Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened Thursday that his country could “just open the gates and send 3.6 million Syrian refugees into Europe” if the European Union classifies his military’s ongoing assault on Syria as an “invasion”.
Erdogan, in a speech to ruling party officials in Ankara, also announced that Operation Peace Spring so far has killed more than 100 Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, whom Turkey views as terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency within its borders.
“Hey European Union, if you call this operation… an invasion, then we could just open the gates and send 3.6 million Syrian refugees into Europe,” the Middle East Eye quoted Erdogan as saying.
But Thursday was not the first time Erdogan made this threat.
In early September, Erdogan told the same group of politicians that he would be forced to “open the gates” and allow a route for Syrian refugees to travel into Western Europe unless a deal was reached with the U.S. by the end of the month to help resettle some migrants in a so-called “safe zone” within Syria.
“We will be forced to open the gates,” Erdogan said at the time. “We cannot be forced to handle the burden alone.”
More than half of Syria’s population has fled the country as a result of the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad's government and multiple opposing factions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported. About 6.6 million refugees left Syria since 2011 — about half of whom settled in Turkey, which borders Syria from the north.
Yet the European Union said Thursday that the Turkish offensive in Kurdish-held areas of Syria is setting back any hope for progress toward ending the conflict.
"We believe that new armed hostilities would further undermine the stability of the whole region, would exacerbate civilian suffering, would provoke further displacements, would add another obstacle to the very difficult U.N.-led political process and would, that is also very important, threaten the progress that was achieved by the global coalition to defeat" ISIS, spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the crisis next Monday in Luxembourg before EU leaders pick it up again during their two-day summit meeting starting next Thursday.
The bloc released a statement Wednesday calling upon Turkey “to cease the unilateral military action.”
The Turkish invasion was launched three days after President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies.
Fox News’ Danielle Wallace and the Associated Press contributed to this report.