Turkey’s attack on the Kurds in Northern Syria already has a mounting civilian cost

Children are among the dead as the Turkish offensive enters its third day. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Over 75,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since Turkey launched its incursion into northeast Syria on Wednesday. As thousands tried to flee the Syrian-Turkish border towns, videos started to emerge online of eight-year-old Sara Yousif and her brother, Mohammed. 

Sara was rushed to hospital in the city of Qashimili, having lost a leg in Turkish shelling. The graphic video shows her lying on a trolley with her brother, who is reported to have been between 10 and 12 years old. Their heads are lying next to each other as they receive medical attention. The video cuts off as a man crouches over Mohammed and begins to wail.

The offensive on Syria’s Kurdish-led militias began earlier this week following on-the-hoof diplomacy from President Trump, who unexpectedly gave Turkey the greenlight to start their incursion by announcing a withdrawal of US troops from parts of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey’s warplanes are, in military terms, “softening up the terrain” through pounding towns with strikes and firing artillery over the border, ready for a ground offensive to claim the territory.

Both Turkish and Kurdish forces have a history of indiscriminate attacks, and civilians on both sides are again the ones in danger. As many as 10 have been killed in Syria, with the death toll rising.

As a counter-offensive by Kurdish forces begins picking up pace, civilians on the Turkish side of the border are now beginning to ask why there were no plans to evacuate border towns as at least three people have died from SDF attacks. Reports say that as many as six have died from mortar fire launched from Syria.

“So far Turkish shelling struck not only targets in the area of its initial ground incursion (between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn) but also in major population centres along the border east of the Euphrates,” said Dareen Khalifa, Syria analyst at Crisis Group. “This is alarming; if Turkey attempts to seize such a broad swathe of territory, it could cause a high civilian casualty toll and mass displacement.”

Turkey’s aim is to set up a 20 mile deep and 300-mile long buffer zone between the two countries. It would push back Syrian Kurds – who Turkey considers to be enemies – that have been living peacefully under a defacto Kurdish government in the border region. In their place could be put many of the two million Syrian refugees currently sheltering in Turkey.

If Turkey pushes out the Syrian Kurds and repopulates the area with Arab refugees, it would be an act of violent demographic reengineering. While Turkey says that it has not forcibly returned any refugees, there have been multiple reports over the last few months of large-scale forcible deportations. 

Attacking civilian Kurdish towns and villages to force civilians to flee – instead of attacking military areas – in an effort to repopulate them with Syrian refugees, would in effect consittute an act of ethnic cleansing. 

The EU is already threatening sanctions over what is fast looking like a humanitarian crisis, and the US has set red lines for Turkey's actions beyond which its own sanctions will be implemented.  

Those red lines “would include ethnic cleansing. It would include in particular indiscriminate artillery, air and other fire directed at civilian population,” a senior US official said.

The civilian cost of the offensive won’t stop at the bombing, shelling and displacement if Turkey’s last incursion into Syrian Kurdish territory in Afrin is anything to go by. 

“In 2018, [we] documented indiscriminate attacks by Turkish military and its allied armed groups in Afrin and Azaz in northern Aleppo which led to the killing of some 100 civilians,” says Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s MENA regional director.

The use of artillery in civilian areas is prohibited by international law – yet in 2018 civilians on both sides of the border came under fire. It was accompanied by allegations of attacks on medical facilities and Turkey cutting off electricity and water when it captured strategic facilities. 

Civilians in northeast Syria now look set to experience similar hardships again.

On Friday Turkish shells are reported to have reached two displacement camps, in particular, one in Ain Issa which contains the relatives of hundreds of Isis fighters. The 60,000 strong Kurdish force in the region the SDF – who now don’t have US air support – must now defend themselves from NATO’s second-largest military while attempting to keep some authority over the ISIS prisons that are already growing out of control. 

This morning it was reported that Sara woke up and asked for her teddy bear. She was completely unaware that her brother was dead, and that another front of the war that has ravaged her country since the year of her birth had opened up on her doorstep.