Lara Kajs | 19 December 2022 |
The Beyoğlu district in Istanbul was the target of a terrorist attack on 13 November 2022, killing six and injuring eighty-one others. Although no group claimed responsibility, Turkey’s aggression was immediately directed toward two Kurdish groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-led armed group that controls much of northeast Syria, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK and the SDF are the main ground forces fighting ISIS in northeast Syria.
Turkey, the EU, and the US, all consider the PKK a terrorist group. Ankara considers the primary component of the SDF, the People’s Defense Unit (YPG), an extension of the PKK. All three groups – the PKK, SDF, and YPG – denied involvement in the Istanbul bombing. However, Turkey launched over 1500 airstrikes, aimed at more than 500 mostly Kurdish targets across northern Syria and Iraq in retaliation for the attack in Istanbul.
The offensive, Operation Claw-Sword struck densely populated areas, including civilian and vulnerable populations, many of which were already displaced from the ongoing conflict in Syria. Civilians reported strikes within one to two kilometers of homes and workplaces. Homes were damaged, displacing more families.
Airstrikes targeted schools, a Covid treatment center, and other community medical facilities. Grain silos, power stations, water facilities, gas stations, oil fields, and infrastructure were targeted in the shelling as well. Bombardments were aimed at roads frequently used by humanitarian groups and civilians, worsening an already devastating humanitarian crisis. Several aid organizations were forced to suspend activities.
The damage to infrastructure led to significant power and internet cuts. Many families are still without power or the internet. Attacks on populated areas and critical infrastructure across northern Syria and Iraq are putting the most basic human rights of civilians at risk.
In a 25 November statement, the NES NGO forum, the lead organization coordinating nongovernment organizations working in northeast Syria, warned of the devastating impact that targeting energy infrastructure could have on the environment and the water shortage in the region. Syrians are already suffering a humanitarian disaster, complicated by a growing displacement crisis, and a failing economy. Turkey’s military strikes risk worsening an already unbearable situation.
Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons
The airstrikes began a few days after Turkey and 81 other countries were signatories to the Political Declaration on strengthening the protection of civilians from the humanitarian consequences arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
“We cannot stop conflicts from happening. But we can take steps to protect the people caught in the midst of these crises”, were the words of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu. Indiscriminate shelling, bombardments, and targeting of civilian communities, education centers, medical centers, and infrastructure, roads frequently traveled by civilians, are all counter to the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons… certainly, the signatories realize that. Targeting civilian communities and civilians buildings constitute war crimes.
Historical Rejection of Minorities
During and in the immediate aftermath of the October 2019 invasion, Turkey, and the Syrian National Army (SNA), a non-state armed group backed by Turkey in northeast Syria, indiscriminately shelled civilian structures and pillaged property held by the local Kurdish population. Hundreds of people were arrested. Kurdish civilians, internally displaced persons, Kurdish forces, emergency responders, and political activists were executed in areas they occupy in northeast Syria. The attacks spread terror in Kurdish towns to forcibly drive out the populations.
Turkey’s policies are part of its historical rejection of ethnic and religious diversity. Turkey’s Kurdish policies reflect the Ottoman genocides of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks in 1915, as well as Turkey’s continued denial of the Ottoman genocides.
Hold Turkey Accountable
As the world focuses on Ukraine, Turkey’s aggression continues to destabilize northern Syria and Iraq. These military attacks are part of a wider Turkish policy of destruction of the Kurdish and Arab people in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including bombing and shelling civilians, blocking humanitarian aid, abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
There is growing concern that Turkey could launch a full-scale military assault against the PKK and SDF in Syria. The attacks could further destabilize the region, which has yet to recover from eleven years of ongoing conflict. Any major offensive is likely to displace thousands more people, straining a humanitarian response that is already limited. This would be Turkey’s fourth invasion of Syria since 2016. The US, Russia, and Iran have all publicly warned against another Turkish invasion of northeast Syria.
In the aftermath of the Istanbul terrorist attack, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the US stood “shoulder-to-shoulder with its NATO ally Turkey.” TGR condemns the Istanbul terrorist attack. However, the US government should address Turkey’s open threat of an invasion of Syria and Iraq. Failure to address the threat, implies a silent nod. Turkey manipulates its NATO membership to use aggression against Armenians, Kurds, and Yazidis – with impunity.
TGR calls on NATO to suspend Turkey’s membership if it carries out its threat and once again invades northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey should not get a pass, should it invade Syria for a fouth time… three times were three too many. Suspension from NATO will send a message to President Erdoğan that Turkey’s aggression will be severely punished.
Photo Credit: “Massive influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey” by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. Licensed under CC by NC ND 2.0