Rear Admiral Oleg Goravlov, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Center for Syrian Reconciliation, was quoted as making the remark by Russia’s RT Arabic service on Tuesday.
“The statements made by representatives of Turkey, European countries, and the United States against Russia and Syria that there are millions of refugees and a humanitarian crisis caused by the exacerbation of the situation in the Idlib area is incorrect,” Goravlov said, Presstv Reported.
He stressed that the number of refugees who cross the border to Turkey would not exceed 35,000 people, and that those refugees did not number at “millions,” as claimed by regimes hostile to Damascus.
Pointing to data collected by the center for Syrian Reconciliation, Goravlov said the population of the areas under the control of terrorist groups in Idlib did not exceed 1.8 million people as of January 1, 2020.
The Russian official also referred to Turkey’s two previous acts of aggression in northern Syria and said the number of the people displaced as a result of the Turkish Operation Olive Branch in 2018 was about 250,000 — most of them being Kurdish civilians — and that the number from Operation Peace Spring, another Turkish incursion, was 135,000.
Over the past few weeks, Turkey has been making provocative military moves in Idlib, the only region in Syria with the largest concentration of militants. Syria launched a counter-terrorism offensive in Idlib last December after its troops and military advisers from Russia came under increasing militant attacks.
Turkey, a patron of the militants, on Sunday declared an offensive against the Syrian government after 34 Turkish troops — deployed alongside militants — were killed in Syrian artillery fire.
Under a deal reached with Russia in September 2018, Turkish troops were deployed to man observation posts in Idlib. The agreement required Turkey to oust Takfiri terrorists from the northwestern Syrian province. But, that was yet to happen more than a year since the deal was reached.
The tensions in Idlib have seen thousands of Syrians fleeing to the Turkish border with Greece. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to exploit the crisis to pressure European governments to back his offensive on Syria by announcing last week that his government would no longer stop the refugees from trying to enter Europe, something he had committed to doing under a 2016 deal with the EU.
Greece has, in response, deployed its armed forces to prevent some 13,000 migrants from crossing its border with Turkey over the past days, with various reports of clashes and firing of tear gas to restrain the movement of migrants.
Erdogan’s warning was also met with a wave of harsh criticisms from European governments, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that it was “unacceptable” for Turkey to pressure the EU “on the backs of refugees.”
Turkey an ‘official migrant trafficker’
In a related development on Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Ankara “an official migrant trafficker,” and said Turkey was using the refugee crisis on its borders to “divert attention” from the Syrian conflict.
“This is no longer a refugee problem. This is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda and to divert attention from the horrible situation in Syria,” Mitsotakis told journalists at a press conference after touring the Greek-Turkish border earlier in the day.
“Europe will not be blackmailed by Turkey over the refugee issue. We stand ready to support Turkey in dealing with its refugee problem and find a solution to the Syria conundrum but not under these circumstances. My duty is to protect the sovereignty of my country,” he said.
The scenes of refugees heading toward Turkey’s border with Greece have sparked fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, when over one million refugees arrived in the EU, most of them fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa.