The offensive perpetrated by the Turkish Military Forces against the Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched on 9 October 2019 has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the region and given extensive support to Islamic militias. Since this invasion, various news organizations have reported that the Turkish effort to create a “safe zone” has been reliant on multiple violent sectarian militia groups who have no “Rules of Engagement” and a history of extensive human rights abuses.
As mentioned in a previous OWP report, the Turkish government views all Kurdish people as terrorist sympathizers. This policy legitimizes Ankara’s support of the Syrian National Army (SNA), a loose grouping of militia that receives Turkish arms and support. The SNA militia includes many jihadist elements, including Glory Corps, Sultan Murad Division and Jaysh al-Islam. These units have a track record of human rights abuse and war crimes, including holding kidnapped civilians in cages as human shields and carrying out summary executions and torture in direct violation of the Geneva convention, as reported in the Telegraph in 2015.
These crimes are further enabled by Ankara’s supply of advanced weaponry to jihadist divisions, such as German-made, Turkish supplied, Leopard 2A4 tanks. This advanced weaponry, paired with Turkish forces perception of civilian centres, medical staff, foreign aid workers and political activists as legitimate military targets, has resulted in high casualty rates among the civilian population. On the ground reporting from the Rojava Information Center (RIC) and Red Crescent counts over 400 wounded and 90 dead civilians, including several international aid workers on the 09/11/2019. The real number is likely to be much higher, as the RIC reports dozens of uninvestigated summary executions and kidnappings carried out by Ankara-backed jihadists.
In a statement via Twitter on 13 October, the SDF said, “Securing ISIS detention centres or chasing ISIS sleeper cells is not our priority. We are solely focused on fighting Turkish aggression and protecting our people from it.” Since “Operation Peace Spring” the RIC has reported a 48% rise in ISIS sleeper cell attacks, with 38 attacks in the 21 days after the invasion. This drastic rise in activity from an organization that has recently lost its pivotal leader is a direct result of the Turkish forces giving the Syrian Defense Force no choice but to decrease its raids against ISIS by up to 75% in order to focus on defending the Kurdish population from the war crimes of the SNA. This is deeply troubling as this is contradictory to Turkey’s stated anti-extremist policy.
Turkey’s ongoing offensive will further worsen the current situation. The humanitarian crisis is growing, and the international community must face it and the resurgence of Islamist activity it has caused. Turkey must remove its advanced weaponry from the hands of Islamists and bow to international pressure to withdraw from Syria; if they refuse, the human cost will be unimaginable.