EU angry at Turkish offensive but short of responses

Damon WAKE
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Turkey's offensive in Syria has raised alarm in the EU, but the delicate situation leaves the bloc short of options to respond

Turkey's offensive in Syria has raised alarm in the EU, but the delicate situation leaves the bloc short of options to respond (AFP Photo/Nazeer Al-khatib)

Brussels (AFP) - Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria has sparked alarm and anger in the European Union, but diplomats say concrete measures in the form of sanctions are unlikely.

EU leaders have urged Ankara to halt its assault on militias in northern Syria, warning of disastrous humanitarian consequences and the danger of reinvigorating the Islamic State jihadist group.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan further incensed his supposed EU allies by threatening to allow millions of refugees to head to Europe if the bloc criticises the offensive, which he says is needed to protect his country's security.

But beyond calling for restraint in Syria and condemning Erdogan's fiery rhetoric, the EU is short of options for action because a number of countries are wary of further inflaming an already complex and delicate situation.

- EU rejects Turkish 'blackmail' -

EU Council President Donald Tusk gave a stinging response to Erdogan during a visit to Cyprus, where he discussed another running sore in the bloc's relations with Ankara -- Turkey's highly contentious drilling operations off the island.

"Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable," Tusk said.

"Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponised and used to blackmail us. That is why I consider yesterday's threats made by President Erdogan totally out of place," he added.

There is widespread anger in Brussels at Erdogan's comments, given the help the EU has given Turkey in dealing with the refugee influx.

For Erdogan to use the refugees "as leverage is totally unacceptable," a senior EU official said.

"We have always recognised the… burden Turkey is shouldering with four million refugees, 3.6 million being Syrian."

The official said pointing to a 2016 EU-Turkey agreement under which "we have allocated 97 percent" of the six billion euros ($6.6 billion) of EU funding set out in the pact.

The EU has stepped up contacts with Turkey to spell out concerns about the military operation. It has reiterated a vow not to pay for any so-called "safe zone" Turkey may create in northern Syria.

Responding to Syrian Kurds' claims that Ankara is seeking to flood their areas with non-Kurdish refugees thereby changing the make-up of the local population, the EU has warned Turkey against such moves.

"We have been very clear that any attempt at demographic change is completely unacceptable," the official said.

"We will under no circumstances provide any funding, development assistance in areas where the rights of the local population are ignored."

- Sanctions 'on the table' -

Turkey is set to dominate the agenda at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday -- both for the Syria operation and for the continuing controversial drilling operations off bloc member Cyprus.

The EU has issued repeated statements condemning the Turkish drilling. Ministers will have further talks on Monday about possible sanctions against individuals involved.

But while Cyprus and Greece are pushing for such measures, diplomats say other countries are more cautious, fearing that sanctions could risk inflaming tensions with Ankara still further.

"We are faced with a complicated situation -- the Syria offensive, Cyprus drilling, demands for more money for refugees. Now it is important to keep a cool head," one diplomat told AFP.

Even so, French Europe Minister Amelie de Montchalin warned Friday that sanctions against Turkey were "on the table" for discussion.

Any move to impose sanctions needs the backing of all 28 EU members and earlier this week the bloc struggled even to issue a joint statement on the Syria offensive because of objections from Hungary.

EU leaders will discuss the matter at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday next week and what -- if any -- action they agree on will depend to a large extent on what happens on the ground in Syria.