EU leaders seek tough unified message against Turkey's Syria offensive

By Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio
EU Summit in Brussels

By Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders will seek a common front against their NATO ally Turkey at a summit on Thursday and condemn Ankara's offensive in northern Syria, while considering further ways to pressure it to pull back.

Days after EU governments, most of which belong to NATO, agreed to suspend new arms sales to Turkey, an unprecedented move against a fellow member of the alliance, leaders want to use the Brussels meeting to send a tough diplomatic message.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte spoke to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for more than an hour before flying to Brussels, urging him to freeze the offensive that Europe says is deepening Syria's eight-year war.

"I reiterated Italy's firm call to suspend this military initiative, I have asked (Erdogan) to withdraw troops to Turkish territory," Conte told reporters, referring to the offensive against Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.

"This initiative risks further destabilizing a territory and a community that have already been hugely affected (by the war)," he said.

Turkey has so far pressed on with its assault, while the Russia-backed Syrian army has moved into strategic areas abandoned by U.S. forces in President Donald Trump's surprise retreat earlier this month.

The unilateral offensive has angered Washington and Turkey's European NATO allies who fear a return of Islamic State in the region. European countries are especially concerned about what foreign Islamic State fighters and adults returning to Europe.

Conte said that "some terrorists have been freed from detention centers" following the Turkish military operations.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that even though Turkey was a formal candidate to join the EU and was hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil, he could not back the military action.

"We have supported them in everything else, because we are partners in NATO, we are neighbors and they protect us from migrant inflows. But for the war, they cannot expect our support," he told reporters gathered for the summit.

While the European Union has no military role in Syria, the bloc says Trump's decision to withdraw troops has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies to regain territory that was beyond their reach.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped for a unified position of EU leaders against Turkey's offensive and support to uphold a ban agreed on Monday on selling weapons and ammunition to Ankara, although it was not a full arms embargo.

He said the offensive was causing a humanitarian crisis.


CALL TO BROADEN ARMS SALE FREEZE

The European Union exported 45 million euros ($50 million) worth of arms and ammunition to Turkey last year, including missiles, according to EU statistics office Eurostat, with Italy the main vendor, followed by Spain, Britain and Germany.

Sales of aircraft to Turkey, although not all military, amounted to 1.4 billion euros last year, according to Eurostat, led by France. The EU is the top foreign investor in Turkey.

David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, called for the EU agreement on suspending arms sales to Turkey to go further and include the cancellation of existing contracts.

Foreign ministers earlier this week agreed to draw up economic sanctions on Ankara, but over unrelated Turkish oil-and-gas drilling near Cyprus.

Cyprus and Greece pushed for the sanctions against Ankara, and EU governments decided to side with them, diplomats said.

Turkey has sent oil-and-gas drilling ships to waters off southern Cyprus where Greek Cypriot authorities have already awarded exploration rights to Italian and French companies.

The EU asset freezes and travel bans are likely to target the Turkish military and captains of the drilling ships, two EU diplomats said.


(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)