After nine Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerillas in the Metina region of Iraqi Kurdistan on 13 January, the Turkish Armed Forces once again responded with an intense military campaign. Knowing the patterns of Turkish aggression, this is unsurprising. The renewed aerial and drone bombing campaign has not specifically been aimed at PKK guerillas stationed in northern Iraq but has targeted civilian infrastructure in both Kurdish-led Iraq and North and East Syria (NES).
On the ground, the Rojava Information Centre (RIC) has been tracking the extent of the attacks and destruction, releasing a report on 16 January claiming Turkey targeted a minimum of 50 locations in NES alone. The confirmed strikes hit key electricity and oil infrastructure, factories, civilian homes, and security points. According to the RIC, approximately two million people are deprived of access to power and water due to seven electricity stations and industrial sites being rendered non-operational under Turkish bombardment.
This cannot be accounted for as self-defence on Turkey’s behalf, no matter what Turkish officials may say. Turkey’s actions must be seen as what they are – collective punishment. Attacks on grain silos, warehouses or civilian homes are not direct acts of self-defence. The civilian infrastructure is not responsible for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers – soldiers deployed by Turkey as part of their continuing campaign of violent escalation across the Middle East. The attacks were not even in the same country as the clashes which proved fatal to Turkish military personnel. The attacks are acts of collective punishment served by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan to put pressure on the Kurdish people, not on an armed military enemy. A policy Erdoǧan has held for years.
Collective punishment can be defined as the punishment – in this case, bombardment – of an entire group for the actions of one member of a group. In this case, that group is Kurds. The 1949 Geneva Convention IV on the Protection of Civilian Persons in the Time of War, in Article 33, explicitly names collective punishment as prohibited under international law.
Individual responsibility, collective penalties, pillage, reprisals: no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited.
Illegal penalties and punishments named by the convention includes the killing or injuring of civilians, as well as damage to civilian infrastructure essential to common welfare and survival. Turkish authorities and the actions of the Turkish military have made it plainly clear, time and time again, that they intend to commit these crimes. Furthermore, the international community is allowing it.
Western silence, America’s silence in particular, has not gone unnoticed by their allies on the ground in North and East Syria. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which played a vital role in efforts to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in partnership with the US, called President Joe Biden’s silence concerning Turkey’s cross-border attacks ‘shameful’. Abdi shared suspicions that Turkey was given ‘informal consent’ by the SDF’s transatlantic partner to conduct their military operations in North and East Syria.
Commander Abdi and the people of North and East Syria are all too familiar with the very real consequences of US complacency with Erdoǧan’s bloodthirsty policies towards Kurdish people. In 2019, they saw the US give the green light for Erdoǧan to begin a ground invasion into NES. Three days later they watched as Turkish-backed mercenary groups occupied the cities of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn) and Tel Abyad (Gire Spi), killing civilians in the hundreds and displacing thousands more.
The SDF commander also casts doubt on the belief that Turkey is acting in ‘retaliation’ for recent military fatalities during clashes with PKK guerrilla in Iraq, claiming that the SDF is not affiliated by the PKK nor does the PKK hold military presence in North and East Syria’s Kurdish-majority regions as Ankara frequently claims it does.
The imbalance and injustice of Turkey’s brutal response threatens to once again to go unnoticed. The Turkish government has made it clear they have no intention of reigning it in and fully intend to escalate.
On 17 January, Erdoğan confirmed commitment to the continuation of military action in both Syria and Iraq, claiming the operations were necessary for Turkey’s ‘national security’ and the ‘safety of its citizens’.
The following day, on 18 January, a motion supporting the Turkish president’s aggression against the Kurds was passed in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM). The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the leading opposition party, joined with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in supporting the resolution. The pro-Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party), voted against further violence in North and East Syria.
The strength of international humanitarian laws established after World War II is being put to the test as we speak. While Turkey acts in blatant violation of international humanitarian law and convention, South Africa has brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing them of Genocide against the Palestinians of Gaza. The result of the ICJ case, and the world’s reaction to Turkey’s continuous escalation of violence will shine light on the following question – are these conventions enough to prevent genocide and harm to innocent civilians in 2024?
- Robin Fleming is an American Researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre (RIC) and specialises in North and East Syria (NES).