The Kurdish Red Crescent reported on February 27 that at least 348 civilians had died in the conflict begun by Turkey’s January 20 invasion of northern Syria’s small enclave of Afrin.
Turkey has acknowledged that many were killed as a result of the war, but it has denounced allegations it intentionally targeted civilians. It has even insinuated that civilian casualties were Kurdish resistance fighters in civilian dress.
Whether or not Turkey is being sincere, their claims reflect a widely accepted view that it is morally worse to intentionally kill civilians than to kill them either incidentally or accidentally.
But when that moral intuition is written into international law, it can leave civilians exposed rather than protected.
There are problems related to monitoring war and civilian losses. First, international law permits states to kill civilians — so long as those killings are proportionate to the expected military gains. Intentionally killing even just one civilian is a war crime, yet an air strike that “accidentally” kills a much larger number of civilians can be “tolerated” if the military decides their deaths are proportionate.
That gives a lot of power in the hands of military decision-makers. If they determine a target is important enough, they can justify a tremendous amount of civilian death and suffering. The target can be a house, school, dam, village or a whole town.
Secondly, international law permits “plausible deniability” of civilian killings. With little or no control over military operations of “sovereign countries”, it is all but impossible to monitor attacks to determine whether the military intentionally aims at civilians or not. As a result, claiming their deaths as an accident is as simple as falling off a log.
Banning “intended” and “disproportionate” killing actually creates legal loopholes that states can use to justify tactics that can, in effect, result in widespread civilian suffering.
When the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were created in the mid-1970s, many Western states, including the US and Canada, used the language of intentions and proportionality to design laws of war that give combatants significant decision-making discretion.
Concerning Turkey, human rights reports often use phrasing that avoids directly accusing sovereign states of war crimes. On February 23, for instance, Human Rights Watch published a report, Civilian deaths in Turkish attacks may be unlawful.
Even so, Turkey’s Afrin offensive, despite these legal loopholes in the international protocols, has a growing body of evidence of war crimes and civilian killings.
What have been the consequences of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “war on terror”?
Villages are in ruins; the daily life of civilians has turned into debris. Men, women and children have been killed or severely wounded. The survivors are exposed to violence, humiliation, sexual harassment or extrajudicial killings due to their ethnicity or religion.
On top of this, civilian homes have been seized by Turkish-backed jihadists, farms have been destroyed, cattle killed, water and electricity cut-off.
This is just a glimpse of what Erdogan claims is a war that will bring peace to Afrin’s people.
Dull and ineffective international rules, dirty arms deals, the immoral refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union, the political agendas of the EU, US and Russia strengthen all Erdogan’s hand. Never mind his assault is against the same people who sacrificed their lives fighting against the “common evil” ISIS.
The Turkish army is not just killing civilians in Afrin. In “legal terms”, it is killing civilians “disproportionately”.
[Abridged from The Region.]