An August report by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the Turkish occupation of northern Syria did not mince words, testifying that there has been a dramatic increase in killings, kidnappings, unlawful transfers of people and seizures of land and properties by the Turkish military and its local Syrian allies. Yet while all segments of northern Syrian society are suffering under Turkish occupation, it is the Yazidis who are most disproportionally affected.
The Yazidis are a non-Muslim, Kurdish-speaking religious minority native to Syria and Iraq. The existence of the Syrian community, numbering roughly 10,000 members mostly along the Turkish border and the city of Afrin, is severely endangered by Turkey and its allies. According to Dr. Sebastian Maisel, author of “Yezidis in Syria,” “although there is an Afrin community that goes back to almost thousands of years, this is now erased with the removal of all Yazidis from Afrin” due to Turkey’s attack of the city in 2018.
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Those who have not been fortunate enough to escape the Turkish occupational zone have suffered severe abuse by the Turkish military and its Islamist allies, including rape and in some cases even enslavement. While the 2014 Yazidi genocide in Iraq brought attention to the group and spurred a US military intervention, Syrian Yazidis remain ignored.
Although the Yazidi community of Syria is small, the horrific abuses that it has suffered under Turkish occupation are a microcosm of a larger story of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing tendency to use military force to achieve his nationalist world vision — all while abusing his relationship with NATO, Europe and the United States by openly contesting, sometimes aggressively, the will of other member states in Libya, Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean.
Yet while Europe and the Trump administration have a habit of appeasing Erdogan, allowing near-total impunity for Turkish military operations in Syria, European leaders have begun to act against the rising threat that Ankara’s leadership poses to regional peace. In April, Germany began its first trial to bring the charge of genocide against a former Islamic State (IS) member who took part in the trafficking and abuse of Yazidi women for crimes against the Yazidis. In May, the European Union’s Genocide Network, established to coordinate member state action against perpetrators, began urging all EU members to prosecute former IS members within their borders as war criminals. This offers one possible model for how Turkish and Syrian abusers of the Yazidi population of northern Syria can be brought to justice.
In September, the Netherlands announced that it would hold the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad accountable for a wide range of human rights abuses, applying the standards of the UN Convention Against Torture in an ongoing effort to bring the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). If the Netherlands’ attempt to hold the Assad regime accountable succeeds, it would open the way for litigation against Turkish abuses of the Yazidis in Syria. The ICJ route is important because neither Syria nor Turkey is a state party to the International Criminal Court, which can exercise jurisdiction over crimes only when the persons or location involved pertain to a state party.
The plight of Yazidis in Syria has not received as much attention as those of Iraq, but the UN report shows that the UNHRC is monitoring Turkey and its local allies. It may be that if the conflict dies down, abusers and their ringleaders will attempt to relocate to Europe and reinvent themselves — as many former jihadists who fought in Syria have already done. Europe must not let this happen.
While the prosecution of war crimes that occurred in Iraq offers a possible blueprint to use against Turkey’s local Syrian allies, holding accountable the ringleaders, particularly those high up in the Turkish government, may prove to be trickier due to Turkey’s NATO membership. America’s use of Global Magnitsky sanctions earlier this year against Chinese officials responsible for the abuses against the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang offers one possible framework that Washington and Europe can use to hold Turkish officials accountable.
The Magnitsky sanctions against China served two purposes. First, they punished individual human rights abusers (as opposed to an entire country). Second, and perhaps more importantly, they drew international attention to the specific individuals and organizations that commit human rights abuses against Uighurs, helping to turn the Uighur struggle from a relatively obscure issue to a pressing moral question at the forefront of the global public’s attention. The Magnitsky sanctions could help achieve similar results for Syria’s Yazidis.
The time has long passed for Erdogan and his allies to receive any benefit of the doubt. The United States and Europe should impose Magnitsky sanctions on Turkish officials and consider moving to hold them accountable at the ICJ. Failure to act will only further embolden Erdogan and his allies, and send a signal to religious extremists that they can oppress vulnerable minority communities with impunity so long as they have powerful friends like Erdogan on their side.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.