UK rearms Turkey as Ankara backs war crimes in occupied Syria

Britain has quietly resumed arms exports to its NATO ally Turkey, whose brutal operation in Syria targets the UK’s key Kurdish allies fighting Islamic State (ISIS). Turkish-backed militias are complicit in human rights abuses and include former members of ISIS

2 February 2022
Boris Johnson receives a gift from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Kayhan Ozer / Anadolu Agency via Getty)

Boris Johnson receives a gift from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Kayhan Ozer / Anadolu Agency via Getty)

  • Turkish-controlled network of militias known as the Syrian National Army (SNA) is committing myriad violations of human rights and international law in Syria
  • Hundreds of people have been disappeared, raped and tortured by the SNA
  • UK suspended arms exports to Turkey in 2019 but resumed normal licencing last December

In October 2019, Turkey undertook an invasion of the Kurdish-led autonomous regions of north and east Syria. Its jets and tanks killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish, Yazidi and Christian civilians, as well as some Arabs, in a deliberate policy of forcible demographic change. 

Turkey has driven out indigenous minorities to replace them with Sunni Arab militiamen and their families. Its invasion of Afrin region of northeast Syria in 2018 reduced the Kurdish population there from 97% to just 35%. 

The 2019 assault was dubbed ‘Peace Spring’ by Turkish officials and ostensibly sought to create a ‘safe zone’ by expelling the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the Syrian-Turkish border. 

The SDF are Britain’s key partners on the ground in Syria in the war against the Islamic State terrorist group.

The UK government suspended new arms deals with Turkey for weapons that might be used in the invasion. But last December, the government of Boris Johnson quietly resumed normal licencing.

The UK is now arming Turkey again while its Nato ally is promoting former Islamic State militants and major human rights abuses, in north and east Syria and elsewhere.

Release of information would “prejudice relations” between the UK and Turkey.

Declassified submitted a Freedom of Information request to the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT), seeking information on its discussions about arms for Turkey during the 2019 invasion.

But the government refused to provide the information it holds. It said: “Disclosure of the name of the company or companies… would be likely to damage the trading relationship between the UK company and their customer… This would be likely to risk future trading opportunities… [and] could possibly reveal details of commercial opportunities.” 

The Foreign Office also dodged a similar request, saying release of information would “prejudice relations” between the UK and Turkey.

‘Myriad violations’

Turkey relies in Syria on a network of dozens of primarily Sunni Arab militias known as the Syrian National Army (SNA) which numbers at least 35,000 full-time fighters. Though independent in name, the SNA is in practice commanded, controlled and funded by Turkey’s Ministry of Defense and National Intelligence Organisation (MIT). 

Academic terrorism expert Elizabeth Tsurkov, speaking to multiple sources within the ranks of the SNA, shows that “all decisions, big and small, in the [SNA] are made by the operations room run by Turkish intelligence.”

Turkey plays SNA factions off against one another, allowing them to clash over checkpoints and looted property to prevent any one force growing too powerful.

The UN accuses the SNA of “myriad violations of human rights and international humanitarian law”. It says the group has caused the displacement of the entire Yazidi population, and much of the Kurdish population, in the Turkish-occupied region of Sere Kaniye, near the border with Turkey, and promoted murder, rape and torture of civilians, often on an ethnic basis.

The SNA includes forces sanctioned by the US for atrocities committed against Kurds and Yazidis.


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The Rojava Information Center (RIC), a news and research organisation I co-founded to cover the situation on the ground in north and east Syria, has interviewed some of the hundreds of people forcibly disappeared, raped and tortured by the SNA.

Mahmud, an 18 year-old ethnic Kurd, was beaten with a hose, burned with cigarettes, and denied access to food and water after attempting to cross Turkish-occupied Afrin in pursuit of work.

He told the RIC that the forces controlling the prison where he was held were Jabhat al-Shamiya, an SNA militia linked to the Military Police. 

