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Turkey isolated at NATO meeting, slammed for Syria incursion

Jens Stoltenberg speaks at the Nordic Council Session 2010. (Magnus Fröderberg/Nordic Co-operation/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Turkey was subjected to some harsh criticism for its invasion of northeast Syria at the start of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on October 24.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called Turkey’s incursion, which started on October 9, “unwarranted,” yet the NATO members recognized that there was little they could do to punish their strategically important ally.

“Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation,” Esper told a conference in Brussels ahead of the meeting, adding that Ankara is “heading in the wrong direction.”

“We see them spinning closer into Russia’s orbit than into the Western orbit. And I think that’s unfortunate,” the Pentagon chief said.

Much of the criticism aimed at Turkey dealt with concerns that Ankara’s actions could undermine regional stability and reverse gains made against the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on October 22 agreed to a deal aimed at keeping Kurdish forces away from Syria’s border with Turkey, which extended a five-day cease-fire in the area that was brokered by Washington by six more days.

The United States the next day announced it was lifting its sanctions imposed on Turkey over its operations against Syrian Kurdish fighters who were allied with U.S. forces during the campaign to root out IS militants.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described discussions as “frank and open” — interpreted by commentators as euphemisms for sharp discord — and noted “we have seen disagreements before” but the transatlantic alliance has endured.

Germany proposed that international troops be inserted to create a security zone in the area where Turkey has moved in on Kurdish fighters it labeled “terrorists.”

Some allies, like Belgian Defense Minister Didier Reynders questioned the feasibility of such a plan because “the situation is totally different now.”

The commander of Kurdish forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, welcomed Germany’s idea, telling journalists in northern Syria that “we demand and agree to this.”

Still, such a plan would require a UN mandate to become a reality.

Turkey’s assault began after Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region earlier this month.

The United States and Turkey have backed different anti-government forces in Syria’s more than eight-year civil war. Russia, along with Iran, has provided crucial support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Stoltenberg has welcomed the “significant reduction in violence and fighting” following last week’s agreement between Turkey and the United States, but noted that it was “a bit too early” to determine the consequences of the Moscow-Ankara deal.

The NATO ministers are also due to discuss the Western military alliance’s commitments to Afghanistan and Ukraine, adaptation to hybrid threats, such as 5G telecommunications security, and progress on boosting quick-response capabilities, among other things.

The talks will set the stage for the meeting of NATO leaders in London in December.