On the 9th of October 2019, the Turkish army launched an invasion of Syria to occupy a strip of land 30 km-deep across the border.
The stated objective of the offensive was to uproot the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which de facto governs northeastern Syria after it expelled ISIS with the help of the US army.
The Syrian Democratic Forces’ main unit is the YPG, composed of Syrian Kurds.
Turkey represses Kurdish people in its own territory and accuses the YPG of having links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, against whom it has waged a domestic conflict.
Turkey also claims that it is conquering Syrian territory to resettle some of the 3 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts. Both the forced return of refugees and the military invasion of sovereign Syrian territory violate international law.
The European Union has condemned Turkey’s invasion and some countries such as France and Germany have agreed to a limited halt of arms exports to Turkey.
Arms to Turkey
European states issued licences for €2.8bn of arms sales to Turkey in 2017. France licensed just over €736 million worth of arms to Turkey, of which €7.1 million were for chemical agents, biological agents, riot control agents and related materials.
In 2017, Germany licensed almost €18 million worth of bombs, missiles or related explosive devices to Turkey. The total amount of licenses were valued at €34 million.
Italy licensed arms valued at €266 million in military equipment of which close to €197 million were for aircrafts or drones.
Spain was the largest EU exporter of weapons to Turkey in 2017, with close to €1 billion in arms export licenses issued.
Turkey is a NATO member alongside many EU member states. This military alliance has been a factor in the EU’s arms export decisions. The EU considers Turkey a strategic military ally.
In fact, just as Turkey is invading Syria, its military has been taking part in UK-led NATO military exercises in Scotland alongside other EU militaries.
Another factor influencing EU arms exports to Turkey is the EU-Turkey deal signed in 2016 to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. The agreement included the payment of €6 billion in ‘bribes’ to Turkey in exchange.
Amid criticisms of the offensive, Turkish President Erdogan warned the EU that he “will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”
Fuelling human rights violations
Kurds in Turkey have long suffered discrimination in all walks of life.
The Kurdish language is not allowed as a language of instruction in schools. The Turkish government sees expressions of Kurdish culture and political organising as a national security threat.
Lately, Turkey has stepped up repression of Kurdish elected representatives. Authorities have arrested members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and have denied to some the right to stand for elections.
This domestic repression of Kurds is spreading to Syria’s Kurds who, after gaining autonomy after the defeat of ISIS, have begun flourishing as a society. The constitution of Rojava, as the autonomous areas in northeastern Syria are known, call for “freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability.”
Amnesty International has accused the Turkish military and allied militia of “shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians, during the offensive into northeast Syria.”
The view of the Left
The EU pays lip service to human rights in Turkey and the wider region but more often than not fails to apply it in practice. The EU is not a bystander in the conflict. It is an active player.
The EU has condemned the Turkish offensive in Syria but Turkey’s disregard for human rights and international law is not new and European countries have continued to supply Turkey with billions of euros in arms.
These arms are being used against civilians, specifically against the Kurds.
We want the EU to end arms exports to Turkey for as long as it continues to disregard international law and for EU member states to end the foreign intervention that has fuelled the region’s conflicts. We have consistently called for such a policy not only for Turkey but also for other countries in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
We stand in solidarity with the Kurdish people and all peoples in the region struggling against repression and for dignity and human rights.