Turkey plans to resettle a million refugees in northern Syria and may reopen the route for migrants into Europe if it does not receive adequate international support for the plan, President Tayyip Erdogan said.
Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, controls parts of north Syria where 350 000 Syrians have returned. It is setting up a “safe zone” with the United States in the north-east where Erdogan said more could be moved.
“Our goal is for at least a million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone along our 450 km border,” Erdogan said.
The comments come as Turkey mounts pressure on Washington for further concessions on the depth and oversight of the planned safe zone and as it comes under increasing pressure in the Idlib region where a Russian-backed government offensive presses north.
A small minority of Syrians in Turkey are from the northern strip earmarked for re-settlement, according to Turkish government data.
“We are saying we should form a safe zone we, as Turkey, can build towns in lieu of tent cities. Let’s carry them to the safe zones,” Erdogan said.
“Give us logistical support and we can build housing at 30 km depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide humanitarian living conditions.”
“This either happens or we have to open the gates,” Erdogan said. “Either you provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”
Under a deal agreed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, Ankara agreed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for billions of euros in aid.
The number of migrant arrivals in Greece spiked last month. A week ago, more than a dozen migrant boats carrying 600 people arrived, the first simultaneous arrival in three years.
Last month, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 17% of refugees in Turkey hail from north-east regions controlled by US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Last week, senior Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said it was necessary to re-settle refugees in their home towns. “Settling thousands of Syrians, from outside our area would be unacceptable,” he said of the north east.
In Idlib, where Turkey has troops and where Ankara in 2017 agreed with Moscow and Tehran to reduce fighting, renewed conflict intensified and raised prospects for another wave of refugees at Turkey’s borders.
After a truce collapsed in early August, the Russian-backed Syrian army gained significant ground against rebel forces, some backed by Turkey.
Nicholas Danforth, Istanbul-based senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said warning about refugees in the context of the safe zone allows Erdogan to pressure Europe and the United States simultaneously.
“What seems clear is it would be impossible to settle that many refugees in any zone achieved through negotiations with the United States and the YPG,” he said.
“This looks like an attempt to build pressure for more US concessions on the safe zone, where some refugees could be resettled for purposes of domestic public relations.”