One day after Turkey launched an assault on US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, Turkish President Erdogan angrily rejected international criticism of his military campaign and reiterated his threat to "open the gates" to allow millions of Syrian refugees to leave Turkey for western countries - unless Europe halts its criticism. European politicians slammed Erdogan’s warning and reacted sceptically to his resettlement plan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday not only angrily rejected international criticism of his military campaign, he also reiterated his threat to "open the gates" and allow a flood of Syrian refugees to leave Turkey for western countries.
"Hey European Union! Pull yourself together. If you describe our current operation as an act of invasion, it is easy - we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way," Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the capital, Ankara.
Erdogan made his comments on Thursday in the face of mounting condemnation from European governments of Ankara's long-threatened operation to enforce a buffer zone in northeastern Syria to accommodate some of the 3.6 million refugees currently living in Turkey.
"We will rebuild an area for 1 million people, for those who want to return to their country and don't have a home to go back to," Erdogan said to widespread applause on Thursday. The proposed 20-mile deep "safe zone" would span across most of Syria's multi-ethnic northern border areas and rival administrations created by nearly nine years of civil war.
Turkey’s "Operation Peace Spring" against Syrian Kurdish militias, launched on Wednesday, has been criticized by western allies. The EU urged Turkey to halt its offensive, which came on the heels of the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. Aside from the repatriation plans, the stated goal of the offensive is to "eliminate a terrorist corridor" along the border and bring "peace and tranquility" to the region.
European politicians slam threat
Erdogan's threat to let millions of migrants flow into the continent provoked a wave of condemnation among European politicians.
We will never "accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us," EU Council President Donald Tusk said Friday during a visit to EU member Cyprus. He also called Erdogan's threats "totally out of place."
"Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable," Tusk added.
Yet Erdogan's threat to "open the gates" is likely to have an impact, said Janroj Yilmaz Keles, a researcher at Middlesex University in London. "Because of the refugee crisis, Europe is soft with Turkey. To prevent the refugees from coming to Europe, the price is being paid by the Kurds, and Europe knows this very well," he said.
Under a 2016 agreement with the EU, commonly referred to as EU-Turkey deal, Turkey agreed to prevent refugees from leaving towards Europe in exchange for €6 billion and visa-free travel for its citizens. Erdogan has repeatedly accused the EU of failing to fully honor the financial commitment of the deal.
'Safe zone' plan met with skepticism
Turkey said the purpose of its assault is to push the Kurdish militia away from the border in order to set up a "safe zone" inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting. Eventually, Erdogan said, a total of 2 to 3 million Syrian refugees could return to the proposed 32-kilometer-deep, 480-kilometer-long security strip. Such a zone would end the Kurds' autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control.
"Northeast Syria is a rural, underserviced region that can barely meet the needs of its already existing 5 million people," said Nicholas A. Heras, a fellow at the Washington-based think-tank Center for New American Security. "Turkey's campaign could devastate large areas of northeast Syria, making the Turkish plan all the more impractical."
Heras also stressed that resettlement of the scale Erdogan has proposed would require "billions of dollars of support for infrastructure, security, and housing."
Turkish officials, meanwhile, say the returns would be voluntary, insisting that the operation will provide the stability needed to create an environment for resettlement.
UN refugee agency UNHCR said tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since Wednesday, while Britain-based war monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the figure at some 70,000.
According to UNHCR, 3.6 million Syrians are registered in Turkey - a number that has risen steadily throughout the Syrian civil war - as well as more than 350,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Most are protected under Turkish law banning the forced return to a dangerous country.
Feared resurgence of ‘Islamic State’
Speaking at the same event on Thursday in Ankara, Erdogan said Turkish armed forces have "neutralized" 109 "terrorists" since the launch of the offensive on Wednesday. He further said he wanted to avert the creation of a "terrorist state" along its borders. Erdogan was referring to members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey views as terrorists threatening its border security.
The Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG) militia, the main component of the SDF, controls large areas in northeastern Syria and has been Washington's main partner in defeating the so-called Islamic State. Many nations are concerned that the attack on YPG could lead to a revival of the terror militia.
Erdogan believes YPG to be linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought a four-decade insurgency for Kurdish rights against the Turkish state.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas communicated his country's concerns to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, saying Berlin and Brussels feared "major negative consequences up to a revival of Islamic State."
Echoing Maas' statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged alliance member Turkey to show "restraint" in its military push into northeastern Syria, adding that the common enemy in the region is still the Islamic State group. But Erdogan argued that Turkish incursion into Syria will "guarantee to the whole world" that Islamic State will not be able to reign in the region again, Erdogan argued.
Erdogan lashes out at partners amid international criticism
Turkey's military assault on Kurdish militia in northeastern Syria drew immediate and widespread criticism from Western Allies and other partners. The EU and other bodies called on Ankara to stop the offensive.
On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron called for Ankara to "put an end" to the assault "as quickly as possible" and summoned the Turkish ambassador in Paris to the Foreign Ministry, a diplomatic source confirmed to dpa. The prime minister of neighboring Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused Ankara of trying to impose "a violent transformation of the demographic makeup of the region."
On Saturday, Arab League foreign ministers plan to hold a crisis meeting on a request from Egypt. Erdogan lashed out at Egypt and Saudi Arabia, charging the latter was killing civilians in Yemen. "Saudi Arabia should look in the mirror. You have destroyed Yemen." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned "against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies."
In contrast, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow understands Turkey's concerns about its borders, in comments carried by Interfax news agency. "Since the beginning of the Syria crisis we have made clear that we understand the justifiable concerns Turkey has about security on its borders," said Lavrov. Russia is a military ally of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
With material from dpa, AFP, France 24