Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Western political discourse has overflowed with grand, righteous declarations of staunch opposition to Putin’s aggression, and unwavering support for Ukraine. Western politicians, journalists, diplomats, and pundits endlessly denounce the Russian incursion, and these denunciations are not confined to the political class: outrage is ubiquitous within popular discourse, too. This widespread condemnation is warranted—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is brutal, illegal, and morally repugnant.
Still, it must be said that this outrage is highly selective. Turkey, a NATO member, is currently engaged in catastrophic acts of aggression, grave war crimes, annexation, and ethnic cleansing, with the active support of NATO states and near total silence from those most vocally condemning Russian aggression. Despite the staggering scale of Turkish atrocities and considerable Western complicity, popular outrage is virtually nonexistent. As David Graeber wrote in 2019, “America’s Kurdish allies risk being wiped out—by NATO.”
Since then, that risk has increased dramatically.
Turkey’s War on the Kurds
For decades, Turkey has been in conflict with the Kurds, the largest stateless ethnic group in the world that primarily resides in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Initially, the Kurdish national movement demanded an independent Kurdish state, but over the last several decades they have shifted toward advocating for civil rights, greater autonomy, and localized self-governance.
Turkey has bombed the Kurdish region of Iraq continuously since 2015, violating Iraqi sovereignty and killing scores of civilians. From February to July of this year alone, Turkey has bombed Iraq nearly 200 times. To give a recent example, Turkey shelled a popular tourist destination in Duhok province, killing eight Iraqi civilians, including a 1-year-old child. Though Turkey claims that these attacks on Iraq are justified in Turkey’s fight against the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish group demanding equal rights and greater autonomy for Kurds—the United Nations, legal scholars, and prominent human rights organizations have condemned the strikes as unlawful, and both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government have repeatedly called for an immediate end to Turkey’s violations of Iraqi sovereignty. At a United Nations Security Council meeting following the Turkish shelling in Duhok, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq stated that the attack demonstrated Turkey’s “shocking disregard for civilian life and for the universally accepted standards of international humanitarian and human rights law.” Iraq’s foreign minister called the attack an act of “flagrant aggression.” And while Turkey’s regular bombings of Iraq are in clear contravention of international law, its attacks on the Kurds in Syria are far worse.
Turkey regularly bombs the Kurdish region of Northern Syria—an area known to the Kurds as Rojava—killing civilians and targeting members of the YPG, the force typically credited with defeating ISIL in Syria. Turkey’s relentless bombardment of Rojava is an attempt to destroy the establishment of an autonomous region of Kurdish self-governance in Syria, which threatens to serve as a model for the Kurds within Southeastern Turkey. Kurdish autonomy and self-governance within Turkey would be, in the eyes of the Turkish government, a disaster. The Kurds in this region of Syria are attempting to build a society based on gender equality, participatory democracy, and ecological sustainability. Recently, Turkey killed three women during a drone strike while the women were leaving a conference on women’s liberation in Qamishli, Syria. All three of these women were decorated Kurdish commanders who fought against ISIL—one of the women was even praised by United States Central Command as a “a critical SDF leader who led forces in combat … [against] ISIS since the height of the fight.” The overall death toll from Turkish bombings in Syria is stunning: in one single bombing campaign of the Kurdish city of Afrin, Turkey killed hundreds of civilians and over 1,000 Kurdish fighters.
But the atrocities do not stop at airstrikes. Turkey invaded Northern Syria in 2018 and 2019 and has annexed large swaths of the country, in clear violation of international law. During these invasions and occupations, Turkey has committed—and continues to commit—extensive and well-documented war crimes. Following Turkey’s 2019 invasion, Human Rights Watch documented the following:
“Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA), a non-state armed group backed by Turkey in northeast Syria, indiscriminately shelled civilian structures and systematically pillaged private property held by the local Kurdish population, arrested hundreds of people, and summarily killed Kurdish forces, political activists, and emergency responders in areas they occupy in northeast Syria.“
According to Amnesty International:
“The Turkish military offensive into northeast Syria has wreaked havoc on the lives of Syrian civilians who once again have been forced to flee their homes and are living in constant fear of indiscriminate bombardment, abductions and summary killings. Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.“
Furthermore, there is strong evidence that Turkey has engaged in ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Northern Syria. Turkish bombings and occupations have forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee their homes; Turkey has subsequently moved to repopulate these regions with Arab-Syrian refugees in order to destroy the possibility of a contiguous autonomous Kurdish region. After Turkey’s 2018 invasion, for example, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced out of Afrin, and soon, Turkey repopulated the city with displaced Syrian refugees, often with brutal force, and prohibited the Kurdish population from returning to the area. This “active campaign of demographic engineering” reduced Afrin’s Kurdish population “from 97 percent to 35 percent,” and placed a previously Kurdish-controlled city under Turkish administration.
And the ethnic cleansing in Afrin is not an isolated incident. In 2019 Turkey and Turkish-backed militias invaded and occupied massive areas of Northern Syria, forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee and placing the conquered cities and towns under Turkish rule. Shortly thereafter, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his plan to settle 1 million Syrian refugees in the vacated Kurdish areas. When questioned about this plan, Erdoğan stated that “The people most suitable for that area are the Arabs. These areas are not suitable for the lifestyle of the Kurds.” Turkey’s actions bear “clear hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” said Professor Bridget Conley, the head of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.
Even though Turkey already annexed and occupies a significant portion of Northern Syria—and continues to regularly commit war crimes and other human rights violations there—Erdoğan is currently preparing for yet another invasion even deeper into Syrian territory and is openly discussing his plans for further ethnic cleansing.
