Turkey will no longer stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, a senior Turkish official said, as Ankara responded on Friday to the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region.
The attack more than doubled Turkey’s military death toll in February in the region south of its border and raised the prospect that President Tayyip Erdogan would launch a full-scale operation against Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
In anticipation of the imminent arrival of refugees from Idlib, Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials have been ordered to stand down on refugees’ land and sea crossings towards Europe, the Turkish official told Reuters.
“We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union.”
Turkish media showed a video on Friday of migrants including some walking through fields with backpacks. Reuters was unable to verify the footage.
The pro-government Demiroren news agency reported some 300 migrants, including women and children, were walking northwest toward Turkey’s border with Greece.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the gates for migrants to travel to Europe. If it did so, it would reverse a pledge Turkey made to the European Union in 2016 and could draw Western powers into the standoff over Idlib and stalled negotiations between Ankara and Moscow.
Someone million civilians have been displaced near the Turkish border since December as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, have seized territory from Turkey-backed Syrian rebels.
It has created the worst humanitarian crisis in a nine-year war that has already displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.
The United Nations and others have called for an immediate ceasefire, but three rounds of talks between Ankara and Moscow have failed to reach a deal, and the fighting has raged on.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib in recent weeks, and Erdogan has warned that Turkey would repel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces unless they pulled back from Turkish observation posts in the region.