Turkey has been accused of using chlorine gas in a chemical attack against Kurds in northern Syria as Operation Olive Branch – Turkey’s bloody war on Afrin - enters its fourth week.
Afrin Health Council confirmed that tests concluded that the Turkish army used the chemical in an attack on the village of Arande in the Shiye district of Afrin on Friday. It is the latest accusation of war crimes committed against Afrin’s largely Kurdish population with more than 200 civilians reported to have been killed in attacks by the Turkish state and their jihadist accomplices the Free Syrian Army.
The Turkish assault is almost certainly illegal as a war of aggression against a peaceful people. It is likely to breach the Geneva Convention, however, NATO’s second largest army is running into serious difficulties in a war it expected to win within days.
Turkey claims it is a war to flush out terrorists and protect its borders, however, Erdogan has long wanted war with Afrin as he plans to drive a wedge between the cantons that make up the area known as Rojava/DFNS.
They underestimated the resistance showed by the YPG forces and the people of Rojava who in a show of solidarity arrived in their thousands to defend Afrin from the Turkish army. Having repelled ISIS and other jihadist groups it was a mistake to think the people of Afrin would be easily defeated.
Despite having the implicit backing of Nato and many western governments who claim that Turkey has a legitimate right to defend its borders, they have been met with incredible resistance.
And now the war seems to have escalated with reports of YPG missiles being fired into Turkey’s Hatay province, targeting an olive oil factory that Turkish security services have been using as a base to launch Operation Olive Branch.
Erdogan is an Ottoman revivalist who plans to ethnically cleanse northern Syria, vowing to “wipe out” the area of terrorists from Manbij to Idlib. It is an imperialist war being waged with weapons supplied by Britain, Germany, Italy and the EU. They have the blood of the Kurdish people on their hands as arms sales are once again placed above human rights.
Yet just as the siege of Kobane was described as the Kurdish Stalingrad, many have vowed to make Afrin Erdogan’s Vietnam as the people take up arms against the Turkish invaders.
Earlier this week the SDF General Command released a statement condemning Turkey for manipulating the media in order to downplay the civilian deaths in the Afrin canton of Rojava/DFNS. It accused the NATO member of setting up fake social media accounts releasing photographs that were easy to discredit to undermine the genuine news that is coming from the ground.
However, reports of the gas and chemical attacks have come from a number of credible sources, including Afrin's Health Council. Hevya Sor – the Kurdish Red Crescent – said in a statement that the six-people admitted to hospital showed all the signs and symptoms of a chemical contamination.
The organisation said it is not the first time it had witnessed the use of chemical attacks in Afrin. It reported that its trauma team had treated five people with similar symptoms who were targeted after taking shelter in a cave in Rajo earlier this month.
People’s Protection Unit (YPG) spokesman Birusk Hasaka and a doctor from the Afrin hospital in which the victims were treated confirmed to Syrian state television that six people were admitted with breathing problems following the attacks which took place on Friday
Turkey has predictably denied the chemical attacks claiming the accusations were “black propaganda.” A Turkish diplomatic source said: “These are baseless accusations. Turkey never used chemical weapons. We take utmost care about civilians in Operation Olive Branch."
It is, of course, important to treat such accusations with caution, particularly given the history of claimed gas attacks in Syria. Just last week, almost unreported by the mainstream press, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis admitted there was “no evidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used sarin gas against his own people. It was these allegations that US President Donald Trump used as a pretext to launch the “mother of all missile attacks” on a Syrian air base last year.
The White House has backed Turkey saying that it is unlikely that chemical weapons have been used in Operation Olive Branch. This comes following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with Erdogan when he pledged to “work together” with Turkey in Syria amid growing tensions between the NATO partners.
Yet Turkey has a long history of using chemicals against Kurds going back to the founder of the modern state, Kemal Ataturk. It was he who gave orders to crush a Kurdish rebellion in Turkey's city of Dersim – now known as Tunceli.
