ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president on Thursday threatened to “open the gates” and allow a flood of Syrian refugees to leave Turkey for Western countries unless a so-called “safe zone” is established inside Syria soon in negotiations with the Americans.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech to his ruling party officials, lamented what he described as Turkey being left to shoulder the burden of Syrian refugees alone.
Turkey is determined to create the safe zone inside Syria, along its border with the war-torn country, and was ready to do it alone before the end of the month if there is no agreement with the United States.
“We will be forced to open the gates. We cannot be forced to handle the burden alone,” Erdogan said, reiterating Turkey’s annoyance that past proposals for the creation of the safe zone — envisioned as a place where refugees could be re-settled — has been ignored by Western nations.
“We did not receive the support needed from the world and especially from the European Union, concerning the burden-sharing,” he said.
Turkey opened its borders to Syrians in April 2011 and is currently home to 3.6 million who fled the civil war, now in its ninth year.
Turkey has frequently threatened to back away from a deal with the European Union reached in March 2016 under which Turkey would stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for funds to help support the refugees and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Turkey and the United States have been engaged in talks to establish a safe zone inside Syria east of the Euphrates River and even set up a joint operations center in Turkey’s border province of Sanliurfa to coordinate their efforts. They have also started joint helicopter patrols.
But Erdogan said differences remain with Washington on what the safe zone would look like. He did not elaborate.
“We are determined to start the creation of a safe zone east of the Euphrates in the way we want it by the last week of September,” he said.
Erdogan said Turkey aims to resettle about 1 million out of the 3.65 million Syrian refugees in the safe zone.
Ankara wants U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, Washington’s key allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, to pull back from the border area and out of the safe zone. Erdogan said last week that Turkish officials had “temporarily” agreed to a safe zone proposed by the U.S. that is narrower than 20 miles (32 kilometers).
Turkey considers the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists, linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.