Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to open his country’s borders, allowing a flood of refugees into Europe, if Turkey does not receive adequate international support for setting up a safe zone in northern Syria where it plans to resettle one million refugees, Reuters reported on Thursday.
“We should form such a safe zone that we, as Turkey, can build towns here in lieu of the tent cities here. Let’s carry them to the safe zones there. Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humanitarian living conditions. This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan vowed that Turkey would no longer carry the burden of refugees alone as it could not get help from the international community, notably the European Union (EU), saying the country had only received between $3 billion and $4 billion out of 6 billion euros which were promised in the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Declaration.
In response to Erdogan’s claim, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said on Thursday that the EU had provided 5.6 billion euros out of the 6 billion, with the remaining balance due to be allocated shortly.
“We trust that we can continue this work in good faith with our Turkish partners,” the spokeswoman said.
Turkey is one of the busiest transit countries for many migrants fleeing war, persecution, political crackdowns and poverty while trying to reach Europe. In recent years, more than a million migrants and refugees passed through the country on their way to the EU states.
The EU-Turkey deal stipulates the latter has to take all the necessary measures to prevent migrants from reaching Greece in return for billions in aid.
Until recently, the deal saw a sharp decrease in the number of crossing migrants.
Last week, however, more than 600 migrants landed on the Greek island of Lesvos in a single day, the highest number in a day for three years since the deal.
A day later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said attacks by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Idlib province were threatening to trigger new flows of refugees trying to flee the country.
The Russian-backed Syrian regime’s offensive on Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold which is home to over three million people, began in April and has intensified in recent weeks.
More than 1,500 civilians have been killed and nearly 500,000 have been driven from their homes, with tens of thousands of Syrians have recently headed towards the Turkish border, according to war monitors.
Erdogan’s Turkey has been backing some rebel fighters in their fight against al-Assad and his sponsor Russia.
Ankara also holds talks with the United States (US) in order to set up the safe zone, aiming both to set up “a peace corridor” that will allow Syrian refugees to return to their homelands in the country’s north and to clear the area east of the Euphrates River of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it deems as a terrorist organization.
This is due to YPG’s alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed insurgent group fighting a decades-old insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey against the Turkish state.
The YPG is also deemed an important US ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Turkish authorities say 350,000 Syrians have already returned to northern Syria, parts of which Turkey controls.
“Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border,” Erdogan said on Thursday.
By saying that, analysts say Ankara wants to urge Washington to further concessions on the depth and oversight of the planned zone in the northeast.
In August, after months of talks, Turkey and the United States (US) formed a joint operations center in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa to monitor the buffer zone along the border with Syria.
The two, however, have disagreed over the size of the zone or the command structure of the forces to operate there.
Last month, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said only 17 percent of refugees in Turkey hail from the northeast regions controlled by the YPG. The zone would cover only a fraction of that region.
Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Syrian Kurdish official, said last week that it was necessary to resettle refugees in their home towns.
“Settling hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who are from outside our areas, here would be unacceptable,” Kurd said.