Stop selling spare parts: How the United States could bring an end to Turkish war crimes

By Hanna Homestead and Cate Brown

(NEW YORK) — On October 8th, thousands of Kurdish civilians gathered in the streets of Ras al Ain, Tal Abyad and Kobane to protest President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, protestors united behind handmade banners, waving the national Kurdish flag and chanting, “No to occupation by Turkey!”

Protestors gather in the streets of Kobane to protest the US troop withdrawal from northeast Syria

Local councils gathered to make a unified statement opposing the US withdrawal.

Members of the Hasekah Council speak out against the withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria

The US troop withdrawal would allow Turkish military forces to unilaterally implement Erdogan’s proposed ‘safe zone’, a 30-kilometer buffer that would run the length of northeast Syria’s 170-kilometer border with Turkey, from the banks of the Euphrates River to the western border of Iraq.

Perhaps the Kurds already knew what was coming.

In the two months that followed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would initiate ‘Operation Spring Peace’, a military invasion of northeast Syria that would displace over 300,000 Kurdish civilians from their land and dismantle critical civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, electrical lines and the Al’louk water station, which supplies potable water to almost half a million people in northeast Syria.

Within the first five days of the Turkish military operation, cellphone videos collected in Ras al Ain depicted targeted attacks on the city’s central market, Allouk water station and the Ras al Ain hospital.

A compilation of civilian footage gathered from social media accounts in Ras al Ain between October 9th and 15th, 2019

The targeting of civilian infrastructure violates Article 52 of the Geneva Conventions, which condemns attacks on general civilian targets; as well as Article 54 of the Geneva Conventions, which protects objects indispensable to the survival of a civilian population, including, but not limited to foodstuffs and drinking water installations.

As evidence of Turkish war crimes has continued to surface, international policymakers and advocates have called for increased accountability for the Turkish government.

“There has to be some broader demonstration of political disapproval for what has gone on,” says Elias Yousif, a researcher with The Center for International Policy. “There has to be a clear indication from some sector of the US government that the level of support for Turkish behavior, especially over the past few years, is very thin.”

Since World War II, the United States and Turkey have established a long-standing military alliance as NATO partners, forged through a mutual desire to constrain Russian expansion.

Supplied primarily by the US, Turkey now boasts the second largest military in the NATO coalition after the United States. Turkey currently imports sixty percent of its military arsenal from US-based suppliers including billions of dollars in systems support for Turkish F-16 aircrafts from Lockheed Martin Corp., an American aerospace and security company. Turkey is one of five countries globally who is licensed to produce the American F-16 aircrafts locally.

Notifications sent by the Department of Defense to Congress justifying the sale of weapons and military equipment support to Turkey, as required by the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), state “the sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States.”

In a meeting with William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and senior adviser to the center’s Security Assistance Monitor, he explained that weapons deals are brokered two ways: by the Department of Defense and foreign client governments, which are referred to as Foreign Military Sales, or directly between American defense companies and foreign client governments, known in what’s known as Direct Commercial Sales. In both cases, Congress must be notified of the deal by the Department of Defense if the sale exceeds a certain dollar threshold. If Congress disapproves of the sale, they must pass a bill blocking it with a two-thirds veto-proof majority.

The approval of weapons deals is often interpreted as a passive green-light on policy. Elias Yousif, a Research Associate with the Center for International Policy, states that by allowing weapons sales to proceed without objection, Congress “is saying that the people of the United States are tacitly approving of the behavior of that recipient government.”

Turkish aggression in Syria during Operation Spring Peace was met with widespread international condemnation and resulted in the European Union placing new limits on arms exports to Ankara. However, for Turkey’s largest military partner, the question about how to respond continues to be fiercely debated.

In a press conference, U.S. President Trump condemned the violence before sympathizing with Turkey, claiming the Kurdish area “needed to be cleaned out.”

Source: The Washington Post, C-SPAN

However, American policymakers are pushing back, in large part because of evidence of alleged Turkey’s war crimes, including civilian-captured footage.

A bill proposed on October 17 by Senator Liz Cheney, the third highest ranking Republican, would signify a major shift in US-Turkish relations. The Countering Turkish 5 Aggression Act of 2019 would ban further arms sales to Turkey, impose sanctions on top leaders, including President Erdoğan, among other actions.

“We see evidence of atrocities being committed,” said Senator Cheney, as reported by The Hill.

However, even with video evidence, the likelihood of Congress barring arms sales to one of America’s top regional strategic allies is not guaranteed. Earlier this year, members of Congress failed to garner enough support to override President Trump’s veto and block a major arms deal to Saudi Arabia despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes being committed in Yemen.

Some experts are hopeful that Congress may come up with more creative ways to punish the Turkish military. “There has to be some broader demonstration of political disapproval for what has gone on. It’s just not coming from the President. Congress can play this useful role,” says Yousif. “In terms of what can actually be done, I suspect halting maintenance may have a larger impact that the halting of future sales.”

The aftermath of Operation Spring Peace exposes how challenging it is for the United States to hold foreign governments to account for violating the US arms trade agreements — even when weapons procured from the United States are directly implicated in abuses of human rights.

“Weapons are both fungible and durable goods. We sold them a decade ago and they are likely still in working order,” said Yousif. “This is the real issue of the arms trade: There are so many mitigating factors that make analysis challenging.”

According to public opinion polls, arms sales have historically been overwhelmingly unpopular. Polls reported by Defense News reveal that seventy percent of American’s do not support America exporting arms to other countries, believing that doing so makes America less safe.

However, weapons manufacturing now play as vital a role in the US economy as well as global security. According to the US government, the Department of Defense is currently America’s largest employer. Defense budgets are growing each year, as well as government contracts to weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin who supply the United State’s top clients, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Despite the accessibility of first-hand video evidence that reveals war crimes committed by some recipients of these weapons, like the case of Operation Spring Peace, accountability for the American arms trade remains politically difficult to achieve.

I report on borders, resources and human security. Currently @Columbia | SIPA. Formerly @Mercy Corps