Turkey Conducts Its Seventh Series of Airstrikes On Sinjar, Violating International Law Amid NATO Silence

In the early morning of June 15, 2020, before 01:00 a.m., Turkey conducted a series of airstrikes on Sinjar Mountain that lasted 40 to 60 minutes.

Turkey has conducted intermittent airstrikes on Sinjar since April 2017. Series of Turkish airstrikes on Sinjar have now occurred at least seven times:

  • April 2017 — during the Yazidi holy month, shortly after the Yazidi New Year
  • August 2018 — following a memorial service commemorating the Kocho Massacre
  • December 2018 — on a Yazidi religious holiday and one day prior to a visit to Sinjar by genocide survivor Nadia Murad
  • November 2019 — two separate campaigns
  • January 2020 — on a Yazidi religious holiday
  • June 2020

Yesterday’s bombings, conducted with U.S.-manufactured aircraft, were the most extensive Turkish attacks to date, with up to 30 reported airstrikes that lit up large sections of Sinjar Mountain. The strikes targeted Shilo (in the southwestern section of the mountain where the road wraps south around the west end to connect to the main highway), Kore Smoqi (an area in the foothills on the northwestern section of the mountain), and the area on top of the mountain between Çil Mîre and the Serdeshte camps.

The bombings on the top of the mountain occurred in close proximity to civilian IDP camps (camps for displaced Yazidis) that are just a few kilometers away. Turkish jets bombed up and down certain ridges on top of the mountain, setting hundreds—and maybe thousands—of trees ablaze. The fires burned for many hours, endangering olive groves and areas of terraced farming which are located high up on the mountain. Starting fires as summer approaches is very dangerous as Sinjar has had serious problems with out-of-control fires in recent years.

Video footage of fires burning after the airstrikes, aired by ANF News

Timing of the Bombings

This round of Turkish airstrikes comes six months to the day following the last round of attacks, conducted January 15, 2020.

The last few weeks have seen a large number of Yazidi IDPs—who have been living in tents in the KRI for the last nearly six years—return to Sinjar to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes. In the single week prior to these bombings, 150 families reportedly left the KRI to return to Sinjar and many more have been planning their returns.

Sinjar has been relatively calm over the past two years; the most significant disruptions of this calm have been the instances of Turkish airstrikes. These attacks create a sense of instability, demoralize IDPs considering returning, and terrorize those who have already returned. Many Yazidis believe that the timing of these airstrikes is not a coincidence. Yesterday’s airstrikes came four days after an incident where KDP asaish (secret police) held up a convoy of Yazidis moving back to Sinjar.

Whether intentional or not, the inevitable effect of these attacks will be to discourage those considering moving home from doing so.

This action counters and directly inhibits the U.S. Administration’s stated policy objective of supporting return and reconstruction in Iraq’s disputed territories. It also hinders humanitarian work generally and makes NGOs more reluctant to implement projects in the Sinjar region. This prevents the return of stability which will prolong the continuing drive toward mass emigration to Western countries.

Previous Attacks

Not only do Turkish bombings of Sinjar deter returns, but there is also a pattern of the bombings being timed to coincide with Yazidi religious occasions or important genocide memorial events. Several of the previous campaigns occurred on Yazidi holidays and, in August 2018, one campaign of airstrikes occurred hours after a memorial service to honor those killed in the Kocho Massacre. Those killed in the airstrikes had just left the memorial service.

Turkey’s April 2017 airstrikes targeted Yazidi and Kurdish fighters still actively engaged in defending Sinjar against IS—this was prior to the liberation of the south side of Sinjar by the PMU. In other words, Turkey attacked the defensive side of an active front line with IS, targeting the primary forces responsible for providing protection to vulnerable IDPs on top of the mountain.

Within days of the April 2017 bombings, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Joseph Pennington visited the Yazidi community in Michigan. The Yazidis expressed their outrage and sorrow regarding the airstrikes and Pennington assured them that the U.S. would not allow it to happen again. Sadly, it has continued to happen, repeatedly.

Following Turkey’s third round of airstrikes on Sinjar in December 2018, genocide survivor Nadia Murad met with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and called on Turkey to end its assaults on Sinjar. The strikes are ongoing, however.

Nadia Murad meets with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dec. 16, 2018

Turkey’s November 2019 bombings targeted a YBŞ base in Khanasor, but missed it and hit a civilian home.

