Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the European Union have entered a fresh argument over refugees amid the bloc’s criticism of Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria.
“Hey, European Union, pull yourself together. If you try to label this operation as an occupation … we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Erdoğan told members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Oct. 10.
In a fiery speech, Erdoğan said the 28-member bloc, which Turkey still formally aspires to join, had never been sincere with his country and warned it would face severe consequences if it portrayed Turkish actions negatively.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrians. Under a deal agreed to in 2016, the EU has provided billions of euros in aid in return for Ankara stemming the influx of migrants into Europe, but Turkey says the money was slow to materialize and paltry in comparison with the $40 billion it says it has spent.
“We invite those who close their eyes to all other developments and criticize Turkey to be mindful instead,” Erdoğan said.
Turkey, alongside its rebel allies, launched a military operation in northern Syria with several aims, including creating a “safe zone” to settle over one million refugees on Syrian soil, for which it wants Europe to pay.
“We plan on doing this with international funding,” Erdoğan said.
All 28 EU governments on Oct. 9 rejected those plans, saying it would not provide aid and warned that such an idea would not pass muster with the United Nations.
“The EU calls upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action,” read the joint statement.
“It is unlikely that a so-called ‘safe zone’ in north-east Syria, as envisaged by Turkey, would satisfy international criteria for refugee return,” it said.
“The EU will not provide stabilization or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored,” it added.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was blunt, saying: “Don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it.”
Tusk: Attempted blackmail
Western countries have expressed fears that the project would involve moving Sunni Arab Syrians into mainly Kurdish regions of the northeast. But Turkey says any demographic changes would only correct steps taken by the region’s Kurdish authorities.
“Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds and all other ethnic groups will return to their homes,” Erdoğan said, adding that ISIS “will not be able to establish a presence in the region. I want to give this guarantee to the world.”
In his reply to Erdoğan, European Council President Donald Tusk has branded the former’s remarks as “attempted blackmail.”
“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable,” Tusk said on Oct. 11.
“Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us. That is why I consider yesterday’s threats made by President Erdoğan totally out of place,” he added.
A day earlier, the EU urged Turkey to “adhere to EU foreign policy” due to its bid to join the bloc.
“Joining the European Union requires all candidates to align themselves with the European Union foreign policy … in that context if Turkey is serious about its ambitions [to join the bloc], that is the path it must follow,” a Commission spokeswoman told a news briefing on Oct. 9.
‘Who brought Yemen to this state?’
In his speech on Oct. 10, Erdoğan also slammed Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which both condemned Turkey’s operation, saying they should “step aside” and let Turkey get on with the battle.
“Let me start with Saudi Arabia. Look in the mirror first. Who brought Yemen to this state?” he asked, referring to Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen’s ruinous civil war.
Turkey’s troubled relations with Saudi Arabia were further strained last year by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Ties with Cairo have also been poor since the Egyptian army toppled Erdoğan’s ally, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi, in 2013.
Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, died in July of a heart attack after collapsing in a Cairo court while on trial on espionage charges.
“Egypt, you can’t talk at all. You are a country with a democracy killer,” Erdoğan said. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “held a meeting with some others and condemned the operation – so what if you do?” he added.
Turkey aims to clear its border from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) due to the fact that it includes People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey has been battling the PKK for nearly 40 years. The group is designated as a terrorist organization by Ankara, the U.S. and the EU.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has denied giving Turkey the “green light” for its offensive.
“That’s just false,” he said, in an interview with PBS channel, but did not elaborate other than to say that Turkey has a “legitimate security concern.”
“They have a terrorist threat to their south. We’ve been working to make sure that we did what we could do to prevent that terror threat from striking the people in Turkey, while trying to achieve what is in America’s best interest: the threat from radical Islamic terrorism emanating from Syria,” he added.
Pompeo said the US was leaving Syria because it has achieved the goal of eliminating the ISIS’ territorial hold.
“We’ll continue to be in a position to do what we need to do to keep the American people as safe as we possibly can from this threat,” he said.
Trump: Kurds didn’t help us with Normandy
Trump, who has been consistently tweeting several times a day on the issue since the beginning of the offensive, has said that mediating a deal between Turkey and the Kurds is one of three options available to the U.S.
“We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” Trump said in a Twitter post.
In another tweet, he said he was talking to “both sides” and warned Ankara that it would be hit hard financially if it did not “play by the rules.”