NATO is Complicit in Turkey’s Aggression and War Crimes
Throughout 2019, President Erdoğan continuously and openly spoke about Turkey’s plan to invade and occupy large parts of Northern Syria. While Turkey had already invaded, occupied, and ethnically cleansed Afrin the year before, the presence of American troops in a Turkish-desired area made further incursion impossible. However, after a phone call between President Trump and Erdoğan on October 6, 2019, Trump abruptly withdrew the American soldiers from the planned invasion zone. This effectively gave Erdoğan the “green light” to invade, and led to the massacres detailed above. Contrary to popular belief, Trump did not “withdraw American troops from Syria.” Rather, Trump withdrew some troops from some parts of Syria, namely, the parts of Syria in the path of Turkey’s conquest. (Hundreds of American soldiers remain in Syria to this day.) Though American policymakers were aware of Erdoğan’s regular, public threats to invade Syria further and commit ethnic cleansing, the Kurds had seemingly outlived their usefulness by defeating ISIL and were therefore abandoned to a totally predictable fate.
And while Trump’s betrayal was particularly outrageous, it is not inconsistent with Western support for Turkish aggression and war crimes since the Kurds successfully defeated ISIL.
Despite Turkey’s repeated aggression and brutal crimes against the Kurds, and despite Erdoğan’s plans for yet another targeted invasion of Syria, the Biden Administration has been pushing for a rushed, massive arms sale to Turkey, including a fleet of F-16s (the deal is still being negotiated). Though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has previously offered faint criticism of Turkey’s aggression, earlier this year he lobbied Congress to expedite the arms sales. Congress, for its part, approved the weapons sale with a condition. The condition does not require Turkey to end its occupation, annexation, and ethnic cleansing in Northeastern Syria, nor does it demand Turkey cease bombing Northern Iraq. Rather, Congress approved the arms package on the condition that Turkey does not fly the F16s over Greece, a fellow NATO member. However, on October 11, the Senate dropped this condition, removing the primary congressional hurdle to the Biden administration’s expedited arms sale.
Turkey has procured its arsenal of advanced weapons primarily from NATO states over the last several decades, including the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, and the Netherlands. (Of note, Turkey’s domestic weapons production, which has grown over the last decade, has developed in large part due to the United Kingdom, which has invested over 100 million pounds and transferred technology to assist in the development of Turkey’s domestic fighter jets and armed drones, and has also sold almost 2 billion pounds worth of weapons to Turkey since 2013.) Within the last five years, the United States, Italy, and Spain alone accounted for over 70 percent of Turkish arms imports. These weapons have been used to carry out war crimes by Turkey against the Kurds; Turkey used American made F-16s, for example, in the massive bombing campaigns in Afrin and elsewhere in Northern Syria. While a handful of NATO states halted arms sales after the 2019 Turkish invasion of Syria and the atrocities that followed, this arms embargo was all too brief.
Though NATO has long been deferential to Turkish demands and complicit in its atrocities, Turkey has gained even more leverage within the context of Sweden and Finland’s current applications to join NATO, which requires a unanimous vote by all member states. To prevent a Turkish veto of their NATO accession, Sweden, Finland, and the other key NATO states are bowing to Turkish demands, despite Turkey’s continued war crimes. Consequently, Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, and other NATO states have lifted their arms embargoes and resumed sending advanced weaponry to the country, flooding Turkey with enormous quantities of arms which will undoubtedly be used against Kurdish civilians.
In order to further appease Turkey, Finland and Sweden have reportedly ended their longstanding support for the YPG and other Kurdish groups, and are even in talks to potentially deport Kurdish activists and journalists living as asylees in their respective states. If deported, these activists and journalists will almost certainly end up political prisoners in Turkey, which historically jails more journalists and human rights defenders than almost any other country on earth. (According to a 2019 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Turkey has frequently vied with China for the ignominious title of the world’s worst jailer [of journalists].”)
The United States is also tacitly supporting Turkey’s aggression and war crimes through its economic policy toward Syria. American sanctions on Syria have collapsed the Syrian economy, drastically increased poverty, and put millions of Syrians at risk of starvation. However, while Syrian civilians suffer, the Biden Administration has issued sanctions waivers for parts of Northern Syria, including the Turkish-occupied zones, exempting these illegally annexed areas (though excluding Afrin and Idlib). While average Syrians are unable to import, for example, construction material to rebuild their communities, fuel to heat their homes, or food to feed their children, Turkey is free to import goods and to build an infrastructure of occupation. In other words, the United States is effectively enabling what amounts to Turkish colonization of part of Northern Syria.
A NATO member, with the strong support of the major NATO states, is engaged in serious acts of aggression and grave war crimes. It is remarkable that Turkey, a key NATO ally, is killing thousands of people and engaging in aggression, occupation, and ethnic cleansing, and this doesn’t even seem to enter into popular consciousness, much less provoke mass outrage. A cursory search through the recent archives of the New York Times and Washington Post shows a remarkable lack of news coverage. Very few op-eds have been published denouncing ongoing Turkish war crimes, and virtually none condemn NATO’s extensive and inarguable complicity (activists and human rights defenders have accused the New York Times of “whitewashing” the ethnic cleansing of Afrin.) Moreover, there is near-total silence among many of those most vocally condemning Russian aggression; despite the scale of the Turkish atrocities, the grand, lofty declarations denouncing aggression simply do not exist. And a further observation must be drawn: While Turkey is an authoritarian state, Iraq is a democracy (albeit a deeply flawed and fragile one), and the Kurds of Syria are currently attempting to develop a society more directly democratic than perhaps anywhere in the world. Yet unlike with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the calls to protect democracy against the violations of an authoritarian state are entirely absent from mainstream outlets.
The Biden Administration has repeatedly vowed to “hold Putin and Russia accountable for its atrocities and war crimes.” Certainly, that should happen. But who will hold us accountable?