Its January 2020 bombings targeted a residential area of a civilian town, Dugure, destroying property, killing several YBŞ security personnel, and a civilian. The aftermath of the Jan. 2020 attacks can be seen in the following two photos that were circulated online:

Photo attributed to @metesohtaoglu

After the January 2020 bombings, Yazda executive director Murad Ismael posted this message:

Let me share with you this; one of the victims was Ali, he was in his early 20s, he was a father and a husband. Ali’s father was a truck driver working for the U.S. army when they were in Shingal. Ali is from a very poor family. Ali left behind a family without a supporter, [and he left behind] an orphan, a widow, and a child yet to be born to an unknown world. Turkey left this family in so much pain. We expressed our condolences to Ali’s grandfather and grandmother today. They were also in so much sadness.

The Meaning That the Airstrikes Carry for Genocide Survivors

Following last night’s bombing campaign, Turkish media circulated photographs of Turkish military officials conducting and celebrating the attacks:

“Minister of National Defence of Turkey, Hulusi Akar (R) follows the Operation Claw-Eagle.” Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Agency
Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Agency
Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Ajansı

Yesterday, Turkish military personnel also circulated a PR video containing a mix of footage (some material originating prior to June 15 but also some material purportedly showing attacks on Sinjar and other locations attacked on June 15—Makhmour and Qandil were also targeted on the 15th):

What must be understood is that Sinjar is a cultural focal point for the Yazidi community worldwide; it is a sacred homeland that has weathered many eras of persecution. As one of the last remaining Yazidi enclaves in the region, Sinjar is both beloved and perceived as vulnerable. When IS first attacked Sinjar and began the genocide of the Yazidis in 2014, it traumatized every Yazidi person in the world. Similarly, each time that Turkey bombs Sinjar and the news of it reaches the ears of Yazidis around the world, it traumatizes every Yazidi person, again.

Even when airstrikes do not kill civilians, they traumatize every civilian in the area as they are audible (and sometimes visible) throughout Sinjar. In one of the videos of last night’s airstrikes posted online this morning, a child can be heard screaming when the explosion hits:

Turkey’s Pretext for the Attacks and Its Violation of International Law

As a justification for these airstrikes, Turkey claims to be targeting PKK forces; however, the PKK presence in Sinjar has been steadily drawn down since March of 2018. The actual targets of the bombings are the Yazidi YBŞ security force.

Like the U.S.-supported YPG, the YBŞ is a PKK affiliate; its ranks, however, are mainly comprised of local Yazidis who joined the militia after the Genocide to defend their homeland against IS. Many of its members are survivors who lost family members to IS massacres and enslavement, and whose homes have been destroyed. The YBŞ now coordinates with the local Iraqi police to provide security. (For example, when social distancing techniques began to be introduced to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Iraqi police in Sinjar coordinated with the YBŞ to implement the safety measures and it was YBŞ personnel who went door to door to educate people about COVID-19 and ask business owners to close their shops.)

Because of the Turkish military threat posed to Sinjar, the PKK announced its withdrawal from Sinjar in mid-2018. Though small numbers of PKK members may still live in Sinjar, there is no longer any publicly visible presence of PKK guerrillas in Sinjar.

More importantly, Sinjar—which has no border with Turkey—is not a staging ground for attacks on Turkey.

Yesterday morning, the Turkish Anadolu news agency reported that “Turkish Defense Ministry says Claw-Eagle operation is taking place under right of self defense arising from international law.”

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter requires that all states “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” While states retain a right to self-defense,[1] that right is subject to standards of necessity and proportionality. Reprisals may only be carried out as measures of last resort to an adversary’s serious violations of international humanitarian law.[2] Further, anticipatory attacks, while generally not considered legal, in the rare instances where they may garner approval, “should be confined to cases in which the necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”[3] Attacks must be proportionate to the gravity of the adversary’s violation.[4]

Repeatedly bombing areas recovering from genocide and populated by refugees/IDPs in camps in order to take out PKK targets is in no way necessary or compliant with Turkey’s obligation to peacefully settle disputes, nor is the indiscriminate bombing of Iraqi territory proportional to the threat posed by a lightly-armed militia that has not attacked Turkish territory.

In other words, and to state the obvious, Yazidi security forces in Sinjar pose no imminent threat to Turkey, and have committed no violation grave enough to justify an attack against the territory of another sovereign state.

