I recently returned to Norway after travelling in northern Iraq and North and East Syria for two to three weeks. In those weeks, I followed in the footsteps of a war criminal.
One should always be wary of using the term ‘war crime’ to prevent the concept itself losing its deep meaning and impact. When civilians lose their lives during a war, it is not necessarily be considered a war crime, given the legal definition. The Red Cross articulates the International Law of War, summarised below:
“Inevitable civilian casualties can be accepted, as long as they are proportional to concrete and direct military advantages that one can reasonably expect to achieve.” In other words, many civilians can die during a war or occupation without it being considered as a war crime.
The statutes of the International Criminal Court in The Hague describe what the definition of a war crime is according to international law. The statutes are comprised of 27 detailed points. I will focus on three of them.
-intentionally direct attacks against the civilian population, or against civilians that are not directly involved in the hostilities
-intentionally direct attacks on civilian objects, understood as objects that are not military targets,
-to attack or bomb, in any way, cities, villages, dwellings, or buildings that are not being defended and that are not military targets.
These points are simple, clear, and concrete. And no head of state can say that he or she is not familiar with the International Criminal Court.
For me, the days I spent in North and East Syria were a journey from one war crime to another.
Zirgan – Daily Turkish Attacks
The city of Zirgan is close to the area occupied by Turkey since October 2019. I was there in August 2021. Two days before, Turkish heavy weapons had killed two people in a residential area. Twelve or more people were wounded. They were all undeniably “civilians that are not directly involved in the hostilities” to quote from the definition of war crimes provided above.
The attacks came even closer when I returned in May 2022. According to the leader of the Zirgan military council, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now taking advantage of the fact that the Western media only cares about the war in Ukraine. “The increasingly intense attacks in our district, whether with aircraft, drones, or heavy artillery, have killed 15 civilians over the past year. Seven of them were children.”
He also told me that the attacks on civilians and civilian structures are designed to have a low fatality rate. If Erdoğan had wanted it, the death toll could have been many times higher.
“Erdoğan’s intention is to create fear, to make people flee the region,” says the Zirgan military council commander. I was already aware of the fact that many people had fled and joined their families in other cities or are settled in refugee camps within the autonomous region of North and East Syria. Some travel to Iraq, and fewer still go to Europe. The number of uninhabited villages is increasing every month.
In other words, Erdoğan is committing war crimes to empty the Zirgan district of people so that Turkey can occupy it without drawing too much international attention, as it might in the case of a higher civilian death count. In June 2021, I saw the same thing in the Kani Masi district of northern Iraq.
The village of Til Ward
The commander of the Zirgan Military Council reluctantly agreed that the interpreter and I could travel to the village of Til Ward, which was bombed 10 days earlier. The front line is not far away.
“Only you two and I,” he emphasised. “And just a short visit in a neutral car.”
In Til Ward, not a single human being can be seen. The crunching of shattered concrete under our feet is the only sound. Two buildings have been destroyed: the school and the “Municipal House”. Health personnel and other municipal employees worked there. They saved lives, but all traces of municipal services are buried now under the rubble.
I see the Til Ward school building across the street, but as I get closer, I can see the level of destruction. It might be possible to repair the building, I think. But it would require time, materials and peaceful work conditions that are scarce to be found. The only positive point I can make is that most houses still seem to be whole. Maybe those who fled from Zirgan will be able some day to return.
On TV the next day, that hope is smashed. A fresh Turkish attack destroys the houses after we were there. Til Ward is no longer a village. It is the name of an area where children went to school and a few dozen families lived and cultivated their land, until 10 May 2022.
Every day I see new villages exposed to the same atrocities as Zirgan. I speak to people who have been subjected to war crimes by the Turkish army or Turkish-backed mercenaries.
A refugee from Tell Abyad shares their story
The next day we travel to Raqqa. On the streets of the partially rebuilt city, we meet Ahmad, an IDP, or internally displaced person, from the Syrian border town of Tell Abyad. He invites us in for tea and tells us that for many years he supported himself and his family by trading cars. They lived in the divided city until October 2019. One part is in Syria, the other in Turkey. Girê Spî is the city’s Kurdish name. The city also has names in Turkish, Armenian, and Assyrian.
