(Beirut) - A Turkish military attack on an Iranian armed group in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in late June 2020 failed to take adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today.
The apparent airstrike, on June 25, killed a member of the Iranian Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is linked to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and wounded three others. The attack also wounded at least six civilians and damaged the popular Kuna Masi water resort, at a confluence of freshwater wells and springs in Sharbazar district.
“The Turkish military strike on opposition fighters in a resort area seriously injured several civilians and could have harmed many more,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While the fighters were wrong to put the civilians at risk, Turkey also needs to take all practical precautions to limit harm to civilians.”
Turkish forces have conducted military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK and PJAK for decades. On June 15, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced Operations Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger “against terrorists in northern Iraq.” On June 25 the Defense Ministry reported that it had carried out attacks on at least 81 locations in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and by July 14 said it had killed 62 “terrorists.” Some Iranian army shelling of PJAK forces also took place over the same period.
Salar Mohammed Salih, 45, a resident of the village of Kuna Masi, said that on June 25 he was inside his cousin Kywan Kawa Salih’s convenience store, just a few meters from the water resort. At about 5:15 p.m., his cousin’s wife, Payman Thalib Thaher, 30, and 2 children, 6 and 7, were in the shop when a white pickup truck parked about 20 meters from the shop entrance. Four men in civilian clothes got out of the pickup and one entered the shop while the rest stayed near the car.
“He bought eggs and asked Kywan to pack them in a plastic bag, saying ‘I have a long journey,’” Salih said. He said he could tell from the man’s accent and use of honorifics that he was from Iran, and that the only Iranians in the area were PJAK fighters. Salih said that he understood that PJAK had a hideout about 40 kilometers northwest of Kuna Masi, but that it was the first time he had seen PJAK members in the village.
Salih said he left the shop while the man was still inside. A few minutes later, at 5:32 p.m., he saw a munition hit the pickup and a second one hit the shop at the same time. A local media outlet reported that it was a drone strike, that landed between the car and the shop.
A local district administrator, Shaho Osman, said the attack killed one PJAK fighter and wounded six civilians. At the time of the attack, Salih estimates, about 40 civilians had been at the water resort. Video footage shows at least one fragment landing in the pool right next to people.
Although no remnants of the munitions used are apparent in the visual evidence available, the size of the impact crater and the amount of fresh blast and fragmentation damage in a video reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that air-dropped munitions were used. The front lines of Iranian forces were over 30 kilometers east, inside Iran, and there were no Turkish ground forces in the vicinity.
A few days after the attack, the Turkish Consul General in Erbil reportedly told reporters that Turkey would continue targeting the PKK and its 'wings', without mentioning PJAK specifically.
The Turkish military appears not to have taken adequate precautions in this attack to minimize civilian harm, nor to have established whether predictable civilian harm would outweigh the concrete and direct military advantage it anticipated from the attack, making the attack unlawfully disproportionate. The PJAK fighters also endangered civilians by their presence in the populated area.
The attack came 6 days after another Turkish airstrike had killed 3 civilians. A local resident, Mahdi Rekani, 55, said that on June 19, his son Azad Mahdi, 26, and 2 friends, Mukhlis Adam and Deman Omar, 28, all construction workers, were heading to Shaji, a village in Sheladiz subdistrict, for a picnic. Rekani, who had been speaking to his son on the phone, said that between 10:00 and 11:30 a.m., Mahdi parked his car on a small road outside a village near Sida village. As they were walking from the car, an airstrike killed all three.
Adam’s brother told the local media that he sped to the site, where he also saw the bodies of two PKK fighters nearby, and that other PKK members quickly removed them from the area. Rekani did not know whether his son and friends had interacted with the PKK but said that the PKK has a presence in the mountains there and their fighters regularly come down to the main road to stop and question civilians who pass through the area.
Dindar Zebari, the coordinator for international advocacy for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said in a July 6 message to Human Rights Watch that the KRG had confirmed the death of these three civilians, as well as three PKK members in an airstrike. He added that the KRG had documented heavy bombardment, including airstrikes and artillery shelling, during a Turkish military advance from June 16 to 26. He said that Turkish attacks during that period killed at least five civilians and wounded dozens more and destroyed property and civilian infrastructure.
In a June 26 statement, the Turkish Defense Ministry denied that there had been any civilian casualties since the beginning of the new assault.
The laws of war require the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize civilian harm and damage to civilian objects. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects and giving “effective advance warning” to civilians when circumstances permit. The laws of war prohibit deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks on civilians.
Turkey should conduct impartial, thorough, and transparent investigations to establish whether the attacks were lawful. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any Turkish army investigations of previous possible laws-of-war violations. The Turkish authorities should compensate victims of any unlawful attacks. Iraqi authorities should also press for Turkish investigations and compensation in the case of unlawful attacks.
“The Turkish forces showed incredible misjudgement by attacking a small group of fighters in the midst of a popular water resort,” Wille said. “The laws of war prohibit attacks in which the known danger to civilians exceeds the expected military gain.”