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UK suspends arms exports to Turkey to prevent use in Syria

The UK is suspending the granting of arms export licences to Turkey for weapons that might be used during military operations in Syria, the British foreign secretary has said.

Dominic Raab also condemned Turkey’s invasion of Syria, saying it risked worsening the humanitarian crisis and undermined the international effort to focus on defeating Islamic State terrorism. “This is not the action we expected from an ally. It is reckless. It is counterproductive and plays straight into the hands of Russia, and indeed the Assad regime,” he told MPs.

Turkish troops entered north-east Syria last week in an offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara has long maintained is an offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). The assault was triggered by Donald Trump’s announcement that US troops would withdraw from the Kurdish-held area.

The UK has supplied £1.1bn(RM5.9bn) of arms to Turkey since 2014 and it is not clear how UK trade officials will be able to determine if the arms could be used in Syria.

Raab also said the UK would consider possible economic sanctions against Turkey, but said the balance of opinion within the EU at this stage was that it was doubtful whether they would achieve the goal of ending the Turkish offensive. He ruled out a no-fly zone in northern Syria as impractical.

Trump’s announcement just over a week ago that he was withdrawing US troops has been widely viewed as a historic foreign policy blunder.

Raab implicitly criticised Trump, saying the withdrawal had sent the wrong message to the US’s allies and destabilised broader efforts to fight Isis.

A threat by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to flood Europe with refugees was totally unacceptable and “not the kind of language we expect from a Nato ally”, Raab added.

Raab also said the UK was looking to give safe passage back to the UK for unaccompanied British children and orphans of Isis fighters, but conceded the British policy of seeking to prosecute foreign fighters in the region had been made more difficult by the arrival of Syrian regime forces.

The government was criticised by Labour and Scottish National party MPs for initially resisting a push at the EU foreign affairs council on Monday to condemn the Turkish offensive. He countered that the British aim had been to produce a balanced EU statement that acknowledged Turkish security concerns about the presence of Kurds belonging to the PKK – which Turkey, the UK, the US and others consider a terrorist group – in Kurdish-administered north-east Syria.

He also warned against “doing anything that might drive Turkey further into the arms of Russia and President Putin”.

The British stance at the EU has been seen by some as a glimpse of a post-Brexit British foreign policy in which the search for markets, and trade deals, will need to be put ahead of solidarity with any European human rights foreign policy.

The exchanges in parliament on Tuesday were remarkable for the degree of Conservative backbench criticism of Trump. Tom Tugenhadt, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, asked Raab if he could think of any decision by an ally that “has so exposed our troops in combat, weakened our alliances in the region, undermined our essential security partnership in Nato and empowered our enemies in Russia and Iran”.

The former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said Trump’s action had triggered a tragic chain of events that could change the ethnic makeup of Syria and give Russia and Iran ever greater leverage. Direct conflict between Russia and Turkey was coming ever closer, he warned.

The former cabinet minister David Davis described the episode as a geo-strategic disaster.

Earlier Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, said Trump had made a profound strategic mistake by abandoning the Kurds.

“We are probably looking at an end game where Assad has much more territory, Russia has another vassal state and the west’s role – particularly America’s – is dramatically reduced,” he said.

Arms trade campaigners welcomed the British move, and said the UK had “clearly been shamed” into action after other European countries made a similar decision.

Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against Arms Trade said any suspension could not only be limited to future arms sales and must also affect the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of arms that have been licensed over recent years.

“This should also mark a turning point in UK foreign policy in Turkey,” Smith said. “In 2018 Turkish forces bombed Afrin and it made no difference to arms sales or military collaboration. If this move is to be more than symbolic then there can be no return to business as usual. It’s time that the rights of Kurdish people were finally put ahead of arms company profits.”

– The Guardian

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