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Erdogan: We will release refugees into Europe if Syria safe zone is not set up

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the crowd as he attends a mass opening ceremony at Mevlana Square in Konya, Turkey on 1 September, 2019 [Abdullah Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to allow Syrian refugees to leave Turkey and make their way to Europe if the long-awaited safe zone in northern Syria is not established.

“We will be forced to open the gates. We cannot be forced to handle the burden alone,” Erdoğan said in a speech to his party today, stating that Turkey “did not receive the support needed from the world.” The support he referred to is the promise of financial aid amounting to six billion euros ($6,642,510,000) from the European Union (EU) and the provision of visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, as part of the refugee deal the Union struck with Turkey back in 2016.

Reportedly, only half of the funding promised for the maintenance of refugees has been provided, the most recent being the EU’s announcement of an extra $142 million, while the visa-free travel for Turkish nationals has not yet been granted, causing the country to say the deal is no longer under effect back in July.

Turkey currently hosts around four million refugees from Syria and has so far spent $40 billion on their upkeep and maintenance within the camps, giving it reason to accuse the EU and the West of not living up to their promises while it has been holding a wave of refugees within its borders throughout the eight-year Syrian civil war.

The solution to the problem was meant to be the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria, mainly east of the Euphrates River where the Kurdish militias such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are currently entrenched. This, as Erdogan saw it, would be to achieve two things at once: the clearing of the Kurdish militias from its border region with Syria and the placement of around one million refugees in that safe zone, providing the displaced Syrians with a new home in their country.

READ: Erdogan says it’s unacceptable that Turkey can’t have nuclear weapons

“Our goal is to settle at least a million of our Syrian brothers and sisters in a safe zone along the border 450 kilometres long,” Erdogan added in his speech.

To that end, Turkey has been pushing for the safe zone’s establishment in the model of an agreement with the United States, which is allied to and holds sway over the Kurdish militias. Throughout the talks between the two countries, Turkey warned that it would conduct its military operation into northern Syria and establish the zone itself, prompting the US to eventually agree to work together and set up a cooperation centre near the Syrian border.

That cooperation, however, has not been beneficial for Turkey so far: its demands for the zone to be thirty kilometres deep into Syria and its desire to control it with its forces have not been respected by the US so far, and many on the Turkish side have expressed their fears that it will turn out to be another Manbij scenario – where the US dominates the situation and Turkey is side-lined.  Erdogan has made it clear last week that Turkey will not accept the repeat of such a case, stating that “We will never tolerate a delay as we saw in Manbij. The process must advance rapidly.”

Earlier this week, Erdogan lamented that the safe zone is nothing more than a name, and again warned that Turkey would advance in northern Syria to implement its plan if it is not granted full control within the next few weeks.

READ: Erdogan says it’s unacceptable that Turkey can’t have nuclear weapons

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