THE Turkish military offensive in northern Syria, launched days after the United States announced that it was withdrawing from the region, has vindicated the Kurdish belief that “We have no friends but the mountains,” a Kurdish priest in the Church of England said this week.
Civilians have been killed on both sides of the border since the offensive began on Wednesday of last week. UNICEF reports that they include at least four children in Syria and seven in Turkey, and the UN human-rights office has condemned “summary executions” carried out by an Islamist group affiliated with Turkey, including that of a Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf.
An estimated 160,000 people have been displaced.
Abandoned by their American allies, whom they had worked alongside for years in the fight against Islamic State (IS), Kurdish forces announced on Sunday that they had struck a deal with Syrian government forces, to preserve Syrian sovereignty.
On Monday, the Vicar of St Richard of Chichester, Langney, the Revd Timothy Ezat, said that the pact “tells you how desperate the situation is”. During the course of the Syrian conflict, the Kurds had carved out a self-governing space in which they finally enjoyed “basic human rights” that had been denied under the Assad government. They had also sacrificed 11,000 lives to root out IS, including leading the campaign to liberate Raqqa.
“Despite all these things, we have been let down,” he said. “Already, there is news that these ISIS fighters are beginning to be on the loose and breaking out of prisons; so what was 11,000 sacrifice for? . . . They praised us for being great warriors and taking IS, but when they are done with us they just leave us to our worst enemies.”
Kurdish militia have been holding holding more than 12,000 suspected IS members in prisons in north-east Syria, and, in total, more than 100,000 displaced people, mainly women and children “with presumed links” to IS fighters, are held in makeshift camps in the area. An administrator at one camp, Ain Issa, told The New York Times that hundreds of women and children had escaped on Sunday amid the shelling.
The refusal of countries such as Britain to take back citizens held in these camps meant that northern Syria had been treated as a “dustbin for terrorists they don’t want,” Fr Ezat said.
Turkey’s action has been condemned by the EU and by the British Prime Minister. Fr Ezat’s wish that the British government should stop selling arms to Turkey was met in part on Tuesday, when the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that no further export licences to Turkey “for items which might be used in military operations in Syria” would be granted until the Government had conducted a review.
“The priorities must be to bring an immediate end to the Turkish incursion by diplomacy; sanction, and cancelling all arms licences, to halt an escalation of the violence; capture IS escapees; keep safe the thousands of vulnerable refugees; and provide more support for Iraqi Kurdistan,” the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said on Wednesday. “As a contributor to the chaos in the region that violence brings, the UK must play its full part in all of this, and, at last, reassess its policy for bringing the conflicts in Syria to an end.”
Open Doors estimates that 40-50,000 Christians in the region could be affected by the Turkish military offensive, and the Middle East Council of Churches has warned that the attacks on Syria could “potentially have serious repercussions on its territorial integrity, and thus exacerbate the humanitarian situation of refugees and displaced persons”.
“We expect that, should additional Christians seek to flee conflict in north-east Syria, most of them would come here, to Erbil,” the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Mar Bashar Warda, said last week. “We pray that the government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the international community would not turn them away, but would help in providing for their care, along with all the other innocents of all faiths.”
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq enjoyed human rights and high living standards envied by other countries, Fr Ezat said. Christians fleeing IS had found sanctuary here and a safer Kurdistan was one means of guaranteeing the survival of Christians in the region.
Elliot Grainger, the director of the Ankawa Foundation, a charity working with Christians in Iraq, said that it was already working with hundreds of families who had settled from Syria. The new offensive was “only going to add to the pressures on the community as people flee what was a relatively stable area. There is a desperate longing for the end to the violence. The thing we hear most often is that this war is not over. This week, the wider world is seeing that, too.”
Turkey regards the Kurdish militia (the YPG) in northern Syria as terrorists. An adviser to President Erdogan, Gulnur Aybet, told Channel 4 News that it was “equivalent” to the PKK (designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU), which was attacking Turkish citizens every day. President Erdogan has threatened to send millions of refugees currently in Turkey into Europe if leaders in the bloc continue to condemn his actions.
On Wednesday, he told the Turkish parliament that the offensive would continue until a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” had been established in Syria. He has previously outlined plans to resettle at least one million Syrian refugees here.
On Sunday, the BBC announced that it had discovered three British orphans, believed to have travelled to Syria with their parents from London five years ago, at Ain Issa camp. Save the Children said on Monday that they were being cared for in Raqqa.
The eldest, Amira, told the BBC about the attack in which her parents and three siblings died. “They were hitting so much,” she said. “There was a little house, and that big dusty mountain, and behind it everybody was dead. In front of us was everyone who was not killed, the other people.
“We were going to pack our stuff and get out, the airplane came and bombed. So then my mum died, my littlest brother, my little brother, and my sister. Then, after that, all was getting on fire. We had to walk out.”
On Monday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “The situation in Syria has become deeply concerning in a whole new way. British children should always be seen as the responsibility of the British people and government; so I hope that a way can be found to ensure British children held in camps in Syria to be brought to Britain and cared for as the vulnerable children that they are. Their care and rehabilitation into UK society will not be easy, but it is our national responsibility.”
Last month the International Red Cross reported that between December 2018 and September, 339 children had died in one camp, Al-Hol, home to 70,000 people, including 7000 children of foreign nationals living in an annex to the camp (News, 8 March 2019). The main causes were severe malnutrition with complications, diarrhea with dehydration and pneumonia.
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