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US Defense Secretary holds Turkey responsible for war crimes in Syria

Turkey should be held accountable for alleged war crimes committed Turkish-backed proxy forces spearheading Turkey’s incursion into Syria, the United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper says.

Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Esper said: “I have seen the reports as well, we are trying to monitor them. They are horrible and if accurate and I assume that they are accurate, they would be war crimes. I think all of those need to be followed up on. I think those responsible should be held accountable, in many cases, it would be the government of Turkey.”

Turkish forces, together with its rebel allies fighting the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, entered into Kurdish-held northern Syria on October 9 following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that US troops would be pulling out from the area.

Ankara launched Operation Peace Spring with the stated aim of clearing the terrorist-deemed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the region as well as establishing a “safe zone” in a bid to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees living in the Turkey.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Esper reiterated his official release published on October 14.

“Turkey’s unilateral action was unnecessary and impulsive. [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan bears full responsibility for its consequences, to include a potential [Islamic State] ISIS resurgence, possible war crimes, and a growing humanitarian crisis.  The bilateral relationship between our two countries has also been damaged,” the secretary had said at the time.

CNN also cited some US officials who said they believe those proxies are comprised of rebel fighters with links to extremist groups, including the Ahrar al-Sharqiya militias, a coalition of Syrian armed groups equipped and supported by Turkey.

Since the start of the offensive, many countries and human rights organizations have warned that the Turkey-led operation may have been committing war crimes by targeting civilians and carrying out summary executions.

Amnesty International, a London-based non-governmental organization focusing on human rights, released a report on October 18, voicing some of the war crimes committed by the groups under Turkish control.

“The information gathered provides damning evidence of indiscriminate attacks in residential areas, including attacks on a home, a bakery and a school, carried out by Turkey and allied Syrian armed groups. It also reveals gruesome details of a summary killing in cold blood of a prominent Syrian-Kurdish female politician, Hevrin Khalaf,” Amnesty’s report read.

In addition to Khalaf’s bodyguard, the Ahrar fighters had also summarily killed at least two more Kurdish fighters and abducted two civilians working with a local medical organization. Those abducted were transporting medicine at the time they were captured, according to the organization.

Last week, an unnamed senior US administration official told Reuters that Turkey could have used its regular troops in the operation.

“Instead they decided to use these thugs and bandits and pirates that should be wiped off the face of the earth,” the official said.

Even though the crimes were not carried out by the Turkish forces, the US administration sees Turkey as responsible for them, the official said.

As a result of the two-week Turkish operation, at least 140 civilians were killed, among them 20 in Turkey and 176,000 Syrians displaced, the United Nations (UN) said on Tuesday.

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