The Turkish government uses the pretext of “fighting terrorism” for its military attacks against Iraq and Syria. Its “fight against terrorism”, however, does not mainly target the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda or its affiliates such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Turkey, home to leaders of Hamas until just a few days ago, has for several years been granting citizenship to collaborators of ISIS.
Instead of targeting and defeating jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s military evidently chooses to cooperate with them and targets the [People’s Defense Units] YPG, which is the principal military ally of the United States on the ground against Islamic State. Turkey’s military attacks thus weaken the US-led global coalition against ISIS and continue to devastate the Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, and other civilians in the region.
“Many governments, including the USA and others, as well as the UN, are trying to rebuild Sinjar. Meanwhile, Turkey is bombing the city regularly.” — Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, to Gatestone, February 2022.
“While Turkey claims it is trying to attack PKK in Sinjar, in reality they are killing the Yezidis who fought and defended Sinjar against ISIS. Turkey, by the way, did not express any interest in bombing Sinjar when it was occupied by ISIS. It is only now, when the area is once again inhabited by Yezidis, that Turkey is bombing. So we see a very nefarious hand by Turkey, which is bombing basically all of the allies of the Global Coalition against ISIS. While the Coalition is fighting ISIS, Turkey is fighting the Coalition’s allies on the ground.” — Pari Ibrahim to Gatestone, February 2022.
Turkey has for years been cooperating with jihadists in Syria and bombing Yazidis in Iraq. On February 1, Yazidis (an indigenous non-Muslim minority) in Iraq and Syria were once again terrorized by Turkish airstrikes. “Many governments, including the USA and others, as well as the UN, are trying to rebuild Sinjar. Meanwhile, Turkey is bombing the city regularly,” says Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation. Pictured: Battle-damaged buildings in the town of Sinjar, Iraq photographed on February 5, 2019. (Photo by Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images)
Turkey has for years been cooperating with jihadists in Syria and bombing Yazidis in Iraq. Yazidis, exposed to a genocide at the hands of ISIS in Iraq in 2014, are an indigenous non-Muslim minority in the Middle East who have for centuries faced persecution because of their religion and ethnicity.
On February 1, Yazidis were once again terrorized by Turkish airstrikes targeting parts of Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government-funded TRT channel reported:
“Turkiye [Turkey] has launched an aerial operation in northern regions of Iraq and Syria to target YPG [People’s Defense Units]/PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] terrorist bases, hideouts and tunnels that Ankara said was part of its fight against terrorism and right to self-defense.
“The operation dubbed ‘Winter Eagle’ began early on Wednesday and targeted YPG/PKK in Syria’s Derik and Sinjar, Karacak regions in Iraq, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Wednesday in a statement.”
The pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency confirmed the airstrikes. The United Nations-administered Makhmour refugee camp in northern Iraq and a nearby village were also among the areas affected by the bombing.
The Turkish government uses the pretext of “fighting terrorism” for its military attacks against Iraq and Syria. Its “fight against terrorism”, however, does not mainly target the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda or its affiliates such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS or the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant”). According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
“In May 2018, the group [HTS] was added to the State Department’s existing designation of its predecessor, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Today, HTS can be thought of as a relatively localized Syrian terrorist organization, which retains a Salafi-jihadist ideology despite its public split from al-Qaeda in 2017.”
The 2021 report by the Middle East Institute, “The Economics of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” details that Turkey and HTS are co-occupying and exploiting parts of northwest Syria:
“The most significant shift in HTS economic policy occurred in July 2017, when the group took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing, one of the biggest sources of revenue in NW Syria and a particularly strategic acquisition in terms of the relationship with Turkey.”
In January 2018, Watad Petroleum Company was formed in HTS-occupied north-west Syria and was granted exclusive rights to import oil derivatives and gas from Turkey into the region.
In June, HTS announced that it would replace the Syrian pound with the Turkish lira (TL), indexed the prices of goods to the lira and Watad Petroleum indexed oil derivatives and gas prices to the lira. These changes demonstrate how the Turkish government has become a lifeline for the jihadist HTS through its massive economic support to the group.
On February 2, U.S. Special Forces conducted an operation targeting ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi in Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. The former leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed by a similar operation in the nearby town of Barisha in October 2019. Both areas are controlled by HTS — supported by the Turkish government.
The Syrian city of Afrin has also been occupied since late 2018 by a coalition of Islamist groups, with Turkey as the real power behind them. The Turkish military — in an operation dubbed “Olive Branch” — defeated and expelled the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Defense Units (YPG) which were previously the de facto local military and governing power in the area. In February 2019, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report assessing the situation in Afrin, which stated:
“The commission finds there are reasonable grounds to believe that armed group members in Afrin committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and pillage.”
According to many newsreports including one from the Firat News Agency:
“Since the occupation of Afrin in March 2018, the Turkish state has established a regime of looting and exploitation. Olive and olive products were the main source of income in the region before the invasion. With the Turkish invasion, Afrin’s olive groves have been plundered and have become a source of funding for militiamen from the Turkish-established mercenary ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA). The SNA militias loot the region’s olive production and bring it to the world market via Turkey.”
Instead of targeting and defeating jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s military evidently chooses to cooperate with them and targets the YPG, which is the principal military ally of the United States on the ground against Islamic State. Turkey’s military attacks thus weaken the US-led global coalition against ISIS and continue to devastate the Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, and other civilians in the region.
Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, told Gatestone:
“On the evening of 1 February, the Turkish Airforce conducted airstrikes in Iraq, targeting Yezidi genocide survivors who have joined the Yezidi defense force, after the Yezidi genocide in August 2014. According to reports we have received, the following areas were hit by the Turkish air force in Sinjar [Shingal].
“1. At least five airstrikes on the peak of Sinjar Mountain.
2. At least five airstrikes near Chalmira area on Sinjar Mountain.
3. At least three airstrikes near Bara Village.
4. At least three airstrikes near Kira Qiranya area.
5. At least two airstrikes near Bab Shalo area.
6. At least one airstrike near Bab Karsi area.”
On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State launched an offensive against the Sinjar region of northern Iraq and carried out genocide against the Yazidi population. This involved mass killings, sexual assaults, torture, forced conversions, kidnappings, enslavement, and cultural heritage destruction. ISIS killed or captured nearly 10,000 Yazidis and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Yazidis call the atrocity “the 74th Yazidi genocide”. Today, around 2,700 Yazidi women and children are still held captive by ISIS or remain missing. Approximately 210,000 Yazidis remain internally displaced, mostly spread across 15 Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. According to Ibrahim:
“The Free Yezidi Foundation focuses on displaced Yezidis because many Yezidis are unable to return home and are afraid of the security dangers, including the Turkish airstrikes,” Ibrahim added. “There are still more than 200,000 Yezidis who are displaced, in and out of camps. We do not believe these airstrikes are helping — they are greatly destabilizing. Many governments, including the USA and others, as well as the UN, are trying to rebuild Sinjar. Meanwhile, Turkey is bombing the city regularly.
“Some say Turkey is trying to finish what the Islamic State started, the eradication of Yezidis and preventing Yezidis from returning to their homeland in Sinjar. We understand there is a conflict between Turkey and the PKK. But we as Yezidis do not want to see any more deaths or targeted attacks against Yezidis in Iraq, under any pretexts. It is not only Yezidis who are affected by this. The airstrikes destabilize the area and prevent all the civilians from returning to their areas of origin.”
The February 1 airstrikes were not Turkey’s first attacks against Yazidis in Iraq. In 2017, Turkish warplanes dropped bombs on Sinjar, hitting a civilian clinic, said Yakhi Hamza, country director of the 1st New Allied Expeditionary Force, a humanitarian nonprofit delivering medical help to Yazidis. The airstrikes killed at least five people and severely wounded several more. In August 2018, November 2019, January 2020 and June 2020, among others, Turkey also carried out airstrikes on Sinjar.
“Turkey claims it is seeking to attack PKK and PKK assets and bases in Sinjar. We know there is conflict between Turkey and the PKK. But the people who are being attacked and killed are not Kurds from Turkey, they are Yezidis from Iraq. It is hard to understand the legal justification of the Turkish attacks against Iraqi Yezidis who are literally just trying to defend their homeland. These Yezidis fought against ISIS when they came to destroy Yezidis. While Turkey claims it is trying to attack PKK in Sinjar, in reality they are killing the Yezidis who fought and defended Sinjar against ISIS. Turkey, by the way, did not express any interest in bombing Sinjar when it was occupied by ISIS. It is only now, when the area is once again inhabited by Yezidis, that Turkey is bombing. So we see a very nefarious hand by Turkey, which is bombing basically all of the allies of the Global Coalition against ISIS. While the Coalition is fighting ISIS, Turkey is fighting the Coalition’s allies on the ground.”
In 2015, there were 300,000 Yazidis living in camps for internally displaced persons. An American human rights activist, Amy L. Beam, author of The Last Yezidi Genocide, documenting the atrocities committed by ISIS, moved to Kurdistan, Iraq, obtained Iraqi IDs and passports for nearly 1,000 Yazidis to leave Iraq. Many of these women and children told her their stories of torture and abuse while in ISIS captivity. Beam told Gatestone:
“After nearly eight years of being displaced, with no reconstruction and no compensation, Yazidis feel there is no future in Iraq. After the most recent airstrikes in Khanasor, Shingal by Turkey, Yazidis flooded me with increasingly desperate requests to help them obtain asylum.
“As long as Turkey continues to conduct airstrikes in Shingal with impunity under the false pretext of killing ‘PKK terrorists,’ Ezidis continue to live in constant fear. Those still living in camps in Kurdistan will not return to Shingal. The international community has shamefully failed to rebuild their homeland.
“Even though the Iraqi security forces have been providing security on the ground in Shingal since October 2017, neither Iraqi federal government, Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI), nor Coalition forces has been able to protect Shingal from Turkey’s deadly airstrikes in Shingal. No complaint has been registered with the United Nations Security Council for Turkey’s invasion of Iraqi air space.”
“It is long-overdue for all countries to offer blanket asylum to any Ezidi from Iraq or Syria. Very little justice has been provided by prosecutions of ISIS in Iraq.”
Ibrahim urged the West and the international community to help end Turkey’s military attacks against Yazidis. She said:
“We as Free Yezidi Foundation would like to see a no-fly zone over Sinjar. These attacks against our people need to end. Turkey has no right to attack Yezidis who are native to Sinjar. Yezidis survived a genocide. We see a pattern with these attacks: Any time the international community is occupied with another crisis, as was the case with Afghanistan and is currently the case in Ukraine, Turkey starts airstrikes against Yezidis in Sinjar. We feel powerless, as the international community does not react. A NATO member should behave better than this.”
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
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