Pentagon chief says no U.S. air support for Turkey in Idlib - live blog

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that Europe could soon be confronted by the prospect of millions of migrants flowing into its territory.

The hundreds of thousands now seeking refuge in Europe after Turkey opened its borders last week will escalate quickly, Erdoğan said in a televised speech on Monday to members of his governing party in Ankara.

Erdoğan has accused Europe of leaving Turkey to bear the brunt of the humanitarian, social and financial cost of the refugee influx from Syria. Erdoğan’s anger intensified on Thursday when 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in northwest Syria by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, prompting him to relax the border curbs. The European Union and NATO have also not met his demands for military assistance to stop the Syrian army from advancing further into rebel-held areas of Idlib where Turkish troops are based.

Greece has deployed its army to the Turkish border after tens of thousands of refugees arrived there by bus and other means of transport. Syrian government attacks in Idlib have also prompted around 1 million people to flee towards Turkey.

Photographs and video footage shot at the Pazarkule border crossing to Greece’s Kastanies showed thousands of migrants gathering. Others showed clashes between migrants and Greek police and people boarding dinghies to carry them to Greek Aegean islands near Turkey.

The European Union called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers on Sunday to address the fallout of the Syrian conflict.

(Times GMT +3)

00:45 - Syria has no basis to excuse aggression, says AKP Spox Ömer Çelik

There is “no basis whatsoever” to be used as an excuse for Syrian regime aggression, ruling Justice and Development Party Spokesman Ömer Çelik told reporters

During the Feb. 27 airstrike in Idlib, the Turkish army forces were not accompanied by any foreign armed elements, Çelik said. “Those who say there were foreign elements or terrorists alongside the Turkish Armed Forces can in no way prove that.”

There were no issues with coordination and Russia had been informed of the location of Turkish forces, Çelik continued. 

Having caused the death of 1,500 civilians, wounding of more than 5,000 and displacement of close to 1.5 million people, the Syrian government has been “clearly engaged in genocidal activity against part of its own people,” Çelik said.

Turkey has to remain in Syria to “defend our national security and the lives of our citizens amid the chaos,” but has no plans to remain once a political solution has been reached and stability has been achieved, Çelik said.

00:20 - Triple summit with Greece, Turkey cancelled – Bulgarian PM Borissov

A summit between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece expected to be held in Sofia on Friday has been cancelled, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told reporters in the joint press conference after his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan refused to sit down at the same table with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Borissov said, when he heard news of Greek security forces killing two refugees at the Turkish border, which Greek authorities have denounced as fake news.

“I am certain that we need to convene with the Council of Europe and all my counterparts as soon as possible,” Borissov said, “but not everybody is up to it, and not everybody can see the looming humanitarian crisis.”

23:30 - Turkey no longer wants EU funds for refugees – Erdoğan

Having already spent over 40 billion dollars for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees hosted in the country, Turkey is capable of “coming up with and spending the money (the EU) would give,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a joint press conference following his meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov late on Monday.

The European Union has pledged another billion euros ($1.10 billion), in addition to the six billion originally allocated in the 2016 refugee deal, Erdoğan said. “And I told Mr. Prime Minister tonight as well, we no longer want that money.”

The original six billion euros ($6.69 billion) to be given to Turkish NGOs working on refugee welfare has not been received, Erdoğan said.

“Nobody has the right or authority to toy with Turkey’s honour,” Erdoğan said.

22:00 - Russian military police deployed in Saraqeb

Russian military police have been deployed to Saraqeb in Syria's Idlib province, Russia Today reported citing the country’s Defence Ministry.

The strategic town, which has witnessed heavy fighting between Syrian forces and Turkish-backed militants, plays a pivotal role in assuring the safety of vehicles and the civilian population travelling along the M4 and M5 highways, RT said.

21:55 - Syrian gov’t forces recapture strategic town of Saraqeb

Syrian government forces have recaptured Saraqeb, a strategic town on the Damascus to Aleppo highway, which it lost to Turkish-backed rebels last week, Voice of America reported. 

Damascus is also claiming it shot down three Turkish drones, it said.

Rebels "continue to control the outskirts of Saraqeb and that fighting has not ended," Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Arabic said.  VOA was unable to independently confirm the claim.  

21:20 - Merkel says Erdoğan expressing dissatisfaction through refugees ‘inacceptable’

Turkey and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressing dissatisfaction “on the back of the refugees,” and not through dialogue with the European Union, is inacceptable, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Turkey opening its western borders for refugees to head into Europe, leading to thousands accumulating at Greek land and sea borders, was “not the way to go forward,” Merkel said, while acknowledging Turkey’s “very big challenge regarding Idlib.”

20:30 - EU chief exec says Turkey cannot allow refugees to cross into Europe

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union’s chief executive, said it was impermissible for Turkey to let refugees and migrants on its territory cross into Europe. 

“I acknowledge that Turkey is in a difficult situation with regards to the refugees and the migrants. But what we see now cannot be an answer or solution,” Reuters quoted Leyen as saying during a news conference.

