Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a bind.
The biggest single-day loss of Turkish troops in decades — in an attack over the border in Syria’s northwest — has dramatically escalated tensions not just with President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops are fighting Turkish-backed rebels in the area, but with Russia. Assad is supported by Vladimir Putin, including militarily.
Moscow denied direct involvement in the clash, and Russia seems to be taking a conciliatory tone, but it’s getting harder for Erdogan and Putin to remain above the fray. The two have an uneasy understanding to try and stay out of each other’s way in the Middle East and North Africa.
The killing of so many of his soldiers means Erdogan can’t sit back and do nothing. Already Turkey has stepped up attacks on Syrian positions near the border areas. But equally, he has limited options. He can’t afford a direct fight with Russia. NATO and European nations aren’t keen to be drawn in. And President Donald Trump has signaled other priorities for the U.S. than Syria.
That leaves Erdogan with one card to play — refugees. Already there are hints he may allow more refugees from Syria across Turkey’s borders towards Europe. That prospect will be spurring alarm today in the halls of power in Berlin and Paris. It’s the only way Erdogan can expect to get Europe to sit up and listen.