In the spring, I traveled to Syria as part of a delegation from Amnesty International to investigate U.S. bombardment in the city of Raqqa. Qamishli, a town on the border with Turkey, was one of the few places safe enough for us to launch our mission. That Qamishli would serve as our base was fitting. Since the start of the war in Syria, the town and its environs in northeast Syria came to host tens of thousands of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds fleeing Syrian barrel bombs, Russian warplanes, Turkish artillery and the abyss of the Islamic State. People across northern Syria had little, but somehow they built a measure of normalcy and tolerance amid the privation of war. The Turkish military offensive has brought that existence to a brutal halt.
In the weeks since the incursion began, Amnesty has found that war crimes have already been committed in the town I stayed in and on the roads I traveled on. Journalists, civilian convoys and even an 11-year-old boy are among the victims of indiscriminate attacks that have increased in frequency and intensity. Up to 300,000 people are at risk of displacement as the offensive presses deeper into towns and cities that span the Turkish-Syrian border. The people of Qamishli once fed me and welcomed me. Today they pull children from the rubble.
Many in Turkey disagree with their government’s policies, but it would be hard to know how many from reading social media, tracking protests or following the Turkish media. Since the invasion, authorities have prosecuted social media users for reposting innocuous content, banned protests across much of the country and targeted the country’s remaining independent journalists. The government levels Orwellian charges such as “praising a crime” and “insulting the president,” and labels calls for peace as terrorist propaganda.
Turkish officials have experience translating humanitarian crises into political gains. Following a failed coup attempt in 2016 that left more than 200 people dead, authorities shuttered thousands of media outlets and imprisoned opposition leaders. A once-thriving civil society sector is engaged in a struggle for survival. Some of the most heinous abuses from Turkey’s past have returned. After years of decline in the number of cases, torture is resurgent once more. Enforced disappearances, after a nearly 20-year hiatus, are again being reported.
In Turkish courts, the process is the punishment. The accused can spend years in pretrial detention, without any credible evidence being presented. When their case finally goes to trial, Turkish courts find new and inventive ways to subvert justice and stack the deck against the accused. During the trial of Osman Kavala, a respected Turkish civil society leader charged with plotting to overthrow the government, witnesses for the prosecution testified via a video link, without establishing their identity or their connection to the accused. My colleague, Amnesty International Turkey’s honorary chair Taner Kilic, spent more than a year in prison. The Turkish government absurdly accuses him of being a terrorist, saying he had a messaging application used by the Gulen movement installed on his phone. The allegation was as baseless as it was ridiculous. The government’s own forensic analysis subsequently proved the application was never installed. He still faces charges.
On the bright side, Turkey has been undeniably generous in hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Yet many of these refugees struggle to survive and find their status in Turkey increasingly at risk. Amnesty has found that likely hundreds of Syrian refugees across Turkey were swept up, detained and transported against their will to Syria between July and September. Deporting anyone to an active conflict zone such as Syria imperils their lives and violates the most basic precepts of international law.
At a time of partisan division, members of Congress have demonstrated an uncanny ability to unite around their anger toward the Turkish government. Legislators are livid at a multitude of policies enacted by the Turkish government, yet the Turkish military’s recent operations have stood apart as a singular galvanizing issue. Turkish military abuses in northern Syria cannot be debated or challenged in a society where the media is cowed and dissent is smashed. If Congress wishes to genuinely advance the U.S.-Turkey relationship in the wake of the incursion, it needs to demand an honest accounting of the operation’s human cost and to protect those in Turkey and in Syria who can help do the math.