Analysis |

The Human Rights Abuses Behind Erdogan and Trump's Syrian 'Safe Zones'

By aligning with toxic regimes, the West has agreed to remain silent about their abuses — even when they involve potential colonization of Kurdish areas and the demographic re-engineering of Syria

Elizabeth Tsurkov
Elizabeth Tsurkov
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. June 29, 2019
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. June 29, 2019Credit: Pool Presidential Press Service
Elizabeth Tsurkov
Elizabeth Tsurkov

U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the recently announced deal between the United States and Turkey concerning the Turkish invasion into northeastern Syria as “a great day for civilization.” In reality, the agreement officially approves Turkish control over Syrian land and subjugation of the inhabitants of the newly captured areas to the rule of undisciplined, Turkish-backed factions implicated in field executions and systematic looting.

The vague wording of Thursday’s deal, supposedly entailing a five-day pause in fighting, can potentially allow Turkey to renew its offensive and attempt to take over all Kurdish-majority areas in Syria. Ankara intends to deport Syrian refugees living in Turkey into this newly conquered, unstable area, which both Turkey and the Trump administration call a “safe zone.”

The minor repercussions Turkey has faced as a result of its invasion two weeks ago is further testament to the devastation of human rights norms during, and as a result of, the Syrian civil war, aided and abetted by Western governments.

The Turkish invasion followed a speech delivered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the UN General Assembly last month, marketing his “safe zone” plan — under which Turkey will take control of the entire border region of northeastern Syria, creating a strip of land over 440 kilometers (nearly 275 miles) long and 30 kilometers deep. Turkey would then send at least 1 million refugees residing in Turkey into this area.

This mass movement of people will likely entail coercion, since most Syrians will not voluntarily return to this unstable region governed by Turkish-backed factions known for their criminality. The area encompasses all Kurdish population centers in Syria, while the refugees currently residing in Turkey are overwhelmingly Arabs.

What made Erdogan feel so confident he can openly declare a plan to colonize parts of a neighboring country, effect demographic change and send refugees to a highly unstable area, and then execute his plan?

Following the fateful October 6 phone call between presidents Erdogan and Trump, the White House gave Turkey the green light to launch its invasion against an area controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish-led military alliance has not attacked Turkish territory, but its main component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is linked to the Kurdish guerrilla group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s. Until the Trump phone call, the United States was allied with the Kurdish-led military alliance to take on the Islamic State. During the five-year campaign against ISIS, according to the SDF, the force lost some 11,000 fighters.

Trump’s green light precipitated the offensive, but it would not have been possible without the normalization of mass atrocities and human rights abuses throughout the eight-year Syrian civil war.

President Bashar Assad’s regime faced no serious consequences for repeatedly using chemical weapons, placing entire towns under siege to starve them into surrender, indiscriminately bombing population centers and exterminating political prisoners. Russia, with its veto power on the UN Security Council, blocked all efforts to sanction the regime.

Russia itself has perpetrated war crimes in Syria, including the bombing of hospitals and markets, and used prohibited weapons such as incendiary and cluster munitions against population centers.

The current Turkish invasion has displaced over 300,000 civilians, killing and injuring 86 civilians and dozens of Kurdish militants in the process. The border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn have suffered immense destruction. Due to the ambiguous language of the U.S.-Turkish deal now in place, it is unclear whether it will prevent Turkey from relaunching its effort to expand eastward, toward the major Kurdish population centers, displacing more of the area’s residents.

A woman covering her face on the outskirts of Tal Tamr, northeastern Syria, October 16, 2019. The smoke plumes are from stacks of burning tires trying to decrease visibility for Turkish fighter jets.Credit: AFP

Blank stares and hand-wringing

The Turkish invasion is only the latest effort to re-engineer the demographics of Syria. Ethnic cleansing and mass population transfers constitute war crimes under international law but have become normalized in Syria. No side engaging in such activities faced repercussions for doing so, and at times international actors have been directly involved in these actions.

The current Turkish offensive was foreshadowed by the January 2018 invasion of Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria. Turkey was able to carry out this attack, which it called Operation Olive Branch, without facing significant international opprobrium. During the operation, as Turkey and Turkish-backed factions captured Afrin, hundreds of thousands of the area’s original inhabitants fled and have not been allowed to return. The Turkish-backed factions have since resettled Arabs displaced from formerly rebel-held areas in the homes of many original inhabitants.

Activists from an international human rights organization who attempted to engage European officials about daily abuses happening in Afrin, including looting, kidnappings and property confiscation, were met with blank stares and hand-wringing.

