Julie Ward reports on Turkish atrocities and calls for action now
The issue of chemical weapons has been much discussed recently in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is well known that Assad’s Russian-backed forces carried out multiple chemical weapons attacks in Syria between 2012 and 2018. However, it is less known, but highly likely, that Turkey conducted a chemical gas attack in Afrin in northern Syria in February 2018, as reported by the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds continues, with frequent deadly attacks in the border villages north of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Meanwhile, the autonomous region’s corrupt administration turns a blind eye to the violations, with the powerful ruling Barzani family signing a secret 50-year oil deal with the Turkish government, effectively making them accomplices to military incursions into KRI territory.
The Kurds have long been victims of chemical weapons attacks, and painful memories of the devastating Halabja Massacre, perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s forces in March 1988 at the end of the Al-Anfal campaign, still linger. Hussein’s assault on the Kurds killed more than 180,000 people, and is now largely recognised as a genocide. Up to 5,000 people succumbed to mustard gas poisoning in Halabja; it remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history. Surveys of the affected region showed a subsequent increased rate of cancer and birth defects.
In March this year, I joined a delegation of trade unionists and journalists on a fact-finding mission to meet communities affected by past and present chemical weapons attacks. We met with Kurdish human rights organisations, journalists, media organisations, community leaders, politicians from across the spectrum, lawyers, the families of detained political prisoners and those recently released, Anfal survivors, medical professionals, NGOs and Kurdish families affected by the ongoing Turkish invasion and occupation.
Turkey, Nato’s second-largest army, began its illegal war and occupation in Iraqi Kurdistan on 23rd April, 2021 – the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. This invasion has seen nearly 2,000 Kurdish villagers driven from their homes, with airstrikes and artillery fire a daily reality for those living in the mountainous border region. Turkey claims to be “fighting terrorism” by suggesting it is only targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But the majority of victims are civilians: farm workers, teachers, health workers, women and children.
We repeatedly heard of systematic corruption, collusion and oppression, with a broken political system dominated by two families that own and control every aspect of life in KRI, from the media to the allocation of jobs and salaries. A few brave people speak out, such as the 81 Badinan activists whose family members we met and whose court hearing we attended. But they are routinely detained and tortured before being jailed on spurious charges in trials which breach both Kurdish and international law. We heard first-hand accounts of the systematic ill-treatment of political prisoners. Journalists and media outlets critical of the government are harassed, threatened and shut down.
We heard how Turkey has carried out hundreds of alleged chemical attacks targeting civilians and guerrilla fighters, many of whom are warned against speaking out. Medics have been threatened and forced to change their expert reports, allegedly by forces from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in order to cover up the crimes of their Turkish allies.
The testimony of scores of villagers, medics, Peshmerga forces, human rights organisations and local officials, along with eyewitness accounts, led us to believe there is a high probability that Turkey has indeed used chemical weapons on civilians. Turkey has bombed the Makhmour refugee camp (also allegedly with chemical weapons), a hospital in Sinjar, and repeatedly targets civilian populations.
We were disappointed but unsurprised by the response of the two main political parties who we met in the regional parliament. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s claims to oppose Turkey’s war are contradicted by its actions, which include the detention of more than 50 anti-war activists in Slemani and the brutal oppression of demonstrators calling for peace, even firing teargas and live bullets at protesters.
The KDP responded to our questions by denying there was a military occupation or that any of the attacks had taken place. This is an absurd position given that the Turkish armed forces have admitted the attacks, and its defence minister, Hulusi Akar, visited the region and announced an expansion of military bases last summer.
The British consulate in Erbil has failed to speak out about Turkish war crimes. Given that the UK is a fellow Nato member state and one of the biggest suppliers of weapons to Turkey – including components that fuel its deadly drone war – it is incumbent on the diplomatic team in Erbil to send a strong and clear message and call on Westminster to halt arms sales immediately. Failing to do so makes Britain complicit.
The delegation calls for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to be charged with war crimes and for immediate investigations into the alleged use of chemical weapons; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should send a fact-finding team to Kurdistan as a matter of urgency to investigate allegations of chemical attacks.
More than 30 years ago, Britain, the US and western companies sold weapons to the Ba’athist regime, even supplying the chemical weapons that were used to gas the Kurds. Sadly, the pattern is being repeated, with terrible human consequences.