On 20 January 2018 Turkey initiated a military operation in the territory of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava: an area under Kurdish administration which is increasingly gaining international legitimacy as a result of both its struggle against the Daesh and its model of a system of governance based upon respect for human rights and multicultural coexistence . To date, the main attacks have targeted the Region of Afrin (one of the three cantons of Rojava – the other two being Jazira and Kobane) which was captured by Turkey on the 18 March of this year. However, Turkey has expressed its intention to expand the attacks in the rest of Northern Syria and possibly in the territory of Iraq. The military operation was given the Orwellian name of Operation Olive Branch
The present analysis argues that Operation Olive Branch constitutes a violation of ius ad bellum and amounts to a crime of aggression. Furthermore, the continuation of attacks violates the 30-day ceasefire established by the Security Council in Resolution 22401 of 24 February 2018. Furthermore, reports from the field indicate a pattern of war crimes.
The strategic importance of Turkey in the maintenance of the equilibrium of the region has silenced the reaction of most actors in the area, as well as of the international community. The acquiescence towards the violations committed by Turkey in Northern Syria risks undermining the current interpretation of the fundamental tenets of self-defence as a legitimate basis for use of force, and, from a political perspective, risks jeopardising the Syrian peace process.
The Olive Branch Operation as a War of Aggression
Since 20 January 2018, Turkey has been carrying out military operations in Rojava, and on 24 March, it declared itself to have established full control over the region of Afrin. The area is controlled by the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey argued for the legality of the intervention in a letter to the Security Council sent on 22 January of the same year.
Turkey bases the legitimacy of its actions on art. 51 of the UN Charter, thereby invoking the principle of self-defence, against a “threat of terrorism”. According to the document, this threat undermines Turkish national security, as well as the territorial integrity of Syria, and regional and international security.
However, there are fundamental flaws in Turkey’s argument that its actions were legal under international law. The Turkish justification falls within the evolving legal regime of self-defence against imminent terrorist attacks in territories which are not under the control of any State. Notwithstanding the complexity and fluidity of the legal issues at stake, it seems uncontroversial that, in the present case, the use of force of Turkey is blatantly illegal. First, Turkey is required to clearly substantiate its allegation that an armed attack took place (ICJ, Armed Activities in the Territory of the Congo (2005), para. 146). In this case, however, Turkey merely mentions general “threats of terrorism”, not even imminent, occurring at its Syrian border. In addition, self-defence against a non-state actor, such as Rojava, would, arguably, only be legitimate only in presence of large scale attacks (ICJ Congo v. Uganda 2005, para. 147): a circumstance which does not arise in the present case. The argument that the operation was intended to safeguard the territorial integrity of Syria is also problematic, in that the Government of Damascus has denounced it as an act of aggression, in a letter to the UN Security Council.
Furthermore, the Kurdish institutions controlling the region of Afrin, and other groups active in the area, are not designated as ‘terrorist’. Turkey defines the Kurdish administration in Northern Syria as the PKK/KCK/PYD/YPG terrorist organisation. In so doing, Turkey equates the Turkish Kurds organization, the PKK, (Kurdistan Workers’ Party Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) to the Kurdish administration of Northern Syria (PYD, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, Democratic Union Party) and its militia (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, People Protection Units). While the PKK is considered to be a terrorist organization by several states, including the US and the EU (but not other states or entities, inter alia, the United Nations), the Syrian institutions are not listed as terrorist organisations. On the contrary, they receive military support in the fight against Daesh from the international coalition Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.
In its declaration to the Security Council, furthermore, Turkey affirms that it targets Daesh activity in the region of Afrin. The Syrian army, however, has denied that ISIS has a presence in the area.
With the attack in Northern Syria, Turkey invoked the principle of self-defence against a potential threat of terrorism, in the absence of an armed attack, and against a group which is not largely acknowledged as being terrorist. In so doing, Turkey violated the prohibition to use force, in blatant violation of the fundamental tenets of self-defence as a legitimate basis for use of force.
