President Erdoğan says his country will no longer stop refugees from leaving for Europe, prompting thousands to gather at Greek border
Turkey will allow refugees to leave its country as it launched a military operation in Syria, the Turkish government said on Sunday amid fears of hundreds of thousands of refugees getting into Turkey from Syria due to a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive.
“We have modified our policy and we will not stop refugees from leaving Turkey. Given our limited resources & personnel, we are focusing on planning for contingencies in case of further inflows from Syria instead of preventing refugees who intend to migrate to Europe,” tweeted Fahrettin Altun, the communications director for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey argues it is unable to take in more refugees as it hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country.
Erdoğan has threatened for months of “opening the gates” of migration to the European Union if it did not support plans for a “safe zone” in Syria where Turkey wants to return a million Syrians.
An offensive by Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take over the largest remaining stronghold in Syria has pushed hundreds of thousands of people towards the Turkish border.
Surveys suggest most Turkish citizens want Syrian refugees to eventually return to Syria and widespread resentment against them was partly blamed for a major defeat of Erdoğan’s party in last year’s mayoral race for Istanbul.
The Turkish interior minister tweeted on Sunday that 76,358 migrants had left Turkey from one crossing on the border with Greece.
Figures from other sources have put into question the validity of the claim.
The International Organization for Migration said there were over 13,000 migrants along the Turkish-Greek border by Saturday evening.
A Greek official stated that “there were 9,600 attempts to violate our borders, and all were dealt with successfully,” the Reuters news agency reported.
A statement from the president of the European Council said that the EU was ready to offer more humanitarian aid and would protect its borders in Greece and Bulgaria, both of which border Turkey.
Most of the European Union is part of the Schengen Zone, where people can travel through without passport checks once into the area. Greece and Bulgaria, which border Turkey, are entry points into the Schengen Zone.
Sunday marks the first day since a deadline ended by Turkey for Assad’s forces to retreat in Idlib.
The Turkish Defense Ministry stated that Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield in Idlib in retaliation for the attack on Thursday night that killed 33 Turkish soldiers, the Turkish state news agency reported.
Ryan Bohl a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, a global consultancy group, did not believe it was likely that Turkey would launch a large-scale military offensive, although attacks against regime forces would continue.
“It’s indicating that Ankara doesn’t believe it needs to take a diplomatic off-ramp yet,” Bohl told The Media Line.
Bohl stated that if Russia downs Turkish drones, it would be seen as another escalation as it would be direct military contact between the two sides.
“It’s a cycle of escalation that Turkey would not be as willing to go into,” he said. “They are trying to force the other to start the de-escalation process first.”
Muzaffer Şenel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, said that Russia’s aim was to convince Turkey to negotiate with Assad but that Moscow was willing to give up its ties with Ankara to maintain those with Damascus.
Russia and Turkey have been strengthening their relationship with energy and arms deals to the detriment of Ankara’s relations with the West and NATO.
Turkey’s purchase last year of a Russian missile system drew strong condemnation from the military alliance and Washington has warned of sanctions against Ankara.
Analysts believe Erdoğan is aspiring to have a more independent foreign policy in which Turkey is not fully reliant on NATO.
However, the crisis in Idlib has pushed Turkey closer to the West and has been pressing NATO allies for more support over Syria, especially for US Patriot missiles which Ankara turned down buying last year in return for Russian weapons.
Erdoğan spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday night, asking for concrete measures of solidarity NATO, according to the Turkish state news agency.
The report stated that Macron had urged Russia to stop its attacks in Idlib.
Şenel said Turkey would be limited in its military response in Idlib because it lacks air force to protect its ground troops but it would continue its attacks against Syrian regime forces ahead of talks with Moscow.
“If [you] want to be strong at the table, [you] should be strong on the ground,” Şenel wrote in a message to The Media Line.
“Warplanes will bomb Turkish ground forces and without NATO support or air defense system, options [seem] very limited,” he added.