COLOGNE, Germany, and ROME — NATO members should continue helping Turkey deploy air defense equipment on the border with Syria, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

Stoltenberg noted that the decision to extend the years-old mission ultimately lies with member governments. But he argued that the deployments should continue “because they show that despite the differences we see among NATO allies about the situation in northern Syria, we have to be able to deliver on the activities we do together.”

His comments in Brussels on the eve of a defense ministerial Thursday and Friday come as alliance members are split on dealing with a controversial operation by Ankara to drive Kurdish fighters out of northern Syria. Reports of war crimes committed by Turkish-aligned forces against Syrian Kurds in the course of that operation are seen in some European capitals as indicative that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan simply wanted to exploit an opening to move against the ethnic group.

The Turkish operation and its aftermath is certain to dominate the defense ministers’ meeting during the next two days, testing the willingness of European NATO members to support Turkey militarily. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has feted his cooperation with the Turkish leader, telling reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the fighting in the region would now be over after what he characterized as a brief window of brutality.

Alliance members have provided Ankara with air defense equipment in the southern part of the country on a rotational basis. Italy is operating a SAMP/T battery there, while Spain has deployed a Patriot unit. Earlier this month, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that Madrid was rethinking its commitment, which is up for renewal in December, due to the Turkish offensive.

In Italy, too, the mission has come under fire, though lawmakers renewed a six-month term in July. The opposition League party this month demanded that the government withdraw the batteries in light of Turkey’s Syrian incursion.

“The attack by Turkey against the Syrian Kurds means there is no reason to have Samp-T and 130 Italian military personnel there,” a group of League parliamentarians said in an Oct. 17 statement. “There is not a minute to lose.”

Germano Dottori, a defense consultant to the League, told Defense News on Thursday that the party did not receive a respone from the government" "The batteries are still there,” he said.

He added that apart from the protest against Turkish aggression in Syria, there was another reason to pull out the weapon system. “Italy was under pressure to keep it there by the United States as part of a bid to persuade the Turks not to buy the Russian S-400 missile system. Well, the Turks bought it anyway, so now there is no need for us to stay,” he said.

“I wouldn’t, however, be surprised if NATO asks us to stay since it doesn’t want Turkey to pull out of NATO,” Dottori added.

This story was updated at 13:00 CET to include information on the situation in Italy.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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