Turkish Incursion into Syria Raises Specter of Ethnic Cleansing

The international community should monitor how Turkey treats Kurdish civilians in northeastern Syria—and consider the responsibility to protect them, Fletcher School professor says
Family sitting atop crowded truck with their possessions. Turkey’s military offensive in northeastern Syria has raised concerns about ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the region, who were U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.
There are indications “that the Turkish government aims for permanent demographic change, which is the hallmark aim of ethnic cleansing,” said Bridget Conley. Here Kurdish families flee along the Syrian-Turkish border. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty
October 23, 2019

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Turkey’s recent attacks on northeastern Syria have raised concerns that the Kurdish residents of the region, who were U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, may be killed or forcibly removed. Those fears are well founded, according to a professor at The Fletcher School, who says there are “strong and troubling” indicators that the goal of Turkey’s invasion is ethnic cleansing of the Kurds.

Turkey invaded northeastern Syria on October 9, shortly after President Trump pulled U.S. forces from the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been advocating for a buffer zone along Turkey’s border with Syria to protect Turkey from Kurdish forces there, whom he terms terrorists.

General Mazlum Kobane, the head of Kurdish forces in Syria, told NBC News on October 19 that a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. that required Kurdish forces to leave the contested region “will kill millions of Kurds and [cause] the expulsion from their land of millions of Kurds. It will be the biggest ethnic cleansing operation of the twenty-first century.”

The general’s use of the term ethnic cleansing may be unfortunately accurate, said Bridget Conley, research director of the World Peace Foundation, which is based at Tufts, and an associate research professor at The Fletcher School.

“The Turkish government has stated that it wants to resettle Syrian refugees into the ‘safe zone’ it is creating, but this presumes that the population already living there will not return,” said Conley, who teaches a course called Understanding Mass Atrocities. “This is a strong and troubling indicator that the Turkish government aims for permanent demographic change, which is the hallmark aim of ethnic cleansing.”

Tufts Now spoke with Conley to learn more about what’s happening in northeastern Syria—and whether the international community has a responsibility to protect Kurdish citizens there.

Tufts Now: What is “ethnic cleansing”?

Bridget Conley: The term is used to describe violent displacement of entire populations based on their ethnic identity, whether through large-scale military attacks on towns; targeted physical assaults, such as killing, rape, and imprisonment and torture, deployed against members of a group because of their identity; theft and destruction of property, including cultural and religious centers; or severely prejudicial policies and persecution.

Bridget ConleyIn its contemporary usage, “ethnic cleansing” came to international attention during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is not a legal term, but in practice, it describes a range of acts against a group intended to force the group to flee, creating permanent demographic change. Many of those acts mentioned above could correspond to crimes under international law.

Do Turkey’s recent attacks on the Kurds in northern Syria constitute ethnic cleansing?

The Turkish government has stated that it wants to resettle Syrian refugees into the “safe zone” it is creating, but this presumes that the population already living there will not return. This is a strong and troubling indicator that the Turkish government aims for permanent demographic change, which is the hallmark aim of ethnic cleansing.

As the Syrian offensive is still underway, critical issues to pay attention to are the extent of violence targeted against unarmed segments of the population, based on their ethnic identity; what happens to civilian populations who stay after the Turkish military captures a town; and what happens to those who try to return when fighting quiets.

How does labeling an attack as an act of ethnic cleansing or genocide change how the international community responds?

The UN and world community affirmed a Responsibility to Protect in the 2005 World Summit, which specifically articulates that ethnic cleansing—along with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—are acts that states have a responsibility to protect their civilians from. If states fail to do so, the international community pledged to take “timely action” to protect civilians. In theory, the primary responsibility to protect civilians in Syria would reside with the Syrian government, but given its record in the conflict and the fact that it does not control the area under concern, this seems unlikely.

In any case, Responsibility to Protect is a principle designed to frame and shape international action, not a binding agreement to undertake a particular action in a given instance. Any decision to take action would have to go through the UN Security Council, which, given the involvement of the U.S. and Russia in the situation in Syria, is extremely unlikely.

Another issue in invoking Responsibility to Protect is that international consensus on the norm was severely harmed following the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya, which was justified by invoking the responsibility to protect civilians in imminent danger, but which overthrew long-time leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. In so doing, the mission shifted from protecting vulnerable populations to one designed to achieve political aims through regime change. Civilian fatalities spiked following the intervention and the country has remained destabilized.

President Trump has been criticized for pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria and leaving the nation’s Kurdish allies vulnerable to an incursion by Turkey. Shortly after Turkish forces invaded, Trump said that Turkey had to have northern Syria “cleaned out” because of concerns about Kurdish terrorism. What do you think of such language being used to describe Turkey’s goals?

President Trump appears to be unburdened by concerns of nuance, context, or consequences when it comes to articulating his decisions. In some ways, this trait provides helpful clarity: there should be no illusions about what he thought the military intervention intended to achieve. His choice of language seems to reflect his understanding and acceptance of the Turkish offensive into Syria.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.