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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting, in Istanbul, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.The Associated Press

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has voiced “serious concern” to Turkey’s President about the country’s military incursion into northern Syria, but he stopped short of calling for a ceasefire or admonishing the invasion.

Mr. Stoltenberg told a gathering of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Monday that he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week to discuss the operation, which Turkey has said is aimed at countering Kurdish terrorists.

“I am deeply concerned and I think what has happened since Friday has just underpinned and underscored those concerns,” Mr. Stoltenberg told the assembly, which consists of parliamentarians from all 29 NATO countries, including Canada. “We must not put in jeopardy the gains we have made against our common enemy [the Islamic State].”

His comments have done little to ease the growing divisions within NATO about Turkey’s mission. Although it’s a long-standing NATO member, Turkey has infuriated many other NATO countries by acting unilaterally and targeting Kurdish forces that fought alongside American and coalition troops in Syria. There are also fears that thousands of Islamic State fighters held by the Kurds could be released and regroup. Some NATO allies, notably France and Germany, have called for a halt to arms sales to Turkey while others, such as Belgium, have demanded an immediate ceasefire.

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The divisions were on display throughout the four-day annual meeting in London. While the gathering was supposed to be a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the alliance, criticism of Turkey dominated much of the discussions. On Monday, Mr. Stoltenberg faced a barrage of questions from delegates who demanded that NATO take a tougher stand.

“The Kurds aren’t our enemies, they are our allies,” said Theo Francken a member of Parliament from Belgium. “We cannot let ISIS regain its strength … The real terrorists are now escaping from prison. NATO must act … Turkey must cease fire.”

Mr. Francken also noted that the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, has agreed to help the Kurdish forces fend off the Turks.

Christian Cambon, a member of the French Senate, called the invasion unacceptable and criticized Mr. Stoltenberg for being too soft.

“We were surprised by the tone of your statement in Istanbul, I have to tell you. Was that in consultation with our great American ally?” Mr. Cambon asked.

His question was in reference to suggestions that Turkey was given the green light to move into Syria by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has abruptly pulled U.S. forces out of the area. On Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted that Kurdish forces could be freeing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back into the area. Escaped fighters could be “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Mr. Trump said via Twitter.

Jurgen Trittin, a member of the German Bundestag, said Turkey’s invasion violated international law and should be condemned by NATO.

“If NATO is an alliance of values based on a respect for international law, we cannot accept the violation of international principles,” he told the meeting.

Mr. Stoltenberg tried to strike a careful balance and highlighted Turkey’s role in the alliance and in the fight against the Islamic State, also called Daesh. “We risk undermining the unity we need in the fight against Daesh,” he said. “Daesh has not disappeared. Daesh may come back. And that makes it even more important that we do whatever we can to maintain the unity in the fight against Daesh.”

He also pointed out that Turkey has taken in nearly four million Syrian refugees and added: “For NATO allies to deal with refugees and the migrant crisis, it is critical to work with Turkey.”

However, despite the security concerns, Mr. Stoltenberg said he expected Turkey “to act with restraint and in coordination with other allies so that we can preserve the gains we have made against our common enemy, Daesh.”

Sena Nur Celik, an MP in Turkey’s governing party, called the criticism from other NATO members absurd. “This terrorist organisation took advantage of the fight against ISIS and they expanded their own territory,” she said in an interview, referring to the Kurdish groups. She added that Turkey’s objective is to create a 30-kilometre safe zone along the border, something the country has wanted “for five or six years now.”

She also had a warning for NATO members: “If Turkey is destabilized, I do not want to think of the consequences for Europe. I do not want to think of the consequences for the globe.”

When asked if she thought Turkey would back down in response to boycotts or sanctions, she replied, “No. We see this operation as very vital for our existence.”

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