Despite the United Nation’s (UN) Syria ceasefire resolution on February 25th, Turkey continues to fire indiscriminately in the Afrin district. These actions have resulted in over 150 civilian causalities since the beginning of the offensive on January 21st. However, the Turkish military denies harming civilians or civilian infrastructure.
In July 2012, the Syrian government conceded the region of Afrin, which has a civilian population of approximately 323 000, to the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Union Party (YPG) without contest. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdish terrorist group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and wants to oust them from the region, despite the fact that YPG claims no affiliation. The now largely dissolved PKK fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for thirty years, which resulted in thousands of deaths in south-eastern Turkey. Turkey claims the ceasefire agreement does not apply to its offensive as they consider the campaign, dubbed operation “Olive Branch,” an anti-terror effort.
While Turkey continues to justify its presence in the Afrin district, other members of the UN are condemning their actions, claiming they are not respecting the recent ceasefire agreement. According to Al Jazeera, the U.S. Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert said “Turkey [should] go back and read the UN resolution,” stating Turkey is indeed “violating the UN ceasefire.” The resolution stipulates that the ceasefire holds except in the cases of military operations that target Daesh, al-Qaeda, the al-Nusrah Front, and all other terror groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIL, including groups designated by the UN Security Council. Thus far, the Security Council has not included the YPG in this list, making the Turkish claim to continue their offensive unlawful.
According to Hami Aksoy, “Turkey is not one of the parties to the conflict in Syria,” meaning their offensive in northwestern Syria falls out of the civil and proxy wars in the rest of the country. For Turkey, the purpose of the ceasefire resolution is to relieve civilian areas under tremendous stress by the air raids carried out by Assad’s forces, particularly in Eastern Ghouta, which is separate from Turkey’s operation.
With increased involvement by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian government, the validity of this claim is dwindling. In January, the FSA joined forces with Turkey to help fight U.S.-backed Kurdish forces by launching an air and ground operation into Afrin. Just two weeks ago, the Syrian government forces entered Afrin to combat the Turkish military offensive, seeing it as a “blatant attack” on Syrian sovereignty. Syrian-government involvement in the region has resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers and at least 36 pro-Syrian government troops.
While the Turkish Armed forces state that they’ve neutralized over 1 715 fighters, meaning they were either captured or killed, they have also caused the deaths of over 150 civilians. Bringing into question the seriousness of their efforts to prevent civilian casualties. International law condemns indiscriminate attacks, meaning militants have to be specifically targeted without the possibility of disproportionate civilian causalities, civilian injuries, or damage to civilian objects. In January, Amnesty International stated that Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Kurdish forces, engaged in indiscriminate shellings killing civilians in Afrin.
Turkey’s justification for involvement in the region seems shallow amidst the blatant breaches of international law. However, this story would change if the YPG became recognized as a terror group by the Security Council. FSA support for Turkey is also looking like a justification to target Assad forces, which is difficult to contest considering the regime’s relentless offences and consequential war crimes. The resultant involvement of Assad’s forces over the last couple of weeks also seems reactionary to the FSA. U.S. involvement in the conflict is more complicated than ever as the country opposes Assad’s forces but also denounces Turkey’s offensive in Afrin.
Due to the complexity of alliances, with each party holding very different goals, peace along the Syrian-Turkish border does not appear to be in the imminent future. Preventing civilian casualties must become Turkey’s priority if they are to maintain respect on the global stage and prevent the conflict from escalating.