It wasn’t easy to get “yes” or “no” answers out of him, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did tell Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday that NATO has not supported member nation Turkey in its “military operation” in Kurdish areas of Northern Syria. Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, repeated that he has “serious concerns about the risk of further destablizing the region, escalating tensions and even more human suffering.”
Several Norwegian politicians have strongly criticized Stoltenberg for not being tougher on Turkey in meetings in Istanbul with top Turkish officials on Friday. According to NATO’s own account of the meetings, Stoltenberg “thanked Turkey for its commitment and many contributions to NATO.” He also called Turkey “a great power in this great region.
In what was clearly a carefully worded press release, though, Stoltenberg was quoted as saying that “while Turkey has legitimate security concerns” about alleged Kurdish terrorists just over its border to Northern Syria, “I expect Turkey to act with restraint.” He also “emphasized” how the brutal terror organization IS (whom he referred to as “Da’esh”) remains “a common enemy.” He noted that IS/Da’esh “controlled significant territory in Iran and in Syria” just a few years ago.
“Working together in the Global Coalition (not least with Kurdish forces as the US’ ally), we have liberated all this territory and millions of people,” Stoltenberg was quoted as saying. “These gains must not be jeopardized.” He then “stressed” that while “Turkey is a great power” in the region, “with great power comes great responsibility.” He reportedly urged Turkey “to avoid any unilateral actions that may further destabilize the region and escalate tensions.”
Stoltenberg has since added, however, that NATO alllies “must stand together,” confusing allies like Norway that has halted defense equipment sales to Turkey, and other NATO members including Denmark that have outright condemned Turkey’s invasion. Defying Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s demands that his “military operation” not be called an “invasion,” many European members are upset that US President Donald Trump all but cleared the way for Erdogan to do what he wants in Kurdish areas and betrayed the US’ Kurdish allies in the process. They oppose Erdogan’s military aggression, and then didn’t think Stoltenberg was acting as a firm leader representing their views. Stoltenberg appears to be caught in the middle between two allies (the US and Turkey) and many other NATO members who decry what Trump and Erdogan are doing.
Newspaper Klassekampen sent so far as to report on Saturday that Stoltenberg had said he “expected member nations in the alliance to continue to support Turkey militarily.” By that time, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide had already suspended military exports to Turkey and nonetheless was under fire in Parliament herself for not outright condemning Turkey’s invasion. Her counterpart in Turkey, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, said he and other Turkish officials expected “loud and clear solidarity” with Turkey’s military operation.
That’s unlikely to be forthcoming and on Friday, Stoltenberg appeared tougher on Turkey in the interview with NRK. He still stopped short of using the term “invasion,” but repeated his “deep concern fo the military operation we’re now seeing. It can lead to further escalation of the conflict, increased tensions and new human suffering, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”
Asked why it nonetheless seemed “okay” for NATO that Turkey proceed with its attacks on the Kurds, Stoltenberg replied “This is nothing NATO has given support for. NATO is not on the ground in Northern Syria. On the contrary, I expressed deep concern over the military operation when I was in Istanbul on Friday, not least because it can put the great progress we made against our common enemy, IS, in jeopardy.” Stoltenberg added that “we have also expressed concerns that IS prisoners can be set free.” That’s his greatest concern, he said.
He acknowledged that no other NATO country has experienced so many terrorist attacks as Turkey, and that no other country has taken in so many refugees as Turkey has. He refused to answer “yes” or “no,” however, when asked by NRK whether he is for or against Turkey’s actual attack.
“I believe that the military operation can endanger the progress we have made in our common fight against IS,” Stoltenberg told NRK. “Therefore I have expressed my deep concern for the military operation. I have done that first in Istanbul and repeated it today.”
NRK tried again to get a firm answer: “So you’re against this attack?”
“I fear the consequences that this can lead to, like new human suffering, increased tension in the region and that they’re putting what we’ve achieved in jeopardy,” Stoltenberg responded to NRK.
It remains unclear what will happen now, given the conflicting messages about the importance of “standing together” versus the “deep concern” over what NATO member Turkey is doing. NRK reported Monday night that new fears are rising that NATO will wind up split despite its “all for one and one for all” motto. Turkey has launched a military offensive that its allies, even Trump’s own Republicans in Washington, firmly reject. The EU itself has condemned Turkey’s invasion.
“It’s extremely important that even more countries within NATO take a more active stance on this than Stoltenberg is,” said the Norwegian Member of Parliament Audun Lysbakken, whose Socialist Left party (SV) has always opposed Norway’s membership in NATO. SV wants Norwegian leaders to use stronger language and make sure Turkey knows that Norway does not support its invasion of Northern Syria.
Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, a longtime colleague of Stoltenberg’s who served as Stoltenberg’s foreign minister, opted to merely ask Norway’s Foreign Minister Søreide for a status report on the difficult situation. “It’s very serious that there’s now a new military conflict arising with the invasion by Turkey into Syrian areas,” Støre told news bureau NTB. At least Støre didn’t shy away from calling it an “invasion.” There also have been several demonstrations in Oslo and elsewhere in Norway, against Turkey’s invasion and in support of the Kurds.