U.S. military officials watched live drone feeds in October that appeared to show Turkey-backed militants targeting civilians during the country’s offensive in northern Syria.
The Americans reported the attacks to their commanders as possible war crimes, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the incidents told the Wall Street Journal.
U.S. surveillance videos of two incidents were included in an internal report compiled by State Department officials laying out concerns regarding four credible cases of alleged war crimes by Turkish-backed forces, the U.S. officials said.
The existence of the military surveillance videos, which hasn’t been previously disclosed, provided what some of the U.S. officials saw as firsthand evidence of apparent war crimes by forces backed by Turkey, an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Others said the videos were inconclusive.
Turkey on Oct. 9 launched its military offensive in northern Syria with Syrian rebels, dubbed the National Syrian Army, in order to clear its border from militants of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey perceives the SDF as a terrorist group due to the organization being spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Mounting concerns on US side
The footage now has become a focal point of a broader debate within the Trump administration over how to address mounting concerns by U.S. officials that the Turkish-backed fighters could commit more war crimes if the U.S. doesn’t do more to stop them.
The possible war crimes and other issues related to Turkey’s incursion are expected to arise during a White House visit on Nov. 13 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan has vowed to investigate reports of war crimes, but some U.S. officials say they doubt Turkey will take the issue seriously.
Asked about the status of Turkey’s investigation into alleged war crimes, one Turkish official said he wasn’t aware that any formal probe had been launched.
Turkish officials said several U.S. officials have voiced concerns about alleged war crimes. But the U.S. officials never passed along drone surveillance footage or mentioned its existence, the Turkish officials told the Wall Street Journal.
Trump administration ‘aware of the issue’
Some in the U.S. military who saw the American drone footage said the video, combined with initial, internal military reports, raised strong concerns about apparent war crimes, several U.S. military officials said.
U.S. military officials reported the alleged war crimes up the chain of command, as they are required to do by Pentagon regulations, officials said. The reports were met with skepticism.
“They were flagged by operators for the chain of command of a possible war crime that were not determined to be definitive proof of war crimes and appeared inconclusive upon further review,” one U.S. military official said.
Another U.S. official said the Trump administration was aware of one “clear-cut case of prisoners with tied hands being shot” by Turkish-backed forces and a dozen other allegations reported by Kurdish-led forces and local aid workers that are still being investigated by human rights groups.
Rights groups on alert
A series of videos posted on social media raised suspicion among human-rights groups and others that Syrian gunmen backed by Turkey killed a Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on Oct. 12 as she rode in an armored vehicle on the main east-west highway in northeastern Syria.
Human-rights groups and the United Nations raised alarms about two other videos posted on social media the same day that appeared to show Turkish-backed forces executing two prisoners along the same road.
The following day, the U.S. military sent a drone over the highway to monitor Turkish-backed forces as well as the safety of U.S. forces, who were quickly leaving after Trump’s announcement, U.S. military officials said.
The drone’s cameras captured footage of what the U.S. officials said appeared to be Turkish-backed fighters shooting a civilian in a van.
One 19-second video from the drone footage is titled “Alleged TSO Civ Cas Shooting,” using military abbreviations for the terms “civilian casualties” and “Turkish-supported opposition.”
The video shows a sport-utility vehicle driving down the highway and pulling over near a van parked along the road, said military officials who have seen the video and described the footage. It also shows one person get out of the SUV and into the van.
Some U.S. military officials said the drone footage showed Turkish-backed forces killing a Kurdish civilian. Others who saw the videos weren’t so sure, the officials said.
American military officials again watched live drone footage of Turkish-backed forces the next day as they appeared to swarm two trucks by the side of the highway, the officials said.
A crowd surrounded someone lying on the ground behind one of the trucks, the officials said. The person on the ground appeared to be a victim, officials said, but exhibited signs of life by moving.
Then, he was placed into the back of the other truck. A 30-second video of the incident was also titled “Alleged TSO Civ Cas Shooting.”
In this incident, some military officials said they believe the man was clearly shot while on the ground and tossed into a truck. Others said it remains unclear exactly what the video captured.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has raised the issues with his Turkish counterpart, and U.S. officials said they believe the Turks should hold anyone accountable for any battlefield wrongdoing.
“We expect them to investigate it, we expect them to hold these people to account and we will continue to push that with them,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman.
Other top U.S. officials, including James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special envoy on the fight against ISIS, have raised concerns publicly and privately with Turkey about alleged war crimes.
“We’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes,” Mr. Jeffrey told U.S. lawmakers in October.
Some among U.S. military and diplomatic personnel want the administration to do more to pressure Turkey to restrain the fighters it backs.
Turkish forces accused of firing live rounds at protesters
Separately, Turkish forces conducting a joint patrol in northern Syria under a Russian-Turkish deal reportedly fired live rounds on Nov. 12 at protesters near the mainly Kurdish town of Kobani.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said two people were killed and seven others injured near the town along the Syrian-Turkish border.
TASS news agency cited Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying Turkish forces and Russian military police conducted the patrol north of Kobani without mentioning a shooting incident.
A witness said forces fired live rounds into the air to disperse residents who were pelting stones at the patrol in an attempt to block it. The forces then fired bullets and tear gas at the protesters, wounding three, he said.
Syrian Kurdish residents have protested during the patrols against the deal under which Turkish troops are entering the border region. The reported shooting on Nov. 12 appeared to be the first such incident since the patrols started last month.
source: Duvar English