While the United States and the rest of the world were focused on Afghanistan, Turkey carried out airstrikes that hit genocide survivors in Iraq and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — allies who led the fight against ISIS.
In August 2014, Islamic State militants launched an assault on Sinjar, Iraq, killing thousands of Yazidis — a religious minority group with roots in northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, the Caucasus region and Iran. The militants assaulted men and enslaved Yazidi women and children. From there, in February 2015, ISIS rampaged into Syria, where they attacked Assyrian villages and abducted Christians.
The United States recognized these atrocities as a genocide and has invested considerable resources to help endangered communities recover. Turkey’s ongoing offensive in Iraq and Syria is making any recovery process far more difficult, if not impossible.
On Aug. 16 in Sinjar, a Turkish drone killed Yazidi leader Hassan Saeed on the day he was scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Khadimi. It was the first visit of an Iraqi prime minister to Sinjar in the post-Saddam era.
When ISIS attacked in 2014, Hassan refused to abandon his community and helped to distribute aid to Yazidis who sought refuge from ISIS on Mount Sinjar. He later helped create the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a local security force established to defend Sinjar in the aftermath of the genocide. Turkey sees the YBS as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a group designated as terrorists by Turkey, the United States and the European Union — although YBS was created to fight ISIS.
It was perhaps the most high profile assassination of an Iraqi citizen that Turkey has conducted in recent history. The next day, a medical clinic in Sinjar was destroyed by Turkish airstrikes, killing eight people. Four of the victims were health care workers, and four were members of YBS.
In Syria, Turkey hit multiple cities: Qamishli, Ain Issa, and Tel Tamer, which is part of the Assyrian Christian region along the Khabur river. Four members of the SDF were killed by Turkish strikes in Syria — including a prominent Kurdish commander of the Women’s Protection Units, Sosin Ahmed.
The YBS is now part of Iraq’s Tribal Mobilization Forces, which is a branch of the Popular Mobilization Forces and hence, is integrated into Iraqi security forces. YBS members are paid salaries by Baghdad. Hassan was commander of the 80th regiment in the forces and had repeatedly emphasized in videos that he was not a PKK member. The fact that he was head of a Popular Mobilization Forces regiment, was scheduled to meet the prime minister and was married (PKK cadre are prohibited from marrying) all suggest he was, in fact, a YBS commander and not as Turkish officials claim, a member of the outlawed PKK.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the clinic in Sinjar was a PKK safe house. But Turkish government claims are not always reliable.
Through years of fieldwork on Turkish operations in Syria and Iraq, I’ve created datasets on airstrikes in Sinjar, Turkish ceasefire violations in Syria and on the armed conflict between Turkey and Turkish-backed militias and the Syrian Democratic Forces/Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Here are three examples of how Turkish government claims about the conflict do not hold up to scrutiny.
First, Turkey justified its 2018 and 2019 interventions in Syria by claiming the presence of the SDF/YPG along its southern border constituted a grave threat. But my analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project indicates the opposite is closer to the truth. Between January 2017 and August 2020, Turkey and Turkish-backed forces carried out 3,319 attacks against the SDF/YPG or civilians. By contrast, the SDF/YPG carried out 22 cross-border attacks into Turkey. Turkish officials claim their attacks against the SDF/YPG were tit-for-tat. But that is mathematically impossible.
Second, after signing the U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement in Syria in October 2019, Turkey promised to safeguard civilians and religious and ethnic minorities. However, Yazidis, Christians and Kurds have fled in droves from the Turkish-occupied areas of Syria. Data I analyzed showed that Turkey and Turkish-backed militias violated the U.S. ceasefire agreement over 800 times in the first year after it was signed. The Assyrian Christian region of Tel Tamer was targeted every single month.
Finally, I led a research project that analyzed the impact of Turkish airstrikes on Yazidis in Sinjar. Data-mining from five different sources, we found that Turkey had hit Sinjar with strikes every single year for the past five years. Turkish military activity is a major impediment to recovery. In the month of July alone, 472 Yazidis who tried to return to Sinjar to rebuild their lives ended up relocating back to camps for internally displaced people.
As these examples illustrate, Turkish claims about “anti-PKK” operations need to be fact-checked.
Yazidi advocates have long demanded an end to the Turkish bombing campaign in Sinjar. In 2018, Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to request that Turkey and Iraq prevent “any further bombings in Sinjar.” The recent tragic events in the region should galvanize the international community to finally heed her call for help.
There is bipartisan support in Congress to assist communities recovering from genocide — and to support our Syrian Democratic Forces partners who fought to stop the genocide. On Aug. 9, 27 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken requesting a briefing on Turkey’s drone program.
The escalation of Turkish attacks in Syria and Iraq presents U.S. policymakers with a stark choice. Do we allow Turkey to continue its destabilizing operations? Or do we allow survivors of genocide a chance to rebuild and recover?
Amy A. Holmes is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.