(New York) – A Turkish attack on US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in northern Syria on August 28, 2016, killed 24 civilians, including 6 children. Between 10 and 15 fighters deployed among the civilians were also killed.
Available information suggests that both sides could have done more to minimize civilian loss of life, as required by the laws of war. Two local residents told Human Rights Watch that before sunrise on August 28, Turkish aircraft struck SDF forces who had just disembarked from military vehicles among residential buildings in which about four dozen civilians had sought shelter from nearby fighting. Artillery shelling soon after resulted in additional casualties.
“The deaths of 24 civilians could have been avoided if the SDF fighters hadn’t positioned themselves among buildings filled with civilians and Turkish forces had made a better effort to determine whether civilians were there,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s unlawful to put civilians at unnecessary risk, and even an attack on a military target can be unlawful if the likely harm to civilians isn’t taken into account.”
Four days earlier, on August 24, Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army opened military operations in northern Syria against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Kurdish forces from the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main fighting force within the SDF, an alliance that also includes Arab and other forces. The United States and other Western countries have actively supported and armed the SDF in the fight against ISIS.
The Turkish-Free Syrian Army alliance captured Jarablus, a town near the Turkish border previously held by ISIS, and then moved south of the town where they clashed with the SDF.
The two local residents said that on the evening of August 27, SDF troops asked them to evacuate their house near the village of Suraysat, about 12 kilometers south of Jarablus, because of nearby fighting. The troops told them that they would be safe in their cousin’s house, a kilometer away.
A few days earlier, the troops had wanted to take over their cousin’s two houses, which sit on a hill, the residents said, but had eventually allowed the civilians to stay and moved to other houses further north. Eventually about 50 to 55 civilians moved into the houses on the hill.
At about 4 a.m. on August 28, the SDF troops returned to the cousin’s houses, parked vehicles, including some with heavy machine guns mounted on the back, near the houses, and positioned fighters on the roof of the buildings, the two residents said. One person asked the fighters to leave, they said, but the fighters refused.
Less than 30 minutes after the fighters arrived, the Turkish aircraft struck the houses.
“It was as if we were inside a dormant volcano that suddenly erupted,” one of the residents said. “I woke up in shock. The smell of explosives, the smell of the death – it was everywhere. My brother was seriously injured. His son was sitting in his lap so I pulled him away so that he couldn’t see what had happened. It was an awful sight. I then tried to pull my brother away, but another bomb fell and threw me away.”
The two residents said that they counted seven bomb impacts, after which there was intensive artillery fire, which killed and injured people who came to assist the wounded. They did not know which forces had fired the artillery.
The two residents provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 13 relatives who died during the attack. Mohammad Othman, a relative who was not there, published on his Facebook page the names of 24 people killed in the attack, including 6 children and 6 women.
One resident provided Human Rights Watch with a photograph that he had taken showing a destroyed SDF pickup truck with reinforced cardboard packaging tubes commonly used for ground-fired ammunition.
Satellite imagery from August 30 shows that the two buildings were almost completely destroyed sometime between August 27 and 30. A third building a kilometer away was also damaged. At least four impact craters are visible in the surrounding fields.
Photographs of remnants of the weapon used indicate that Paveway-series laser-guided bombs were used in the airstrikes.
On August 28, as reported by the state-run Anadolu news agency, the Turkish Armed Forces said that they had carried out airstrikes against armed groups that had attacked Turkish forces in Jarablus. Anadolu said that the armed forces had reported that the attack had neutralized 25 “terrorists” and destroyed five buildings they were using.
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Syria, warring parties must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effects of attacks. They must seek to remove civilians from the vicinity of their military forces. The Syrian Democratic Forces should not have positioned their forces in the compound without having first relocated the civilians to another area, Human Rights Watch said.
Attacking forces must take all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life. This includes taking necessary steps to assess whether an attack may be expected to cause civilian loss that would be disproportionate compared to the anticipated military advantage of the attack, and suspend such attacks.
The office of the Turkish prime minister, in a statement on August 28, said that the “Turkish Armed Forces has taken all necessary measures to prevent any harm to the civilian population,” referring to, among others, the military operations south of Jarablus. However, because the attack took place in darkness and soon after the arrival of the SDF at the residential compound, it is not clear that the Turkish military took adequate steps to determine the extent to which civilians might be at risk in the attack, Human Rights Watch said.
“With another party joining the conflict in Syria, if the armed forces continue to pay inadequate attention to civilian protection, many more civilians are going to be casualties,” Solvang said.