Turkey has opened its borders for refugees to enter Europe following an airstrike on Thursday night in Syria’s Idlib province that killed Turkish soldiers, European medias said.
At least 33 soldiers who were recently deployed in Idlib province of Syria to support the government’s oppositions, were killed in an airstrike by the Syrian forces, Guardian reported.
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.
Early on Friday, 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.
Ankara is seeking an emergency NATO meeting later on Friday to address the overnight violence against its forces in Syria. 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.
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.
The international community voiced fears of a rapidly growing risk of escalation after the attack.
It added to weeks of growing tensions between Turkey, a supporter of Syrian rebels and NATO member, and Russia. Moscow announced that two of its warships were moving through the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul on Friday in plain sight of the city.
The UN has repeatedly warned about the humanitarian crisis triggered by the fighting in Idlib, but Russian vetoes, often backed by China, have chronically constrained UN action in Syria.
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 US condemned the Syrian action, and NATO said it would hold urgent talks on the crisis on Friday.
Turkey also called on the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where regime forces have since December clawed back chunks of the region, forcing close to a million people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
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 around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, fears more people will arrive. There is growing popular discontent against their 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.
Groups of migrants had already moved towards western Turkey seeking to reach Greece, Turkey’s private DHA news agency reported.
Greece on Friday boosted border patrols, a government source said. “Greece has tightened the guarding of its land and sea borders to the maximum degree possible.”
A police source told AFP that border patrols had been doubled and a general call for heightened readiness had been issued.
An army source said around 300 people had been spotted on the Turkish side of the border in the northeastern Evros region.
“These numbers are not out of the ordinary,” the officer said.
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 Stephane 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 brings to 53 the number of Turkish security personnel killed in Idlib so far this month.