ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey declared on Saturday that he had opened his country’s borders for migrants to cross into Europe, saying that Turkey could no longer handle the numbers fleeing the war in Syria.
“What did we do yesterday?” he said in a televised speech. “We opened the doors.”
His comments were his first to acknowledge what he had long threatened to do and came after hundreds of migrants in Turkey headed to the land border between Greece and Turkey and by sea to Greek islands, journeys apparently facilitated by the Turkish authorities. The mini-exodus was live-streamed by Turkish state television in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 migrant crisis that Europe had solve only with Turkey’s help.
On Saturday, thousands of people of various nationalities, including Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, massed at the border crossing of Pazarkule on Saturday morning hoping to cross into Greece but were stopped by Greek border guards.
Mr. Erdogan’s comments also came after Turkey suffered heavy losses from Russian or Syrian airstrikes in northwestern Syria on Thursday and as Turkey seeks American and European support for its Syrian operations. The death toll from the strikes has risen to 36, Mr. Erdogan said.
The Turkish leader has avoided accusing Russia directly of carrying out the airstrikes, and has spoken with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by telephone. But he has also deployed thousands of Turkish troops into the province to try to stem the Russian-backed advance.
The Turkish president is struggling to handle a growing crisis in Idlib, the last Syrian province held by the rebel forces his government has supported. A Syrian government offensive, backed by Russia, is pushing several million Syrians toward Turkey’s border.
Mr. Erdogan called on Mr. Putin to “get out of our way” in Idlib and allow Turkey to push back Syrian forces to positions agreed under a 2018 de-escalation agreement.
He accused European leaders of not keeping their promises to help Turkey bear the load of millions of Syrian refugees. The country is already host to 3.6 million Syrians fleeing a nine-year war, and domestic resentment toward the refugees has grown amid an economic downturn.
Turkey’s opening of its borders has caused thousands of migrants to head west to the borders with Greece and Bulgaria and to the coast in an attempt to take boats to nearby Greek islands.