ATHENS, Greece — Time and again, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey wants something from the Europeans, he has reminded them that he is the gatekeeper to tens of thousands of refugees he could send their way.
Friday was much the same, as Turkey demanded help from NATO after a deadly clash in Syria. But this time, Erdogan not only threatened to let refugees enter Greece. Local officials bought several thousands of them tickets, helped them onto shiny Mercedes-Benz buses and drove them to the border.
The mini-exodus was accompanied step by step by state-run Turkish media, which livestreamed scenes of harried families pushing off shore for Greek islands in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 migrant crisis that Europe was able to solve only with Turkish help.
The echoes of that crisis were no doubt deliberate on the part of Erdogan, who knew he could count on the desperation of refugees eager to make their way to Europe to make his point. Friday’s events were widely seen as his attempt to weaponize both the desperation of migrants and the xenophobia of Europe.
It was the ninth time, in fact, that the Turkish president has promised to send a new surge of refugees Europe’s way. Whether Erdogan was merely dangling the threat again, or will unleash a full-blown crisis remains to be seen.
If Turkey’s leader does mean business, he will open not only the border to Greece but also the border with Syria, where he has blocked several hundred thousand would-be refugees as fighting has intensified in the area of Idlib.
“He’s trying to say, ‘What happens in Idlib doesn’t stay in Idlib,’” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an American think tank. “‘You Europeans have been free riding on our backs for years now, and as the situation grows more serious, our problem is now your problem.’”
“I think this is mostly for show,” Stein added, “but I don’t know when the show ends.”
Turkish actions throughout Friday suggested that Erdogan’s latest threat could be his most credible.
All day, his government shuttled hundreds of migrants from the center of Istanbul to the Turkish land border with Greece — for free. Overnight, migrants were told to gather outside the headquarters of Istanbul’s migration authority, down the road from the city’s main police station.
In broad daylight, officials then helped herd more than 600 migrants onto at least 12 buses sent to the Turkish-Greek land border, some 150 miles to the northwest.
The coaches were provided by local municipalities, according to three coach drivers who spoke on condition of anonymity. Police officers battled to keep order as migrants laden with snacks, backpacks, strollers, suitcases and diapers jostled for space on the coaches.
As many as 3,000 more migrants were sent from other towns and cities in the country, a refugee at the border estimated. Internal legal restrictions on migrants’ movements seemed to have been temporarily rescinded, as taxi drivers and private car owners were allowed to drive Syrians and other foreigners directly to the border, in full view of the police.
The display was an act of facilitation not seen even during the 2015-16 crisis, when Turkey turned a blind eye to the movement of refugees without ever physically organizing it.
The brazenness of the operation spoke of Erdogan’s desperation and diplomatic isolation as Turkish forces have become ever more embroiled in the Syrian war.
In recent years, Turkish troops have created an informal protectorate in parts of northern Syria, sheltering Syrian rebels and displaced civilians from the Syrian government and the government’s Russian allies.
But that strategy collapsed in recent weeks, as the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, retook vast tracts of land, increasingly drawing Turkish troops into the conflict.
This growing threat suddenly morphed into a full-blown crisis Thursday night, when dozens of Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike — prompting Erdogan to demand help from his NATO allies in North America and Europe.
Against that backdrop, Erdogan’s government began ferrying migrants to the border Friday, seemingly in an attempt to cajole European politicians into giving him more support.
Erdogan believes the West should give his military more air support in Syria, and his civil ministries more aid inside Turkey, where his government looks after more than 3 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country.
To underscore Erdogan’s threat, the state-run news agency, Anadolu, released a steady drip of footage of migrants approaching the Greek land border.
Similarly, a private Turkish channel — which appeared to have coordinated its movements with Turkish authorities — filmed a group of Afghans departing by boat to a Greek island farther to the south.
“We are not in a position anymore to hold the refugees,” Omer Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s party, said early Friday.
The sequence of events all but unravels a pact made in March 2016 between Turkey and the European Union, which prompted Erdogan to successfully end most migrant smuggling between Turkey and Greece. In exchange, the EU promised to give Turkey funding worth 6.6 billion euros ($7.2 billion) to help refugees in Turkey.
The deal also allows Greece to return the Syrians to Turkey from the Greek islands, though in practice, the Greek government has not made much use of the provision.
When it comes to a new surge of refugees to Europe, though, there is little doubt that Erdogan still holds the keys. Migration between Turkey and Greece has fallen by more than 90% since its peak in 2015 largely because of restrictions enforced by Erdogan’s government.
And Erdogan’s maneuvers Friday felt more like a media stunt than a realistic attempt to spark a mass movement comparable in scale to that witnessed at the peak of the crisis in 2015, when 10,000 people a day landed in Greece.
On Friday, fewer than 130 people landed on the Greek islands, according to the United Nations refugee agency, while those ferried to the Greek land border were unable to cross the fortifications there.
Significantly, in addition to showing no sign of opening its southern border with Syria, Turkey has also not rescinded visa restrictions for Syrians living in Lebanon and Jordan.
(A large proportion of the refugee influx to Europe in 2015 were Syrians who had come directly from Syria — or who had traveled by plane into Turkey from elsewhere in the Middle East.)
Even if migrants and refugees manage to arrive in Greece and Bulgaria, the repeat of a situation similar to the one in 2015 is highly unlikely.
Not only have those two neighboring countries shut their borders to prevent further movements, but the EU has also invested heavily in keeping people in those countries, preventing them from traveling north.
At the Greek border, some migrants ultimately found themselves trapped in no man’s land, tear-gassed by Greek border guards.
By nightfall several hundred of them were instead forlornly trying to cross a river that divides the two countries, but had only a total of three rubber dinghies.
“If there is anybody who can help us, please tell them,” said Somar al-Hussein, a 23-year-old Syrian Kurd marooned on a river bank near the Turkish town of Enez. “We have a problem here. We don’t know how to get to Greece.”
Al-Hussein has only one hand, so had not even contemplated swimming across the river.
Did he feel used by the Turkish government?
“Maybe,” he said by telephone. “But I need a hospital for my eyes — and no one here can help me.”