ANKARA / ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey will no longer prevent Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, a senior Turkish official said, while Ankara responded Friday to the assassination of 33 Turkish soldiers in a strike by Syrian government forces in the region of Northwest Idlib of Syria.
Displaced Syrians are seen in an IDP camp located in Idlib, Syria on February 27, 2020. REUTERS / Umit Bektas
The opening of the border could trigger a repetition of the migration crisis of 2015-2016, when over a million people arrived by sea in Greece and crossed the Balkans on foot, until Turkey closed its border in an agreement with the EU.
In the early hours of Friday, refugees and migrants were already heading for border posts. The official said police and border guards were told to withdraw and allow both land and sea exit.
A column of migrants walked to the border on foot in the early morning light, with a man carrying a baby in his arms. Others headed for taxis.
“We heard about it on television,” said 16-year-old Afghan migrant Sahin Nebizade in a group crammed into one of three taxis parked on a highway on the outskirts of Istanbul.
“We lived in Istanbul. We want to go to Edirne and then to Greece,” Nebizade said before taxis headed for the northwestern province of Edirne and crossed the border into Bulgaria and Greece, 200 km (124 miles) away. west of Istanbul.
A million civilians have been displaced since December in Syria near the Turkish border in desperate winter conditions, perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year war. Turkey already hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot do more.
Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian Air Force, launched an assault to capture the Northwest, the last remaining territory held by rebels who are supported by Turkey. With sponsored diplomacy from Ankara and Moscow in tatters, NATO member Turkey has moved closer than ever to the conflict to direct confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.
Ankara’s fury over Thursday’s attack – the deadliest suffered by the Turkish army in nearly 30 years – raised the prospect that President Tayyip Erdogan will launch a large-scale operation against the Russian-backed Syrian army.
Russia said Erdogan discussed the crisis over the phone on Friday with President Vladimir Putin.
“We have decided, effectively immediately, not to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “Now all refugees, including Syrians, are invited to join the European Union.”
EUROPE ON THE EDGE
The Syrian civil war has worsened dramatically in recent months, despite having largely vanished from the agenda of Western countries. Since 2016, Europe has relied on Turkey to stop the flow of refugees and for several years the West has left the responsibility for diplomacy in the hands of Moscow and Ankara.
Any mass movement of people in Europe would create a new crisis for the EU, whose leaders have contemplated restrictions on internal borders and public meetings to deal with the outbreak of the coronavirus. Greek government sources said that land and sea borders with Turkey are narrowing.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open doors to migrants to travel to Europe, reversing Turkey’s commitment to the EU in 2016.
The United Nations and others have called for an immediate ceasefire, but three rounds of talks between Ankara and Moscow have failed to reach an agreement and fighting has continued.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military armaments to Idlib in recent weeks, and Erdogan warned that Turkey would repel President Bashar al-Assad’s forces unless they withdrew from Turkish observation posts in the region.
Thursday’s airstrike raised Turkey’s military death toll to 54 in Idlib in February. The governor in Turkey’s border province said 32 other troops were injured. It was the worst loss suffered by the Turkish army after a 1993 attack by Kurdish separatist guerrillas.
Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar said the attack took place despite coordination with Russian officials on the ground and continued even after the alarm was raised following the first attack.
Turkey’s director of communications, Fahrettin Altun, said that in retaliation, “all known” targets of the Syrian government were shot by Turkish air and ground support units.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that Turkish troops affected by the bombing should not have been in that area and Ankara had not informed Moscow in advance of their position. An elderly Russian legislator said that any large-scale Turkish military operation in Idlib would end badly for Ankara.
In the midst of the growing crisis on Syria, the Turkish lira dropped to a 17-month low and its main stock index plunged 10% on Friday at the start, although authorities banned short selling on all Turkish stocks.
The State Department said the United States is very concerned about the reported attack on the Turkish soldiers and is stopping by “our NATO ally Turkey”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “serious concern” over the escalation to Idlib.
Further reports from Ali Kucukgocmen, Can Sezer and Ceyda Caglayan in Istanbul and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Written by Jonathan Spicer, Daren Butler and Peter Graff, edited by Robert Birsel, Simon Cameron-Moore and Timothy Heritage