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Opinion | David L. Phillips

The US must thwart Turkish aggression in Syria

The border wall separating Turkey from Syria.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Silence makes the United States an accomplice to Turkey’s war crimes against the Kurds in Syria. Although the Senate rejected complicity with Saudi Arabia’s slaughter of civilians in Yemen, a consistent policy protecting civilians in armed conflict must be a core principle of US foreign policy worldwide.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both ruled by strongmen who exercise unbridled power. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dictatorship has gone rogue. Erdogan used the alleged coup of July 2016 to justify a sweeping crackdown against oppositionists. More than 100,000 people were arrested on charges related to “terrorism.” A half-million civil servants — teachers, judges, and mayors — were dismissed from their jobs. More journalists are jailed in Turkey than in any other country.


As a NATO member, Turkey is often given a pass. NATO is, however, more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. Turkey systematically suppresses freedom of expression. It is antidemocratic and anti-American. If NATO were established today, Turkey would not qualify as a member.

After the chemical weapons attacks on Ghouta in 2012, Erdogan took it upon himself to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Turkey established the “jihadi highway” from Urfa in Turkey to Raqqa in Syria. It provided weapons, money, and logistics to foreign fighters from around the world who joined jihadi groups to topple Assad.

Turkey occupied parts of northern Aleppo and engaged in military operations in Idlib. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Turkey launched intense and indiscriminate air strikes against Afrin, an oasis of peace and stability in northern Syria, on Jan. 20, 2018. It bombed Afrin for 58 days. Hundreds of civilians were killed and 300,000 people were displaced. Civilians huddled in bombed-out buildings, cowering at the sonic boom of warplanes overhead.

I visited Syria earlier this month and met survivors from Afrin. A mother described her flight, running hand-in-hand with her teenage daughter when a missile blew the girl to bits. She wept.

Now Erdogan threatens to expand operations, attacking east of the Euphrates River. Turkey’s aggression represents a major escalation of the war in Syria. Its reckless intervention will cause a bloodbath with grave humanitarian consequences.

Erdogan says that Turkey is fighting terrorists. In reality, however, his Free Syrian Army, comprising Al Qaeda and Al Nusra, are the real terrorists in Syria. Why does the United States turn a blind eye to Turkey’s support for terror groups?


Overnight, I received many messages from people I met last week in Syria. Terrified, they expressed hope that the United States would dissuade Turkey from its imminent attack. Kurdish fighters are essential to the international coalition against ISIS. They were the point of the spear, liberating Raqqa. They look to the United States for rescue in the face of Turkey’s aggression. .

The US Congress should prevent Turkey from attacking civilians in North and East Syria. Establishing a no-fly-zone would deter Turkey by eliminating the advantage of its air power, thereby giving the Kurds a fighting chance. Congress has already voted to delay the transfer of F-35s to Turkey, in response to Turkey’s acquisition of surface-to-air missiles from Russia. It should further restrict arms sales in response to Turkey’s violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

Yemen is a similar hot spot. The Senate voted 56-41 to recommend that the United States stop supporting the war in Yemen. The resolution is a strong rebuke of Saudi Arabia for its role in Yemen’s four-year civil war.

Rather than wait until Turkey has committed genocide against the Kurds, the United States should proactively take steps to prevent a bloodbath in North and East Syria. Prevention would be more effective than dealing with the aftermath of Turkey’s attack. Had we taken a stand early in the Yemen conflict, thousands would still be alive.


Let Yemen be a lesson. It is not too late to confront Turkey and save the Kurds in Syria. The United States should adopt a morally consistent foreign policy that restricts weapons sales to governments that target civilians and commit war crimes.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His latest book is “The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.”