A Kurdish commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed group that helped defeat ISIS, was murdered in a targeted assassination by a drone strike in Syria on July 22.
The attack by Turkey, using an armed drone, appears to be the latest attempt by Ankara to attack US-backed anti-ISIS forces. Turkey has also encouraged extremist groups to shell areas of Syria around Tel Tamr, driving civilians from their homes.
The same groups have targeted churches and have been accused of ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Yazidis, as well as the kidnapping and abuse of women. In addition, Turkish strikes allegedly killed four other members of a Kurdish security force south of Ayn Issa and killed nine tourists in northern Iraq in the last week.
The targeted killing of Salwa Yusuk by a drone appears to be an extrajudicial execution.
In the past, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have examined armed drone strikes in the context of extrajudicial executions. A report in 2018 by Amnesty noted "according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes have killed up to 1,551 civilians since 2004 in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Amnesty International and others have exposed how some drone strikes have violated international law and may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes."
Furthermore, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has looked at drone strikes in the same way. A report by Agnes Callamard discussed the proliferation of drones and ramifications under international law in recent years.
According to a US Central Command statement, "Salwa Yusuk (AKA Ciyan Afrin) a Deputy Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - along with 2 fellow female fighters - was killed in an attack near Qamishli, Syria, on July 22, 2022. Salwa was a critical SDF leader who led forces in combat vs ISIS since the height of the fight to defeat the vile ideology in NE Syria in 2017. CENTCOM extends our condolences to the Families of these 3 SDF fighters, the people in Northeast Syria and our SDF partners."
Targeted assassinations of Kurds and Yazidis
An article at NBC noted that "a renowned female commander of the Kurdish opposition forces in Syria, credited by the US military with saving American lives in the battle against ISIS, has been killed by a Turkish drone strike, according to two defense officials." The article quoted an official who said, "there is no doubt she saved American lives on the battlefield."
The reports say that Yusuk was murdered alongside other SDF members near Qamishli in Syria. Yusuk was 42 years old. In recent years, Turkey has increased its targeted assassinations of Kurds and Yazidis in Syria and Iraq.
Ankara claims it is fighting "terrorists" but in many cases, there is no evidence those being killed have committed any "terror" acts. Ankara claims that the SDF is linked to the PKK which it calls a "terrorist" group. In 2018, Turkey invaded Afrin in Syria and encouraged extremist groups to ethnically cleanse the area of Kurds and Yazidis. In 2019, Turkey invaded another area near Serekaniye and also ethnically cleansed it of Kurds.
Ankara also targeted Hevrin Khalaf, a young woman and political activist. One extremist group involved in Turkish-backed attacks is called Ahrar al-Sharqiya and it was sanctioned by the US for its abuses in 2021.
The latest killings in Syria come after attacks in Iraq and Turkey's threats to launch another invasion. It's unclear if that invasion will take place. The US has asked Turkey not to carry out the invasion. The US State Department has called for an immediate de-escalation in northern Syria. "We believe it's crucial for all sides to maintain and respect ceasefire zones to enhance stability in Syria and work towards a political solution to the conflict."
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.