Self-Defense or Violation of International Law?

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria is coming under growing censure throughout Europe. It will be high on the list of foreign policy challenges facing the German government which has just come into being. Under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a new version of the grand coalition made up of her CDU and sister party CSU, together with the Social Democrats (SPD), was officially constituted in mid March.

Turkey launched its military offensive aimed at Afrin on January 20, and justified its massive deployment of military strength as “self-defense.” But is the claim substantiated? If it were, Turkey would have the right to respond militarily, according to international law, as long as it did so in a “proportionate and measured manner,” as NATO secretary general Stoltenberg put it. The reports of civilian casualties speak of hundreds of innocents, mainly women and children; and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that over 3,000 Kurds, whom he defined “terrorists,” have been “neutralized.” Massive destruction of infrastructure has resulted from the bombardments. This does not look proportionate or measured.

In fact, not only is the claim to self-defense dubious; it is becoming evident that the Turkish action, cynically named “Operation Olive Branch,” constitutes a violation of international law.

Bundestag Experts Raise Doubts

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On March 7 the Wissenschaftliche Dienste (Scientific Service) of the German Bundestag (Parliament) issued a report on the matter, in response to the request of Alexander Neu, a parliamentarian from the leftist opposition party, Die Linke.  The Scientific Service is an official group of researchers and experts who provide material in support of the work of the parliamentarians, but it does not represent its political positions or those of the government.

The body examined the issue in great detail and published its findings online on March 7. The report was entitled, “Evaluation according to International Law of the ‘Operation Olive Branch’ of Turkey against the Kurdish YPG in Northern Syria” (WD2 – 3000 – 023/18, Völkerrechtliche Bewertung der “Operation Olivenzweig” der Türkei gegen die kurdische YPG in Nordsyrien, 7 März 2018, S. 1-18). The group first asked if Turkey had the right to act militarily “in self-defense.” According to Article 51 of the UN Charta a state is authorized to respond to an “armed attack,” but not every act of violence can be thus defined. Turkey argued in its declaration to the UN Security Council that it was responding to an escalation of rocket attacks from Kurdish forces near Afrin targeting Kilis and Hatay, but is it true? There were no reports of such in the international press. And if there were, would this constitute an “armed attack”? The report says the burden of proof is on the accuser, in this case Turkey, and says it may have presented a “substantiated explanation,” but has not established the absolute certainty of the accusation or “convincing proof” that the threat merits military self-defense. An accurate evaluation would rely on “objective facts” and not only the “subjective perception of threat;” perhaps the International Court at the Hague could determine this.

The experts’ report questions the proportionality of Turkey’s response, stating that there are objective criteria to ascertain this and adding that self-defense cannot justify acts of vengeance. Concrete doubts regarding the proportionality of its response have arisen as a result of the “scale, aims and duration of the military course of action in northern Syria.”

What Strategic Aims?

Turkey has not in fact used the words “armed attack” to identify the perceived threat, but it has presented a list of its own military aims, which is extremely revealing. This was issued by the prime minister’s office on January 21 and is quoted at length in the experts’ report, in English, on page 16. The aims are:

•“To ensure the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) takes control of a 10.000-square kilometer area

•Following on from the Euphrates Shield Operation and the operation in Idlib, to completely prevent the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from reaching the Eastern Mediterranean.

•To eliminate the possibility of losing Turkey’s geographical contact with the Arab world.

•To ensure the security of Turkey’s borders with Syria.

•To prevent the infiltration of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK into Turkey through the Amanos mountains.

•To prevent a terrorist organization from opening to the Mediterranean and to the world from here.

•To ensure the security and continuation of the Euphrates Shield Operation area.

•To counter US support for a terrorist organization.”

Such a detailed list of strategic goals is most useful. What indeed is really behind the operation? The experts sum it up thus: “The geostrategic interest of Turkey apparently aims to contain the Kurdish sphere of influence in Syria, and to prevent the emergence of a de facto Kurdish regime and simultaneously to use the opportunity offered by a collapse of Syria and the “Islamic State” to expand its own sphere of influence. From Turkey’s viewpoint the takeover or siege of the Syrian city Afrin appears to be a geostrategically necessary step for reaching these aims.”

In a footnote, one reads that in fact Erdogan already on February 20 announced that the siege of Afrin was imminent.

The experts argue that the “concept of self-defense appears in principle incompatible with a military action that pursues aims that could lead to achieving a permanent change of structures and zones of influence on the territory of a foreign state.” And that is what one gathers must be the aim of Turkey’s offensive.

The report shows that Turkey has presented no convincing proof that it has been subject to an “armed attack,” or that the threat it sees coming from non-state armed groups warrants actions of self-defense. Turkey’s geostrategic aims, furthermore, go way beyond the scope of self-defense. In conclusion, the experts declare that Turkey’s case rests “on a shaky foundation.” They recommend that NATO partners should call on Turkey to prove its case, and to desist from further pursuance of its military operation.

The appearance of this report has contributed to defining the agenda for the new government, regarding how to proceed with Turkey. Politicians in Ankara continue to lobby for a restoration of friendly ties, but with expanding coverage of civilian casualties, protest demonstrations are growing in numbers and intensity in Germany and elsewhere. Demonstrators have been denouncing Germany’s continued delivery of military equipment to Turkey; opposition politicians have raised a hue and cry about continued economic support for trade relations. Criticism is getting louder, but no serious political steps have been taken by governments in Europe. How long will the NATO “partners” continue to look the other way?

(The author expresses her thanks to the Wissenschaftliche Dienste for the kind permission to quote from the report. Apart from the list of strategic aims, which appears in English on page 16 of the report, and the phrase by Stoltenberg, other quotes have been translated from the original German by the author.)

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