EU nations commit to arms export ban against Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Syria - Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019. Erdogan called Wednesday on Syrian Kurdish fighters to leave a designated border area in northeast Syria 'as of tonight' for Turkey to stop its military offensive, defying pressure on him to call a ceasefire and halt its incursion into Syria.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

LUXEMBOURG — European Union nations vented outrage Monday at Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds and joined France and Germany in banning arms sales to Ankara, a rare move against a NATO ally for many of them.

Many EU foreign ministers were looking beyond a strong statement condemning the military operation that has destabilized the whole region and wanted to make sure their move would carry some sting.

They also prepared sanctions against Turkish companies and individuals involved in gas drilling in east Mediterranean waters where EU-member Cyprus has exclusive economic rights and has licensed European energy companies to carry out a hydrocarbons search. The sanctions, which Cypriot officials said may include an asset freeze, travel bans and a sales ban on material used in drilling, could be implemented at short notice. France and Cyprus are conducting naval maneuvers there now.

Over the years, Turkey has become increasingly less dependent on European nations for its defense needs and it was unclear what the impact of such a measure would be beyond applying diplomatic pain.

“There is a strong commitment by all members of the council to take the actions required to stop selling arms to Turkey,” Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister who is slated to become EU foreign policy chief next month, told The Associated Press.

Relations between the bloc and Turkey under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have steadily worsened over the years, especially after he likened some German moves to Nazi practices.

And even though both sides agreed upon a deal in 2016 to stop migrants from traveling westward from Turkey to the European mainland, Erdogan is now wielding that like a cudgel. Since his operation in northern Syria began last week, he has sought to quell Europe criticism of it by warning that he could “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said Monday that “we should not cave in to blackmail.”

Despite such abrasive relations, Turkey’s links with most EU nations are cemented through the NATO alliance and its commitment to stand by each other’s side in times of need. NATO’s Article 5 says an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all.

Erdogan on Monday criticized his European allies, saying “We are a NATO ally. Please note that these countries are all NATO countries.”

He added “Whose side should they be on, according to Article 5?”

Still, many think Turkey crossed more than just a physical border when it went into northern Syria last week to attack Syrian Kurdish strongholds — it also endangered the fight against Islamic State militants.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made that point Monday, telling NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in London that he expects “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 group.

“These gains must not be jeopardized,” Stoltenberg said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Turkish military operation had already displaced 130,000 people.

“The Turkish offensive has the risk of bringing (Islamic State) to the fore again in different ways,” Le Drian said. “It is especially grave since it will engender a real humanitarian disaster.”

Le Drian urged the United States to call for a meeting of the international coalition against the Islamic State group, given that the chaos caused by the Turkish offensive was reviving the threat of IS in Syria.

Syria’s Kurds, who Turkey is now going after, were key allies in a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group.

Borrell criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for allowing Turkey to invade Syria.

If “American troops would not have withdrawn (from Syria), the attack would have been impossible,” Borrell said.