Thousands of migrants have amassed at the northwestern Turkish border after the country’s president announced the country would no longer honour its 2016 deal with the EU as another escalation of the war in neighbouring Syria sends a new wave of refugees to its own soil.

20:20 - Pentagon chief says no U.S. air support for Turkey

U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper during Monday’s press briefing at the Pentagon was asked whether the United States would be providing air support for Turkey in Idlib, and responded by saying, “No.” 

Esper said he would not speculate on whether NATO should invoke Article 5, which refers to collective self-defence, after the Feb. 27 airstrike in Idlib that killed at least 36 Turkish soldiers, while Chairman of the Joint Staffs General Mark Milley said the United States did not “have clear, unambiguous intelligence on who was flying which planes.” 

The United States will increase humanitarian aid for “persons in Syria,” Secretary Esper said, citing a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

20:00 - CoE Commissioner Mijatović calls for immediate action for refugees

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović on Monday called for urgent action to prevent the situation of thousands of people trapped between Turkey and Greece from getting worse.

“The human rights situation at the border between Turkey and Greece where thousands of vulnerable men, women and children are trapped between borders without access to assistance or the possibility to seek international protection is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”

Commissioner Mijatović called for de-escalation of violence at the Turkish-Greek border, reassurance against excessive force by law enforcement authorities, and secured access to asylum.

The commissioner also expressed concern for Greece closing all borders and “Turkey’s actions in the last days that have encouraged people to move to the border.”

EU’s efforts to share responsibility with Turkey “have been grossly inadequate,” Mijatović said. “With up to a million more Syrians in a desperate humanitarian situation at Turkey’s border, a much more robust response is necessary.”

15:15 - U.S. envoy Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to U.N. to visit Turkey

U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft are to arrive in Turkey late on Monday for talks on the increased violence in neighbouring Syria.

15:00 – Greek coastguards harass migrant dinghy off Bodrum

A video clip circulating social media shows Greek coastguard vessels harassing a dinghy full of migrants in waters near Bodrum, southwest Turkey.

15:43 - Greece denies refugee shot on border

Greece said reports that a refugee was shot near the border with Turkey were "fake news".

14:41 - Erdoğan says Assad army casualties just the start unless ceasefire secured

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said hundreds of casualties suffered by the Syrian army would just be the beginning unless the Assad government withdrew its forces to positions agreed with Russia in Sochi in 2018.

Speaking to members of his party, Erdoğan said he had no axe to grind with Russia and Iran, who support Assad, and that he expected a ceasefire to be agreed. He spoke in comments carried by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

13:40 – Turkey "neutralised" 2,557 Syrian government forces

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the Turkish military had “neutralised” 2,557 Syrian government forces - using a term to mean killed, wounded or captured - since President Bashar Assad’s forces killed more than 30 Turkish troops in shelling last Thursday.

Turkish reprisals have also destroyed two fighter jets, 135 tanks, five air defence systems, 86 artillery and howitzer pieces, 16 anti-tank weapons, 77 armoured vehicles and nine ammunition depots, Akar said.

13:30 – Greek security forces kill migrant on border

Greek security forces shot a migrant dead as he tried to cross the border from Turkey’s Ipsala to the Greek side, Turkey’s Vatan newspaper reported.

Video footage shared on social media by Al Akhbar journalist Jenan Moussa showed a man motionless on the ground with blood covering his face.

12:20 - Masked Greek security forces detain migrants

Masked Greek security forces picked up migrants who had crossed to Greece from Turkey in unmarked vehicles without number plates, the BBC reported on Monday.

The BBC video footage showed masked men, one of whom said he was a sergeant, telling the reporter that the migrants were being taken to a police station.

22:15 - Turkish drones killed 19 Syrian soldiers in Idlib - SOHR

Turkish drone strikes in #Idlib province reportedly killed 19 Syrian regime soldiers on Sunday -according to UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

22:10 - Russia cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Syria - Russia tells Turkey

The Russian Defence Ministry said Russia cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Idlib after Damascus' decision to close the airspace of Idlib.

According to Russian news agency Sputnik Turkish, the head of Russia's Center for Reconciliation of Parties in Syria and Rear Admiral Oleg Zhuravlev said that under the circumstances, "the leadership of Russia's military contingent could not guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Syrian airspace."

21:15 - Top religious body announces mosque campaign to support Turkish troops

Turkey’s top religious body, the Religious Affairs Directorate, announced on Sunday that mosques throughout the country would recite a chapter of the Quran and pray daily to support Turkish troops in neighbouring Syria.

“Surah Fath [Chapter 48 of the Quran] will be recited and prayers will be made for our army and nation so that Operation Spring Shield, started by our soldiers, will end in victory,’’ directorate head Ali Erbaş said on Twitter. 

“We are calling our people to all of our mosques for morning prayer,’’ he said.

Kahraman Mehmetçiğimizin başlattığı #BaharKalkanı Harekatı'nın zaferle sonuçlanması için tüm camilerimizde sabah namazında Fetih Suresi okunacak, ordumuza ve milletimize dua edilecektir. Milletimizi sabah namazında tüm camilerimize duaya bekliyoruz.

— Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş (@DIBAliErbas) March 1, 2020