|Turkish soldiers with US-made M60 tanks drive through the town of Tukhar, north of Syria's northern city of Manbij, as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. (Aref TAMMAWI/AFP) |
Several European states including Germany and France have already halted arms exports to Turkey over the offensive and there were calls for an official EU-wide ban.
But senior diplomats told AFP that Turkey's membership of NATO made such an embargo extremely difficult.
Instead, EU member states agreed to the "strict application" of their existing common policy on arms exports, which includes a provision that they should not be approved where they may "contribute to regional instability".
EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said the commitment, agreed by all 28 foreign ministers at talks in Luxembourg, would have the "same effect" as an arms embargo but was quicker and easier to implement.
But after repeated EU calls for Ankara to halt its operation went ignored, she was downbeat about the chances that the latest move would convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change course.
"I'm glad that on this occasion the European Union and member states were not only able to speak with one voice but also to act in unison and we take a further step. Will that be enough? We'll see," she told reporters.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that EU countries had agreed "that they will no longer authorise arms exports to Turkey".
But when asked whether this would apply to existing contracts to supply Turkey or only to new business, he said "every country will have to clarify this for itself".
Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister who will soon replace Mogherini at the EU, said Monday's decision would only apply to new contracts, pointing out that arms sales were a matter for member states.
One high-level European diplomat said that because Turkey is a NATO member, the EU was not in a position to impose an official embargo.
Monday's statement said the EU "condemns Turkey's military action, which seriously undermines the stability and the security of the whole region".
But, in a sign of the divisions that regularly bedevil EU attempts to impose itself on the geopolitical stage, even this statement took three and a half hours of closed-doors haggling among the ministers.
Diplomats told AFP that Britain in particular refused to agree to the word "condemn" until a paragraph was added acknowledging Turkey's role as a "key partner".
Mogherini warned that, as well as sparking a humanitarian crisis, the Turkish advance against Kurdish fighters risks creating space for the Islamic State (IS) group to "resurrect" itself following the defeat of its self-declared "caliphate".
France has called for a meeting of the US-led coalition to defeat IS - of which Turkey is a member - and Mogherini said the EU was echoing this appeal "in a very formal way" with Washington.
The US has ordered the withdrawal of almost its entire ground force in Syria, leaving the Kurds feeling abandoned by their ally in the fight against IS.
The Turkish offensive creates huge headaches for NATO, with Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn calling the situation "unbelievable", particularly in light of the deal struck between the Kurds and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
"This means that officially ... a NATO member is fighting against Assad," he said, asking whether it could lead to NATO being drawn into the conflict because of its mutual self-defence pact.
"Imagine that Turkey is attacked by Syria or allies by Syria."
Turkey's assault, which has seen air strikes, shelling and a ground incursion, has killed scores of civilians and fighters since its launch on Wednesday.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg held talks on Friday with Erdogan and his foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, sharing his "very serious concerns" about the offensive.
Cavusoglu said Spain had told Ankara that as a result of the assault, it would withdraw its Patriot missile batteries from Turkey - originally deployed to help it defend itself against IS attacks - when the current mission ends in December.