The downing of a Russian jet on November 24 over Turkey’s border with Syria is indicative of the security challenges that Europe faces. To deal with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the refugee crisis, Europe needs to neutralise Islamic State and stabilise Syria to stop the flow of refugees. That means that the EU, Turkey and Russia need to respond coherently to Syria.
The stakes are unimaginably high – with the EU already divided internally over its policy on refugees, failure in Syria risks making things worse. That could undermine the EU at a time when the terrorist threat needs the union to be as tight-knit as possible.
First, the EU’s internal situation. Since the surge of refugees over the summer, the new position of Europe’s increasingly strident right – particularly in eastern Europe and Russia – is that people’s skin colour determines their inclination to terrorism. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, recently said that “all terrorists are immigrants”. Led also by Poland – which is taking an increasingly hard line on migrants – the conservative right in the region wants to draw a boundary that is white, native and Christian on one side and non-white, non-Christian and immigrant on the other.
The sad fact is that the most homogenous countries have been the least able and willing to cope with the influx of refugees – and this has had substantial knock-on effects. When Croatia shipped newcomers to the Hungarian and Slovenian borders within hours of arrival in October, Hungary responded by extending its notorious fence to close the border between these two EU members. Meanwhile, Slovenia transported all its new arrivals to the Austrian border, which increased the disproportionate burden that Austria and Germany had assumed on behalf of the newer EU members.
Conservative politicians in central and eastern Europe talk up the need to protect a white homogenous culture that has no real basis in history. And by doing so, risk giving extra credibility to hardliners in Western countries.
It doesn’t help that a small Muslim minority have views about issues such as gender rights, homosexuality and Jews that are – on the whole – deemed as unacceptable in western Europe and make it easier for conservatives to characterise migrants as a threat to social cohesion.
Then we have Russia, where recently the prominent political scientist and member of the duma, Vyacheslav Nikonov, told a conference in Moscow that in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Europe would have to rediscover religion just like the “whites” in Russia.
Be in no doubt that “white” in this context is also a proxy for “traditional”, “heterosexual”, “Christian” and “non-migrant”. It has also been pointed out that the Russian government has links with the far right. So the West’s new-found and urgent desire to pursue a united military response involving Russia adds yet another set of intolerant voices to the equation.
Aside from the threat to the European project from these diverging views, Europe also needs to tackle the root causes of the Syrian crisis. This means defeating Islamic State and ending the war by coming up with a policy on the fate of Bashar al-Assad that is agreeable to two authoritarian leaders in Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who have diametrically opposed objectives.
Sunni Turkey doesn’t want to see the shia forces of Bashar al-Assad gaining any ground in Syria and is deeply involved with a number of Sunni rebel factions. Ankara wants these Sunnis to control a chunk of its border with Syria to prevent the two Kurdish cantons on either side of the border from joining up and building a stronger case for eventual statehood. This is being undermined by the Russians, who have been facilitating Assad’s revival for several months by bombing these Sunni rebels.
Now in the wake of the Paris attacks the West is coming round to Moscow’s view that it is more important to get a grip on Assad’s enemies in Islamic State than to remove Assad. So how does Turkey play its part when its own interests in Syria will be undermined by such a change of heart?
The downing of the Russian jet has drawn attention to Turkey’s ambivalence on the eve of the Turkey-EU migration summit scheduled for November 29 in Brussels. What could have been an important step in Turkey’s efforts to eventually secure EU membership is now in danger of being undermined. Ankara’s narrative has been that of concern for Turkmen, ethnic Turks who have been fleeing Russian bombardment in Syria into Turkey – but this is just an attempt to deflect attention from Turkey’s main game, which is to stop Kurdish self-determination.
This all represents a very difficult situation for Europe. It is very hard to see how it brings these conflicting interests together to answer its own concerns over EU cohesion, terrorism and refugees. One useful step would be to reinvigorate the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which was created by the 1975 Helsinki Accords to help reduce Cold War tensions between East and West.
The OSCE is the only political institution that brings together the EU, Turkey, Russia and the US, so it is a forum in which the main powers can at least sit down and talk to each other properly. Make no mistake though – this is a big challenge, maybe bigger than during the Cold War era. These are tense times in Europe to say the least.