Turkey’s ambassador to Norway Fazlı Çorman came out with a confession and made me a surprising offer. He wants to make it safer for me to visit areas where Turkey bombs civilian targets in Syria! Let me elaborate.
I have visited several times over recent years villages and cities under the autonomous administration of North and East Syria (AANES), where Turkey attacked and destroyed civilian targets. Sometimes with airstrikes, by warplanes or drones. Other times, it has been rockets, mortars or heavy artillery. Detailed eyewitness accounts and my own pictures leaves no doubts as to what has happened.
Killing civilians is not necessarily a war crime
Civilians get killed in war. Legally speaking, this does not necessarily constitute a war crime. An often used term is “collateral damage”: For collateral damage to be considered a war crime, it needs to have an “excessive or sole intent” for causing collateral damage, Wikipedia suggests.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who served as chief prosecutor with the International Criminal Court in the Hague from 2002 to 2012, investigated claims of war crimes regarding the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In his report, under the chapter “Allegations concerning war crimes”, he refers to the Rome Statute: “International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.
A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv).”
As such, Turkey’s killing of civilians in Rojava, or “West” in Kurdish, referring to northern Syria, do not necessarily constitute war crimes as defined in international law. There are three criteria for attacks to be considered war crimes:
-To intentionally target attacks against the civilian population which as such or against certain civilians who are not directly taking part in the hostilities,
-Intentionally targeting attacks against civilian items, items which are not military targets,
-To attack or bomb, by any means, cities, villages, houses, or buildings which are not defended, and which are not military targets.”
So, shooting at a school, healthcare centre or private home would be a war crime, even if there were no casualties or injuries.
The Agricultural Bank in Zirgan is one of many civilian targets that have been destroyed by Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries. I saw the destroyed building in May 2022.
Attacks in Ward village in May 2022
In Ward village, I saw a completely crushed municipal building which housed a health clinic, amongst other institutions. The school on the other side of the road was also destroyed and rendered unusable. Right after we left the village, a new attack occurred. Residential homes were also destroyed. Nobody was injured, simply because those who had lived there had previously fled.
Erdoğan’s ambassador offered me protection
In the weekly Norwegian newspaper “Dag og Tid”, I have written extensively about Turkish acts in Syria that fall under these three points. Most are destruction of residential homes, schools, and other civilian institutions. Two people were killed and several others injured during a night attack against a residential area in the city of Zirgan in August 2021. I talked to some of the survivors right after, before they fled the city.
Eventually, Turkey’s ambassador to Norway Fazlı Çorman responded, accusing me of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and saying I had no credibility because of it. He then categorically determined that Turkey had not attacked civilians in Syria, to the surprise of nobody.
But then, he made me this offer:
“If the writer is so sure that these attacks were against civilian targets and were carried out by us, he should inform us the next time when he travels so that we can make sure that his destination will be exempt from such attacks, if he is always with innocent civilians on the ground there.” (Dag og Tid, 9 September 2022)
A Turkish confession
The International Criminal Court in the Hague should investigate claims of Turkish war crimes in Syria. The investigation should be conducted in the same manner and with the same methods Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo used after the US invasion of Iraq 19 years ago. Because an amateur like myself has received an offer for protection, I take it for granted that Turkey would guarantee that they will not attack investigators from the court.
Such an investigation would be important, not least because the legal definition of war crimes against civilians is narrower than the public’s perception. It would have great importance if an investigation concluded that that the destruction of the agricultural bank in Zirgan in the spring of 2022 was a war crime. Even if the outcome does not include a case in court, such a conclusion would be stating that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was directly responsible for war crimes. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg would be left indirectly responsible. He had knowledge of the incidents, but did not intervene.
The case is so controversial that it would take a lot before the ICC took action. Therefore, I urge lawyers in the field of international law outside of Syria to conduct such an investigation themselves.
Erling Folkvord is a former member of the Norwegian Parliament.