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Turkey's president threatens to flood Europe with refugees as Syria offensive ramps up

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to allow millions of refugees into Europe if it described Turkey's military offensive in northeast Syria as an "occupation."

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Helen Regan
Tara John, CNN
CNN — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to allow millions of refugees into Europe if it described Turkey's military offensive in northeast Syria as an "occupation."

Erdogan told the European Union to "come to your senses" during a speech in the capital Ankara on Thursday. "I will say this once again. If you try to label our current operation as an occupation, our job becomes easier, we will open the doors and send the 3.6 million refugees to you."

Concern is mounting over the humanitarian impact of Turkey's operation to push Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria back from its border. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who operate in the region were key US allies in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey regards them as enemies. Turkey wants to ensure that the Kurds withdraw from these areas, and to resettle around 2 million Syrian refugees there.

The operation has sparked a political firestorm in the United States after President Donald Trump pulled US troops back from the area ahead of the Turkish offensive.

Erdogan claimed that 109 "terrorists" had been killed since the campaign, which Turkey has dubbed "Operation Peace Spring, began on Wednesday.

The SDF have reported 11 deaths since the start of the operation. At least three civilians were killed Thursday, and many others injured, when the Turkish military targeted a civilian convoy in the city of Tal Abyad in northern Syria, according to an SDF tweet.

Eight people were killed the day before, including three SDF fighters and five civilians, the SDF said.

International aid agencies say that hundreds of thousands of people, who have already endured eight years of a protracted conflict, could be at risk in Syria as Turkey launches air and ground strikes to clear US-allied Kurdish forces from its border areas.

"Hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are now in harm's way. Civilians and civilian infrastructure must not be a target," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Thursday.

UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, also stressed that any return of Syrian refugees to Syria had to be done voluntarily. "It is up to refugees to decide if and when they wish to return," it said in a statement.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a statement Thursday: "As Turkish offensive in Syria begins, the IRC is deeply concerned about the lives and livelihoods of the two million civilians in northeast Syria who have already survived ISIS brutality and multiple displacements."

Chaotic scenes

As a barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire volleyed into northern Syria Wednesday, chaotic scenes unfolded on the ground as people tried to flee to safety. Roads were gridlocked with hundreds of fleeing families, motorcycles piled with five to six people and mattresses strapped to cars.

Reports began to filter in on Wednesday following the aerial bombardment, with the SDF tweeting that two civilians had been killed and two others injured in the village of Misharrafa, west of Ras al-Ain.

The US-backed SDF said civilian homes in the village of Sikarkah in eastern Qamishli and areas near the Bouzra dam in Derik -- which provides water to hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria -- were also targeted.

The group has called on the international community for assistance, saying the border areas of northeast Syria "are on the edge of a possible humanitarian catastrophe."

US 'didn't give Turkey green light'

Turkey's offensive came just days after the Trump administration announced it was pulling US troops back from the area, prompting outrage in Congress and accusations from senior Republican lawmakers that Trump allowed Turkey to attack an ally that it considers instrumental in the fight against ISIS.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called claims that the US withdrawal of troops was a green light for the slaughter of the Kurds "false."

"The United States didn't give Turkey a green light," Pompeo said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.

Pompeo said that "it became very clear" after the phone call with Turkish President Erdogan "that there were American soldiers that were going to be at risk and the President made a decision to put them in a place where they were out of harm's way."

Pompeo also refused to explicitly endorse the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as US allies.

The SDF who operate in the area are US allies. They are led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

President Donald Trump has also downplayed the alliance with the Kurds, 11,000 of whom died fighting to help the US mission against ISIS. "They didn't help us in the second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy for example," he said.

Trump has defended his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, but added that the US "does not endorse" Turkey's operation.

"The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea," the President said in a statement from the White House.

Trump also appeared open to discussions of bipartisan legislation on sanctions against Turkey, sponsored in part by his ally Sen. Lindsey Graham. Trump said he agreed that sanctions are needed, but only if Turkey doesn't act in a "humane" way.

ISIS 'may rise up again'

The SDF said in a statement Wednesday that it had suspended its military operations against ISIS in northern Syria following the "Turkish aggression."

There are fears that Turkey's military offensive could lead to a resurgence of ISIS and American officials have expressed concern that thousands of ISIS fighters may escape from prisons in Syria. Some SDF fighters had left their posts at various prisons to prepare for the Turkish offensive.

Turkey's assault has already had a "detrimental effect" on American counter-ISIS operations, which have "effectively stopped," a senior US defense official told CNN on Wednesday.

The Turkish offensive, the official said, "has challenged our ability to build local security forces, conduct stabilization operations and the Syrian Democratic Forces' (ability) to guard over 11,000 dangerous ISIS fighters."

When asked Wednesday about the threat of ISIS prisoners escaping, Trump claimed that some of the most dangerous ISIS prisoners had been moved, "putting them in other areas where it's secure."

He dismissed the overall threat, replying, "Well, they're going to be escaping to Europe."

The US military has taken custody of two high profile members of the British ISIS cell known as the "Beatles," according to three US officials.

Two officials said the transfer was made Wednesday. One of the officials said there are plans to bring the two ISIS members, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, to the US for prosecution. The two have been held in northern Syria by the SDF for more than a year.

The State Department accused their ISIS execution cell of "holding captive and beheading approximately two dozen hostages," including James Foley, American journalist Steven Sotloff, and American aid worker Peter Kassig.

Pompeo on Wednesday said that Trump "is mindful that ISIS might begin to rise up again."

He acknowledged that the terror group has not been eliminated in Syria, saying "That challenge still remains."

"The President firmly believes it is now time that we reprioritize, that we, in fact, protect America first, and that we get our force posture in the Middle East just right," he said.

Correction: A previous version of this map incorrectly located the Al-Hol camp. It has been updated.

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