Arabs comprise the majority in Tell Abyad. Kurds are the largest minority. Ahmad says he lived well in his home town for a long time:
“Under the Assad regime, Kurds did not have the right to own property. We were not allowed to speak Kurdish in public. The children were not allowed to learn their mother tongue in school. Assad did not give us our rights. But if you accepted these restrictions, and did not show opposition in any way, you could live well under Assad.”
FOX NEWS: US Effectively Green-lights Turkish Attack
Islamic State (ISIS) occupied Tell Abyad in 2014; the city became central in the war, both for ISIS and for Turkey. The border crossing became the link between ISIS and the world market. Most of the foreign fighters who were on their way to join ISIS travelled through this border crossing. The tankers from the oil fields controlled by ISIS drove the other way, towards Turkey. The passenger and freight traffic to and from ISIS went smoothly with little obstruction from Turkish border guards.
The Kurdish forces that had defeated ISIS in Kobanê with American air support went on to liberate Tell Abyad in June 2015. When ISIS forces were territorially defeated, Turkish forces began firing across the border. In 2016, American soldiers came to town. They hoisted the American flag on several public buildings. The US Department of Defence announced that this would stop Turkish harassment and attacks directed at the city. Some soldiers remained. A Turkish attack on Tell Abyad would mean war against the United States.
Only, three years later, the United States reversed their position. A headline on Fox News on Monday, 7 October 2019 gave a clear message: “Trump pulls back troops from Northern Syria ahead of Turkish assault.”
Fox News further said that the order for the withdrawal of hundreds of American soldiers “effectively green-lit Turkey’s operation”.
Turkey started bombing on Wednesday 9 October and four days later announced that it now had control of Tell Abyad city centre. Ahmad and his family became refugees on Sunday 13 October.
Ahmad compares it to Hafez al-Assad’s policy in the 1970s of expelling Kurds and creating an Arab belt along the border.
“What is happening now is worse,” he says. “Erdoğan is chasing families away from their homes. Most people cannot save more than what they can carry or throw into a car. Almost everything that matters is left behind,” he emphasises.
He also claims that Turkish soldiers are now selling houses and furniture to refugees who have recently arrived from other parts of the country. Several who fled from Afrin after the Turkish invasion there in 2018 have told me that they lost houses, furniture and even land in the way Ahmad described.
Preliminary war crimes
Fifteen days before he started bombing Tell Abyad and other border areas, Erdoğan spoke at the UN General Assembly. He explained that Turkey wanted to establish what he called a ‘safe zone’ on the Syrian side of their shared border. He told the Main Assembly that the proposed safe zone could accommodate two million Syrian refugees who were in Turkey at the time. He added that it could be three million if the zone was expanded to 80 kilometres. An 80 km safe zone would end just outside Raqqa.
On 10 October 2019, the day after Turkey started bombing, two children in Qamishlo were struck by a Turkish projectile. At 4.30 pm, six-year-old Sara Yousef Said was playing with her 12-year-old brother, Mohammad Yousef Hussein, outside their house in the Qadour-Bek neighbourhood of Qamishlo, when the house was shelled. I received this report from the Kurdish Red Crescent, Heyva Sor. It was dated the same day.
Ambulance worker Azad Meshaal, who works for Heyva Sor, heard the explosion, and urgently made his way to the site.
In his report he wrote:
“We met the car that was driving the two towards the Al-Shallah Mosque. Mohammad was injured in the chest and stopped breathing. Sara lost her right leg from the knee down. I tried as hard as I could to hold her so she would not see her leg and asked if she wanted painkillers to relieve the pain. But the only thing she said to me was, ‘I know I lost my leg. It does not hurt. Take care of my brother, do not let him die.’ By then, Mohammad was already dead.”
Threats of War Crimes Once Again
On 1 June 2022, Erdoğan addressed his parliamentary group. The speech was broadcast live on television.
“We are entering a new phase to implement our decision to form a 30 km deep safe zone along our southern border. We want to purge Tell Rifat and Manbij of terrorists, and step by step we will do the same with other regions,” pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak cited him as saying. “Let’s see who supports these legitimate steps from Turkey and who hinders them.”
The two cities are located west of the Euphrates.
“Pretty intense bombing tonight”
A few hours after President Erdoğan’s announcement, I received a text message from my interpreter who is still in Syria:
“It’s quite an intense bombing tonight. Ain Issa, Tell Rifat, Tell Abyad and Manbij…”