Turkey’s occupation of Syria criticized for ethnic cleansing

Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has led to ethnic cleansing, several experts told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a virtual hearing last week. These are some of the first clear statements collected that point to systematic abuses against women and minorities after Turkey invaded parts of Syria in 2018 and 2019.
Turkey supports a plethora of rebel and extremist Syrian groups that have wreaked havoc in Afrin and Tel Abyad, destroying the sites of indigenous Kurdish and Yazidi minorities and kidnapping women.
Amy Austin Holmes, member of the Woodrow Wilson Center and visiting scholar at Harvard University, praised the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for their role in defeating ISIS. The United States supported the SDF, but in October 2019 Ankara ordered the United States to leave Syria and threatened to invade areas where American forces were located. US President Donald Trump ordered US forces to withdraw in part in the face of threats from Turkey, and within days 200,000 people were forced to flee to Turkey and attacked the once peaceful areas around Tel Abyad.

Holmes said the SDF had “evolved into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force in which all indigenous peoples in the region were represented.” She mentioned how Christian groups such as Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians are part of this mosaic, alongside Yazidis and Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds.
However, these 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 eliminated or threatened in areas occupied by Turkey.
Various voices were quoted in the testimony, including locals who said the actions of Turkey-backed “Islamist extremist groups” against minorities “remind us of ISIS behavior.” ISIS committed genocide against Yazidis and other minorities in 2014, killing thousands of people.
It appears that the Yazidi villages of Afrin were also ethnically cleansed and their shrines destroyed under Ankara’s occupation of this part of Syria. Some of the testimony read in the file claimed that Turkey’s role in harming minorities was a legacy of the 1915 attacks on Armenians and other Christians in Turkey. Some of these Christian minorities had fled to Syria after 1915, only to find their villages once threatened by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups. Turkey is a member of NATO and is supposed to defend democratic and human rights.

The testimony paints a portrait of a NATO member involved in the destruction of minority sanctuaries, the ethnic cleansing of other minorities and the engagement in a demographic change similar to what has been done in the Balkans in the years 1990. In the Balkans, NATO powers intervened to stop ethnic cleansing. In Syria, a NATO power is now accused of allowing harm to minorities and women.

More devastating testimony came from Michael Rubin, resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin said that “Turkey-backed administrators refuse to register residents with Kurdish names and the Turkish administration refuses to issue identity cards to Christian and minority women who do not cover their hair or wear conservative Islamic veil “. He also claimed that “Turkish forces have razed Kurdish and minority cemeteries in the region, an action more compatible with ethnic cleansing than the fight against terrorism.”
Rubin said the US-backed SDF-controlled areas in eastern Syria, an area called Rojava in Kurdish and also known as the Autonomous Administration, are more diverse and have different religious and ethnic groups working together. These areas tolerated different faiths and people and women could dress however they wanted, instead of being forced or harassed to cover their hair or be kidnapped.
Turkey has intervened more aggressively in Syria since 2016, first launching operations around Manbij to slow the SDF’s anti-IS campaign and prevent SDF forces from controlling more parts of the border. Turkey claimed it had to invade Afrin to secure its border, but there was no attack on Turkey from Afrin. When ISIS controlled hundreds of kilometers from the Turkish border, Turkey had not invaded, it waited until the Kurds had defeated ISIS to begin operations. After the invasion and depopulation of Afrin in January, Turkey invaded Tel Abyad in October 2019. The testimony painted a grim picture of these operations.
Rubin said the abandonment of the Kurds “came after a nearly year-long internal campaign led by US envoy James Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey, who has long championed Turkey’s cause in inside and outside government ”.
Rubin quoted Jeffrey as rejecting the US role with the Kurds fighting ISIS as temporary and tactical, and that the US envoy said: “We want to have cooperation with Turkey at all levels on all Syrian issues” .
The testimony affirmed that these remarks of the American official “convinced the Turkish political and military leaders that there would be no consequences if Turkey reproduced its strategy of Afrin elsewhere in the northeast of Syria”.

Evidence now shows that US officials have ignored ethnic cleansing and damage to minorities in Syria.

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