BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO on Friday called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeastern Syria, as scores of migrants seeking entry into Europe gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece
With Turkey signalling that it would let migrants leave, Greece and neighboring Bulgaria bolstered border security. The European Union warned that the fighting in northern Syria could degenerate into open war and that it stood ready to protect its security interests.
After chairing emergency talks between NATO ambassadors, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Syria and Russia “to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.”
“This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region,” Stoltenberg said.
Turkey’s allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths, but no additional NATO support was offered during the meeting.
Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about the arrival of any new waves of refugees.
The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.
Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating Erdogan’s longstanding warning that his country cannot cope with more people fleeing the conflict.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the EU agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates,” playing on European nervousness about a new surge.
The Turkish DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.
Early Friday, Turkish broadcaster NTV showed images of dozens of people — carrying rucksacks, suitcases and plastic bags — crossing fields towards the Greek frontier.
Near the Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, Turkish police stopped some 150 refugees about 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the border, preventing them from going further.
A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Police and military border patrols on the Greek side readied to prevent people crossing without authorization.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record to the press.
In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that “army units, national guard and border police staff have been urgently deployed at the border with Turkey to beat off a possible migrant influx.”
Borissov said that large groups of migrants were gathering by the border near the Turkish city of Edirne. He expressed concern that Turkish border police were moving away from the border.
But EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc was waiting for an official analysis of reports about migrant movements before acting. He said Turkey had not officially signaled that it was changing its migrant policy.
“We expect Turkey to uphold its commitments,” Stano said.
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that “there is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”
In a tweet, Borrell called for the escalation around Idlib to “stop urgently,” and underlined that “the EU will consider all necessary measures to protect its security interests. We are in touch with all relevant actors.”
Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a major crisis at NATO.
France in particular has tried to launch a debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.
The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making.
Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed.