DAVID L. PHILLIPS DELIVERED KEYNOTE ADDRESS AT THE ST. ANDREW’S ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM/
“Turkey’s Targeting of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Syria” /
by David L. Phillips/
Truth is in short supply these days. Repeating a lie often and loud enough does not make it true.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan justified Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria on national security grounds. Its unprovoked attack had little to do with national security. Syrian Kurds have never launched a cross-border attack on Turkey.
Erdogan was driven by Turkish domestic politics. By demonizing and attacking the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Kurdish militias, Erdogan wants to distract Turks from his corrupt and ineffective rule.
He has turned Turkey into a giant gulag, denying freedom of expression and other basic human rights. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness” and is used to restrict freedom of expression. After the so-called coup of 2016, more than 100,000 Turkish civil servants were fired and about 50,000 detained. Turkey arrested 231 journalists since 2016, more than any other country. Ahmet Altan, a prominent journalist and newspaper editor was released then re-arrested last week, signaling Erdogan’s continued crackdown on dissent.
The Armenian and Greek communities are targeted in Turkey. The Turkish authorities have seized and failed to return Armenian Church properties. The Turkish government controlled even the election of the next Armenian Church leader, the Patriarch, in Turkey. The Halki Greek Orthodox School remains closed despite repeated appeals from Greek and US officials.
Turkey’s economy has tanked with Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, as finance minister. Corruption and cronyism are rampant. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won elections in 2002, the Turkish lira was trading at 1.5 lira to the US dollar. Now it is trading at more than five to one. Debt servicing is difficult with the currency’s collapse. Foreign Direct Investment has evaporated without the rule of law.
In local elections last spring, noble and dignified Turks repudiated the AKP in Ankara, Izmir, Istanbul and other municipalities. Local election results created a crisis for the AKP. Richard C. Holbrooke, with whom I had the honor of working, said about Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic: “He seeks to solve a problem by creating a bigger one.” The same can be said of Tayyip Erdogan who seeks to shore up political support by demonizing and killing Kurds.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), which Kurds call Rojava, is an existential threat to Erdogan. In the NES, Syrian Kurds enshrine grass-roots democracy and gender equality at all levels of administration. They champion ecological justice and secularism. Northern Syria reminds me of the kibbutz movement in Israel where people sacrifice their self-interests to advance the common good. The NES was a noble sanctuary, now destroyed by Erdogan’s aggression.
President Donald J. Trump caved to Erdogan’s demands during their phone conversation on October 6, agreeing to withdraw US Special Forces from the Turkish-Syrian border and giving Erdogan a green light to invade. President Trump betrayed our allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which has Kurds at its core. More than 11,000 Kurdish fighters died and 23,000 were seriously wounded battling ISIS at America’s behest.
Turkey and its Islamist mercenaries have committed war crimes in northern Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), Erdogan’s proxy force of gangsters, criminals and mercenaries, routinely torture and commit summary executions. In one video, FSA members mutilated a Kurdish female fighter, cutting off her breasts and posing for selfies with her body parts. Another video on social media depicted a 12-year boy who was forced by the FSA to decapitate a Syrian soldier.
The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed that armed groups under Turkey’s control “committed war crimes.” According to Amnesty International, Turkey and its militias displayed “a shameful disregard for civilian life, including through summary killings that have killed and injured civilians.”
Turkey bombed densely populated civilians areas using white phosphorus and napalm. It systematically violated international humanitarian law (IHL) by shelling schools, hospitals, and preventing evacuation of the wounded.
I interviewed a woman who fled Afrin after Turkey’s unprovoked attack on January 20, 2018. She was running hand-in-hand with her young daughter when a Turkish missile obliterated the girl. The mother held onto her daughter’s arm, severed at the elbow, all that was left of her child.
Turkey is a state sponsor of terrorism. Beginning in 2013, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency operated the jihadi highway from Sanliurfa to Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate, providing weapons, money, logistics and medical services to more than 40,000 ISIS fighters from about 80 countries. Thousands of Turks also joined the ranks of ISIS. Turkish-backed Islamist rebel groups evolved into ISIS. Today, ISIS and the FSA are one in the same.
By giving Erdogan a green light, President Trump has blood on his hands. Furthermore, President Trump endorsed plans to “clean” Kurds from their villages when Erdogan proposed returning up to 2 million Syrian Arabs to northern Syria. Both are ignorant of state obligations under IHL and customary international law, which require that refugees return voluntarily, in safety, and with dignity.
President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echo Erdogan’s false allegations that Kurds were responsible for killing Syria’s Christians. The exact opposite is true. Kurds protected Armenians and Chaldean Christians. Turkey’s invasion has put Syria’s Christians at-risk.
Since 2014, Turkish-backed Islamists targeted “apostates” – Shiites, Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians in Syria and Iraq. Mosul’s 60,000 Christians were executed, displaced or trafficked as sex slaves. The same fate befell Christians in the Nineveh Plains and northern Syria. ISIS converted ancient churches into mosques, madrassas, and prisons. They tore down crosses and used chisels to deface tombstones in church graveyards.
The jihadist magazine, Dabiq, displayed images of crucified Christians as “a message in blood written to the Nation of the Cross”. It featured a picture of St. Peter’s Square with an ISIS flag superimposed atop its holy obelisk. The ISIS leader said his fighters would march “all the way to Rome,” and along the way, “break the crosses [and] trade and sell their women.”
Kessab, an Armenian Christian town in the northwest, was attacked by jihadists with support from the Turkish military. The operation was launched from the village of Gözlekçiler on Turkish territory. Jihadists used five different Turkish border crossings to enter Syria unhindered. Many cars with Syrian license plates ferried fighters from the Turkish base at Kayapinar. Six hundred and seventy families were uprooted and 15 families taken hostage in Kessab. Three Armenian churches in Kessab were desecrated by the jihadists.
Syriacs are the second largest Christian community in Syria. Many Syriacs hailed from Hasaka, living next to Kurdish neighbors, with whom they had good relations.
Christian churches and institutions, including schools and hospitals, were destroyed by Turkish–backed militias. ISIS execution videos showed the beheading of priests and community leaders, which included images of eleven desecrated churches. Hundreds of Syriacs were executed, thousands displaced, and scores of churches destroyed. Nuns were kidnapped and raped by jihadists. In February 2015, jihadists attacked 35 Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River, causing 3,000 to flee. Jihadists ransomed their Assyrian captives for $100,000 each. Syria’s Christian population was 250,000 in 2011. Only 30,000 Christians remained in 2016.
Turkish-backed Islamists offered a stark choice: convert and pay for protection, or die. According to the Syriac Union Party, “More than 100,000 Syriac Christians, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, fear Erdogan will finish the genocide that ISIS started.” The Syriac National Council of Syria, warned: “As soon as people hear that Turkish forces or their Syrian rebel allies are coming, the Christians will start fleeing.” Pence and Pompeo, self-professed evangelicals, have been silent in the face of Turkey’s aggression.
The evangelist, Rev. Pat Robertson, stated, “As the U.S. prepares to draw down, Syrian Christians fear they’ll be wiped out. It appears U.S. policy has the potential to put 2,000 years of Christian tradition and history at risk.” Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, reflected that Turkey’s invasion “did shake the evangelical community…” Franklin Graham warned, “If this continues, you’ll have another million people displaced in Syria.” According to the Southern Baptist Convention, “Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity. What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.”
Armenians and Chaldean-Christians fear that Turkey will complete the task of ISIS-eradicating Christians from northern Syria. Their fear is well-founded. On October 11, Father Hovsep Bedoyan, Pastor of the Armenian Catholic community of Qamishli, and his father, were executed by Turkish-backed forces in Deir el-Zor on their way to inspect the Armenian Catholic Church in the city. Presidential Trump heralds a notional ceasefire. Despite Erdogan’s assurances, Turkish war planes and drones are routinely bombing members of the Syriac Assyrian Military Council, made up of local Christians, along the Khabur River. Aerial bombardment across northern Syria is widespread.
President Trump does not grasp the impact of his policies on Christians in northern Syria. They are imperiled by his ill-advised pull-out.
We cannot remain silent in the face of Turkey’s atrocities, and America’s complicity with war crimes. Turkey was a critical NATO ally during the Cold War when the West opposed dictatorship. Today, Turkey is governed by the kind of dictator that NATO was designed to combat.
According to the editorial board of The Jerusalem Post (15 November 2019): “Erdogan must be stopped in the memory of the Armenian genocide he denies, the Kurds and Christians in Syria he has killed, the minorities he oppresses in his own country, and the Israelis whose borders are regularly attacked by groups he supports.”
Matthew 26:48-50: The traitor, Judas, had given them a prearranged signal: “You will know which one to arrest when I greet him with a kiss.” So Judas came straight to Jesus. “Greetings, Rabbi!” he exclaimed and gave him the kiss. Jesus said, “My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for.” Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
Similarly, US support for Syrian Kurds has proved to be the kiss of death.
Instead of placating Turkey, US officials should reject Erdogan’s war-mongering and genocide denial. The US Congress should:
- Act on the Sanctions Bill, which passed the House by a margin of 405 to 11.
- Implement the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”, since Turkey has received Russian S-400 missiles.
- Ban arms sales to Turkey as proposed in legislation introduced by Senators Murphy (D-Conn.) and Menendez (D-NJ).
- Require Secretary Pompeo to report on Turkey’s abuses in Syria and expedite procedures under the Foreign Assistance Act for a floor vote on sanctions.
- Approve a provision in the Defense Authorization bill lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus, which remains occupied by Turkey.
- Support Senate Resolution 2641, “Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS act of 2019”.
If President Trump won’t act, Congress must. The victims of Turkey’s past and present genocide cry out for justice.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser to the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.