BRUSSELS: NATO envoys were holding emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeast Syria, as scores of migrants gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that Friday morning’s meeting of ambassadors would be held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows any ally to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.
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.
At least 54 Turkish troops have now been killed in Idlib in that time.
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 a longstanding warning from Erdogan that his country can no longer cope with the arrival of people fleeing the conflict.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.
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.
A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press on the record.
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 any new wave of refugees arriving.
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 crisis at the military alliance.
France in particular has tried to launch 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, and particularly because Erdogan has used up a lot of good will by testing his fellow NATO members’ patience for quite a while.
The Syria offensive comes on top of tensions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Erdogan also purged thousands of Turkish military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in Europe.
But despite high political-military tensions, Turkey is too important to eject from the 29-member alliance.
Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it a vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia’s naval fleet is based.
NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.
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