EU condemns for the first time Turkey’s invasion of Syria
Tuesday, 15 October 2019
The Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg issued yesterday (14 October) a strongly worded statement against Turkey’s military action in north-east Syria and urged Turkey to withdraw its forces. The same day the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu published an op-ed in the international edition of The New York Times where he gave his country’s version as to why Turkey is in Syria.
Turkey’s military operation started last week with heavy bombardments along the border with Syria and was followed by a ground incursion aiming at establishing a 30 km wide and 500 km long “safe zone” where Syrian refugees in Turkey and other parts of Syria could be resettled.
It followed a telephone call between US president Trump and Turkish president Erdogan. In a totally unpredictable way, ignoring the advice of his security and military expertise, Trump promised to withdraw the few remaining US soldiers that had been supporting the Syrian-Kurdish troops. By this he gave a green light to Turkey to start its planned military operation.
No surprise decision
Actually, it should not have come as a surprise since Trump already in December 2018 tweeted that US would withdraw the American special forces from the region. Then his motivation for the decision was that US does not want to be the policeman in the Middle East and that he had promised his electoral base to withdraw the troops.
Now he added that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy”. The fact that the Syrian Kurds did help the US to defeat the Islamic State did not count since they were fighting for “their land.”
When Turkey launched a military operation in January 2018 against Afrin, one of the areas in northern Syria under Kurdish control, the European Parliament condemned it but other EU institutions limited themselves to expressing concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation. This time the Council stepped up its rhetoric and added some concrete action to its words.
High Representative Federica Mogherini issued already on 9 October, when the Turkish bombardments started, a statement on behalf of the EU where she said that “a sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict cannot be achieved militarily”.
As regards the Turkish plans for a safe zone in north-east Syria, she underlined that any refugee return must satisfy international criteria. “It must be safe, voluntary and dignified”. Her spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the situation this time is more dangerous than last year with more serious repercussions.
The most important EU measure is the call on EU Member States to immediately halt arms exports licensing to Turkey. Whether it is a binding decision or not is not clear. At the press conference after the Council meeting, Mogherini described it as a commitment by all Member States to apply a common position on arms export control.
Mogherini did no mention explicitly the plight and rights of the Syrian Kurds but warned against “ethnic engineering”. The Council recalled that it will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored or violated.
By this the Council echoed European Commission president Juncker who earlier had said, “I have to say if the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it.”
Never before has the credibility gap between EU and Turkey been so deep and their positions on how to bring about peace in Syria so divergent as now. The Council condemns the Turkish “unilateral military action” which it sees as risking further civilian suffering and displacement and threating the political UN-led peace process.
It also risks undermining the progress achieved so far by the Global Coalition to defeat Da’esh (the Islamic State), which according to EU remains a threat to both European and Turkish security. The Syrian-Kurdish troops are holding thousands of foreign terrorist fighters and their families as war prisoners and they might now escape or be released in the wake of the Turkish military attack.
The Turkish foreign minister described the invasion of Kurdish held territories along the border as an operation “liberating Syrians living there from the tyranny of terrorist organisations” and “facilitating the safe and voluntary return of displaced Syrians”.
But EU does not agree with Turkey on how it defines terrorism and applies its anti-terrorism legislation which targets also political opponents and civil rights defenders who criticize the governement. In fact, the military operation risks playing into the hands of Iran, Russia and the Assad regime and undermining the stability of the region.
Betrayal of the Kurds
The Syrian-Kurdish forces played a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State in northern Syria but are considered as terrorists by Turkey because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey. While such links exist, the Syrian-Kurdish forces defended themselves against the Islamic State, while Turkey was turning a blind eye to the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.
During the Assad regime the Kurds in Syria suffered discrimination and lack of civil rights. During the civil war, the Syrian Kurds established an autonomous region in northern Syria where refugees from other parts of Syria found shelter.
The main losers after the American withdrawal are the Syrian Kurds. EU cannot replace American presence on the ground in Syria and there is now nothing to stop Turkey from crushing Kurdish self-rule there. As happened before in its history, the Kurdish people has been betrayed again and will pay the price for Trump’s decision. Other US allies in the Middle East migh experience the same.
Will the Council resolution with its warnings be heeded by Turkey? Mogherini was not sure. “We regard Turkey as a key partner for the EU and recognize its security concerns. That’s why we are frank in our discussion with Turkey and tell them when we disagree on their actions.” It is too early to consider any economic sanctions against Turkey but she did not exclude them.