The Grotesque Savagery of Turkey's Mercenaries

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

By David L. Phillips

A Kurdish woman fled Turkish troops and their Islamist mercenaries when Turkey launched an unprovoked attack on the City of Afrin, a Kurdish community in northern Syria, on Jan. 20, 2018. The woman was running hand-in-hand with her young daughter when a missile obliterated the girl. The mother held onto her arm — all that was left of her child.

Afrin’s Kurdish defenders were no match for Turkish warplanes and Syrian Arab mercenaries with the Free Syrian Army. Hundreds of Kurds, Christians and Yezidis were killed in Afrin and more than 300,000 people were displaced. Many of the victims were women and children. 

With grotesque savagery, the FSA mutilated the bodies of Kurdish female fighters by cutting off their breasts and posing for selfies with their body parts. A report from the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that armed groups under Turkey’s control “committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and pillage.”

Now Turkey has launched a new spasm of violence in north and east Syria, invading on Oct. 9. President Donald Trump has blood on his hands. He gave Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a green light to attack and withdrew U.S. Special Forces from the border that had been effectively deployed to stop Turkey’s aggression.

At least 250 civilians were killed, hundreds disappeared, and more than a quarter million were displaced last month. Kurds have been targeted as part of Turkey’s ethnic cleansing campaign. Trump essentially endorsed Turkey’s pogrom to “cleanse” Kurds for their villages and historic homeland.

Evidence of war crimes is indisputable. According to Amnesty International, Turkey and its militias carried out, "serious violations and war crimes, including attacking a school with displaced families inside." They displayed “a shameful disregard for civilian life, including through summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians”.

Mobile phone recordings show Islamists shouting "Allahu Akbar” besides a pile of Kurdish corpses. In one video, jihadis are kicking the body of a female fighter and calling her a “whore." A masked jihadi shouts "pig," warning: "We have come to behead you infidels and apostates!"

These killings are not random. The FSA is responsible for a pattern of summary executions. A video shows the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, her driver and nine colleagues. They were shot with their hands tied behind their backs.

Turkey systematically violates international humanitarian law, bombing hospitals and schools. After shelling Ras al-Ayn, Turkey prevented the evacuation of wounded civilians. Turkey used white phosphorus and napalm in heavily populated civilian areas.

Trump invited Erdogan to visit the White House on Wednesday. Trump will roll out the red carpet in a bid to make nice with Erdogan. Trump is either ignorant or turning a blind eye to Turkey’s crimes. Instead of kow-towing, the United States must hold Erdogan accountable. If Trump won’t take action, Congress must.

The House recently voted overwhelmingly to sanction senior Turkish officials, and to prohibit the transfer of U.S. military technology to Turkish units involved in the Syria campaign. The Senate should act to authorize sanctions.

Russia blocks the referral of war crimes to the International Criminal Court. However, the UN Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions can still act to investigate the killing of Hevrin Khalaf, as pattern involving Turkish sponsored jihadists.

Americans are sickened by Turkey’s slaughter of our allies the Kurds. At America’s behest, 11,000 Syrian Kurds were killed and 23,000 were seriously wounded fighting the Islamic State. ISIS prisoners escaped when Turkey attacked the Kurds and joined their FSA brethren. Many U.S. soldiers who fought with the Kurds against the ISIS caliphate are appalled.

Turkey can be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity through sanctions. In addition, it may also be liable for civil penalties now that Congress has affirmed the Armenian Genocide.

Trump’s acquiescence to Erdogan is disgraceful. Erdogan is a war-monger and despot. He should be in handcuffs, not the White House.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department under President Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He is the author of "The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

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