News & Investigations

News & Investigations

A civilian in a wheelchair and his helper attempt to flee Mishrafa village, Hasakah Governorate, Syria, on October 9th following an alleged Turkish strike (via @dersi4m)

Published

December 24, 2019

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Despite October ceasefires, the violence has continued with atrocities alleged on both sides.

Eleven weeks on from the October 9th launch of a Turkish-led offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, known as ‘Operation Peace Spring’, fighting continues to rage with civilians still encountering significant violence.

Since the beginning of the latest clashes, Airwars researchers have overall monitored between 244 and 312 reported civilian deaths resulting from air, artillery and ground action by both sides, as well as the wounding of between 705 and 924 civilians.

See our searchable database of reported Turkish civilian harm events in Syria

The recent conflict between Turkish-led forces and the Kurds has also seen a sharp rise in reported atrocities from both sides, which could be considered war crimes according to international law.

While the majority of civilian deaths tracked by Airwars resulted from actions by Turkey and its proxies, around one in four fatalities were however reportedly caused by Kurdish strikes – a significant change from Afrin.

Between 172 and 225 civilian fatalities and between 419 and 553 civilian injuries were attributed by local sources to Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria across 117 incidents, which are presently graded as fairly reported by Airwars. This means that two or more credible, uncontested sources have reported civilian harm blamed on a specific belligerent.

Meanwhile, between 55 and 64 civilian fatalities and between 208 and 260 injuries were attributed to Kurdish armed groups in 35 civilian harm incidents for which Airwars has assessed the reporting as fair.

Reported civilian harm from Kurdish counterfire – the incidents

The offensive, which Turkey had been preparing for since July 2019, followed the chaotic initial withdrawal of US forces from Syria in a bid by President Trump to deflate US-Turkish tensions. The assault by Ankara is the latest in a long history of hostilities between the Turkish state, and Kurdish separatists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, more recent tensions began after the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), operating under the broader umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began to grow in prominence in northern Syria during their successful campaign against ISIS, with the support of the United States and the international Coalition.

The SDF’s growing strength despite thousands of losses in the war against ISIS – and the significant territory it now controlled in northern Syria – reportedly elevated fears in Ankara that an autonomous administration dominated by the YPG on its restive border could inspire separatist sentiments amongst Kurds in southern Turkey.

The apparent purpose of this incursion, therefore, was both to weaken the YPG, and to create a buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border, by driving out the local Kurdish population and replacing it with forcibly returned Syrian refugees, a policy which some academics and commentators have described as displaying the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

‘Operation Peace Spring’

The beginning of the recent campaign saw Turkish forces and their proxy allies on the ground bombard key towns and urban settlements under the control of the SDF. such as Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province; Tal Abyad in Raqqa province; and Kobani in Aleppo province, as well as numerous other civilian-populated areas of northern Syria. The SDF in turn hit back, targeting Turkish forces and affiliated groups’ positions in Syria as well as towns in southern Turkey.

In stark contrast to Turkey’s Afrin campaign in January 2018 – when the SDF had also been embroiled in their major campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria, leaving them vulnerable to Turkey’s offensive – Kurdish forces appeared more prepared this time. The proportion of Kurdish counterstrikes to Turkish attacks in this campaign are significantly higher than previous campaigns, as evidenced by Airwars monitoring. In the Afrin campaign, there were 4.75 Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident, while in comparison during this latest confrontation, there have been three Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident.

While supposed ceasefires between the warring parties were reached on October 17th and October 22nd, mediated by Washington and Moscow respectively, the violence did not cease and civilians continued to be caught in attacks. Since October 18th, following the implementation of the ceasefire, 57 additional civilian harm event allegations have been levelled against Turkey and 25 such allegations against Kurdish forces.

The worst reported event since October 17th occurred just one day after the ceasefire was announced in the village of Zirgan, close to the city of Ras al-Ain, where between 12 and 19 civilians were killed, including four children, in what Kurdish media sources described as a massacre.

The ineffectual ceasefire also failed to protect humanitarian workers from harm. On November 3rd, a Doctors Without Borders convoy was targeted by an alleged Turkish mortar strike, killing Zau Seng, a member of the Free Burma Rangers and injuring three others.

Diplomatic negotiations between Ankara, Moscow and Washington gave the Kurds time to withdraw their forces 30km back from a 120km long strip along the Turkey-Syria border – at least partially granting Turkey its ‘safe zone’.

However, this was achieved at the expense of a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. Beyond the disastrous loss of life, hundreds of thousands have been forcefully displaced as a result of the fighting. According to Refugee International, over 215,000 people have so far been driven from their homes as a result of the offensive, compounding an already bleak humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, where, according to the United Nations, 1.3 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Allegations of war crimes

Civil society activists, human rights groups, medical personnel and journalists have all accused the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups of committing war crimes and human rights violations over the course of the offensive. These abuses have taken various forms. Local sources have for example reported numerous cases of summary execution of civilians and public officials.

The most notorious case was the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army’s (SNA) execution of Hevrin Khalaf of the Syria Future Party and the mutilation of her body, which was captured on camera. Numerous other cases have emerged of Turkish-backed forces summarily executing civilians and combatants alike. The M4 highway, which runs parallel with Syria’s northern border with Turkey has become synonymous with summary executions and extrajudicial killings. A plethora of videos have emerged showing Turkish-backed forces taunting victims before killing them and mutilating their bodies.

However, there is also ample evidence to indicate that atrocities have been carried out by both sides of the conflict. In one case, on October 20th, YPG forces reportedly handcuffed and executed seven civilians, including three from the same family in Ras al-Ain on charges of conspiring with Turkish-backed forces in the region. The fact that these atrocities have been so widespread from both sides points to an unprecedented level of brutality in this campaign, that was absent even from the Afrin offensive in 2018.

Additionally, reports have emerged of indiscriminate shelling by Turkey of medical facilities in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, as well as civilian-populated neighbourhoods of major cities such as Qamishli.

Turkish backed forces have also been accused of looting and pillaging the property of civilians, with numerous reports emerging over the course of the conflict suggesting that the SNA had allegedly ransacked homes, shops, businesses and farms belonging to civilians in northern Syria.

Finally, the suspected use of prohibited weapons, allegedly by Turkey, has been well documented by journalists and medical personnel. According to a report by Dr Abbas Mansouran, a senior member of the medical staff at the main hospital of Hasakah, approximately 30 victims, mostly civilians were admitted to the hospital with severe and unusual burns and injuries, which he believes were caused by chemical weapons use, specifically the use of white phosphorus munitions.

According to Dr Mansouran, Turkish forces may have used dense inert metal explosive (DIME) bombs, which have similar chemical properties to white phosphorus.

  • Airwars reached out for comment from both Turkish and YPG military authorities for this article, though had received no response at time of publication.
▲ A civilian in a wheelchair and his helper attempt to flee Mishrafa village, Hasakah Governorate, Syria, on October 9th following an alleged Turkish strike (via @dersi4m)