Turkey's occupation of parts of northern Syria has led to ethnic cleansing, several experts testified to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom during a virtual hearing this past week. It is some of the first clear statements being gathered that point to systematic abuses against women and minorities after Turkey invaded parts of Syria in 2018 and 2019.
Turkey backs a plethora of Syrian rebel and extremist groups that have wreaked havoc across Afrin and Tel Abyad, destroying the sites of indigenous Kurdish and Yazidi minorities and kidnapping women.
Amy Austin Holmes, a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, praised the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for their role defeating ISIS. The US has backed the SDF, but in October 2019 Ankara ordered the US to leave Syria and threatened to invade areas US forces were in. US President Donald Trump ordered US forces to partly withdraw in the face of Turkey's threats, and within days 200,000 people were forced to flee at Turkey bombed and attacked the formerly peaceful areas around Tel Abyad.
Holmes said that the SDF has "evolved into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force in which all the indigenous peoples of the region were represented." She mentioned how Christian groups such as Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians are part of this mosaic, along with Yazidis and Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds.
However, those groups are threatened by Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition groups. "They have been killed, disappeared, kidnapped, raped, detained, subjected to forced religious conversion and held for ransom." Minorities have been removed or threatened in areas Turkey occupies.
A variety of voices were quoted in the testimony, including locals who said that the actions of Turkish-backed "Islamist extremist groups" against minorities "remind us of ISIS behavior." ISIS committed a genocide against Yazidis and other minorities in 2014, killing thousands.
It appears that Yazidi villages in Afrin have also been subjected to ethnic cleansing and their shrines destroyed under Ankara's occupation of that part of Syria. Some of the testimony read into the record asserted that Turkey's role in harming minorities was a legacy of the 1915 attacks against Armenians and other Christians in Turkey. Some of these Christian minorities had fled to Syria after 1915, only to find their villages once against threatened by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups. Turkey is a member of NATO and is supposed to uphold democratic and human rights.
The testimony paints a picture of a NATO member involved in destroying the shrines of minorities, ethnically cleansing other minorities and engaging in demographic change similar to what was done in the Balkans in the 1990s. In the Balkans, NATO powers intervened to stop ethnic cleansing. In Syria, a NATO power has now been accused of enabling harm to minorities and women.
More devastating testimony came from Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin said that the "Turkish-backed administrators refuse to register locals with Kurdish names and the Turkish administration refuses to issue identification cards to Christian and minority women who do not cover their hair or wear conservative Islamic veils." He also claimed that "Turkish forces have razed Kurdish and minority graveyards in the region, action more consistent with ethnic cleansing than counter-terrorism."
Rubin said that the areas under US-backed SDF control in eastern Syria, an area called Rojava in Kurdish and also called the Autonomous Administration, are more diverse and have different religious and ethnic groups working together. These areas were tolerant of different faiths and people and women could dress a they wanted, as opposed to being forced or harassed into covering their hair or being kidnapped.
Turkey has intervened more aggressively in Syria since 2016, first launching operations around Manbij to slow the SDF anti-ISIS campaign and prevent SDF forces from controlling more parts of the border. Turkey claimed that it had to invade Afrin to secure its border, but there were no attacks on Turkey from Afrin. When ISIS controlled hundreds of kilometers of the Turkish border, Turkey had not invaded, it waited until Kurds had defeated ISIS to begin operations. After the January invasion and depopulation of Afrin, Turkey invaded Tel Abyad in October 2019. The testimony painted a grim picture of these operations.
Rubin said that the abandonment of the Kurds "came after a nearly yearlong internal campaign by US Envoy James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey, who has long carried Turkey's cause both inside government and out."
Rubin quoted Jeffrey as dismissing the US role with Kurds fighting ISIS as temporary and tactical, and noted that the US envoy said, "we want to have cooperation with Turkey across the board on all Syrian issues."
The testimony asserted that these remarks by the US official "convinced Turkish political and military leaders that there would be no consequence if Turkey replicated its Afrin strategy elsewhere in northeastern Syria."
The testimony now makes it appear that US officials ignored the ethnic cleansing and harm to minorities in Syria.
Seth Frantzman is a Middle East Forum writing fellow and op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.