Turkey’s president has threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe in retaliation for stinging world criticism of his military operation in northern Syria that has left 17 civilians dead, including several children.
Lashing out at the European Union and others that joined a global chorus of condemnation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would “open the gates” if anyone called his offensive “an invasion”.
Over 60,000 people have since fled their homes as Ankara’s military advanced, capturing nine Syrian villages and encircling two Kurdish-held towns.
Under airstrikes and heavy artillery, panicked residents of the Syrian border towns told The Independent they had “nowhere to hide”.
“We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a fiery speech on Thursday. Taking aim at the storm of criticism from across the world, he added: “They are not honest, they just make up words … We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.”
Nato-ally Turkey has threatened a cross-border offensive for years but only pressed ahead after US president Donald Trump unexpectedly ordered a pullback of US forces from the border area late Sunday night.
In the shock announcement, Mr Trump had said the US would not prevent an imminent Turkish attack against Washington’s Kurdish allies – a move the SDF called a “stab in the back”.
The SDF, a mostly Kurdish militia with an Arab contingent, has been a key partner of the US in the fight against the Isis. The group, which received arms as well as significant air and ground support from the US, lost some 11,000 fighters in the years-long war before recapturing the last piece of Isis territory in March.
Just weeks before Mr Trump’s announcement, the SDF had destroyed several of its military defences near to the border with Turkey as part of a US-led security agreement.
In an attempt to defend his decision, the US president hit out at critics and said the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War”. He later appeared to backtrack warning Ankara that it would be hit hard financially if it did not “play by the rules”. Ankara considers the SDF a terrorist organisation for its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
It claims its operation intends to create a “safe zone” to facilitate the return of millions of refugees, with Turkey’s foreign minister saying the operation would go no further than 30km into Syria.
Many also say that Turkey’s offensive runs the risk of Isis prisoners escaping from camps – which hold some 18,000 militants – amid the chaos
On Wednesday night, Kurdish officials accused Turkey of bombing a prison, in the border city of Qamishli, which holds Isis jihadists of more than 60 nationalities.
“This could lead to their escape,” he added. Journalists in the area confirmed the hit to The Independent, calling it a “near miss” as no Isis fighter had escaped.
Aid agencies, meanwhile, warned that over 60,000 people had fled their homes amid intense airstrikes and artillery fire.
“Dozens of families, mostly women, children and elderly people are now camping in the four largest schools here. We are concerned because the schools are almost full already. There is no one administering aid. They need everything right now, food water, everything,” he added.
Residents of Qamishli city, further east, meanwhile shared gruesome photos of two children hit by artillery fire. They said Mohamed, 15, was killed by the attack. His sister, 8, whose foot was shown dangling from her shattered leg by just a thread, later had her limb amputated.
“The doctors tried to reassure the aunt but in the last second they had to admit the little girl would lose her leg. Everyone looked horrified,” she told The Independent.
“The parents were busy burying the little boy, they had no idea their daughter was undergoing an amputation,” she added.
As the death toll mounted, world leaders and bodies, called on Turkey to immediately cease the unilateral attack, denouncing Ankara’s plan to build a “safe zone”.
The European Union, which sparked the wrath of Mr Erdogan, said forcibly relocating Syrian refugees to northern Syria would not “satisfy international criteria for refugee return as laid down by UNHCR”.
“Any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable,” the blistering statement added.
“The EU will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored.”
He said the intervention risks greater humanitarian suffering and “undermines the focus on countering Daesh [ISIS]”.
Finland, Denmark and India echoed the UK’s condemnation. While several regional powerhouses, including Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also expressed their alarm. An emergency Arab League session was called on Saturday to discuss the operation.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even pledged to send humanitarian aid to the Kurds and warned of possible “ethnic cleansing … by Turkey and its proxies.”
Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, travelled to Brussels to appeal for help.
President Erdogan defended the operation maintaining Turkey would support Syria’s territorial integrity by confronting Kurdish control of the country’s northeast.
He reassured states that Ankara would retain Isis fighters in its custody while deporting others to their countries of origin – if they could accept them.
The leader also said that “109 terrorists have been killed so far” referring to the Kurdish-led forces, but Rami Abdurrahman, from monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Independent that number was “hugely inflated”.
He said that 28 members of the SDF and its allies had been killed, and 40 others wounded.