UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Turkish and Syrian ambassadors clashed Thursday at their first U.N. Security Council encounter since Turkey launched a cross-border offensive earlier this month following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Turkey's ambassador, Feridun Sinirlioglu, called it a limited counter-terrorism operation "to eliminate the longstanding existential terror threat along our border with Syria" and "to enforce Syria's territorial integrity and unity."
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told council members his government "condemns in the strongest terms the Turkish aggression, and vehemently rejects attempts by the Turkish regime to justify its actions under the pretext of self-defense or countering terrorism."
The council met on Syria's humanitarian situation, but the members' top concerns were the state of a Russian-Turkish cease-fire agreement that divides up the border region and prospects for next week's first meeting of a committee that is supposed to draft a new Syrian constitution.
Turkey views Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria who fought alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State extremists as terrorists because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a 35-year conflict against the Turkish state. It justified sending troops into Syria as exercising its right to self-defense under the U.N. Charter.
"I therefore flatly reject and strongly condemn any misrepresentation of our counter-terrorism operation as an offensive or aggression," Sinirlioglu told the council, saying that "Operation Peace Spring" launched by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 9 was strictly limited in nature.
Ja'afari accused Turkey of a "flagrant violation" of international law, the U.N. Charter and U.N. resolutions and dismissed its justifications for military action as "lies."
"The aggression led to the occupation of Syria and the death and injury of hundreds of civilians" and massive displacement, he said.
The United Nation's deputy humanitarian chief, Ursula Mueller, has said almost 180,000 people, including 80,000 children, fled their homes in northeastern Syria because of the offensive.
Ja'afari noted that many European council members on Thursday condemned Turkey's military operation, but he accused the Europeans of creating the current situation.
"They provided on a plate of gold to Erdogan all the justifications he needed for his aggression," he said. "Those countries played a vital role in sponsoring secessionist, illegitimate militias in the northeast of Syria."
Russia's ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, called the Russian-Turkish cease-fire agreement "of key significance for stabilization in Syria."
"We will continue to assist Syria and the Kurds as they seek to build comprehensive dialogue on pressing issues," he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. was lifting sanctions on Turkey after Erdogan's government agreed to permanently stop fighting Kurdish forces in Syria.
Michael Barkin, a special adviser at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, told the council that the U.S. is hopeful the permanent cease-fire will be honored and civilians will be protected. He said if reports that Turkish-supported opposition forces deliberately targeted civilians are verified, "these actions may constitute war crimes."
Nebenzia said Syrian allies Russia and Iran as well as Turkey are seeking a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
"We shall support the operations of the constitutional committee," he said. "Our view is that the situation on the ground should not prevent the long-awaited launch of the committee with assistance from the United Nations next week."
South African Ambassador Jerry Matjila, the current council president, expressed hope that the cease-fire will galvanize efforts and ideas to ensure the constitutional committee's meeting in Geneva is a success, "because if that happens, then it is a good condition for a peaceful Syria."
Barkin agreed, saying that "more than ever, it is vital that this political process moves forward ... so that the people of Syria might at last find peace within reach."