Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Monday to keep the doors open for migrants heading for Europe, as he mounted pressure on Western countries to give Turkey more assistance with the Syrian conflict.
Erdogan also said he hoped to reach a deal on a ceasefire in Syria when he meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin later in the week following increasing clashes in the last rebel hold-out of Idlib.
He warned Europe that it will have to shoulder its part of the migrant “burden”.
“After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors’,” he said.
“I told them ‘it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Now, you will have to take your share of the burden’.”
Some 13,000 migrants, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, massed at Turkey’s border with Greece over the weekend after Erdogan announced that Turkey would no longer prevent them from leaving towards the European Union.
Clashes erupted as Greek police blocked thousands at the border, firing teargas at the refugees who responded by lobbing rocks.
Turkey hosts some four million refugees – the majority of them Syrians – but agreed in 2016 to prevent them leaving for Europe in exchange for billions of euros in assistance.
EU foreign ministers are due to meet this week at the request of Greece to discuss the situation, amid fears of a repeat of the refugee influx that poisoned European politics in 2015.
Athens is to boost patrols of its land and sea borders in the north-east and was also suspending consideration of asylum applications by those who entered the country illegally, said Greek government spokesman, Stelios Petsas.
Ceasefire in Idlib?
Turkey has launched a military operation in Idlib after weeks of mounting tensions with the Syrian regime, which has pressed an offensive, backed by Russian air power, to retake the province.
Erdogan’s office confirmed he will hold a summit with Putin in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the escalating violence.
“I hope that he (Putin) will take the necessary measures there, such as a ceasefire, and that we will find a solution to this affair,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.
The Kremlin said cooperation with Turkey was a top priority.
“Our militaries are in constant contact. The main thing is that we now focus on negotiations between Putin and Erdogan,” a spokesman said.
Close to a million people have been forced to flee the violence in the biggest wave of displacement of the nine-year conflict.
Turkey backs certain Islamist rebels and has observation posts in the area under a 2018 deal with Russia that was supposed to prevent a full regime assault.
But the Syrian regime has made steady progress since December, and on Monday, retook the town of Saraqeb, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.
“Regime forces with Russian air cover were able to retake complete control of the town of Saraqeb on the Damascus-Aleppo highway,” it said.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria reached new heights last week when 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike blamed on Damascus.
Turkey has retaliated with a full operation that saw two Syrian warplanes shot down on Sunday, as well as at least 19 Syrian soldiers killed in drone strikes.
But it remains determined to avoid a direct clash with Russia, with which it shares significant defence and trade ties.
Despite being on opposing sides of the conflict, Ankara and Moscow have coordinated closely in the past, and there are hopes that Thursday’s summit will lead to a new ceasefire.
Reporting by AFP
Image: Some 13,000 migrants massed at Turkey’s border with Greece over the weekend after Turkey said it would no longer prevent them from leaving towards Europe (AFP/File/BULENT KILIC)