“I am trying to end the ENDLESS WARS. Talking to both sides,” he said on Twitter.
“I say hit Turkey very hard financially & with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules! I am watching closely.”
Similarly, upon a question by a reporter, the U.S. President said that he would devastate Turkey’s economy if Ankara’s operation wipes out the Kurdish population there.
“I will wipe out his economy if that happens. I’ve already done it once with Pastor Brunson,” Trump said, referring to U.S. sanctions slapped on Turkey over the detention of an American.
“I hope that he will act rationally,” he said.
Moreover, in a separate series of tweets he called the offensive a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it. He said he expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis – as Turkey has said it would.
On a separate occasion, Trump defended U.S. policy towards Kurds, saying Washington had spend “tremendous amounts of money” arming and funding them.
“The Kurds are fighting for their land…As somebody wrote in a very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example… But they were there to help us with their land, and that’s a different thing,” Trump said.
Senators eye sanctions against Ankara
But one of Trump’s closest fellow Republican allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, said failing to support the Kurds would be “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”
Graham and Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen on Oct. 9 unveiled an outline for proposed sanctions on Turkey, including targeting the U.S. assets of Erdoğan and imposing visa restrictions.
The proposed legislation would also impose sanctions on any military transactions with Turkey, set sanctions on anyone who supports Turkey’s domestic energy industry for use by its armed forces, prohibit the sale of U.S. defense articles to the Turkey armed forces and define Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system as “significant” and subject to sanctions.
Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican hawk, said: “The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS.”
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Trump had authorized U.S. officials to draft “very significant new sanctions” to target Turkey after the launch of the offensive but added that they were not “activating” the measures at this time.
“These are very powerful sanctions. We hope we don’t have to use them, but we can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” Mnuchin told reporters at the White House.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in a telephone call with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, called on Ankara to halt its military operation in Syria, saying the offensive threatens progress in combating ISIS and risks harm to U.S. troops.
A Pentagon statement said that while Esper “reaffirmed we value our strategic bilateral relationship, this incursion risks serious consequences for Turkey.”
It added: “As part of the call, Secretary Esper strongly encouraged Turkey to discontinue actions in northeastern Syria in order to increase the possibility that the United States, Turkey and our partners could find a common way to de-escalate the situation before it becomes irreparable.”
Esper “made clear that Turkey’s uncoordinated actions risked the progress” made in the fight against ISIS.
The call took place on Oct. 10, the Pentagon said.
We expect Turkey to act with restraint, NATO chief says
Elsewhere, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed “serious concerns” on Oct. 11 about Turkey’s ongoing operation and called for “restraint.”
“I shared … my serious concerns about this ongoing operation and the risk of further destabilization of the region,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Istanbul, speaking alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
“While Turkey has serious security concerns, we expect Turkey to act with restraint.”
Stoltenberg also said the offensive should not undermine gains against ISIS.
“These gains must not be jeopardized. An imminent concern is that captured Daesh prisoners must not be allowed to escape,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Another statement on the issue was made by Russia, with its Permanent Representative to the UN Vassily Nebenzya saying that Turkey’s operation was a result of “demographic engineering” that was carried out by member-countries of the US-led international coalition in Syria.
Nebenzya told reporters that the coalition was “reaping the fruit” of their demographic policies.
“We are encouraging the Kurds to engage in dialogue with the Syrian government, but as you know they preferred other protectors,” he added.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign minister Faisal Maqdad, however, said that the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces had betrayed their country and accused them of a “separatist agenda that gave Turkey a pretext to violate his country’s sovereignty.”
“We won’t accept any dialogue or talk with those who had become hostages to foreign forces …There won’t be any foothold for the agents of Washington on Syrian territory,” Maqdad told reporters in his office in Damascus.
Putin warns against ISIS militants
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also commented on the issue, with the former saying that the offensive could lead to the revival of ISIS in the region.
Putin said Kurds who were guarding thousands of imprisoned ISIS fighters are now fleeing.
“I’m not sure whether the Turkish army will be able to take this under control – and how soon,” Putin said in televised remarks on a visit to Turkmenistan. “This is a real threat to us.”
“How will they be moving and to where?” he asked of the ISIS militants
“Through Turkish territory? Through other territories?”
“We should simply understand this, know and mobilize the resources of our security services to neutralize this emerging new threat,” he added, without giving more detail.
