Omar calls on US to investigate Turkey over possible war crimes in Syria

Omar calls on US to investigate Turkey over possible war crimes in Syria
© Greg Nash

Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHouse approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act House Democrats' ambitious agenda set to run into Senate blockade Omar introduces bill to sanction Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi killing MORE (D-Minn.) on Wednesday called for the State Department to investigate Turkey, citing allegations that the country's military forces used chemical weapons on civilians, a possible war crime that occurred during Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria in October.

In a letter to U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey, the freshman congresswoman said it was urgent that the U.S. determine whether a NATO ally intentionally targeted Kurdish civilians with white phosphorous, an incendiary chemical allowed in conventional warfare but banned against use for targeting individuals.

The chemical can be attached to munitions and can be used to create plumes of smoke as cover, with temperatures reaching up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

After Turkish aerial attack on the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ayn on Oct. 16, video and photos emerged of children with severe and gruesome burns to their bodies and face, with journalists, medical staff and chemical weapons experts raising the alarm about the potential use of chemical weapons.

In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee following the attack, Jeffery said the U.S. was “looking into” whether Turkish forces used white phosphorous and whether it constituted a war crime.

However, Omar and others on the committee were dissatisfied with the special envoy's actions and testimony, demanding more serious action.

“Considering the seriousness of these allegations, simply ‘looking into’ this matter is far from the appropriate response,” Omar, joined by Reps. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassHouse approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act House sets vote for George Floyd police reform bill Lobbying world MORE (D-Calif.), Juan VargasJuan C. VargasHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president MORE (D-Calif.) and Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip Obama says reparations 'justified' MORE (D-Texas), members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in the letter. “Nothing short of a full and thorough investigation will suffice.”

Omar, herself a refugee of war, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee members said the U.S. has an obligation to hold Turkey accountable.

“The United States is uniquely positioned, as a NATO ally of Turkey and a partner of the Syrian Kurds who are the alleged victims of this attack, to take the lead on a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the October 16th attack,” the members wrote.

They further chastised inaction by the international community, saying that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that said it was “monitoring the situation,” had refused to take skin samples from the victims.

It also noted that Turkey donated approximately $34,000 to the OPCW on the day after the attack.

“This is a matter of urgency,” the committee members wrote.

The group also raised concerns over whether American warplanes purchased by Turkey could have been used in the attack.

“If a NATO ally violates international law with impunity, it reflects on the rest of the countries in the alliance. It hands a propaganda win to Assad, Russia, and Iran, who can claim that we only punish chemical weapons use when it serves our political interests,” the members of Congress wrote.  

Omar has earlier spoken out about the danger of politicizing recognition of human rights abuses. She drew criticism in October for voting against a House resolution affirming the U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, which was widely seen as a rebuke of Turkey following its incursion into northeastern Syria.

“Accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight,” she said following her vote against the resolution. 

Turkey launched an offensive into northeastern Syria in early October following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region. The offensive was, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an effort to root out terrorists linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party and establish a “safe-zone” along its border.

The offensive was widely condemned by members of Congress as threatening Syrian Kurds allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, and international aid groups raised the alarm of ethnic cleansing by Turkish and proxy forces. Erdoğan has described the offensive as a holy war against the “unbelievers” when speaking in Turkish.