Turkey allows Syrian refugees free passage to Europe

February 28, 2020 10:25
Internally displaced Syrians stage a protest in support of the Turkish army and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels at the border crossing between the Syrian town of Azaz and the Turkish town of Kilis on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Turkey, faced with a possible new wave of Syrian migrants and dozens more dead Turkish soldiers in Idlib, will no longer stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, Reuters reports, citing a senior Turkish official.

An airstrike by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwest Idlib region killed 33 Turkish soldiers and wounded others, the governor in Turkey’s southeastern province of Hatay said separately early on Friday.

Turkey’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said that in retaliation, “all known” Syrian government targets were being fired on by Turkish air and land support units.

President Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Turkey would launch a full-scale offensive to repel Syrian forces unless they pulled back.

He held an emergency meeting with staff for several hours late on Thursday to discuss the attack, which raised the military death toll to 54 so far this month.

Nearly a million civilians have been displaced in Idlib near the Turkish border since December as Russia-backed Syrian government forces seized territory from Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, marking the worst humanitarian crisis of the country’s nine-year war.

The threat to open the way for refugees to Europe would, if executed, reverse a pledge Turkey made to the European Union in 2016 and could quickly draw Western powers into the standoff over Idlib and stalled negotiations between Ankara and Moscow.

In anticipation of the imminent arrival of refugees from Idlib, Turkish police, coast guard and border security officials have been ordered to stand down on refugees’ land and sea crossings, the Turkish official told Reuters.

“We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union.”

The burden of hosting refugees “is too heavy for any single country to carry”, the official said.

Turkey hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees and has repeated it cannot handle more. Under the 2016 deal, the European Union has provided billions of euros in aid in return for Ankara agreeing to stem the influx of migrants into Europe.

‘Grave concern’

Rahmi Dogan, the Hatay governor, said none of the 32 Turkish troops wounded in Thursday’s air strike were in critical condition.

The US State Department said the United States was very concerned about the reported attack on Turkish soldiers.

“We stand by our NATO Ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces,” a State Department representative said in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced “grave concern” about the escalation in northwest Syria and reports that dozens of Turkish soldiers had been killed in an airstrike, and repeated his call for an immediate ceasefire, a spokesman said.

Erdogan and US President Donald Trump may hold a phone call to discuss Idlib after the attack on Turkish soldiers, two Turkish officials told Reuters.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by relentless Russian airstrikes, have pushed hard in recent months to retake the last large rebel-held region in northwest Syria after the country’s war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib province in recent weeks to back the rebels it supports against the offensive, and had already seen 21 troops killed so far this month.

Migrant accord

As fighting raged along several fronts on Thursday, the United Nations said it was having “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences, with at least 134 civilians including 44 children killed in February alone, and schools and hospitals destroyed.

Seven children were among 11 people killed when an airstrike hit a school in northern Idlib on Tuesday, according to the UN.

Turkey has urged Europe to do more to ease the crisis in Idlib, and Erdogan said last year his government could “open the gates” for migrants to Europe if it failed to act.

The 2016 EU-Turkey accord aimed to help end the chaotic arrival of migrants and refugees, most of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, after more than a million reached Europe in 2015.

Under the agreement, migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea illegally are sent back to Turkey. But Ankara has said funding from Europe was slow to materialize and paltry next to the US$40 billion it says it has spent.

Turkish and Russian officials held a third round of talks in Ankara on Thursday. Two previous rounds did not yield a ceasefire deal.

Earlier on Thursday, Russian state television said Turkish military specialists were using shoulder-fired missiles to try to shoot down Russian and Syrian military aircraft over Idlib.

In Washington, the Pentagon said US Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Thursday and they discussed Idlib and Libya.

“As President Trump said on Tuesday, and as discussed in today’s call, we are exploring ways the United States can work together with Turkey and the international community,” a Pentagon readout of the call said.

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