Mahmud said: “When we got to the [prison], they gathered around me and beat me with the butts of their weapons. They chained me and hung me from the ceiling. Or they made me lie down on the ground, with my feet up, and beat my feet with a hose, hundreds of times. They beat your feet until you lay like a dead body on the floor.”

“They beat us, electrocuted us, removed our fingernails and toenails…”

The SNA particularly targets women for rape, kidnap for ransom, and sale into sexual slavery, and the independent monitor Missing Afrin Women Project has documented hundreds of such cases.

RIC researchers spoke to a Yazidi woman named Amara Kibare who was detained at a checkpoint in Afrin by members of Sultan Murad, another SNA militia. 

Ms. Kibare said: “They beat us, electrocuted us, removed our fingernails and toenails with a pincer, beat us with electrical cables. They brought us to our pain threshold. There was blood coming out from under our nails. They humiliated us, handcuffing us and making us wear black clothes.”

She also reported being insulted, humiliated and forced to fast during Ramadan despite her Yazidi faith.

‘Orders come from Turkey’

The UN states that rampant abuses committed by the SNA “may entail criminal responsibility for Turkish commanders who knew or should have known about these crimes.” It documents instances of uniformed Turkish officers witnessing abuse. 

For example, the UN found that in mid-2019 an underage boy was detained, strung up and beaten with a plastic hose in an Afrin detention facility, in the presence of both the SNA and Turkish-speaking officers in military fatigues. 

Another woman was detained, beaten and threatened with rape in the presence of Turkish officers.

Another UN report, in March 2021, covering torture and abuse in SNA detention facilities, found multiple instances where Turkish officials were present during torture. They also maintained a permanent presence in detention centres notorious for torture and abuse.

Mahmud told the RIC he complained about his treatment to a visiting Turkish officer, and was pistol-whipped and placed in an “isolation cell smaller than a chicken coop” by the officer in question.

“The mercenaries don’t do it by themselves,” he said, referring to the SNA. “All of the orders come from Turkey.”


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Islamic State

Some SNA militias such as Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Shamiya or Faylaq al-Majd, subscribe to an openly radical Islamic ideology; others are criminal organisations seeking profit through extortion. 

In Idlib, which is controlled by al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and remains outside Syrian government control, Turkish-controlled factions work closely in joint operations rooms with HTS.

More concerning yet, research I conducted with the RIC shows there are scores of former Islamic State (ISIS) members, including top commanders, living and working under Turkish protection in the areas of Syria it has occupied since 2018 and 2019.

Most of these individuals are operating openly as part of SNA militias funded by Turkey.

Since the 2019 Turkish invasion, the US has regularly carried out drone strikes targeting top ISIS and al-Qaeda commanders being sheltered in territory controlled by Turkey. This occurs despite Turkey being its nominal coalition partner in the fight against Islamic State.

More broadly, Turkey’s assaults on Syria have had a devastating effect on the SDF’s ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS members were able to escape as a direct result of the invasion, often fleeing into Turkish-controlled territory. 

The group has “integrated numerous former ISIS members into its ranks”.

Most recently, during a major ISIS uprising last month, Turkey continued to target SDF forces with drone strikes and shelling as they traveled toward the site of a prison break.

ISIS was able to use Turkish-occupied regions of Syria as staging grounds for the uprising, which has seen over 500 deaths on both sides, including scores of civilians and unarmed prison employees. 

The uprising also allowed some hundreds of ISIS members to escape from prison, SDF officials claim.

The US Treasury has sanctioned one of the most notorious Turkish-sponsored SNA militias in Syria, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, stating the group has “integrated numerous former ISIS members into its ranks”. 

It accuses the militia of “serious human rights abuses, including abduction and torture… unlawful killing… looting private property from civilians and barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes.”

Ahrar al-Sharqiya attracted global attention following its brutal execution in October 2019 of a leading female Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalef. 

