Lawmakers Demand Answers on Alleged War Crimes by Turkish-Backed Forces in Syria

Senators are also questioning the State Department on whether U.S.-origin defense equipment sold to Turkey was used in such incidents.

Syrians drive past a town in northeastern Syria following a Turkish bombardment.
Syrians ride a pickup truck past smoke as Arab and Kurdish civilians flee following Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain along the Turkish border on Oct. 9. Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding answers about Turkey’s role in the reported use of munitions loaded with white phosphorus—a chemical that can maim and kill when it comes in contact with human flesh—against civilians in northeastern Syria.

Four U.S. senators are pressing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address reports that Turkish-backed forces have used white phosphorus-loaded munitions in the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria. The allegations were first reported by Foreign Policy and substantiated by multiple other outlets. 

Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Patrick Leahy, and Richard Blumenthal and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn sent their concerns to Pompeo in a letter dated Friday. The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, asks for Pompeo to respond by Nov. 1. 

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 letter also asks Pompeo whether U.S.-originated weapons, such as missiles, rockets, torpedoes, or mines, were used in the offensive, potentially in connection with the use of chemical weapons and in violation of end-use agreements. The State Department has reported hundreds of millions of dollars in sales to Turkey in recent years, including $373.2 million in authorized sales during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2019, as the letter notes. Sixty percent of Turkey’s weapons are imported from the United States.

The letter reflects the mounting anger and pushback faced by the Trump administration from both parties in Congress over the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, a move that was widely viewed as greenlighting Turkey’s invasion. The two-week operation has also sowed confusion among U.S. allies and devastated the relatively stable region, killing 250 civilians—a large number of them children—and displacing 300,000. Another 300 people remain missing. 

The senators asked Pompeo for answers on whether the Turkish-backed forces were acting on their own or at the direction of Turkish authorities, how the forces acquired the white phosphorus-loaded munitions, whether its use constitutes a violation of international law—and if so, how the administration intends to respond.

The letter also asks if the State Department has identified specific units involved in the reported use of white phosphorus-loaded munitions against civilians, whether the Turkish government has indicated it will bring those responsible to justice, and if the Trump administration will consider suspending U.S. military assistance to the units responsible.

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.

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

In the letter, the senators pressed Pompeo for answers on whether any U.S.-origin defense articles were used in connection with the Turkish offensive in Syria and incidents in question.

“The volume and nature of direct commercial sales to Turkey raise significant concerns that U.S.-origin defense articles may be in use in the Turkish offensive in northern Syria, potentially in connection with the use of chemical weapons and in violation of the applicable end-use agreements and U.S. and international law,” the senators wrote. 

Backed by Turkey, the Free Syrian Army, a loose band of Syrian rebels with links to extremist groups, and other groups have terrorized the region since the start of the assault, executing Kurdish prisoners and killing scores of civilians and soldiers. The forces, officially known as the Syrian National Army, reportedly ambushed a female Kurdish politician driving on the M4, the main highway through Syria and Iraq, forced her from the car, and killed her. They allegedly freed detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons and deliberately targeted U.S. troops in the town of Kobani. 

Most recently, a video emerged showing the group mutilating the body of a female Kurdish fighter, chanting “Allahu akbar,” which means “God is great” in Arabic.

Turkey, a NATO ally, views the Syrian Kurdish forces as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because of their ties to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the backbone of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Both Turkey and the United States consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Ankara views it as an existential threat to Turkish security. 

After Turkey rolled into northern Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo to broker a cease-fire amid fury on Capitol Hill from some of Trump’s staunchest political allies. Pence and Pompeo helped broker a five-day ceasefire. Both Trump and Pence have expressed optimism that the cease-fire could become permanent and touted it as a diplomatic victory that would bring U.S. troops home sooner.

But reports have emerged of continued fighting and Turkish drone strikes in the region. The Kurdish Red Crescent and the Free Burma Rangers, two of the only humanitarian groups left on the ground in northeastern Syria, reported continued clashes. The Kurdish Red Crescent documented 21 civilians killed and 27 injured since the cease-fire, not including those who remain under the rubble or were kidnapped or executed by Turkish-backed forces. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that the United States has plans to leave some U.S. forces in Syria to prevent elements of the Islamic State from taking control of oil fields there. Esper, speaking from Brussels at a NATO meeting, also said the U.S. military is maintaining contact with Kurdish forces. 

Aid organizations such as Mercy Corps announced on Oct. 14 that they were suspending operations and evacuating staff from northern Syria in response to the Turkish operation, leaving civilians reliant on humanitarian aid at risk. “This is our nightmare scenario,” Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps’ deputy country director for Syria, said at the time. “The humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day, and now aid workers are cut off from providing lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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