In 2014, the Yazidis in Iraq suffered genocide at the hands of the Islamic State. Last year, the Kurds of Syria were subjected to ethnic cleansing during a US-sanctioned Turkish military operation. Now, both of these religious minority groups are facing yet another existential threat at the hands of Turkish forces.
Urge the United States to hold Turkey accountable for their actions.
In an effort to destroy the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group it has branded as a terrorist organization, Turkey and its proxies have conducted numerous military operations into territories occupied by Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria. These incursions have consistently resulted in serious human rights violations against Kurdish civilians in these areas, including torture and rape, leading many to argue that Turkey is pursuing ethnic cleansing. Turkey’s most recent assault, into northern Iraq, has not only impacted the beleaguered Kurds, but also Yazidi survivors of genocide, many of whom just returned home after fleeing atrocities in 2014.
On June 14, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced the launch of a large aerial bombardment operation in northern Iraq coined “Operation Claw-Eagle,” intending to target PKK strongholds. While the Turkish ministry claimed that its goal was “neutralizing” a large number of PKK militants, civilians told the Middle East Eye that “most of the airstrikes in Sinjar — home of the embattled Yazidi minority — and Makmour refugee camp, targeted civilians.” The Makhmour refugee camp hosts more than 12,000 refugees, mainly composed of Kurds fleeing the long-running conflict between Turkey and the PKK. The head of communications at the camp told the Middle East Eye, “No international law allows Turkey to bomb a UN-sponsored civilian camp. The bombardment is an attempt by the Turkish government to massacre the Kurdish refugees who fled persecution in Turkey.”
Among the targets struck by the Turkish warplanes were Sinjar Mountain and its surroundings. The mountain has been home to around 2,500 Yazidi refugees since 2014, when Islamic State forces rampaged across the province. As many as 5,000 men and boys were slaughtered at the hands of Islamic extremists and at least 7,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, regularly subjected to torture and rape. More than 3,000 women and girls remain missing and are believed to still be in captivity. The United Nations, the United States, and many others in the international community designated the atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis a genocide.
The current indiscriminate attacks come as Yazidi families had just started to return to the area, which was liberated from ISIS control when the jihadists were defeated by Kurdish forces — the same Kurdish forces currently targeted by Turkey. 200 families just arrived home in Sinjar after six years in a refugee camp in Dohuk, Iraq. The Turkish attacks are also near towns and camps in which displaced Yazidi families have taken refuge since fleeing genocide in 2014.
In response to the Turkish offensive, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of the 2014 genocide and a 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate tweeted on June 14, “Mount Sinjar is a war zone right now. Turkish fighter jets are bombing multiple locations. Over 150 Yazidi families had just returned to their homes. When will @IraqiGovt & the international community apply some courage & political will to resolving security challenges in Sinjar?”
Mount Sinjar is a war zone right now. Turkish fighter jets are bombing multiple locations. Over 150 Yazidi families had just returned to their homes. When will @IraqiGovt & the international community apply some courage & political will to resolving security challenges in Sinjar?
— Nadia Murad (@NadiaMuradBasee) June 15, 2020
On June 19, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned Turkey’s latest round of airstrikes and ground operations near civilian areas in northern Iraq, calling on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to order an immediate end to this incursion.
Continued violations inside Syria
Unfortunately, these attacks against civilians belonging to these two persecuted religious minority groups are not limited just to Sinjar and the Makhmour refugee camp in Iraq. Both Kurds and Yazidis are suffering inside Syria, as well. Yazda, a global Yazidi organization devoted to preventing future atrocities against the Yazidi community, reports that “due to their religious identity, Yazidis in Afrin [in Syria] are suffering from targeted harassment and persecution by Turkish-backed militant groups. Crimes committed against Yazidis include forced conversion to Islam, rape of women and girls, humiliation and torture, arbitrary incarceration, and forced displacement.” The organization further identified that nearly 80% of Yazidi religious sites in Syria have been looted, destroyed, or otherwise desecrated and their cemeteries defiled.
