OUTSIDE SARAQEB, Syria/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Refugees in Turkey headed towards European frontiers on Friday after an official declared that borders had been thrown open, a response to the escalating war in Syria where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian-backed Syrian government troops.
European officials rushed to respond to Turkey’s direct threat to reverse an agreement that halted the migration crisis of 2015-2016, when more than a million people arrived by sea in Greece and crossed the Balkans on foot.
Moscow and Ankara traded blame over the strike in northwest Syria, the deadliest attack suffered by the Turkish army in nearly 30 years. Turkish financial markets plunged over the prospect of the country being pulled far more deeply into a new escalation of the nine-year-old war across the border in Syria.
“We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union,” the official said, adding that police and border guards had been stood down.
Within hours, a column of dozens of migrants was heading on foot towards the European frontier in the early morning light. A man carried a small child in his arms. Others rode in taxis.
“We heard about it on the television,” said Afghan migrant Sahin Nebizade, 16, in a group packed into one of three taxis parked on a highway. They had been living in Istanbul and were heading for a border crossing to Greece.
At the Greek border, Hamid Muhammed, carrying a young girl, said he had been turned back by Greek police: “We want the Turkish and European governments to open this gate.”
Greece and Bulgaria said they were immediately reinforcing their frontiers. Bulgaria’s prime minister said the prospect of a new migration crisis was even more of a threat when European countries were struggling to respond to the coronavirus.
However, both the EU and the United Nations refugee agency noted that reports of any change at the border were still unofficial and Ankara had not made any formal announcement.
A MILLION PEOPLE DISPLACED
Inside Syria itself there was ample evidence of the deterioration in fighting that has brought on perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of the entire nine-year-old war.
A million civilians have been displaced since December inside Syria near the Turkish border in desperate winter conditions. Turkey, already home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot take more.
Reuters journalists at the front line saw huge clouds of white smoke rising up as government forces struck the town of Saraqeb, an important crossroads captured by rebels this week in a rare push-back against the government advance.
Rebel fighters sped down highways in pick-up trucks with artillery mounted in the beds. In the provincial capital Idlib, wounded fighters in jeans and camouflage jackets were carried into a clinic on bloody trollies.
The Syrian civil war has worsened dramatically in recent months despite largely vanishing from the agenda of Western countries. Government forces, backed by Russian air power, have launched an assault to capture the northwest, the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.
With diplomacy sponsored by Ankara and Moscow in tatters, NATO-member Turkey has come closer than ever in the conflict to direct confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.
Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone on Friday morning to head off further confrontation. The Kremlin said they agreed on the need for a new arrangement to avert clashes in Syria’s Idlib province. Turkey said the leaders agreed to meet as soon as possible.
“There is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter.
The return of refugees to the frontier was an immediate reminder of the 2015-2016 crisis, Western Europe’s biggest migration since World War Two, when 4,000 people drowned trying to reach Greece. Since then, Europe has relied on Turkey to halt refugees, abandoning Syria diplomacy to Moscow and Ankara.
“At a time when we are imposing stricter border monitoring over the coronavirus, imagine if we have an inflow of hundreds of thousands of migrants,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said, announcing the mobilization of extra police on the border with Turkey. “We cannot afford that.”
Turkey, for years the principal ally of rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware in recent weeks into Idlib .
Erdogan has warned that Turkey would repel Assad’s forces unless they pulled back from Turkish posts. The United Nations and others have called for a ceasefire.
The air strike on Thursday raised Turkey’s military death toll to 54 in February in Idlib. The governor in Turkey’s border province said 32 other soldiers were wounded. It was the worst losses suffered by the Turkish military since a 1993 attack by Kurdish separatist guerrillas.
Turkey’s defense minister said the attack occurred despite coordination with Russia, and continued even after the alarm was sounded following the first strike. Russia’s Defence Ministry said the Turkish troops should not have been in that area, and Ankara had failed to tell Moscow where they were.
Turkey’s lira slid to a 17-month low and its main stock index plunged 10% early on Friday even though authorities banned short selling across all Turkish shares.
The United States, which has troops in another part of Syria, said it was very concerned about the reported attack on Turkish soldiers and stood by “our NATO ally Turkey”.
Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen, Can Sezer and Ceyda Caglayan in Istanbul, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, and Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Tom Balmforth, Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer, Daren Butler and Peter Graff, Editing by Robert Birsel, Simon Cameron-Moore, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones