Weeks have passed since the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Since then, the implications have been steadily acknowledged for both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), since Turkey is a member of the latter and a strategic partner of the former. Turkey retains enduring interests in northern Syria, but since 2016, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reprioritized its goals and has launched several operations in Syria. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) – which was an ally of the Western coalition in the war against ISIS – constitutes the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the organization that conducted the majority of the anti-Daesh operations on the ground in Syria. The YPG is, however, Turkey’s main adversary in the region. Now that the YPG is fighting against Turkey, its ability to supervise more than 11 000 captured ISIS fighters –who have already begun to escape and re-join the jihadi struggle— is reduced. The Turkish invasion is generating more instability in a country already devastated by nearly a decade of civil war. The YPG inflicted serious defeats on Daesh and liberated swathes of territory and, de facto, controls a proto-state bordering Turkey. This is changing with Turkey’s invasion. Now Ankara seeks to use the captured territories to create and expand a buffer zone to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees which it hosts. Turkey also aims to limit Kurdish autonomy in Syria to prevent it spread at home, where 15 million people are Kurdish – some 18% of the total population.
In this context, it is important to understand the response of the EU, which aspires to playing a more robust regional and international security role.
Brussels Responds, EU Members are Divided
In a joint statement (14 October 2019), the EU Council condemned Turkey’s military action, which was, according to the Council, seriously undermining stability and security in the region. EU member states agreed to halt arms exports to Ankara; however, they could not agree on issuing an EU wide embargo. A ban, limited to future export contracts, will not affect Ankara’s ongoing operations. Turkey’s envoy to the UN in Geneva responded by suggesting that the arms ban was ‘a joke as Turkey has enough of an industrial base to substitute [arms from the EU] them.’ The ban may impede future activities but does little to alley the present crisis. Turkey is a main market for EU products – and vice versa. Indeed, Turkey represent 36% of the EU’s export market, while the EU represents some 50% of Turkey’s. Consider also that in 2018, for instance, Italy and Spain were the top European arms exporters for Turkey, after the US. Both Rome and Madrid are loath to adopt strong measures as a result. On 14 October, five days after “Operation Peace Spring” commenced, the European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, condemned the operation on behalf of the EU and warned on the risks: ‘protracted instability in northeast Syria can provide fertile ground for the resurgence of Daesh.’ However, such words were not followed by action as the EU had left to the individual member states to implement the ban. This is largely due to procedural reasons and left a wide margin of action to the members. Germany, France, Sweden, Finland and The Netherlands halted arms exports to Ankara (even before the EU statement), and later Italy, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic joined the initiative. Almost all the EU-28, to various degrees, made public statements condemning the Turkish action. France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Diran, condemned the Operation as it ‘is jeopardising the anti-Islamic State coalition’s security and humanitarian efforts and is a risk for the security of Europeans,’. His German counterpart, Heiko Maas, reiterates a similar sentiment. In contrast, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, openly contradicted the EU Council position and declared that Hungary supported Turkey’s plans to move refugees into Syria, as stopping migration is a key Hungarian national interest. Erdoğan is increasingly pressuring the EU to support his Syria policy. He threatened to open the borders and let 3.6 million refugees enter the EU, despite the deal signed in 2016. According to the Joint Action Plan, Turkey accepted the return of all new immigrants who reached Greece from its territory. In exchange, Ankara received €6 billion from the EU for refugee camps; the EU was about to open talks for Turkey’s EU-membership and agreed on free-visa travel for its citizens. This controversial agreement had helped reduce the migration crisis in Europe for a while (on that frontier), even if did not solve it. Furthermore, Turkey is not only an important economic and political partner for the EU, it is also an essential member of NATO.
Another NATO Crisis?
Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO, a fact that prompted the Alliance’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, to recognise Turkey’s ‘legitimate security concerns’ in relation to the high number of terrorist attacks suffered during the past years, the number of refugees hosted and its exposure to instability and violence in the region. However, a crisis is brewed for several reasons and Turkey invasion is making matters worse. Ankara abandon the liberal democratic model and is now engaging more with Moscow (it purchased the Russian S-400 missile defence system). The Turkey-Russia affair is reducing Ankara’s reliability as a NATO partner and weakens the Alliance as a whole.
During the two-day meeting of NATO Defence Ministers, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, proposed to establish an internationally patrolled security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, in cooperation with Turkey and Russia. This can be seen as an attempt to limit Ankara’s shift towards Moscow and to maintain NATO’s credibility. However, that overture was rejected. At the same time, the future of the ‘Active Fence Operation’ is at stake. Italy decided to follow through with the decision taken in spring 2019 to end the deployment of anti-missile batteries on Turkey’s southern border at the end of its mandate. Spain is also considering the option of withdrawing from the mission. This operation involved a rotation between NATO members since 2013. Erdoğan’s Syria push casts uncertainty on who will replace Italy – and perhaps Spain – and could force Ankara further into Moscow’s orbit. Caution is enjoined.
18 November 2019