All sides in the war forced populations out of their homes or brought new inhabitants to an area in an effort to achieve military and political goals. The main culprit of such actions is the Assad regime, which seeks to remove populations that are suspected of disloyalty from areas under its control. Due to Syria’s demographic composition and distribution of power, those displaced by the regime are largely working-class Sunni Muslims, who led the peaceful uprising and subsequent armed rebellion against the regime. Other actors have engaged in population displacement in Syria as well, including Syrian rebels, the People’s Protection Units and ISIS.

Demographic re-engineering is at times carried out by non-Syrian actors as well. The Shi’ite Lebanese organization Hezbollah now controls the Syria-Lebanon border area and is preventing the return of Sunnis to their homes in towns such as Al Qusayr. And Qatar was involved in promoting the “four towns agreement,” which saw the displacement of inhabitants of Sunni towns besieged by Hezbollah in exchange for the displacement of inhabitants of Shi’ite towns besieged by the rebels. As part of the deal, Qatar secured the release of members of its royal family from an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq.

Western silence regarding Turkish human rights abuses stems from a desire to maintain cordial relations with Ankara, particularly as the European Union signed a 2016 deal under which Turkey would prevent Syrian refugees from reaching Europe in exchange for billions of euros that go toward providing services to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Ahead of the ongoing offensive, Erdogan openly threatened that if European leaders criticized him, he would let the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey flow into Europe. When Turkey began deporting refugees en masse from Istanbul this summer due to mounting domestic pressure to do so, European capitals demurred.

The mass refugee waves caused by the Syrian war contributed to the rise of populist, xenophobic leaders across the globe. In the face of people fleeing mass atrocities, Europe fortified its borders, inking deals with Turkey and authoritarian leaders in Libya and Sudan in an effort to curb refugee and migrant flows to Europe.

Officials in Western capitals seem content with short-term policies aiming to try to keep a lid on what they see as the chaotic, bloody cauldron that is the Middle East, unsuccessfully trying to isolate the West from its spillovers. These temporary fixes mean that Western countries not only avoid taking action to protect values they claim to uphold, but they also often find themselves complicit in abuses of oppressive regimes.

The case of foreign ISIS-linked detainees and their families stuck in Iraq and Syria is particularly telling. About 1,000 foreign fighters, most of them from Muslim-majority countries, are currently held in prisons runs by the Syrian Democratic Forces. In addition, over 11,000 non-Iraqi and non-Syrian civilians — many of them relatives of ISIS members — are held in camps across northeastern Syria characterized by extremely poor living conditions. At least 9,000 of those civilians are children under the age of 12, according to humanitarians working in Al-Hawl camp, which houses most of the foreign nationals captured in northeastern Syria.

For months, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Trump administration begged and cajoled the countries of origin of these individuals to repatriate them. All but a few countries refused. Instead, European capitals have been negotiating with Baghdad to hand over their nationals for trial in a judicial system known for its corruption, use of torture, speedy trials and executions. Now, with the looming takeover of these prisons and camps by the Syrian regime, some countries seem content to do nothing and let their nationals end up in the bowels of Assad’s prison system — one the UN accuses of carrying out the mass “extermination” of detainees and torture of children.

Bureaucrats in Paris, London and Berlin can assure themselves that “our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it”: They did not carry out demographic re-engineering, deportations of refugees, torture of detainees or executions. Yet the West is complicit in these crimes. By partnering with toxic regimes, it is forced into silence about their abuses.

The impunity offered them encourages greater and more frequent abuses — as can be seen in the Turkish invasion and planned mass deportations. By subcontracting its migration control and counterterrorism policies to authoritarian regimes, the West is blurring the line between what separates democracies from non-democracies. This subcontracting is not new: Italy made a deal with Libya in 2008 to allow it to deport refugees, and the U.S. government engaged in rendition of militant suspects to regimes that routinely rely on torture to elicit information. But the number of people affected by such deals has grown significantly in recent years.

On paper, not much has changed in the West. Refugees will be welcomed upon reaching Germany’s or Britain’s gates, and ISIS suspects will face trial in a proper judicial system if they manage to return to their countries. But Europe’s local partners are keeping them at bay. Western officials can continue to pride themselves for having fair counterterrorism laws and welcoming refugee policies, while the dirty work is carried out by proxies.

Who should be held responsible for the growing irrelevance of human rights norms? After videos emerged of Turkish-backed Syrian proxies executing prisoners of war last week, Western governments rightly condemned these abuses and held Turkey responsible for them. Countries often rely on foreign proxies to give them plausible deniability.

There is no denying that silence and collusion made the horrors of our time possible. The Turkish invasion was not inevitable. Thousands of refugees did not have to drown at sea. Assad could have been deterred from repeatedly gassing his people. It is still possible to prevent the future horrors set in motion by the Turkish invasion — the deportations of refugees into the conquered lawless zone; and the detention, torture and kangaroo courts in Iraq and Syria. There is still time to act. Will world leaders do something or keep wringing their hands?

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.

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