Aegean and Black seas, unable to go anywhere because Syria, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Germany and the European Union all view them not as lost families, but as batteries of ammunition in their dishonest conflicts.

“Hey EU, wake up!” Mr. Erdogan proclaimed in October, after European leaders bristled at his military attack on northern Syria. “If you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: We will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”

With that threat, he transformed the Syrians in Turkey – most of them living in huge camps and in desperate circumstances – into weapons against Europe. It was a move of epic inhumanity and cynicism. But Mr. Erdogan was not the first leader, nor the last, to weaponize the people of Syria.

For most of the past decade, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – and the Russian air-force units that back his rule – has fought his civil war in a manner intended to create large numbers of international refugees: by aiming bombing campaigns at hospitals, schools and residential areas, and driving away entire populations seen as disloyal.

Moscow and Damascus had hoped that these displaced Syrians would destabilize Turkey and Europe, and their plan is working. Thursday’s Russia-Turkey ceasefire over the city of Idlib, reached on largely Russian terms, will do nothing to make Syria safe for refugee returns.

Mr. Erdogan’s role has varied, even as his tactics have turned aggressive. Turkey has for the most part been a generous host to the displaced Syrians, at great expense both economically and socially.

The 2015-16 European migrant crisis occurred when those numbers were overwhelming, and about a million people (both Syrians and other migrants, who inevitably joined them at borders) came to Europe, where the governments of Greece, Germany and Sweden went to heroic lengths, and took considerable political risks, to shelter and then settle them.

That crisis ended with a compromise deal in March, 2016. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acting on behalf of the 28 EU countries, agreed to pay Mr. Erdogan €6-billion to keep refugees inside his own country. It was understood that this was a temporary measure to hold movements at bay until Europe could agree on a common continental policy on migration, asylum and deportation, and more importantly until something could be done to stabilize Syria, allowing the return of the majority of those who’d fled.

Neither happened, and Europe neither paid Turkey enough nor stuck fully to its promise to take a small share of refugees each year.

Ms. Merkel’s continental deal-making ended with the Turkey compromise; the notion of a Western effort to oust Mr. al-Assad and to end the Syrian civil war had not been a seriously discussed prospect. Closing borders was never going to solve the Syrian refugee crisis; its root causes needed to be addressed.

So Mr. Erdogan had some legitimate cause for frustration. He had burned off most of his international goodwill by becoming an autocrat, by using Syria as an excuse to wage war against his own Kurdish citizens or to enact his fantasies of reinstituting the old Ottoman empire, and by sometimes allying with Russia. But he did have an impossible refugee situation and nobody was doing anything about its cause. His request for assistance from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is cynical, but should be considered more seriously.

Mr. Erdogan’s strategy is what Arthur Jennequin of the Brussels International Center of Research and Human Rights calls “coercive engineered migration” – “the process that allowed Ankara to reap considerable benefits from his bargaining with the EU through the instrumentalization of the Syrian refugee crisis.”

But if Mr. Erdogan has followed Mr. al-Assad’s lead in turning Syrians into human weapons, Europe has responded by acting as if they are just that – merely weapons. After Greek troops brutally repelled the fleeing Syrians, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen praised the country as “Europe’s shield.”

European politics, including in Germany, have become a contest about who can most ably ignore the larger crises and play along with Mr. Erdogan’s “weaponization” tactics. Language about building walls and closing borders – popular among some of the leading people hoping to replace Ms. Merkel – might serve personal agendas and play to the most red-faced voters, but the problem was never that anyone’s borders were insufficiently closed. It was that millions of people were free to be used as fodder.

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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