Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have begun preparing to travel towards the country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria after Ankara suddenly indicated that it would to no longer impede their passage to Europe.
The move comes after an airstrike on Thursday night in Syria’s Idlib province killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers recently deployed to support the Syrian opposition in the face of a bruising Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials were ordered to stand down overnight on Thursday, Turkish officials briefed reporters. The change in policy has not yet been officially confirmed.
Turkey often threatens to reopen the migrant route from the Middle East, which at its peak in 2015 saw thousands drown in the Mediterranean and a million people reach Greece and Italy, where many still live in miserable displacement camps.
Thursday’s decision, however, would effectively reverse a 2016 deal Turkey struck with the EU to cut the numbers of migrants entering Europe. It appears to be calibrated to force the EU and Nato to support Ankara’s new military operation in Idlib.
Under the impression that the window to leave Turkey may be short-lived, some of the 3.6 million Syrians currently living in the country began to move quickly.
Turkish news agency Demirören showed footage of what it said was 300 people, including women and children, walking on highways and through forested land in north-west Turkey towards the EU border early on Friday. Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among those in the group, it said.
In Istanbul, the local Syrian community began organising buses to take people from the city to the borders. Dozens of people waited for the informal transport at a square in the city’s Fatih district.
At the bus station in Edirne, the last big town before the Greek border, dozens of people – mostly young men and a few families – gathered to assess their next move and await reports on what was happening at the border itself. One young Iraqi man hung up his phone and told those within earshot that the borders were still closed.
Turkish television also reported that migrants were leaving the western Turkish coastal district of Ayvacık, in Çanakkale province, on small boats and dinghies with the aim of travelling by boat to Lesbos island in Greece. At least one small boat successfully made the perilous journey to the Greek island. Another boat carrying about 50 people reached the island of Samos, police said.
Turkey’s NTV channel also showed scores of people walking through fields wearing backpacks and said the refugees had tried to cross the Kapıkule border into Bulgaria, but were not allowed through.
Greece boosted border patrols on Friday. An army source said around 300 people had been spotted on the Turkish side of the border in the north-eastern Evros region but that the numbers were “not out of the ordinary”.
“They will not enter the country. They are irregular migrants, we won’t let them enter,” a Greek government official told Reuters.
While Turkish officials have blamed Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime for the major attack on its troops, several sources in Idlib and unverified footage of the night-time strike suggested it had been carried out by the Russian air force, which has helped Damascus conduct a ferocious three-month offensive on Idlib.
The US and the UK condemned the Syrian action. British foreign secretary Dominic Raab called for an emergency UN security council session in New York, and added: “Yesterday’s events only confirmed the reckless and brutal nature of the offensive which the Syrian regime and Russia are conducting in Idlib. This has created the gravest humanitarian crisis of the entire war.”
Nato held urgent talks on the crisis on Friday after Turkey requested a rare emergency meeting of Nato members under Article 4 of the alliance’s governing treaty, on the grounds that its ecurity was under threat.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, said that members of the western military alliance expressed their “full solidarity” with Turkey after an emergency session in Brussels but offered no concrete promise of assistance.
The secretary general said that Nato members “are constantly looking into what more they can do to provide further support for Turkey”. Insiders said this would involve adding to existing support for Ankara’s air defences. Despite pleas from Turkey before the meeting to implement a no fly zone in Idlib, it is understood the idea was not seriously discussed at the Nato meeting.
Almost a million people have been displaced and driven northwards to the Turkish border by the regime campaign on rebels and jihadist factions, making the battle for control of Syria’s last opposition stronghold the worst humanitarian crisis in the war to date.
There are international fears of a rapidly growing risk of escalation after the attack on Turkish forces, adding to calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds.
The deadly bombardment has added to weeks of growing tensions between Turkey, a supporter of Syrian rebels and Nato member, and Moscow, which is allied with Assad.
Adding to the volatile situation, Moscow sent two warships, the Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich, both capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean waters off Syria on Friday. They moved through the Bosphorus strait, which is governed by an international treaty, sailing through the heart of Istanbul.
Turkey retaliated to Thursday’s strike by hitting Damascus regime targets “from the air and ground”, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said.
Drone footage released by the Turkish military of the response showed blistering attacks on tanks, howitzers and soldiers.
Turkey said it had destroyed five Syrian military helicopters and two air defence systems and “neutralised” 309 Syrian regime soldiers, without giving evidence. A war monitor said at least 20 Syrian troops had died in the counterattacks.
There was no immediate confirmation from Damascus of the reported troop deaths or any comment on the flare-up with Ankara.
In a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan said Syrian government troops and allied forces remained legitimate targets for Ankara. The Kremlin said they agreed on the need for a new arrangement to avert clashes in Idlib. Turkey said the leaders agreed to meet as soon as possible.
The UN said that the latest fighting was coming “dangerously close” to encampments of the displaced, risking an imminent “bloodbath”.
Turkey, which is already home to millions of Syrian refugees, fears more people will attempt to cross its closed southern border. There is growing popular discontent against the refugees’ presence in Turkey.
Additional reporting by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Erdine