ANKARA (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan delivered a fiery defence of Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria on Thursday, dismissing a chorus of global criticism and threatening to send more than 3 million Syrian refugees into Europe.
The air and land offensive has prompted alarm among opponents and allies of Turkey who say it could harm the campaign against Islamic State, worsen Syria’s humanitarian crisis and further complicate the eight-year conflict.
Erdogan said the operation against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters would allow Syrian refugees to return “to their own homes” and promised that Islamic State prisoners being held in northeast Syria would not escape.
“They are not honest, they just make up words,” Erdogan said in blistering speech in which he hit back at critics of the operation. “We, however, create action and that is our difference.”
Singling out the European Union and Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which both condemned Turkey’s operation, Erdogan said they should “step aside” and let Turkey get on with the battle.
“Let me start with Saudi Arabia,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in the Turkish capital Ankara. “Look in the mirror first. Who brought Yemen to this state?” he asked, referring to Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen’s ruinous civil war.
“Did tens of thousands of people not die in Yemen?”
Turkey’s troubled relations with Saudi Arabia were further strained last year by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Ties with Cairo have also been poor since the Egyptian army toppled Erdogan’s ally, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi, in 2013.
Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, died in July of a heart attack after collapsing in a Cairo court while on trial on espionage charges.
“Egypt, you can’t talk at all. You are a country with a democracy killer,” Erdogan said. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “held a meeting with some others and condemned the operation - so what if you do?” he added.
Addressing the European Union, which Turkey still formally aspires to join despite mounting EU criticism of Ankara’s human rights record, Erdogan said the 28-member bloc had never been sincere with his country and warned it would face severe consequences if it portrayed Turkish actions negatively.
“Hey, European Union, pull yourself together. If you try to label this operation as an occupation ... we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” he said.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrians. Under a deal agreed in 2016, the EU has provided billions of euros in aid in return for Ankara stemming the influx of migrants into Europe, but Turkey says the money was slow to materialise and paltry next to the $40 billion it says it has spent.
“We invite those who close their eyes to all other developments and criticise Turkey to be mindful instead,” Erdogan said.
Turkey says its operation aims to create a “safe zone” along 300 miles of border, driving back Kurdish YPG fighters that it considers terrorists because of their links to militants waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey.
It says the zone could also be used to settle refugees it is currently hosting.
Erdogan said that once Turkey takes control in northeast Syria, Islamic State “will not be able to establish a presence in the region. I want to give this guarantee to the world”.
As a top Syrian Kurdish official said that Turkish attacks were weakening the ability of forces in northeast Syria to guard prisons holding Islamic State detainees, Erdogan said Turkey was able to handle the situation.
“We will keep in prison those who need to be kept in prison and we will send back those who are accepted by the countries of which they are citizens,” he said.
Erdogan also reiterated plans, which have been met with deep scepticism from the United States and Europe, to settle more than 1 million refugees in northeast Syria.
Western countries fear that the project would involve moving Sunni Arab Syrians into mainly Kurdish regions of the northeast. But Turkey says any demographic changes would only correct steps taken by the region’s Kurdish authorities.
“Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds and all other ethnic groups will return to their homes,” Erdogan said, adding that Turkey would build housing for 1 million who no longer have homes. “We plan on doing this with international funding”.
Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mike Collett-White