EU urges Turkey to halt Syria invasion, will not pay for ‘safe zone’

Turkish soldiers with armored vehicles and tanks during a military operation in Kurdish areas of northern Syria, near the Syrian border, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa, Turkey 9 October 2019. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

The EU on Wednesday (9 October) demanded Turkey halt its military operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, telling Ankara the bloc would not pay for any so-called “safe zone” that might be created.

Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies attacked Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery before starting a cross-border ground operation that could transform an eight-year-old war.

Turkey moves to ‘clean’ northeastern Syria from Kurds, plans to re-settle 2 million refugees

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump discussed Turkey’s plans to establish a “safe zone” east of the Euphrates River in Syria in a phone call on Sunday (6 October), but the White House said US forces would not be involved.

The assault began days after US President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, prompting denunciations from senior members of his own Republican Party who say he abandoned the Syrian Kurds, loyal allies of Washington.

‘Operation Spring Peace’

“The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army have launched the land operation into the east of the Euphrates river as part of the Operation Peace Spring,” the Turkish defence ministry tweeted after nightfall, following a day of pounding the area from the air.

Turkish media reported troops entering Syria at four points, two of them close to the Syrian town of Tel Abyad and two close to Ras al Ain further east.

Turkey told the United Nations Security Council that its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.” The 15-member body will meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.

Thousands of people fled Ras al Ain towards Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish air strikes killed at least five civilians and three fighters from the SDF and wounded dozens of civilians, the SDF said.

Reuters journalists at Akcakale on the Turkish side of the frontier watched as explosions struck Tel Abyad. After dark, the red flare of rockets could be seen fired across the border into Tel Abyad, and flames burned near the town. Explosions from Tel Abyad could be heard eight hours into the bombardment. A witness reached by telephone said civilians were fleeing en masse.

SDF fighters repelled a ground attack by Turkish troops in Tel Abyad, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.

The assault on the Kurds – for years Washington’s main allies on the ground in Syria – is potentially one of the biggest shifts in years in the Syrian war that has drawn in global and regional powers. The Kurds played a leading role in capturing territory from Islamic State, and now hold the largest swathe of Syria outside of the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump’s decision to pull forces out of the way was denounced by some Kurds as a “stab in the back”.

EU will not pay

Juncker told the European Parliament he recognised Turkey had “security concerns” along the border. But he warned the military action would not lead to a “good result”, saying a political solution was the only way to end the Syrian conflict.

“I call on Turkey as well as the other actors to act with restraint and to stop operations already, as we are speaking, under way,” Juncker said.

“I have to say if the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the European Union to pay for any of it.”

‘Fertile ground’ for IS

Ankara regards the Kurdish fighters as terrorists linked to insurgents inside Turkey. It wants to invade to create a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border where it could send back some of the 3.6 million refugees it hosts from Syria’s eight-year civil war.

The EU’s top foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, issued a statement echoing Juncker’s declaration and warning that “unilateral action on Turkey’s part threatens” concerted action by the West and Turkey and other countries to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group, also known in Arabic as Daesh.

Turkish military action, she said, risked “protracted instability in northeast Syria, providing fertile ground for the resurgence of Daesh”.

Keeping captured IS fighters in Syria secure is “imperative in order to prevent them from joining the ranks of terrorist groups,” she added.

Turkey on Wednesday called on Europe to take back their citizens among the ex-fighters’ ranks, though it pledged it would not allow them to be released.

Like Juncker, Mogherini warned that any supposed “safe zone” Turkey created would be unlikely to meet the criteria needed for Syrian refugees to be placed there in “safe, voluntary and dignified” conditions.

Any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable. The EU will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored,” she said.

NATO member

Ankara agreed a six-billion-euro ($6.6-billion) deal with Brussels to stem the influx of migrants to the EU in 2016, but relations soured after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unleashed a major crackdown in the wake of a failed coup to overthrow him in the same year.

NATO member Turkey is technically a candidate country to join the European Union but accession talks are effectively frozen and ties between the Ankara and the bloc have limped along for years.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg issued his own statement urging “restraint” and pointing out the risk of worsening instability in Syria, though he did acknowledge Turkey had “legitimate security concerns” in the area.

“It’s important to avoid actions that may further destabilise the region, escalate tensions, and cause more human suffering,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Rome, in remarks released by his office.

The UN Security Council’s president, South African ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila, also appealed to Turkey to “protect civilians” and exercise “maximum restraint”.

‘Bad idea’

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday called the incursion into northern Syria a “bad idea”.

He insisted Washington “does not endorse this attack”, despite having withdrawn US troops from the area in what was interpreted as a green light for Turkey to assault Kurdish militias previously allied with America.

Earlier this week, Trump said he would “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it went too far.

‘Think carefully’

Ahead of the launch of the offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan to “think carefully” before taking any action “so as not to harm overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis,” the presidency said following a phone call between the two leaders.

Erdoğan for his part told Putin that the offensive “will contribute to Syria’s peace and stability and ease the path to a political solution”.

‘New humanitarian disaster’

Turkey “is willingly risking further destabilising the region and a resurgence of IS” (Islamic State) by attacking northeastern Syria, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

“Syria needs stability and a political process… however, the Turkish offensive now threatens to cause a new humanitarian disaster,” Maas said in a statement, adding that Berlin would “urge Turkey to end its offensive and to pursue its security interests peacefully”.

‘Must stop’

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the offensive “must stop”.

“It calls into question the security and humanitarian efforts of the coalition against Daesh and risks undermining Europeans’ security,” he said in a tweet, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State (IS) group.

French European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin earlier said France, Germany and Britain were working on a joint declaration “which will be extremely clear on the fact that we very strongly condemn” the Turkish campaign.

‘Risks destabilising the region’

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed “serious concerns about the unilateral military action that Turkey has taken”.

The action “risks destabilising the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering, and undermining the progress made against Daesh which should be our collective focus,” he added in a statement.

Ambassador summoned

Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said he had summoned Turkey’s ambassador to condemn the assault.

“I call on Turkey not to follow the path it has chosen,” Blok, whose country is a member of the coalition against the Islamic State, said on Twitter.

“No one can benefit from the potentially terrible humanitarian consequences. The operation can trigger new refugee flows and harm the fight against IS and stability in the region.”

Already struggling population

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “deeply concerned that any escalation in the country’s north-east could harm an already struggling population,” stressing that “the humanitarian space” needs to be preserved”.

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