Berlin (CNSNews.com) – The European Union on Monday formally condemned the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, and Germany and France both announced immediate bans on arms sales to Turkey.
But the E.U. notably stopped short of labelling the operation an “invasion,” apparently heeding an earlier Turkish threat to send 3.6 million migrants into Europe if it did so.
“The E.U. condemns Turkey’s military action which seriously undermines the stability and the security of the whole region, resulting in more civilians suffering and further displacement and severely hindering access to humanitarian assistance,” the bloc said in a statement.
It acknowledged Turkey as a “key partner” but said its security concerns should be addressed through “political and diplomatic means, not with military action.”
The E.U. also called on the U.N. Security Council – which met last Thursday but failed to agree on a joint statement due to Russian opposition – to improve efforts to stop the military action.
After President Trump announced last week he was pulling back a small number of U.S. troops from the immediate area, Turkey launched its long-threatened operation designed to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters and create a “buffer zone” in Syrian territory along their common border and resettle displaced Syrians there.
The move prompted concern over the fate of Kurdish civilians, and of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a key ally in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as a terrorist group due to its links to the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
The U.N. says some 160,000 civilians have been displaced since Turkey launching the offensive on Wednesday. Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric also voiced concern the operation could lead to the unintended release of captured ISIS fighters, who have been held under SDF guard.
Germany and France both pledged to prevent the sale to Turkey of any military equipment that could be used in Syria. Germany sold weapons worth 243 million euros ($268 million) to Turkey in 2018.
Beyond the two leading E.U. members, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said all member-states held “a common position on arms exports control, and they all committed to apply that framework.” She did not elaborate.
Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister who is in line to succeed Mogherini, told the Associated Press there was “a strong commitment by all members” to take the necessary steps to stop selling weapons to Turkey.
Kurdish leaders in the combat zone have reported that 785 ISIS “supporters” had managed to escape from a camp in Ain Issa after their guards were distracted by Turkish bombing.
“Almost all suspected ISIS militants fled the [Ain Issa] camp,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted on Sunday.
Ankara responded dismissively to the criticism and arms embargoes, saying they would only make Turkey stronger.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with Deutsche Welle that even if Turkey stood alone, “we will not back down in that fight for any reason.”
In a thinly-veiled threat, he also suggested that if the E.U. does not support the operation, perhaps Turkey should send the Syrian refugees, whom it is currently hosting, into Europe.
Cavusoglu argued that if the E.U. does not want to help Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to Syria – which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he wants to do once the “buffer zone” has been created – then Turkey would be entitled to ask Europe to take care of them instead.
Erdogan warned earlier that if the E.U. terms Turkey’s operation an invasion, Turkey would “open the doors” and release the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting, under a 2016 agreement with the E.U.
While the E.U. statement did not use the term “invasion,” European Council president Donald Tusk cautioned Turkey not to use refugees to “blackmail” the E.U.
“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe,” he said on Friday. “And we will never accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us.”
(The European Council comprises the 28 member-states’ heads of government plus top E.U. officials.)
Turkey has long been in talks about joining the E.U., but the process has been stalled indefinitely due to E.U. concerns over Erdogan’s authoritarian actions, including the mass detention of judges, journalists, and academics.