The testimony now now makes it appears that US officials ignored the ethnic cleansing and harm to minorities in Syria.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014
(photo credit: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL / REUTERS)
Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has led to ethnic cleansing, several experts testified to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom during a virtual hearing on June 10. It is some of the first clear statements being gathered that point to systematic abuses against women and minorities after Turkey invaded parts of Syria in 2018 and 2019. Turkey backs a plethora of Syrian rebel and extremist groups that have wreaked havoc across Afrin and Tel Abyad, destroying the sites of indigenous Kurdish and Yazidi minorities and kidnapping women.
Amy Austin Holmes, a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, praised the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for their role defeating ISIS. The US has backed the SDF but in October 2019 Ankara ordered the US to leave Syria and threatened to invade areas US forces were in. US President Donald Trump ordered US forces to partly withdraw in the face of Turkey’s threats and within days 200,000 people were forced to flee at Turkey bombed and attacked the formerly peaceful areas around Tel Abyad.
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Holmes said that the SDF has “evolved into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force in which all the indigenous peoples of the region were represented.” She mentioned how Christian groups such as Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians are part of this mosaic, along with Yazidis and Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds. However those groups are threatened by Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition groups. “They have been killed, disappeared, kidnapped, raped, detained, subjected to forced religious conversion and held for ransom.” Minorities have been removed or threatened in areas Turkey occupies.
A variety of voices were quoted in the testimony, including locals who said that the actions of Turkish-backed “Islamist extremist groups” against minorities “remind us of ISIS behavior.” ISIS committed a genocide against Yazidis and other minorities in 2014 and killed thousands. It appears that Yazidi villages in Afrin have also been subjected to ethnic cleansing and their shrines destroyed under Ankara’s occupation of that part of Syria. Some of the testimony read into the record asserted that Turkey’s role in harming minorities was a legacy of the 1915 attacks against Armenians and other Christians in Turkey. Some of these Christian minorities had fled to Syria after 1915, only to find their villages once against threatened by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups. Turkey is a member of NATO and is supposed to uphold democratic and human rights. The testimony paints a picture of a NATO member involved in destroying the shrines of minorities, ethnically cleansing other minorities and engaging in demographic change similar to what was done in the Balkans in the 1990s. In the Balkans NATO powers intervened to stop ethnic cleansing. In Syria a NATO power has now been accused of enabling harm to minorities and women.
More devastating testimony came from Michael Rubin, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin said that the “Turkish-backed administrators refuse to register locals with Kurdish names and the Turkish administration refuses to issue identification cards to Christian and minority women who do not cover their hair or wear conservative Islamic veils.” He also claimed that “Turkish forces have razes Kurdish and minority graveyards in the region, action mores more consistent with ethnic cleansing than counter-terrorism.”
Rubin said that the areas under US-backed SDF control in eastern Syria, an area called Rojava in Kurdish and also called the Autonomous Administration, are more diverse and have different religious and ethnic groups working together. These areas were tolerant of different faith and people and women could dress a they wanted, as opposed to be forced or harassed into covering their hair or being kidnapped.
Turkey has intervened more aggressively in Syria since 2016, first launching operations around Manbij to slow the SDF anti-ISIS campaign and prevent SDF forces from controlling more parts of the border. Turkey claimed that it had to invade Afrin to secure its border, but there were no attacks on Turkey from Afrin. When ISIS control hundreds of kilometer of the Turkish border, Turkey had not invaded, it waited until Kurds had defeated ISIS to begin operations. After the January invasion and depopulation of Afrin, Turkey invaded Tel Abyad in October 2019. Testimony painted a grim picture of these operations.
Rubin said that the abandonment of the Kurds “came after a nearly yearlong internal campaign by US Envoy James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey, who has long carried Turkey’ cause both inside government and out.” Rubin quoted Jeffrey as dismissing the US role with Kurds fighting ISIS as temporary and tactical, and that the US envoy said “we want to have cooperation with Turkey across the board on all Syrian issues.” The testimony asserted that these remarks by the US official “convinced Turkish political and military leaders that there would be no consequence if Turkey replicated its Afrin strategy elsewhere in northeastern Syria.”
The testimony now makes it appears that US officials ignored the ethnic cleansing and harm to minorities in Syria. Not all US officials were on board with the destruction of Kurdish areas in Syria, at least one penned an internal memo in November 2019 warning of “ethnic cleansing.” There was concern also in Washington when a female activist named Hevrin Khalaf was hunted down by Turkish-backed groups and executed in Syria. The unarmed woman was bashed and shot to death in a video as Islamist extremists celebrated, reminiscent of ISIS videos. Inside Turkey the “successful” murder was called a “neutralization” of a “terrorist.” These kinds off atrocities have now continued in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Videos in early June showed women who were kidnapped by the Sultan Murad militia in Afrin. The body of another Kurdish woman was found days later.
The testimony now sheds light on concerns about US policy and Turkey. There are questions about why some US officials seem to be so beholden to Ankara that they put Turkey’s policies before US policy. The US State Department has pushed back, arguing that the USS did oppose Turkey’s military operation, but that the US could only complain diplomatically to Turkey. “Simply put, we would not use military forces against Turkey to defend our [anti-ISIS] partners.” The US says that “as part of our policy to partner with the SDF, US officials underlined that we would back our opposition to any Turkish military operation by means short of military force.” This means that Ankara knows once it threatens military force the US will leave and that Turkey effectively controls what the US does in Syria through military threats. Usually NATO allies don’t threaten each other militarily but Turkey has learned that using military force will always work and that the US doesn’t stand in its way. After Turkey invaded eastern Syria Russia secured a ceasefire and prevented further Turkish attacks. Russia now does joint patrols with Russia because Ankara prefers to work with Russia over working with the US in eastern or northern Syria. Turkey has sat with Russia and Iran to discuss Syrian ceasefires and the future of Syria in the past.
The new testimony also puts some numbers on violations against Christians in Turkish-occupied Syria. 205 houses and 120 commercial and industrial sites belonging to 75 Christians families that fled Sere Kaniye after the 2019 Turkish invasion have been looted according to these accounts.
Accusations that US officials, who often worked against or did not agree with US Defense Department strategy in eastern Syria, gave Turkey the impression its invasion was accepted hearkens back to question about what US officials told Saddam Hussein on the eve of his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam was also led to believe the US would do no more than release diplomatic complaints regarding Saddam’s actions. The testimony about religious freedom paints a depressing picture in Syria where the US-backed SDF are in a tenuous position, fighting ISIS cells but potentially being abandoned by the US eventually to either Turkey or the Syrian regime.