Dozens of Kurdish Civilians Die as Turkish Onslaught Continues
Turkey’s indiscriminate strikes on Kurdish villages this summer are adding on to an already disturbing tally of civilian casualties.
Turkey claims it is targeting terrorists in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But the Crisis Group estimates 600 civilians have died in Turkish attacks since 2015, including 129 people in northern Iraq alone.
While such high civilian deaths normally generate international headlines and condemnations, the response to Turkey’s onslaught is relatively muted, Spain-based Kurdish journalist Amina Hussein told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
“In general, there is silence in the media,” she said. “Every day the Turkish army bombs Rojava [a Kurdish area in northern Syria]. Every day there are victims and injured. Several children lost parts of their bodies in the bombing, but nobody talks about them.”
A Turkish artillery strike against a tourist compound in Dohuk, Iraq, last month left nine civilians dead and dozens injured.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied responsibility for the attack, calling it “Kurdish propaganda.” He provided no evidence to substantiate his claim that the responsible party was trying to ruin Turkish-Iraqi relations.
“This horrific attack on a well-known and clearly identifiable tourist site demonstrates a shocking disregard for civilian life and for the universally accepted standards of international humanitarian and human rights law which seek to protect civilians,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, special representative of the Secretary-General and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq told the UN Security Council. The Security Council issued a statement condemning the attack, but the statement did not mention Turkey by name.
The attack on Dohuk follows others in which Turkey’s army indiscriminately targeted Kurdish militants and civilians in both Iraq and Syria. Now the Turkish army is reportedly creating more civilian casualties by shelling the Kurdish-majority city of Kobane.
The attacks on civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan created a diplomatic rift between Ankara and Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi warned Turkey that Iraq reserves the “right to retaliate.” He described the Dohuk attack as “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”
A few days later, another Turkish airstrike killed four members of the Kurdish Security Forces, including three women. One, Salma Yusuk, was a Syrian Democratic Forces commander eulogized by the US Central Command as 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.”
In May, a Turkish drone strike aimed at the PKK left six dead in northern Iraq, including three civilians.
“When the Turkish army bombs Iraqi Kurdistan, it says that it attacks the mountainous areas or where the PKK bases are,” said Hussein. “Instead, when Turkey attacks northern Syria, they say that they are bombing ‘terrorists,’ as the Turkish government calls them.”
“The militants or fighters withdrew from the border area in Rojava” in 2019, she said. “Despite this, Turkey bombs the area without taking into account the internally displaced persons living in Rojava or the civilian population.”
Turkey has bombed more villages in northern Iraq since launching a new military operation, “Operation Claw Lock” in April. A local human rights NGO in Rojava estimated the casualties this year to be 28 civilians dead, including 9 women and a child; 44 people were injured, including 7 women and 3 children,” said Hussein.
Turkish drone attacks have been indiscriminate and reached their deadliest intensity this month. On August 10, a drone killed a civilian and two Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) members in Mulla Sabat, west of Qamishlo.
Despite the rising death rate, Turkey’s attacks on civilians are not generating much media attention. Turkey remains defiant against any criticism.
“Russia and the United States do not have the right to say anything to Turkey. We are not satisfied with every step taken by Russia, but we are transparent about it,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Turkish TV last month.
Ironically, Turkey is among the countries that race to condemn civilian casualties caused by Israeli strikes against terrorists in Gaza
While international human rights organizations have criticized Turkey for not doing more to minimize Kurdish civilian casualties, there has been no United Nations resolution formally rebuking the Erdogan government beyond individual incidents.
As a result, Turkish authorities feel they have a free-hand to continue. They are confident that they will remain untouchable from NATO and the international community. At a NATO summit last month, President Biden promised to sell Turkey dozens of fighter jets after Erdogan agreed not to block Sweden and Finland’s request to join the military alliance. Erdogan had balked over past support the two countries provided to the PKK.
And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in 2018 stressed that Turkey has the right to defend itself, “but this has to be done in a proportionate and measured way.”
A no-fly zone is needed to protect Kurdish civilians in Rojava, Hussein said.
“Turkey will never recognize its crimes,” Hussein stated. “There must be justice in the world and Turkey must be judged for its crimes in international courts. It violates human rights, attacks refugee and displacement camps, uses white phosphorus against civilians … All these must not be forgotten.”
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.