Earlier, Putin told Erdoğan by phone to avoid any steps in Syria that could damage its peace process, the Kremlin said.
Lavrov said Ankara and Damascus should discuss the issue of Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria directly, calling Turkey’s cross-border assault a product of U.S. policies.
“We will strive for the necessity of dialogue between Turkey and Syria,” he said.
Turkey has “legitimate concerns about the safety of its borders” but had not been able to properly raise them with Damascus as this was “made difficult by the actions of the Americans and the coalition” east of the Euphrates river, he said.
Iran calls for immediate end to Turkey’s offensive
Iran, meanwhile, called for an immediate halt to Turkey’s offensive, citing concern for the dangers to civilians in the conflict zone.
“Iran… emphasizes [the need for] an immediate halt to the assault and the departure of Turkish military units from Syrian territory,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called on Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria.
As Rouhani spoke, Iran’s Army Ground Forces began an unannounced military drill in the northwest of the country that borders Turkey, the Iranian Students’ News Agency ISNA reported.
“We have openly said that the only solution to ensure safety and security in southern Turkey and northern Syria is the presence of the Syrian army,” state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.
“We are calling on our friendly and brotherly neighbor Turkey to act with more patience and restraint, and to revise its decision and chosen path,” he said.
Iran, like Turkey, is home to a large ethnic Kurdish population and Rouhani expressed understanding for Turkish concerns about security on its borders, adding: “We believe that a correct path should be adopted to remove those concerns.”
“Kurds in Syria… should support the Syrian army,” he said.
Reporting on Iran’s own military drill that started on Oct. 9, ISNA said it included rapid reaction units, mobile and offense brigades, and helicopters from the Army Ground Force’s Air Unit.
“The aim of the military exercise is to evaluate the combat readiness of army units and their mobility and agility in the battlefield,” ISNA said.
Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani has cancelled his scheduled trip to Turkey, Iranian state TV reported.
“Larijani was invited by his Turkish counterpart to attend a parliamentary meeting in Turkey. His trip has been cancelled,” TV said, without elaborating.
Russia and Iran, two major foreign powers in Syria, strongly support President Bashar al-Assad – unlike Turkey and the U.S. which both called for him to stand down and supported rebels fighting to overthrow him.
Italy summons Turkey’s envoy
Elsewhere, the Italian foreign ministry summoned Turkey’s ambassador to protest against Ankara’s offensive in Syria.
The ministry called for an end to unilateral actions and recalled that the only lasting solution to the crisis in Syria was a UN-mediated peace process.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said earlier that Turkey’s offensive was “unacceptable” and called for an immediate end to the fighting.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a de-escalation of the conflict in Syria, adding that any military operation must fully respect the U.N. Charter and international humanitarian law
“I want to express my deepest concerns about the escalation of conflict in eastern Syria. It is absolutely essential to de-escalate,” he said in Copenhagen.
Norway announced that it was suspending all new arms exports to Turkey amid the ongoing offensive.
“Given that the situation is complex and changing quickly, the foreign ministry as a precautionary measure will not handle any new demands for exports of defense material or material for multiple uses… to Turkey,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide said in an email sent to AFP.
Soreide added that the foreign ministry would also review all licences for arms exportation that have already been issued.
Similarly, the Netherlands has “decided to withhold all licence applications for the export of military goods to Turkey pending the course of the situation” in northern Syria, according to the Dutch foreign ministry.
In a statement to the AFP news agency, the Netherlands also called on European Union member states to “exercise restraint and closely follow the criteria for arms exports” to Turkey.
The Netherlands is responsible for about eight percent of Europe’s total arms exports to Turkey, according to figures by the Amsterdam-based research and campaign organisation Stop Wapenhandel.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he had summoned the Turkish ambassador.
“The Netherlands condemns the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria,” Blok said in a statement. “We call on Turkey not to continue on the path they are going down.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said Ankara’s operation ran “the risk of helping Daesh rebuild a caliphate.”
“I call on Turkey to put an end to it as soon as possible,” he told journalists at a press conference in Lyon.
Macron met with SDF spokeswoman Jihane Ahmed earlier, to express “France’s solidarity with them in their fight against ISIS.”
According to a statement released by Macron’s office on Oct. 9, the meeting held on Oct. 8 was “an opportunity to reiterate that France remains very worried about the prospect of a Turkish military operation in Syria.”
