BRUSSELS/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - NATO gave Turkey its full political support in fighting militants in Syria and Iraq at an emergency meeting on Tuesday but several nations urged Ankara not to undermine the Kurdish peace process by using excessive military force.
Following a 90-minute meeting in Brussels, Turkey won the backing it sought for stepping up its role in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State with air strikes.
Ankara made no request to its 27 allies for military help and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted that it had the second-largest army in the alliance.
Instead, the meeting heard how Turkey was carrying out President Tayyip Erdogan’s sudden change in strategy against Islamic State — an al Qaeda breakaway that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq — and Kurdish militants based in Iraq.
“We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
The killing of 32 young students in a Turkish border town near Syria last week drove Ankara into battle against Islamic State - a move NATO welcomes - shedding its previous reluctance. Turkey has a 900 km (560-mile) border with Syria and is also concerned about Kurdish militants occupying the frontier area.
Some European nations worry that Erdogan is using the opportunity to bomb Kurdish groups he brands a threat to the integrity of the Turkish state but which enjoy some sympathy in the West.
According to a NATO official present at the meeting, several nations called for “a proportionate use of military force” in the action against Kurdish militants.
European allies, who need Turkey’s help to combat jihadi fighters returning to Europe, said Turkey’s decision to hit Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in Iraq at the weekend was justified. But they made it clear at the same time they do not want Erdogan to abandon several years of a domestic peace process which they supported.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in a telephone call on Sunday to respect the principle of proportionality and not to give up on the Kurdish peace process.
“Reconciliation should continue,” the Netherlands’ ambassador to NATO, Marjanne de Kwaasteniet, said on Twitter.
While the NATO meeting was in session, Erdogan told a news conference it was impossible to continue the peace process with Kurdish militants who claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish police officers after the students’ massacre.
NATO ambassadors were said not to have been aware of Erdogan’s remarks, and they did not feature in the discussion.
The peace progress entailed giving Turkey’s own Kurdish population more cultural rights with the prospect, over time, of greater autonomy in the southeastern regions where they constitute a majority.
The European Commission on Tuesday repeated its concern to keep the peace process alive. Turkey is a candidate negotiating for EU membership.
Stoltenberg defended NATO’s limited role in the fight against Islamic State, arguing that the alliance was already active in combating terrorism across the Mediterranean, in Afghanistan, in Jordan and Iraq as part of a U.S.-led coalition.
The ability of NATO and partner nations’ armed forces to operate together due to years of joint NATO training and exercising also contributed to the campaign, he said.
NATO rules provide for mutual support if an ally comes under attack, although Turkey has not invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty which requires allied nations to consider military action.
“If a NATO member country comes under attack, NATO would support it in every way,” Erdogan said.
“At the moment, Turkey has come under attack and is exercising its right to defend itself and will exercise this right until the end... but what we’re saying is that there could be a duty for NATO, and we ask NATO to be prepared for this.”
Tuesday’s meeting of ambassadors was held under Article 4 of the treaty, which permits a member of the alliance to ask for consultations with other allies when it feels its security is threatened. Ankara twice invoked this article in 2012 to ask for consultations with its NATO allies over the Syria conflict, notably after an aerial clash with Damascus.
The United States, the dominant power in the alliance, has made some concessions by pledging to work with Turkey to create a safe zone inside Syria for displaced persons from the civil war that should relieve some of the refugee pressure on Ankara.
Erdogan said the initiative should facilitate the return of some 1.7 million Syrian refugees from Turkey.
Turkey and the United States both outlined plans for the safe zone at the meeting, but not in any detail, officials said.
Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Alex Saeedy in Brussels, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Paul Taylor