A state’s right to self-defense does not relieve it of its obligation under UN Charter Article 2(4) to settle disputes peacefully, nor is it permitted to take actions that violate humanitarian, human rights, or public international law. In fact, the unprovoked bombing of IDP/refugee camps (as also happened yesterday when Turkey bombed Makhmour) is a direct violation of Article 2(4) because Turkey has committed an act of aggression against the sovereign territory of Iraq (see GA Resolution 3314, Article 3(b): “…bombardment by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state or the use of weapons by a state against the territory of another state”). International law also prohibits attacks which “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[5] Targeted or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and protected persons and their property are clear violations of customary international law and the Geneva Conventions, and rise to the level of war crimes.[6]

Iraq’s Weak Response

As it has done in previous instances of Turkish bombings of Sinjar, Iraq condemned yesterday’s attacks, but an article published yesterday by al-Monitor noted the weak language used:

Iraq’s Defense Ministry condemned the strikes today, saying they were violation of Iraqi sovereignty, but the language of the statement was mild. “We call on Turkey to halt these violations and avoid repeating them and respect the bilateral relations between the two countries,” it said.

In fact, signs have appeared several times that indicate Baghdad’s tacit approval for Turkey’s actions.

All Turkish bombings of Sinjar from 2018 to the present have occurred alongside an Iraqi army presence in Sinjar. That Iraq fails to adequately protest these assaults—which occur within its own jurisdiction and where it maintains full control with its own military—implies the possibility of passive complicity.

The January 2020 round of bombings occurred directly after Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Baghdad for official meetings, leading some to speculate that the Iraqi government had given approval for the strikes.[7]

Similarly, yesterday’s bombings came just days following a visit from Turkey’s intelligence chief to Iraq.

The reasons as to why Baghdad does not put up serious resistance to Turkey’s violations of its territory need to be taken up by another author. One potential factor may be Baghdad’s desire to preclude any interruptions in the receipt of Euphrates water originating in Turkey. But there is likely more to the story than this and the fact that Baghdad pays YBŞ salaries while not refuting Turkey’s “must-attack-the-PKK” pretext is perplexing.

NATO’s Silence Amid Growing Turkish Imperialism

That Turkey is readily willing to attack the Yazidi homeland, but has not demonstrated a commitment to targeting IS, speaks loudly to Yazidis and observers alike.

Further, Turkish airstrikes on Sinjar come after a long-established pattern, noted by many experts and analysts over the years of the conflict with IS, of Turkey pursuing policies that have aided IS. It has been well-documented that IS jihadists were given free access to the Turkish border,[8] that Turkey has supplied jihadists with weapons,[9] provided financial support to terror groups,[10] and has provided training to IS fighters.[11] That Turkey was perceived as an indirect supporter of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014 makes its continuing campaign against Sinjar even more problematic in the present.

The world must understand what it means to Yazidis—a marginalized Iraqi minority wanting to avoid geopolitical competitions—when a major power like Turkey operates with an unrestricted license to target their homeland.

Over these past three years as airstrikes have occurred, NATO has never issued a statement of opposition to this illegal and destructive form of action. NATO’s silence conveys a tacit approval for Turkey’s imperialistic aggression. This is unacceptable.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Instead of using his position and voice to censure Turkey’s behavior, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has either praised Turkey’s “contributions to NATO” or has defended Turkey from critique regarding its behavior.[12]

It is urgent now that NATO as an organization take responsibility for its fellow member. Both NATO and its individual member nations, especially the United States, France, Germany, and the UK need to publicly denounce this pattern of violence and firmly persuade Turkey to stop all hostilities against Sinjar.

This is all the more vital when considering the possible designs that Erdogan has for the region. Erdogan has made statements about Mosul and Kirkuk belonging to Turkey; such statements should not be taken lightly as we witness an unfolding process of Turkey actively annexing parts of Syria. (It should be mentioned that religious minority communities in parts of Syria taken over by Turkey have been driven out and their sacred places destroyed.)

Also noted in the al-Monitor article referred to above is the disconcerting but little-discussed phenomenon of the presence of Turkish ground forces inside Iraq—a situation viewed by many Kurds as a foreign occupation:

Ankara shows no signs of heeding Baghdad’s calls, chief among them to withdraw several hundred Turkish special forces who have been based in Bashiqa [another Yazidi area] near Mosul since December 2015.
Its military and intelligence presence in Iraqi Kurdistan — despite occasional tut-tutting from KRG leaders — continues to grow. It’s believed to have around 20 bases of varying sizes in the region and since last year Turkish ground troops have been deploying in Kharkurk, where the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders converge.

