by Arielle Del Turco
November 12, 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is headed to the White House to meet with President Trump on Wednesday, November 13. Members of Congress have objected to this meeting due to the ongoing Turkish incursion into Northeast Syria, which has taken a significant toll on civilians and religious minorities, including Christians. Erdogan’s arrival on Wednesday is expected to be greeted by protests. In 2017, a small group protesting Erdogan’s visit in D.C. was assaulted by members of Erdogan’s security detail who overran D.C. police. In response to this incident two years ago, Rep. Dan Crenshaw is leading a joint letter urging the State Department and D.C. police to ensure that Erdogan and his security detail “are aware of and understand that Americans enjoy First Amendment rights to assembly and speech.”
It’s a controversial decision to meet with Erdogan, yet this gives President Trump the perfect opportunity to confront the authoritarian leader and pressure him to cease his country’s ongoing abuses in Northeast Syria. There’s still time to set the agenda of the two leaders’ November 13 meeting. To that end, here are three questions President Trump should pressure Erdogan to answer.
1) How will you rein in the Syrian militias, which the Turkish military is currently using in the offensive into Northeast Syria and who have committed documented war crimes and other violations?
Turkish-backed militias are doing a lot of the dirty work in Turkey’s incursion into Northeast Syria. In the ongoing assault in Northeast Syria, Turkish-backed forces have executed Kurdish prisoners, ambushed and brutally killed a female Kurdish politician, and killed many unarmed civilians. Videos and photos have surfaced showing Turkish-backed militia members executing civilians by the roadside—and U.S. officials confirmed their authenticity.
Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers is shocked by their actions. He called them “a wicked force unleashing terror. You know we’ve seen them mutilate girls, torture civilians, yell ‘Allah Akbar’ just like we saw ISIS do against us. So, I would say they’re a wicked scourge being used by Erdogan to torment the people here. And they’ve got to be stopped.”
These extremist groups are funded by and are under the command of the Turkish military. Their grotesque actions are beyond unacceptable. Turkey is a NATO ally; they shouldn’t be funding extremists to commit atrocities against civilians in a neighboring country. President Erdogan should be made to answer for the actions of these forces, and President Trump is well within his rights to demand that Erdogan rein in these militias.
2) What are you going to do to fulfill your promise to protect Christians and other religious minorities that have been harassed and victimized by Turkish-backed Syrian militias?
Christians and other religious minorities have been targeted for attack by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces. CBN News reported that Turkish-backed forces are marking Christian homes with the Arabic letter “N” to label them as Christian for the purpose of confiscating their belongings, much like ISIS did.
Turkish bombardments have even appeared to target Christian sites and neighborhoods, including the largest Christian neighborhood in Qamishli, setting houses on fire and killing several civilians. Some Christians in Syria fear that the Turkish incursion will ultimately lead to the extinction of Christianity from the region as the situation becomes unlivable. This is especially disturbing, given that the region Turkey is attacking is led by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, where (up until a month ago) religious minorities were protected and given equal political rights—an anomaly in the Middle East.
A statement from the White House on October 9 claimed, “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.” Turkey has clearly failed to deliver on this promise. Erdogan’s government assured the U.S. that they would protect Christians and religious minorities—President Trump can remind him of that.
3) How will you ensure further war crimes aren’t committed by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces?
Credible reports indicate that Turkey is guilty of war crimes committed within the last month. A statement from Amnesty International noted “damning evidence of war crimes” committed by Turkish forces in Syria. Kumi Naidoo of Amnesty International said, “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.” Dave Eubank also attests to war crimes committed by Turkish-backed forces. “Oh yes, killing prisoners, killing civilians, chasing people out of their homes, torture. Definitely.”
Evidence also suggests Turkish-backed forces have used munitions loaded with white phosphorus—a chemical that does enormous damage and can kill. Civilians, including children, appear to have been attacked by the chemical weapon. Kurdish General Mazloum has accused Turkey of ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people to later replace them with Arab Syrians in the region they invaded, changing the demography of the region.
Turkey needs to answer for its targeting of civilians. U.S. drone feeds appeared to show Turkish-backed Arab gunmen targeting civilians during the invasion of Northeast Syria. Rojava Information Center has reported that Turkish forces targeted civilians fleeing the invasion and bombed a hospital which had to be taken out of service due to Turkish shelling. Erdogan must be made to explain the many reports of civilian causalities, especially after he promised the U.S. that Turkey would protect civilians.
Ultimately, this meeting should not be a simple photo op that Erdogan can use to show that the United States affirms Turkish actions in Northeast Syria. Instead, this is a perfect opportunity for President Trump to press Erdogan on Turkey’s actions and hold Turkey accountable for ongoing atrocities in Syria.