The US is now looking at sanctioning several other militias controlled by Turkey under the SNA umbrella, two interlocutors who have provided evidence to the US State Department told Declassified.

Turkish control

‘Peace Spring’ was preceded by ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in 2018 against the majority-Kurdish region of Afrin. Both invasions drove out the Kurdish-led governance structure known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

This had established what many observers saw as Syria’s best standards of security, rule of law, and protection of women’s and minority rights. The AANES was replaced by the Turkish-controlled SNA.

Turkey also has formal, direct control of the Syrian National Police, General Security Forces and Commando Forces.

As the de facto occupying power, Ankara is responsible under the Geneva Convention to ensure “public order and safety” in the zones of occupation. Yet Turkey is able to use its SNA militias as a smokescreen, blaming them for human rights violations and claiming without follow-up that it will locate and punish those responsible.

By sanctioning the SNA while ignoring Turkey’s control of these militias, the US and UK can continue presenting themselves as defenders of human rights – and the generally popular cause of Kurdish rights – while continuing their collaboration with the Turkish government.


Britain’s “robust” arms export controls are a fiction


Arms trade

Britain has sold nearly a billion pounds worth of military goods to Turkey since 2016. Some of these exports have enabled Turkey to target the SDF, Britain’s key partners in the fight against ISIS. 

Campaign Against Arms Trade highlights UK production of laser targeting systems for F-16 bomber aircraft, other warplane components, and bomb racks and guidance systems for Turkey’s Bayraktar-2 drones. 

These systems have been used by Turkey to bomb targets in north and east Syria.

Even when the UK temporarily suspended arms exports to Turkey from October 2019, talks were ongoing over UK involvement in Turkey’s next-generation TF-X fighter jet project, with Rolls Royce and BAE Systems both mooted to participate.

Though Turkey ultimately opted for a US engine supplier, UK support for the Turkish arms industry continued, with all pre-existing export licences remaining valid during the period of suspension.

Turkey is seen by UK ministers as an increasingly vital trade partner for the UK, with exports surging in the months following Brexit and the signing of a new bilateral trade deal. 

The UK is Turkey’s second largest export market, and talks are set to begin this year on an even more expansive trade agreement.

Conflict zones

However, UK priorities are not simply about lining the pockets of arms manufacturers, and Kurdistan is just one part of the picture.

Turkey is aggressively expanding into multiple zones of conflict. It transferred its Bayraktar-2 drones to Libya and Azerbaijan during fighting in early and late 2020 respectively, defying UN sanctions and an arms embargo. 

And as of December 2021 Turkey was delivering the same weapons systems to Ukraine.

Turkey has also deployed SNA proxy militias accused of multiple war crimes in Syria, to both the Libyan and Armenian-Azerbaijan conflicts. Thousands of Syrians, nominally part of the Free Syrian Army, are now stationed in states where Ankara has strategic interests.

“Turkey is doing the UK’s and the US’s dirty work for them.”

In these conflicts, Turkey is doing the UK’s and the US’s dirty work for them, opposing Russia on behalf of NATO and gaining political, military and economic leverage in return. 

The UK turns a blind eye to Turkey’s use of lethal technology against Britain’s Kurdish allies, and its deployment of jihadist militiamen across the Middle East and beyond.

As the UK’s 2021 Defence Review states: “Turkey is a crucial NATO Ally with a role to play in many aspects of wider regional security, including the fight against terrorism. It is dealing directly with Russia’s military interventions in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.”

The alignment of UK trading opportunities with NATO’s determination to challenge Russia makes it extremely unlikely that Britain and its NATO partners will hold Turkey to account for its policies.

But if the UK is serious about stabilising the region, it must not only restrain Turkey from sponsoring these militias, but also work more closely with the Kurdish-led SDF and its associated political and civilian institutions. 

They have long proven themselves the West’s true partners in the fight against ISIS and terror of all sorts.