Murad, in another chilling tweet, on May 29, warned that “Turkish-backed militias are silently carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Yazidis in Afrin, Syria. They are kidnapping women, killing civilians, and destroying houses and shrines.”
Turkish-backed militias are silently carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Yazidis in Afrin, Syria. They are kidnapping women, killing civilians, & destroying houses & shrines. To date, the international community has failed to bring attention to these crimes.
— Nadia Murad (@NadiaMuradBasee) May 29, 2020
The current situation in Afrin is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of protracted persecution of both the Yazidis and Kurds. The Kurdish-majority region came under the control of Turkish-backed militias in 2018 following a major operation that ousted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who had eradicated the Islamic State from the area. Since then, Turkish forces and proxy fighters who are armed, trained and paid by the Turkish government, have committed widespread kidnapping for ransom, arbitrary arrests, seizure of properties, and even torture and rape. In October 2019, Turkey and its allied Syrian militias launched another military operation against the SDF in northeast Syria, which led to the displacement of thousands of civilians in the region and reports of full-blown ethnic cleansing of the civilian population. Rights groups are concerned that these abuses are ramping up and continuing to be perpetrated with total impunity.
Amid a global COVID-19 pandemic—and in violation of the global ceasefire called for by the United Nations—Turkey is engaging in active combat, bombing Kurdish and Yazidi areas in Iraq and pressing on with occupation and ethnic cleansing in northern Syria. Syria, of course, is still reeling from nearly a decade of civil war during which the civilian population has been mercilessly targeted. Syria and Iraq are both suffering in the face of this global health crisis. And, just days ago, on July 7, Russia and China jointly vetoed a United Nations draft resolution to renew the mandate for UN cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries to millions of vulnerable Syrians, effectively cutting off their lifeline during a public health catastrophe.
These atrocities cannot go on with such abject impunity. The Trump Administration must exert pressure on its ally Turkey to immediately end its operations in northern Iraq and provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria. Turkey’s claim that its military actions are geared toward eradicating a terrorist threat does not justify its utter disregard for and abuse of Kurdish and Yazidi civilian populations in Iraq and Syria. Turkey must also be held accountable for the atrocities perpetrated by its rogue proxies in northeastern Syria. Aykan Erdemir, senior Turkish analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Voice of America, “the international community needs to remind the Turkish government that it urgently needs to take steps to prevent the crimes against humanity committed by its proxies, bring perpetrators to justice and offer effective remedies, including compensation and restitution, to victims and their family members.”
While it’s crucial that the US government established the Commission on International Religious Freedom to speak out against threats faced by religious minority groups around the world, words alone are not enough. The United States has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s abuses for far too long, even going as far as to give President Erdogan the green light to unleash violence upon those very Kurds. They led the charge in defeating the Islamic State in Syria. Now, in a global health crisis, the Kurds and Yazidis are exponentially more vulnerable and deserve our government’s protection.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the continued threats against these minority groups’ rights, dignity, and survival. The United States must ensure that neither Turkey’s military nor its proxies expand their area of control in northeast Syria, continue any type of religious or ethnic cleansing of this area, or otherwise abuse the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
There is currently no legislation in either chamber of Congress addressing the rights-effacing effects that unchecked Turkish aggression is having on ethnic and religious minority groups in the Middle East. It is unconscionable that the Yazidis – genocide survivors who have endured so much – are being subjected to indiscriminate bombings and other violations when they finally thought it was safe to go home. And, Turkey should not be able to continue mercilessly persecuting all Kurds because of the threat it perceives from one particular sub-group. We cannot stand idly by in the face of these under-reported and overlooked atrocities. That’s why, in the absence of existing legislation, we must demand that our elected officials take action. Send a letter to your Representatives and Senators today to draw their attention to Turkey’s role in the violations being perpetrated against Yazidis and Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Demand that they pressure the Trump Administration to put people before politics and hold its ally Turkey to account.
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