ANKARA: Turkey’s president warned on Wednesday that a fresh migrant crisis could be resolved only if Europe supports its efforts in Syria, as violent clashes broke out between refugees and police on the Greek border.

Thousands of migrants have massed at the Greek frontier with Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that they would no longer be prevented from trying to enter Europe.

Erdogan’s move came after Russian-backed Syrian forces killed 34 Turkish troops in northern Syria, prompting him to seek greater assistance from the international community.

But EU leaders now fear a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015-16, when more than one million migrants crossed into the EU, and have decried Turkish “blackmail”.

With mounting tensions around the border crossing at Pazarkule, a Turkish official claimed one migrant had been killed and five injured by live fire from the Greek side.

Athens strongly denied the claim, but an AFP photographer earlier saw a migrant shot in the leg — it was not clear whether by a live round or a rubber bullet — as a group of refugees tried to cut their way through fencing.

The group then threw stones at the Greek police, who responded with tear gas, while multiple shots and cries could be heard.

Athens released a video apparently showing Turkish police firing tear gas at Greek border guards, which could not be immediately confirmed.

Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan said Europe had to support Turkey’s “political and humanitarian solutions in Syria” if it wanted to resolve the situation.

Turkey already hosts nearly four million refugees, most of them Syrians, and has been fighting the Syrian government in a bid to prevent another influx from Idlib, the jihadist-dominated region that has been under attack by Damascus since December.

Close to one million people in Idlib have been displaced by the government assault, which is backed by Russian air power, though they are currently blocked from entering Turkey.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Council President Charles Michel met with Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday, pledging an additional 170 million euros ($189 million) in aid for vulnerable groups in Syria.

Borrell said the EU recognised the “difficult situation Turkey is facing” but that Turkey’s green light to migrants could “only make the situation worse”.

France took a firmer line. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the EU would not give into “blackmail” and that the borders of the continent were “closed, and we will ensure they stay closed”.

Ceasefire?

Despite being on opposing sides of the nine-year war in Syria, Nato-member Turkey and Russia have kept lines of communication open.

But the relationship has been heavily strained, with more than 50 Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib in recent weeks, and three more reported deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Erdogan said he hoped a ceasefire would be “swiftly established” when he meets his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Ankara officially announced an offensive against Syrian forces over the weekend, demanding they pull back behind lines agreed under the 2018 Sochi deal with Russia. It killed nine government troops in drone strikes, a monitor said Wednesday.

“We expect Russia to fulfil its promises as a guarantor country and stop the regime’s attacks and to use its influence to ensure the regime adheres to the Sochi deal’s borders,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said, according to broadcaster NTV.

But many say Russia is determined to see the Syrian government regain full control of its territory.

“There might be a ceasefire announced after the talks between Putin and Erdogan but it’ll be for show,” said a Western diplomat.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2020