(CN) – European leaders are condemning Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria and fear it could undermine Europe’s security by leading to a new wave of refugees and Islamic State fighters entering the continent.
Turkey’s military incursion poses a host of dangers for the European Union and exposes the bloc’s diplomatic and military weakness in restraining powerful and aggressive neighbors such as Russia and Turkey.
The events in Syria also risk souring even further relations between U.S. President Donald Trump and the EU. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria opened the way for Turkey’s incursion.
On Wednesday, Europeans were taken aback after Trump said it was Europe’s problem if captured Islamic State fighters escape from Kurdish prisons in the chaos caused by Turkey’s assault. An estimated 12,000 ISIS fighters are now held by the Kurds in northeastern Syria. On Thursday, Kurdish authorities said Turkey bombed one such prison. Europe in recent years has been struck by a series of deadly terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists.
“Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question about the possibility of ISIS fighters escaping. “That’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.”
The Trump administration has been critical of European countries for not doing more to prosecute European-born ISIS fighters held in Kurdish prisons.
Condemnation of the Turkish assault came from across Europe and across the political spectrum.
In France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said Turkey’s assault was “a risk for the security of Europeans” and “must end.”
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, demanded Turkey cease its attack and warned it would “further undermine the stability of the whole region.”
Turkey says it launched its offensive to create a “safe zone” where it can place Syrian refugees now hosted by Turkey. But Kurds and others charge that Turkey’s real motive is to launch an attack on Kurdish forces and push back against the Kurdish goal of establishing a nation. Turkey is also seeking to crush Kurdish militant groups that launch attacks against Turkey.
In addition, Turkey may be seeking to force the large Kurdish population living in northern Syria out and replace it with Syrian refugees, which some warn would amount to ethnic cleansing.
Another concern is that Turkey’s move will give new life to the Islamic State. Mogherini said allowing Turkey to continue its assault will provide “fertile ground” for the resurgence of the Islamic State.
She added that Turkey’s aim to send Syrian refugees into the so-called “safe zone” was not a good solution and not in keeping with international mandates to safeguard refugees.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Turkey that the EU would not provide funds to help Syrian refugees placed in the “security zone” Turkey wants to create in Syria.
“If Turkey’s plan is to create a security zone, do not expect funding from the European Union,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Brussels.
On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit back at the criticism coming from Europe and threatened to “open the gates” and send Syrian refugees now in Turkey toward Europe.
“Hey, European Union, pull yourself together,” he said in a speech to lawmakers from his AK Party. “If you try to label this operation an invasion, it’s very simple, we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”
In a much-criticized deal, Europe pays Turkey to host an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Europe entered into this arrangement to prevent Syrian asylum seekers from coming to the continent.
The deal was struck to assuage European anger over immigration, which has fueled xenophobia and given rise to far-right political parties in Europe with anti-EU views.
Europe now faces a possible dilemma whereby this new conflict turns Kurds into refugees who may be forced to seek asylum in Turkey, a country the EU designates a safe harbor.
Many Europeans fear Turkey’s aggression will lead to a wave of refugees seeking shelter in Europe. Europe saw large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 and countries enacted harsh anti-immigration policies in response.
Germany in particular is in a delicate situation, having both large Kurdish and Turkish communities that make up about 2 million people. German Kurds have taken to the streets in demonstrations.
Germany provides humanitarian aid to Kurdish areas in Syria and helps train Kurdish fighters while also providing Turkey, a NATO member, with military help.
Mehmet Tanriverdi, a leader of the Kurdish community in Germany, said the country needs to take “urgent action” to stop Turkey.
He said Germany should cease sending military aid to Turkey, consider economic sanctions against Ankara and push for Turkey’s membership in NATO to be suspended. He also urged the EU to scrap its refugee deal with Turkey.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)