Turkey’s military operation in Syria was expected to spark “forceful” discussion at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting Thursday but Ankara risks little from its allies because of its strategic position, diplomats said.
The issue dominated the two-day gathering in Brussels, with Turkey isolated among the 29 member states because of its incursion this month against Kurdish militants.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has refused to condemn Turkey, saying it has “legitimate security concerns” along its border with Syria.
On arrival Thursday, he confirmed the ministers “will address the situation in northeast Syria” where he said a Turkey-US “ceasefire” accord struck last week had reduced fighting.
Diplomats described exchanges with Ankara’s representatives as “frank”. But they admitted that Turkey’s location at the gates of the Middle East and next to Russia gave it a strategic value weightier than the objections.
While discussions “are going to be forceful… there is no question of sanctioning Ankara or excluding Turkey (from NATO) — there is no procedure for that,” a high-ranking diplomat said.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at a think tank conference in Brussels before the meeting, said Turkey was “heading in the wrong direction”, especially with its deal struck this week with Russia to jointly patrol a “safe zone” in Syria that Ankara aims to set up.
“Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation and I think the incursion’s unwarranted,” Esper said.
He defended the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria to leave a clear path for the Turkish operation.
“I was not about to put less than 50 US soldiers in between a 15,000-man-plus Turkish army preceded by Turkish militia and jeopardize the lives of those servicemen”. Nor was he “about to start a fight with a NATO ally,” he said.
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday summed up American strategy in Syria more bluntly, saying: “Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand.”