It is also reported that Turkey has recently been amassing troops near Silopi on the northern border with Iraq.

(As an aside, Erdogan’s “Ottoman-revivalism” is well known and it is not lost on the Yazidis that some of the caves housing YBŞ personnel being targeted by Turkish airstrikes are the same caves inside which Yazidis hid during Ottoman-era pogroms in which Turkish troops were sent to force-convert and enslave them.)

The issue is therefore more serious than airstrikes on Sinjar. Erdogan has threatened, on multiple occasions, to invade Sinjar with ground troops.[13] Though it would perhaps be speculative to attempt to articulate Turkey’s objectives for Sinjar at present, the previous threats to invade it must not be forgotten when the timing of these most recent airstrikes coincides with a moment when thousands of Yazidis aspire to return to their homeland. In an article posted yesterday, Nishtiman Awsman pointed out that Turkey’s awareness of international attention on Sinjar because of the Yazidi Genocide may prompt it to opt for a strategy of keeping Sinjar as empty as possible for the time being, allowing it to defer a full-scale invasion to some point in the future.

It is vital that Turkey’s more responsible partners guarantee that such an invasion never takes place.

The Solution

Iraq can take practical steps to eliminate the problem of Turkish attacks on Sinjar by absorbing the YBŞ into an official Iraqi security force and thus eliminate Turkey’s pretext for assaults on the Sinjar District.

Eliminating Turkey’s pretext for attacking Sinjar comes back to the same demands that the Yazidis have been making of the international community (largely in vain) since the Genocide began: To hold Baghdad accountable to fulfill the responsibility—which it has especially neglected since the liberation of Sinjar from IS in 2017—to resolve the lack of administration in Sinjar by appointing a fully-empowered District Head who can legally and effectively manage security, infrastructure, and the facilitation of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. This process should be performed so as to upgrade the highly-populated Sinjar District to a governorate that can interface directly with Baghdad in the administration of Sinjar. Sinjar as a district under the governorate of Mosul has been an abject and utter failure that has not only produced serious security flaws leaving Yazidis vulnerable to future campaigns of genocide, but also results in the unacceptable neglect of reconstruction and recovery.

This process should involve the conversion of all political party-affiliated militias in Sinjar to an official Iraqi security force. The era of political parties with weapons in disputed territories MUST come to an end.


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[1] UN Charter, Art. 51

[2] ICRC, Customary IHL Database, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule145. Date accessed, 6/15/2020.

[3] The Caroline, 2 Moore, Digest of International Law 412 (1906).

[4] ICRC, Customary IHL Database,  https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule145. Date accessed, 6/15/2020.

[5] ICRC, Customary IHL Database, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/print/v1_rul_rule14, Date accessed 6/15/2020

[6] ICC Statute, Article 8(2)(b)(iv) (ibid., § 5); see also UNTAET Regulation 2000/15, Section 6(1)(b)(iv) (ibid., § 13).

[7] Sa’ad Salloum, “Turkey bombs Yazidi militia in Iraq affiliated with PKK,” al-Monitor, Jan. 24, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/01/iraq-sinjar-kurdistan-yazidis-turkey.html

[8] The Washington Post, “In Turkey, a late crackdown on Islamist fighters,” Aug. 12, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/how-turkey-became-the-shopping-mall-for-the-islamic-state/2014/08/12/5eff70bf-a38a-4334-9aa9-ae3fc1714c4b_story.html

[9] “Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), produced a statement from the Adana Office of the Prosecutor on October 14, 2014 maintaining that Turkey supplied weapons to terror groups. He also produced interview transcripts from truck drivers who delivered weapons to the groups.” See Dr. David L. Phillips, “ISIS-Turkey Links,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/research-paper-isis-turke_b_6128950?guccounter=1

[10] Fehim Taştekim, “Sınırsız sınır,” Radikal, Sept. 13, 2014, http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/fehim-tastekin/sinirsiz-sinir-1212462/

[11] Aaron Klein, “Turkey accused of training ISIS soldiers,” WND, Oct. 10, 2014, https://www.wnd.com/2014/10/turkey-accused-of-training-isis-soldiers/#RwKhlwojsKO50o08.99

[12] For example, see this article, this article, and this article.

[13] Rudaw, “Turkey’s next border-clearing operations may include Shingal,” May 4, 2017, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/05042017

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