Turkey’s targeted assassination of civilians in North and East Syria

Statement by HDP Foreign Affairs Spokespersons Feleknas Uca and Hişyar Özsoy26.06.2023

On Tuesday 20 June, a Turkish drone hit a car on the Tirbespiyê-Qamishlo road in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The car belonged to the council of Qamishlo Canton and was carrying the leaders of the Canton administration on a visit to local councils. This targeted assassination killed the female co-chair of Qamishlo Canton Council, Yusra Darwish, the female deputy co-chair, Liman Şiwêş, and their driver, Firat Tuma. The other canton co-chair, Gabî Şemûn, was injured but is now out of hospital. The two women are both Kurdish, while the men are Syriac Christians, typifying the multi-ethnic nature of the Autonomous Administration’s structures.

Yusra Darwish took a degree in French before becoming a teacher. With the creation of the autonomous administration of Rojava in 2012 she moved to teach Kurdish and help establish the new education system. She was elected co-chair of Qamishlo Canton in 2022. Liman Şiwêş was active in the Kurdish Freedom movement in different places for over three decades. In 2015 she returned to her native Kobanê to help establish the new autonomous society, moving on to help other areas newly liberated from ISIS.

Turkey has been carrying out targeted assassinations in North and East Syria (as well as in cities of Northern Iraq) since June 2020, when they killed three members of the women’s organisation with a drone attack on the house where they were meeting. Almost exactly a year before Tuesday’s attack, the co-chair of AANES executive council was killed by a drone attack on his car, and the co-chairs of the Justice and Reform office were killed in a similar attack in September. Since the beginning of this year alone, Turkish drones have killed 48 people in North and East Syria and injured 38 more. Civilians accounted for 13 of those killed and 12 of those injured. The others were local security forces who had played an important part in the fight against ISIS. None of these people posed any threat to Turkey.

The argument that Turkey carries out these attacks as part of its fight against terrorism and to secure its borders is factually wrong. Please read the following paragraph carefully: 

Although Turkish officials claim their intervention and occupation of Syrian territory was in response to cross-border attacks from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the data does not substantiate these claims.The conflict is profoundly asymmetrical. This becomes clear from an analysis of more than three and a half years of the conflict along the Turkish-Syrian border, beginning on January1, 2017 until August 1, 2020 using data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). The numbers are staggering: ACLED data registered 3,319 attacks by the Turkish military or Turkish proxies against the SDF/YPG or civilians in Syria, compared to 22 attacks by the SDF/YPG into Turkey. Of those 22 incidents, 10 of them could not be independently verified. In other words, the actual number of cross-border attacks attributed to the YPG/SDF may be no more than 12. Furthermore, these 12 incidents all occurred after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on October 9, 2019. These twelve incidents of cross- border attacks were in response to the Turkish incursion into sovereign Syrian territory.[1]

Many of those targeted in such attacks are women. This is partly a result of the high number of women in prominent positions – all organisations have male and female co-chairs – but may also be a deliberate choice, as the Administration’s promotion of gender equality in all spheres of public life is an ideological anathema to any patriarchal force, whether the Turkish army in Syria, its Islamist proxies, or the ISIS and other Al-Qaeda related groups.

These assassinations – and especially the targeting of AANES officials – aim at destroying the stability of the region and the morale of its people; at preventing the region from recovering from years of war and from building its social structures, at discouraging people from becoming actively involved, and at generating dissatisfaction with the administration.

They also have a serious impact on the fight against ISIS, which still has many active members in the region. The administration is unable to concentrate its resources on that fight, and the instability provides fertile ground for ISIS recruitment.

ISIS has also been able to regroup because they have found a safe haven in the areas under Turkish occupation, and captured ISIS fighters have described receiving practical support from Turkey. While Turkey claims that its assassinations of civilians and anti-ISIS fighters are part of the war on terrorism, they show no intention of going after members of ISIS. Not surprisingly, the ISIS leaders killed by the United States have all been “hiding” in territories controlled by Turkey.

As well as the drone assassinations, Turkey and its proxy forces have never stopped their bombardments of AANES villages and infrastructure, even while the US and Russia have prevented another major invasion. These bombardments have increased in the last two weeks.

Turkey signed ceasefire agreements following their invasion of Syria in 2019 that are guaranteed by the United States and Russia. Despite the constant breaches, neither guarantor has done anything effective to stop Turkey’s continuous attacks. Turkey is a member of NATO and of the Council of Europe – the body established to preserve human rights. Other members of those organisations – along with the whole international community – have remained silent while Turkey kills the Kurds and their friends with utmost impunity.

We call on everyone to make sure that these attacks are not forgotten and allowed to fade, un-noticed, into history, and ask the national leaders and international organisations to ensure that Turkey stops such attacks that violate both the international and humanitarian law.

[1] Amy Austin Holmes. May 2021. Occasional Paper Series No 39: “Threats Perceived and Real: New Data and the Need for a New Approach to the Turkish-SDF Border Conflict.” Wilson Center, Washington, DC.