Similarly, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called for an immediate end to the fighting that he called “unacceptable.”
“As a government we think that the Turkish offensive initiative is unacceptable. We condemn it … because military action in the past has always led to more terrorism,” Di Maio said.
“We call for an immediate end to this offensive which is absolutely not acceptable given that the use of force continues to endanger the life of the Syrian people, who have already experienced tragedy in recent years,” he added.
Britain also condemned the offensive.
“The intervention risks greater humanitarian suffering and undermines the focus on countering Daesh,” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Israel was also among the countries that criticized Turkey’s offensive, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning against the “ethnic cleansing” of the Kurdish people.
Netanyahu said he was “prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people”.
Canada was another country to condemn the offensive.
“Canada firmly condemns Turkey’s military incursion into Syria today … we call for the protection of civilians and on all parties to respect their obligations under international law,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Twitter.
The United Nations Security Council was set to meet on Oct. 10 to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
In a letter to the 15-member Council seen by Reuters, Turkey said its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.”
‘Turkey’s response will be proportionate’
“As has been the case in its previous counter-terrorism operations, Turkey’s response will be proportionate, measured and responsible,” Turkey’s U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu wrote in a letter to the council seen by Reuters.
“The operation will only target terrorists and their hideouts, shelters, emplacements, weapons vehicles and equipment,” he wrote. “All precautions are taken to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population.”
Turkey justified its action under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which covers an individual or collective right to self-defense against armed attack.
The 22-member Arab League said it would hold an emergency meeting on Oct. 12, following a call by Egypt for the body to meet over Turkey’s offensive in Syria.
Egypt’s foreign ministry, in a statement, “condemned in the strongest terms the Turkish aggression on Syrian territory,” saying the offensive “represents a blatant and unacceptable attack on the sovereignty of a brotherly Arab state.”
The Arab League, which groups 22 states including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, said in a statement on Wednesday that Saturday’s meeting would be at the ministerial level “to discuss the Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory.
“It constitutes an unacceptable attack on the sovereignty of an Arab member state of the League,” Arab League Assistant Secretary General Hossam Zaki said.
Pakistan supports offensive
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, has offered backing for the offensive.
A Pakistani government statement said Khan called Erdoğan to express “support and solidarity.” He told the Turkish president that “Pakistan fully understands Turkey’s concerns relating to terrorism” as “it has lost 40,000 people in acts of terrorism in recent years.”
Khan said he was praying that “Turkey’s efforts for enhanced security, regional stability and peaceful resolution of the Syrian situation are fully successful.”
Erdoğan is due to visit Pakistan later this month.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Turkey’s operation would lead to further destabilization of the region and could strengthen ISIS. He urged Turkey to end the operation.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the operation risked destabilizing the region and harming civilians.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod tweeted: “Deeply concerned about Turkish military operation in Syria. In my view, this is a regrettable and wrong decision, which can have serious consequences for civilians and the fight against ISIL. Turkey must show restraint. Denmark is in close contact with allies on the matter,” using an acronym for ISIS.
Safe zone to not exceed 30 kilometers depth, Turkish FM says
Separately, Çavuşoğlu said his country’s operation would not go further than 30 kilometers deep into Syria.
“When we go 30 kilometers deep in the safe zone, terror there will be removed,” he told CNN Türk.
Çavuşoğlu also said Turkey had the right to use the air space over Syria as part of its campaign and that the “air space does not belong to the U.S.”
Elsewhere, Turkish Defense Ministry has announced that the number of YPG militants “neutralized” in the operation was 399.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) uses the term “neutralize” to describe militants who were either killed, wounded or captured.
It shared a video showing the moment of impact on a truck presumably belonging to the YPG, followed by a large cloud of smoke.
Similarly, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that “every kind of measures have been taken” in operation areas.
Akar said the military operation continues “successfully as planned.”
“We give the utmost importance to not only the security of our country and people, but also to the ethnic groups – Kurdish, Arabic, Assyrian, Christian, Ezidis and Keldani people – as well,” he said.
18 civilians killed in Turkey’s southeast
Separately, one soldier was killed and three others were wounded in the offensive on Oct. 10.
Four soldiers were also killed on Oct. 11.
A total of 18 civilians, including a nine month old baby and an 11 year old child, were killed in separate YPG attacks in the country’s southeastern provinces.