In one of the country’s darkest moments, plans to wipe out the Kurds – in particular, Alevi Kurds – were launched on 4th May 1937 by the ruling People’s Republican Party (CHP). Starting with regional operations, by 1938, the Punitive Expedition to Dersim had become an extermination programme.
The Dersim Massacre of 1937 – 1938 has been described as a genocide with almost 40,000 killed. Thousands were forced from their homes and children were taken from their families, given to foster parents across Turkey cutting them off from their roots as part of an ethnic cleansing initiative.
According to the memoirs of former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil,“[the ‘pundits’] had taken shelter in the caves. The militia used poisonous gas. They poisoned [these pundits] like rats in their caves. They slaughtered Dersim Kurds from all ages. It [the operation] was a bloodshed. So the Dersim issue was done with, the government authority was brought to the village [the east] and to Dersim. Now we can enter Dersim conveniently.”
The attacks also came from the air with Sabiha Gokcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter, one of the pilots that flew over Dersim as the Turkish air force dropped gas on the Kurdish population. She has an Istanbul airport named after her in honour of her role as Turkey’s first woman fighter pilot.
When he was prime minister, Erdogan issued an official state apology for the Dersim massacre, describing it as "one of the most tragic events of our near history.” But it was an apology used to attack the nominal opposition CHP, Ataturk’s party. He said it was them who must face the reality of the Dersim massacre and it was the CHP that should have been apologising.
He may have been right. But it is entirely hypocritical of Erdogan to take the moral high ground when he is waging a war against Kurds that many say amounts to a genocide.
In fact, he has been accused of covering up chemical attacks on Turkey’s Kurds. In 2011 Erdogan dismissed claims that chemicals had been used against PKK fighters killed in air attacks in Kazan Valley as “slander”.
German magazine Der Spiegel claimed experts who saw photographs of scorched bodies from a similar 2009 air strike concluded it was “highly probable” that chemical substances were used in the attack.
When I visited the town of Cizre I met with the family of a young man, Yakup Dadak, who was missing believed killed during the Basement Massacre of February 2016.
His mother Halim told me that she had been asked to identify the body of her son. However, she described being show torso’s, bodies with heads and other limbs having been dismembered. She said the bodies were unrecognizable and looked as though chemicals had been used.
Erdogan is carrying on the tradition of chemical attacks and genocide against the Kurds. And as Turkey’s deadly attacks continue, the world yet again remains silent. If Erdogan was Putin or Assad he would almost certainly face sanctions, condemnation and possibly even military intervention.
But he is allowed to attack Afrin with total impunity. The Kurds, who have played the leading role in vanquishing and defeating ISIS, are being abandoned, used once again as pawns in an imperialist carve-up of the region.
The Left has also been found wanting. While thousands pour on to the streets for Palestine or against wars on Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, their almost total absence when it comes to attacks on Kurds in Afrin has been notable. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the YPG don’t deserve support as they are “tools of imperialism” because of its tactical alliance with the US.
Not only is this characterisation dangerous, but it is racist, denying the Kurds' agency and seeing them merely as people that can be easily manipulated. The simple fact is that the Kurds in Syria are facing an attack from Nato’s second largest army in an imperialist war and demand our support.
This week representatives of British-based Kurdish and Turkish organisations handed in a letter to Jeremy Corbyn signed by 26 organisations demanding Labour speak out on Afrin. They have also called for an end to an arms trade which has seen PM Theresa May sign a deal of shame with President Erdogan, selling him 100 million in fighter jets in a gateway deal worth billions to the British economy.
Just days before the launch of Operation Olive Branch, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox visited Ankara to oversee Britain’s deadly arms trade. His office refused to disclose whether he raised human rights issues saying it was a “private meeting”.
This is very much Britain’s war. Along with the US its stated aim is for regime change in Syria. While both countries want to see a divided Syria, neither can tolerate it being controlled by a democratic, anti-capitalist federation that runs counter to imperialist interests.
The cause of Afrin is the cause of humanity. We must stand up to Turkish invasion and say "Hands off Afrin".