NATO slams Turkey over Syria, lukewarm reactions to German ‘safe zone’ proposal

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, British Secretary for Defense Ben Wallace and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper attend the NATO defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

NATO defence ministers on Thursday (24 October) condemned Turkey for its military incursion in Northeast Syria, but acknowledged there was little they could do to restrain their strategically important ally.

Although not officially on the agenda, Ankara’s military adventure dominated NATO’s autumn session in Brussels, leaving Turkey isolated among the 29 NATO member states.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described discussions as “frank and open” with “different views” – euphemisms for discord – and noted that the strength of NATO had always been “to overcome these disagreements without lasting consequences”.

He stressed in particular that ministers agreed on the need to “maintain unity in the fight against ISIS” by a broad international coalition including many NATO members.

Reportedly, the chaos after the US withdrawal and the Turkish incursion has left loose hundreds of “foreign fighters” and their families, raising fears of new terrorist attacks by ISIS on European soil. Turkey is motivated by cracking down the Kurdish YPG forces, which it calls terrorists, and cares much less about ISIS.

German ‘safe zone’ proposal

During the meeting, Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer presented her proposal for a “internationally monitored security safe zone in Northeast Syria” to be “ideally” mandated by the United Nations.

“The status quo is not a satisfactory solution,” she told reporters upon arrival before her first appearance among NATO colleagues, insisting that the task of patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border should not be left to Russia and Turkey alone.

Under Tuesday’s Sochi Agreement between Russia and Turkey, Ankara has agreed to restrict its military operations in northern Syria to the border region, but European allies are still anxious about Turkish plans for the Kurdish population in the region.

Russia, Turkey reach 'historic' deal on Syria border

Russia and Turkey agreed on Tuesday (22 October) to ensure Kurdish forces withdraw from areas close to Syria’s border with Turkey and to launch joint patrols, in a deal hailed as “historic” by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had received reassurances from Ankara that Turkish actions would not result in a mass resettlement or ethnic cleansing.

“The Sochi agreement has not brought peace and it doesn’t offer a basis for a political solution in the long run. We are looking for a solution that includes the international community,” Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters.

Prior to the meeting, the German proposal received support from Turkey and the United States, restrained reactions from NATO counterparts and a warning from NATO’s Stoltenberg regarding UN approval.

US welcomes German security plan for Syria, unlikely to take part

The United States and NATO cautiously welcomed on Wednesday (23 October) a German proposal for a security zone in northern Syria, though Washington’s envoy to the alliance saying it should be for Europe to take charge and not US forces.

Although Stoltenberg welcomed the German commitment, he emphasised that the German blue-helmet plan is “one element” in the debate and given the extremely unstable military situation in the war zone, he does not see the alliance as a factor.

“In any case, it must be clear, no one is calling for a NATO mission in Northeastern Syria,” Stoltenberg told reporters after the meeting, adding that his understanding was that there could be a need for “a process in the UN Security Council”.

“Of course it’s not possible today to say whether that will be easy or very difficult so I think this is a proposal which has to be discussed more in detail,” he said.

The idea, a rare first-time proposal by a country wary of military missions in the Middle East, has at least served to steady an alliance that has been badly shaken by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Turkey’s military operation, diplomats said after the meeting.

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“More talks are necessary, but the Turkish minister said he is open to the proposal,” a NATO diplomat said, referring to bilateral talks between Kramp-Karrenbauer and Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar, who later briefed all NATO ministers on Turkey’s operations in Syria.

US rejects idea of ground forces

Speaking to an audience in Brussels shortly before meeting his NATO counterparts, US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, said Ankara’s “unwarranted” invasion into Syria jeopardised the security gains made as the US-led coalition and allied Kurdish forces battled ISIS in the area in recent years.

Turkey’s recent behaviour “has put us all in a terrible situation”, he added, urging Ankara to again become the reliable NATO partner it has traditionally been.

His remarks came a day after Trump defended his decision to move most troops out of Syria and announced that the US is lifting sanctions on Turkey after Ankara agreed to permanently stop fighting Kurdish forces in Syria.

Esper defended the withdrawal of US troops shortly before the Turkish military action, arguing that in any case Washington was not “about to start a fight with a NATO ally”.

Asked about the German proposal, Esper said that although his administration would be politically supportive of the idea, Washington did not intend to participate “with ground forces or the like”.

“I think it’s good for those countries that want to step up and improve security in that part of the world”, Esper said. After all, the US has long been asking European allies “to step up and do more”, he added.

EU partners sceptical towards German proposal

While Turkey, the US and NATO welcomed the German initiative, European reactions towards the plan were cautious, with no country clearly rallying behind the proposal.

France and Spain stressed it was too early to evaluate, while Belgium, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, said it was “generally open-minded” towards the initiative.

Belgian defence minister Didier Reynders, however, said he is “not sure” whether the UN would issue a mandate for a mission in Northeastern Syria.

Diplomats from several member states said they had been surprised by the German defence minister’s initiative.

NATO allies especially wondered whether in practice it meant a mission with some NATO partners, or the backing of the entire Alliance, sources said.

The French delegation was quoted saying the proposal was “certainly well intentioned” but did not fit the “dynamic development” on the ground. While the Russo-Turkish deal had changed the situation, the UN Security Council is “unlikely to approve a peace mission under European umbrella”, the French source stressed.

“There is a long way from this talk to making an actual decision, and of course we will engage in dialogue with our allies both in Europe and in particular in NATO, but the idea that Europe should play a more active role seems basically good, maybe even necessary, too”, Danish defence minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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