Some 18,000 Syrian refugees “pressed on the gates and crossed” into Europe this weekend from Turkey after facing months and sometimes years of struggle to survive what appeared to be an endless civil war in their homeland.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Istanbul on Saturday, “We will not close these doors in the coming period and this will continue. Why? The European Union needs to keep its promises. We don’t have to take care of this many refugees, to feed them.”
Turkey has accepted some 3.7 million Syrian refugees over the past 11 years, in addition to migrants from countries such as Afghanistan.
In accordance with a lucrative deal from the European Union, Ankara has blocked the refugees from leaving for Europe up to this point.
But Erdogan contends the EU has not lived up to the full amount of the financial aid agreed to in its 2018 refugee deal with Turkey.
It’s Really About the War with Syria
However, the opening of Turkey’s borders to allow the movement of Syrian refugees is not all about the money from the European Union. It’s also about pressuring Europe and NATO to exert pressure on Moscow to rein in Syrian regime attacks on rebel groups in Idlib.
The move followed a lethal bombing attack on Turkish troops this past week by Syrian regime forces in the northwestern sector that left at least 33 Turkish soldiers dead and many more wounded.
Some reports claimed the attack was carried out by Russian aircraft, but the reports were swiftly deleted, and subsequent statements by Turkey all referred to Syrian military attacks.
Turkey retaliated against the Syrian regime, killing 16 government soldiers, according to a report Friday by Radio Free Europe.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan spoke together by phone on Friday to discuss the attack in Idlib, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
And Might Be About a Problem with Russia
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the Turkish soldiers who came under fire by Syrian regime forces were among “terrorists.”
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet said it was sending two warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea towards the Syrian coast following the exchange.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar rejected that claim, saying “There were no armed groups around our military units” during the attack.
The United States, meanwhile said, “We stand by our NATO ally Turkey,” and demanded that Syria and Russia stop their “despicable” offensive in Idlib. “We are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis,” said a State Department spokesperson.
Turkey Asks NATO to Join the Party
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke by phone with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and “condemned the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province.”
NATO met in a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council on Friday to discuss the situation in Syria following a request by Turkey to hold consultations.
Stoltenberg said afterwards the meeting was held as a “sign of solidarity with Turkey.”
In his statement, he noted the allies offered “their deepest condolences for the death of Turkish soldiers in the bombing” and condemned “the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province.
“We call on them to stop their offensive. To respect international law. And to back UN efforts for a peaceful solution,” Stoltenberg said.
“This dangerous situation must be deescalated to avoid further worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region, and to allow urgent humanitarian access for those trapped in Idlib. We urge an immediate return to the 2018 ceasefire.”
Stoltenberg added that NATO would continue to support Turkey with a “range of measures” that included augmenting its air defenses, which “helps Turkey against the threat of missile attacks from Syria.”
Idlib is the only province where Turkish-backed rebel groups still hold any significant territory. There are, however, also a number of jihadist forces also located there as well.