The tacit acceptance of the abuse of the self-defence principle to carry out military operations may contribute, under certain conditions, to a normative change in the prohibition to use force. An extensive interpretation of self-defence, and the tolerance of non-authorised military operations, may extend the possibility to use force beyond the current limits established under international law, and allow States to justify acts of aggression with arguments of self-defence against threats of terrorism.
The violation of Resolution 22401 and Reports of War Crimes
On 24 February 2018, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 22401, which demands “a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”. The Resolution was adopted following the increase in violence by the Syrian army in Ghouta and Idlib, which are specifically mentioned in the document. Conversely, because Afrin is not mentioned in the document, Turkey has argued that its military operation in Afrin is not covered by the Resolution, and that the Resolution does not prohibit the use of force against the Kurdish targets.
While specifically referring to Ghouta and Idlib in the context of humanitarian crises and the escalation of violence in the territory of Syria, the Resolution clearly states that the only exception to the ceasefire, imposed “throughout Syria” relates to the operations against Daesh and Al Qaeda. The humanitarian pause, therefore, is fully applicable in relation to Northern Syria and the Turkish attacks against Kurdish militia, therefore, fall squarely within the scope of the Resolution.
During the military operation, Turkish forces are reported to have perpetrated a pattern of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has denounced deliberate attacks against civilian populations. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights reports the mutilation of female fighters, the use of gas weapons, the execution of refugees, and the bombing of an hospital, all of which constitute a pervasive pattern of war crimes.
The silence of the international community
From January 2018, Turkey has been perpetrating grave violations of international law including: a violation of the ius ad bellum regime; failure to adhere to a UN Security Council Resolution; and a pattern of violations of humanitarian law.
The Syrian Government immediately denounced the aggression against its territorial integrity, but the strategic importance of Turkey as a key regional power and as a NATO member, has hindered a strong international reaction against the aggression. The United States, the European Union and most of the international community have only expressed concern for the humanitarian situation.
This is regrettable due to the fact that, on a political level, the armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish area of Northern Syria jeopardises the possibility of an end the Syrian conflict. The Kurdish administration of Northern Syria manages an important part of the territory of the country. The Kurds are currently establishing an extremely progressive regime based on democratic confederalism, feminism, social ecology and human rights. Additionally, Syrian Kurds have renounced to the struggle for statehood and have indicated that would accept to constitute a federation under the control of Damascus.
The federal proposal of Kurdish Syria could, in principle, obtain the support of the different actors involved in the conflict, and inspire a possible path to reach the end of hostilities as well as towards rebuilding a post-conflict Syria. First, the acceptance of an autonomous region within the Syrian State could lead to an agreement with the central Government of Damascus. Second, the US are militarily supporting the Kurdish administration in the fight against Daesh, obtaining the liberation of the “capital” Raqqa in October 2017. Third, Russia, a federation itself, and a supporter of the current Syrian Government, does not exclude federalism as a possible model of administration for the post-conflict country. The consistent opposition of Turkey, however, has excluded the Syrian Kurdish representation from the international talks in Geneva and Astana.
The main challenge to this potential solution is indeed the exclusion of the PYD from the Peace talks, which is due to the opposition of Turkey as well as of other Syrian rebel groups, including other Kurdish groups. Its participation in this international forum would have strengthened the Rojava administration, in terms of both its stability in the field and its visibility as an ambitious model, for the international community and in particular for Syria, to administer a multicultural society.
Turkey is perpetrating grave international crimes, within the territory of Syria, against Kurds. Given the key role of Turkey in the region, the international community does not appear to be able to condemn the violations. In so doing, however, international law loses its effectiveness and risks allowing further abuses in the legal regime governing the use of force. This could contribute to a normative change in the definition of legitimate self-defence. Furthermore, the Rojava administration, which has been labelled by Turkey as a terrorist organisation, is among the main actors in the fight against Daesh. Finally, it is the only democratic model of governance in the Syrian territory, promoting the respect of human rights and multicultural coexistence. With its military campaign in Northern Syria, Turkey seriously weakens position of one of most relevant actors in the peace process for the region and one of the few players representing democracy, human rights and multicultural coexistence in the post-conflict Syria.