Refugees head towards Greece as Turkey opens borders over Syria crisis
Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have begun preparing to travel towards the country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria after Ankara’s sudden decision to no longer impede their passage to Europe.
The move comes after an airstrike on Thursday night in Syria’s Idlib province killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers recently deployed to support the Syrian opposition in the face of a blistering Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials were ordered to stand down overnight on Thursday, Turkish officials briefed reporters.
Turkey often threatens to reopen the migrant route from the Middle East, which at its peak in 2015 saw thousands drown in the Mediterranean and a million people reach Greece and Italy, where many still live in miserable displacement camps.
Thursday’s decision, however, effectively reverses a 2016 deal Turkey struck with the EU to cut the numbers of migrants entering Europe. It appears to be calibrated to force the EU and Nato to support Ankara’s new military operation in Idlib.
Under the impression that the window to leave Turkey may be short-lived, some of the 3.6 million Syrians currently living in the country began to move quickly.
Turkish news agency Demirören showed footage of what it said was 300 people, including women and children, walking on highways and through forested land in north-west Turkey towards the EU border early on Friday. Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among those in the group, it said.
In Istanbul, the local Syrian community began organising buses to take people from the city to the borders.
Turkish television also reported that migrants had gathered in the western Turkish coastal district of Ayvacık, in Çanakkale province, with the aim of travelling by boat to Lesbos island in Greece. The NTV channel showed scores of people walking through fields wearing backpacks and said the refugees had tried to cross the Kapıkule border into Bulgaria, but were not allowed through.
Greece had boosted border patrols on Friday, a government source said. An army source said around 300 people had been spotted on the Turkish side of the border in the north-eastern Evros region but that the numbers were “not out of the ordinary”.
While Turkish officials have blamed Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime for the attack, several sources in Idlib and unverified footage of the night-time strike suggested it had been carried out by the Russian air force, which has helped Damascus conduct a ferocious three-month offensive on Idlib.
The US condemned the Syrian action, and Nato said it would hold urgent talks on the crisis on Friday.
Almost a million people have been displaced and driven northwards to the Turkish border by the regime campaign on rebels and jihadist factions, making the battle for control of Syria’s last opposition stronghold the worst humanitarian crisis in the war to date.
There were international fears of a rapidly growing risk of escalation after the attack.
The deadly bombardment has added to weeks of growing tensions between Turkey, a supporter of Syrian rebels and Nato member, and Moscow, which is allied with Assad.
Adding to the tensions, Moscow sent two warships, the Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich, both capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean waters off Syria on Friday. They moved through the Bosphorus strait, which is governed by an international convention, sailing through the heart of Istanbul.
Turkey retaliated to Thursday’s strike by hitting Damascus regime targets “from the air and ground”, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said.
The UN said on Monday that the latest fighting was coming “dangerously close” to encampments of the displaced, risking an imminent “bloodbath”.
Turkey, which is already home to millions of Syrian refugees, fears more people will attempt to cross its closed southern border. There is growing popular discontent against the refugees’ presence in Turkey.
In a series of tweets, Altun accused Assad of “conducting ethnic cleansing” and seeking to drive millions of Syrians out of Idlib.
“These people will try to escape to Turkey and Europe. Already hosting close to 4 million refugees, we do not have the capacity and resources to allow entry to another million,” he wrote.
The international community voiced alarm over the latest violence in Idlib.
“Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour,” the UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement, reiterating the call by the secretary general, António Guterres, for an immediate ceasefire.
The Nato chief, Jens Stoltenberg, urged de-escalation by all parties of “this dangerous situation” and condemned the “indiscriminate airstrikes” in a phone call with the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
A US state department spokesperson said Washington stood by its Nato ally and continued to call “for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia and Iranian-backed forces”.
Under a 2018 deal with Russia meant to bring calm to Idlib, Turkey has 12 observation posts in the Idlib region – but several have come under fire from Assad’s forces.
In its first response to the Turkish deaths, Russia’s defence ministry said the troops were among “terrorist groups” and that they had not communicated their presence in the area.
Thursday’s attack brought to 53 the number of Turkish security personnel killed in Idlib so far this month.