ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to "open the gates" to millions of refugees to enter Europe as criticism grows over Turkey's ongoing military operation against a Syrian Kurdish militia.
"Hey, European Union! Pull yourself together," Erdogan said at a meeting of party supporters Thursday. "I repeat it: If you try to describe our operation as an invasion, we will do what's easy for us: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million refugees to you," he added, to rapturous applause.
Erdogan's threat comes as the European Union and individual leaders in Europe are voicing criticism and calls for an end to Turkey's major military offensive against the YPG Kurdish militia.
Ankara launched the offensive Wednesday against the YPG, which it designates as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. The second day of fighting saw an intensification of airstrikes and artillery barrages against the militia.
Tens of thousands of people are reported to have already fled the fighting, with growing numbers of civilian casualties.
"Turkey is putting millions of people at humanitarian risk," French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday at a news conference.
Analysts suggest what provoked Erdogan's migrant threat to Europe, however, were comments by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. On Wednesday, he called the Turkish operation a "catastrophe" and sent a blunt message to the Turkish president.
"If the plan [in Syria] involves the creation of a so-called 'safe zone,' don't expect the EU to pay for any of it," Juncker said.
That threat, some analysts say, will start alarm bells ringing in Ankara.
Turkey's military operation is seeking to create what Erdogan has called a "safe zone" 30 kilometers deep into Syria.
Ankara plans to use the "safe zone" to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. On Thursday, Erdogan declared that a million new homes would be built in the planned zone.
Turkish media reported last month the project would cost more than $20 billion. Ankara reportedly is looking to the EU to foot much of the bill.
The project is seen as a political lifeline for Erdogan. "For Turkey to send even 1 million refugees back will be a great success," said Huseyin Bagci, professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
"In the sense of not keeping the refugees here and paying for them," he added, "everyday tensions in the country are growing over the refugees."
Erdogan asserts that hosting the 3.6 million Syrian refugees has cost nearly $40 billion. The massive construction program required to house the returning refugees in the proposed Syrian "safe zone" also would provide a significant boost to Turkey's floundering economy, which has been another headache for Erdogan.
Critics accuse Ankara of seeking to change the demographic makeup of the region, however, replacing Kurds with Sunni Arab Syrians, who are considered more loyal to Turkey.
"There is zero chance of the EU funding this project. No decent country can consider this proposal," political scientist Cengiz Aktar said. "To expect the EU to support a project involving the changing of demographics is madness."
Accusations against Syrian Kurds
Ankara counters, accusing the Syrian Kurdish militia of ousting the local Arab population in the region, insisting it is seeking to redress those changes.
Given the high stakes, Erdogan is using what is widely seen as his most potent leverage over Europe — the threat of a new refugee exodus. On Thursday, the Turkish president gave Europe a stark choice: face "catastrophe" if you do not "fall into line" with Turkey's plans.
In the past few months, there has been a surge in refugees entering the Greek Islands from nearby neighboring Turkey.
Several Greek refugee centers warned of being overwhelmed. The rise in refugees stirred memories of the massive exodus in 2015 from Turkey when nearly a million people entered Greece.
A 2016 migrant deal between Ankara and the EU markedly reduced the number of migrants, with Turkey becoming Europe's gatekeeper.
Some analysts question the power of Erdogan's refugee card over Europe, though, given that since 2016, migration routes from Greece to western Europe are now closed.
"I can see Greece being sunk by any new exodus," said Soli Ozel, international relations lecturer at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "But I don't see any refugees going to anywhere else from Greece. Therefore, this can turn out to be a bluff by Erdogan, something that will devastate Greece but not anybody else."
The recent increase in migrants entering Greece from Turkey and threats by Erdogan to end the migrant deal prompted a flurry of European diplomats and ministers rushing to Ankara seeking to assuage Turkish government concerns.
"The primary concern of all European countries — from Spain to Portugal to Italy — they are all afraid of another wave of migrants to Europe. The European chemistry is completely destroyed over migration," Bagci said.
Analysts claim Ankara likely will be banking on such European migration fears in its efforts to get the EU to pay for its Syrian initiative.