NATO secretary defends position after criticism of being soft on Turkey’s Syria incursion

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he addresses a press conference following the NATO Defence Ministers' meeting at NATO headquarter in Brussels, on February 16, 2017. NATO will step up naval war games and surveillance in the Black Sea to complement its increased land and air force presence near a more assertive Russia, the alliance said on February 16. Stoltenberg insisted the decision taken by alliance defence ministers in Brussels was not designed to be a provocation at a time of heightened tensions with Russia, which annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. / AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday defended his stance on Turkey’s attack on Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria as he came under pressure from some members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to be tougher with Ankara, Reuters reported.

Splits in the military alliance have emerged after NATO member Turkey began its offensive in Syria last week, with the governments of EU countries that are also NATO members suspending weapons sales to Turkey.

Appearing in London at a plenary session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a body made up of delegates from the legislatures of member states, Stoltenberg said he had expressed deep concerns to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he saw him in İstanbul on Friday.

Stoltenberg said he had told Erdoğan and his foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, that Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria risked further destabilizing the region, escalating tensions and causing more human suffering.

“I expect Turkey to act with restraint and in coordination with other allies so that we can preserve the gains we have made against our common enemy, [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)],” he said, adding that one imminent concern was that captive fighters from the jihadist group should not be allowed to escape.

But during a question-and-answer session after his speech, Stoltenberg faced robust remarks from several delegates, particularly those from France and Belgium, both countries where deadly attacks linked to the ISIL have taken place.

Christian Cambon, a member of the French Senate, said the situation was unacceptable and suggested that Stoltenberg was being too soft on Turkey.

“We were surprised by the tone of your statement in İstanbul, I have to tell you. Was that in consultation with our great American ally?” Cambon asked, to applause from some of the other delegates.

He was referring to President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria, which was the catalyst for the Turkish offensive. Ankara views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria as terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency being waged inside Turkey.

US and Kurdish troops previously fought together against ISIL, and the Kurds have accused Trump of stabbing them in the back.

Cambon called on the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main decision-making body, to convene. He said it should “speak loudly and clearly in defense of the values of democracy and peace that characterize NATO’s work.”

In response Stoltenberg reiterated that he had expressed his deep concerns during his meetings in İstanbul.

“The only way you can understand what is going on there is also to understand the important role Turkey has played,” said Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister.

“Turkey is important for NATO. It has proven important in many ways, not least in the fight against [ISIL]. We have used, as NATO allies, the global coalition, all of us have used infrastructure in Turkey, bases in Turkey in our operations to defeat [ISIL].

“And that’s exactly one of the reasons why I’m concerned about what is going on now. Because we risk undermining the unity we need in the fight against [ISIL].”

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