Berlin (CNSNews.com) – European officials have condemned the launch of a Turkish military offensive in northern Syria, days after the White House announced the U.S. was pulling back troops from the area, raising concerns about the fate of Kurdish fighters who were allied the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called on Turkey to immediately cease the operation, telling European Union lawmakers in Brussels that Turkey was mistaken if it expected the E.U. to fund its envisaged “safe zone” inside Syria.
(Turkey wants to clear the area of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which it considers terrorists – and then resettle millions of displaced Syrians in a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey currently hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees.)
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that Turkey’s actions could lead to a humanitarian crisis that would create a new wave of refugees.
“Turkey is condoning the further destabilization of the region while risking a resurgence of ISIS,” he said in Berlin.
France condemned the Turkish offensive, and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday morning.
E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini issued a declaration urging Turkey to end its operation, saying that hostilities “will further undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements.”
She raised doubts abouts Ankara’s envisaged “safe zone, saying it was unlikely the initiative “would satisfy international criteria for refugee return.”
The E.U. holds that refugees’ return to their places of origin “must be safe, voluntary and dignified when conditions allow.”
“Any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable,” Mogherini added.
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter he was counting on Turkey, a NATO member, to “show restraint” and avoid jeopardizing the gains made in the fight against ISIS. He said he would discuss the matter with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.
The YPG dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. Critics of Trump’s decision fear for the safety of the Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey defines as terrorists due to their links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
“We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” Erdogan tweeted on Wednesday.
In addition to concerns about the fate of Syrian Kurds associated with the YPG, many also worry that ISIS fighters captured in recent years, and held in camps in Syria with family members and other displaced people, could be released, escape, or be sprung from captivity as a result of the Turkish offensive.
An estimated 11,000 ISIS detainees are being held in over 30 facilities across northern Syria, and some 73,000 people, including fighters and family members, are being housed at a camp named Al-Hol.
Trump indicated earlier that if Turkey goes ahead with the offensive it will assume responsibility for the captured fighters , but Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, said on Twitter that “Turkey has neither the intent, desire nor capacity to manage” the detainees.
Trump has criticized E.U. nations for refusing to take back their citizens among the captured fighters.
In refusing to do so, E.U. authorities have security concerns as a major reason.
Last month Dutch Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus told lawmakers the government had declined to repatriate 10 ISIS-linked women and children due to “direct risks to the national security of the Netherlands.”
E.U. members like the Netherlands and Sweden have proposed the creation of an international tribunal to try the ISIS suspects, a prospect that has been under discussion since as early as May.
Recently Dutch and Iraqi officials met to discuss the idea of a joint tribunal. Hurdles include the fact Iraq’s constitution explicitly prohibits “special or exceptional courts,” and E.U. opposition to the death penalty, which is implemented in Iraq. Iraqi courts have already handed down death sentences to some convicted jihadists, including French nationals.
David Romano, professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University, said there was a very significant risk that captured ISIS fighters would take advantage of the fighting between YPG and Turkish forces to escape.
As reported on Wednesday. Romano noted that in Al-Hol camp, “detainees today after hearing the news of the Turkish operation's launch started lighting fires and attacking the camp guards.”