Turkish Proxies Appear to Be Using White Phosphorus in Syria

Photos of children show horrific burns caused by what looks like white phosphorus.

A woman covers her face as she stands along the side of a road near the Syrian Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain.
A woman covers her face as she stands along the side of a road near the Syrian Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain along the border with Turkey on Oct. 16. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish-backed forces appear to be using munitions loaded with white phosphorus—a chemical that can maim and kill when it comes in contact with human flesh—in their violent campaign against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Foreign Policy has learned. 

If Turkish proxies are intentionally using white phosphorus-loaded munitions to target civilians, that could constitute a war crime. After publication of this article, U.N.-backed investigators said they were looking into the accusations.

Photos provided to Foreign Policy by a Kurdish sources and confirmed by a senior U.S. administration official show children from Ras al-Ain with severe chemical burns on their torsos and faces consistent with wounds from white phosphorus, though the exact substance has not yet been confirmed by independent investigators. (One of the photos, which is graphic, is published here.)

Meanwhile, reports emerged overnight that Turkey has continued to attack Kurdish fighters and civilian settlements in the border town of Ras al-Ain, despite a cease-fire agreement announced by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. A Kurdish medical convoy and an American aid organization trying to evacuate wounded civilians was targeted by Turkish-backed forces and unable to enter the town. 

As of Oct. 18, there were more than 38 injured people inside the Ras al-Ain hospital who were unable to evacuate, according to the Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian nonprofit organization that operates on the ground in northern Syria. The hospital was partially destroyed and some patients died due to lack of blood and other medical care.

An official with the Kurdish Red Crescent told Foreign Policy that six patients, including children and soldiers, arrived at the National Hospital in Hasakah city with first- and second-degree burns from an unknown substance after a Turkish airstrike in Ras al-Ain. The patients said they saw “strange lights” during the airstrike, said the official, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Separately, the official said victims from Ras al-Ain arrived at a hospital in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, with similar symptoms. Those victims are showing more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing.

A Kurdish Red Crescent convoy tried to enter Ras al-Ain to collect additional evidence, such as clothing, to find out more about the substance but was fired on by Turkish-backed forces and had to retreat, the official said.

In a letter supplied to Foreign Policy by Bassam Saker, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to the United States, the co-secretaries of the SDC’s health department, Rapareen Hasn and Manal Mhemed, urgently called on the international community to evacuate the wounded civilians. 

“Turkey uses all kind of weapons including the internationally prohibited ones, and our medical teams are unable to evacuate the civilians,” according to the letter, which was also confirmed by the senior U.S. administration official. Saker confirmed that the prohibited weapons referred to in the letter are suspected to be “unusual bombs” loaded with white phosphorus.

A former combat medic who deployed to Syria in 2017-2018 separately confirmed to Foreign Policy that the photos appeared to show chemical burns.

The United States is aware of the claims that Turkish proxies have used white phosphorus and the possible evidence that supports that claim, the senior U.S. administration official said.

“Turkey will be held accountable by the international community for the crimes they commit against the Kurds,” the official said.

A U.S. Defense Department spokesperson declined to comment.

It is not yet clear if Turkish proxies are deliberately using white phosphorus against civilians. The use of white phosphorus in military applications is not banned, but its use as an incendiary weapon in civilian areas is prohibited by international law. 

The news comes just hours after Pence announced that the United States and Turkey had agreed to a temporary cease-fire in northern Syria that appeared to hand Ankara a major victory in its campaign to remove Kurdish fighters from its southern border. 

White phosphorus-loaded munitions are used primarily by Western militaries to create smoke screens to mask the movement and position of forces but can also be used as incendiary weapons. When a shell explodes, the chemical inside immediately creates a thick white cloud. When the chemical comes in contact with flesh, it burns to the bone. 

There is some debate over whether the use of munitions loaded with white phosphorus constitutes the use of a chemical weapon. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines a chemical weapon as “a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties.” The organization goes on to state that: “Munitions, devices and other equipment specifically designed to weaponise toxic chemicals also fall under the definition of chemical weapons.”

There have been reports that munitions loaded with white phosphorus have been used previously in Syria, both by Syrian government forces and the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State.

Update, Oct. 18, 2019: This story has been updated with comments from the Kurdish Red Crescent, reports that Turkey is violating the cease-fire, and information about what constitutes the use of chemical weapons. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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