Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the beginning of a campaign to pressure refugees from neighboring Syria to make their way into the European Union (EU) following a Syrian army strike in which 33 Turkish troops were killed last week. Syria has accused longtime enemy Turkey of assisting terrorist rebels as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, backed by Russia and Hezbollah, are attempting to retake the northwestern province of Idlib.
Syria is facing a major escalation of the already-dire refugee crisis in the country, as hundreds of thousands of civilians are reportedly trapped in the latest round of fighting. Russia and Turkey have been trading accusations as Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed the blame squarely with Erdogan for aiding terrorist forces in one of their last remaining enclaves. Following the Syrian strike, Turkish forces responded by carrying out air and ground bombardments in which 200 Syrian government targets were reportedly hit and 309 soldiers killed.
The United Nations (UN) convened an emergency meeting following the attack on Turkish troops, pledging its support for Turkey. Russia, for its part, is unlikely to enter any kind of negotiations with Erdogan over a future ceasefire until a decisive victory is attained in Idlib.
Despite differences in the war in Syria, Putin and Erdogan share a number of mutual interests which have so far prevented a direct conflict. The TurkStream pipeline, inaugurated in 2015 and completed last year, allows Russia to supply natural gas to southeast Europe while bypassing Ukraine. Turkey is largely dependent on Russia for its tourist industry. Moscow and Ankara share regional interest including their support for Iran and mutual opposition to the West.
In 2016, Turkey signed an agreement with the EU whereby it would prevent refugees from streaming into Europe and help them resettle with the help of a 6-billion-euro aid package. Erdogan has insisted the EU has not met its end of the bargain and that Turkey is unable to quarter over 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in the country.
Recent fighting across the border has set off a new wave of Syrian refugees. In an unprecedented move that has led to strong condemnation from EU leaders, Erdogan announced he would allow refugees to enter neighboring Greece and Bulgaria on Saturday.
On Friday, Turkish TV reported that hundreds of Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were making their way to the border. Later on in the day, refugees clashed with Greek police who fired tear gas and water cannons at the protesters. Turkish troops fired back on the crowd, forcing them to make a break for the border. A few refugees, most of them men, were reportedly able to breach the border fence. According to a spokesman for the Greek government, 66 were arrested upon crossing into Greek territory. This is viewed as an attempt by Ankara to gain the EU's support for its military campaign in Syria.
The latest development could further complicate the international crisis as the EU and Washington are likely to be drawn into the conflict.