Syria: Civilian Deaths in Turkish Attacks May Be Unlawful

Survivors Describe Attacks on Tents, Home, Farm

Beirut, February 23, 2018 – Turkish Armed Forces appear to have failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties in three attacks in northwest Syria in late January 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks killed 26 civilians, including 17 children.

On January 20, Turkey opened a military offensive in the Afrin district. The area, which is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Syrian Kurdish political party – has a civilian population of approximately 323,000, including 125,000 people displaced from elsewhere, according to the United Nations.

“It appears that vulnerable civilians are facing displacement and death because of the way Turkey’s latest offensive is being conducted,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey is obligated to take every feasible precaution to avoid harming or killing civilians, and to help them if they want to flee the violence.”

Human Rights Watch investigated three attacks in Afrin – on January 21, 27, and 28 – that killed at least 26 civilians, including 17 children. Among the victims were two displaced families. Human Rights Watch interviewed seven witnesses, including both first responders and victims, reviewed photographs they provided, and carried out extensive analysis of satellite imagery of the attack sites.

The Turkish-Syrian border remains closed to everyone seeking to cross except for urgent medical cases. Since the start of the offensive, 150 civilians have been killed and hundreds more injured, according to the Kurdish Health Council, a local PYD-affiliated body.

On February 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that Turkey will besiege the Afrin town center and cut external aid to it. Parties to the conflict are required under the laws of war to allow unimpeded, impartial humanitarian aid to civilians in need. Turkish media have also carried reports of potentially indiscriminate attacks by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Democratic Union Party’s armed force – in Turkey, including the border towns of Kilis and Reyhanli, that had killed at least seven civilians as of January 20. On February 20, Syrian local media reported that Syrian government forces have also deployed to Afrin.

The Turkish Armed Forces reported that it had “neutralized” 1,715 fighters by February 20, which means it had captured or killed them. The Turkish military has denied targeting or hitting civilians or civilian infrastructure.

Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Turkey’s defense minister on January 26 with its findings about the civilian deaths but has not received a response.

The laws of war strictly prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures, unless they were being used for military purposes, and prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Attacks must also not be disproportionate, meaning that any anticipated civilian casualties or damage to civilian buildings should not be excessive in light of the concrete military advantage anticipated.

When a military objective is targeted, understanding the nature of the target is crucial to assessing the risk to civilians and to taking necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties. In any attack, the attacking party must take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects.

If the Turkish armed forces failed to detect the presence of dozens of civilians at the sites it targeted on January 21, 27, and 28 where civilians were killed, this raises serious concerns about how Turkey ascertains whether civilians are in the vicinity of a target and whether they took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey should thoroughly investigate these strikes, make the findings public, and provide adequate redress to civilian victims or their families. It should hold to account those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law arising from the attacks.

“If Turkey is serious about causing no harm to civilians in Syria, then it clearly has to do more – including opening investigations into strikes that have killed civilians and making those reports publicly available,” Fakih said.

For details about the attacks, please see below.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Syria, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/middle-east/n-africa/syria

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Turkey, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/turkey