An international conference took place last week in the European Parliament on the deteriorating humanitarian and military situation in North-East Syria following the Turkish invasion in beginning of October.
The conference ended with a strongly worded condemnation of the invasion and a call to the EU and the international community to recognise the Autonomous Administration in the region (Rojava) and include it in the UN-led Constitutional Committee tasked to draft a new constitution for Syria.
The Foreign Affairs Council condemned already on 14 October Turkey’s military action in north-east Syria and urged Turkey to withdraw its forces, a call that has been ignored by Turkey.
At last week’s European Council meeting, the Council reconfirmed its condemnation of “Turkey's illegal drilling activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Council also denounced the recent Turkey-Libya Memorandum of Understanding on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Following these developments, The Brussels Times asked at yesterday’s press briefing in Brussels (16 December) if EU has changed its position on the Autonomous Administration in north-east Syria. A new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has been appointed and entered the office on 1 December.
“On Syria, the EU position remains the same,” replied a spokesperson for the European External Action Service (EEAS), without addressing the status of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration.
As previously reported, since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the administration has established a functioning local self-government and its forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces, including both Kurds and Arabs, have successfully fought the Islamic State in partnership with US forces. In the war, thousands of Kurdish soldiers were killed.
According to a report by the Rojava information center, based on interviews with refugees and references to international sources, international aid agencies generally are unable to work with the Autonomous Administration since it lacks any form of recognition. Funding from UN bodies is channelled through NGOs registered with the Syrian government.
The solution to the political, economic and human crisis and tragedy in Syria needs to be solved on the political tract behind the negotiation table, according to the EEAS spokesperson.
“It needs to be a process led by the Syrians. Negotiations and reconciliation between the different Syrian stakeholders and actors are therefore of the utmost importance. That’s is why EU is supporting this process and also the efforts of the UN Special Representative for Syria, Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen.”
Neighbouring Sweden has appointed an ambassador, Per Örnéus, as Special Envoy for Syria. Asked by The Brussels Times to comment on the recommendation on recognition of the Autonomous Administration, he replied that it was partly a semantic question.
“Any recognition in the national sense of the word is of course not on the agenda. The territorial integrity of Syria is fundamental. In this, EU and many, if not all Member States, are united. That said, the Autonomous Administration deserves respect and should be included in the talks,” he said.
The Autonomous Administration claims that it continues to be excluded from international negotiations and faces challenges in coordinating with the international humanitarian community because of the issue of recognition. “We have never divided Syria. We want a federal, decentralised system and build a new Syria for all Syrians with equal rights for all," it says.
Until the Turkish invasion, the Syrian Democratic Forces controlled a vast area in north-east Syria, with a population of about 5 million, out of which 1,7 million are in need of humanitarian aid. This included 310,000 refugees and internally displaced persons from other parts of Syria and from Iraq.
The invasion has reportedly displaced 200,000 or more people, besides those previously displaced from Kurdish held enclave Afrin when it was occupied by Turkish or Turkish-led proxy forces in 2018. A breakdown of security in Kurdish-held prisons for jihadist fighters and their families has led to escapes which could endanger Europe.
Kariane Westrheim, professor at the University of Bergen, Norway, and Chair of EU-Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), moderated one of the panels at the conference in Brussels. The EUTCC was established in 2004 to contribute to Turkey’s membership by monitoring its compliance with the accession criteria.
Some of the panellists in the conference described the Turkish invasion as aiming at ethnic cleansing and even genocide. We asked her if this is an accurate description.
“The Turkish president made no secret of his plan of ethnic cleansing,” she replied together with Dr. Kardo Bokani, member of the Kurdistan National Congress, Belgium. “His invasion has driven or displaced more than 300,000 local inhabitants. Erdogan has announced the settlement of up to 3 million Arab refugees in the area including the families of jihadi militias.”
“This is ethnic cleansing. His intention to target the Kurdish population with a view to eliminating them amounts to genocide.”
According to Amnesty International and international media, Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and alleged war crimes, during the offensive into northeast Syria. Acts of brutality have been surfacing on mobile phone footage.
UN News reported in November that Turkish president Erdogan met UN Secretary-General Guterros and presented him with a plan for reportedly resettling up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. According to UN, the Turkish offensive has “severely impacted” an already dire humanitarian situation.
Other panellists, some of them women and representing the Syrian Democratic Council and local councils in north-east Syria, were at a loss understanding the absence of a strong reaction by the international community, including the EU, to the Turkish invasion. What is your explanation?
“The EU should not have allowed Turkey hold it hostage by the refugee card,” Westrheim and Bokani replied. “Turkey has housed up to 3 million Syrian refugees using them as a pressure card against Europe. A serious and reliable partner, as Turkey claims to be, would not have done this.”
“At the end of the day, it was Rojava that was abandoned by the EU, not Turkey. This shows the breakdown of what EU stands for, namely democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The EU have compromised all it once was and stood for. History will remember this betrayal.”
The conference was apparently supported by some political groups in the European Parliament, Greens/EFA, GUE/NGL and S&D, but would need broader support in the parliament in view of adopting a resolution on the conference's recommendations. How do you see this happen?
“Precisely the lack of a concrete stance by the EU made this conference necessary. Had EU functioned according to the very principles it stands for, there was no need for outside pressure to remind it of taking action. Support of other parliamentarian groups would certainly have put more weight behind the resolution, yet the support of two blocks in the parliament is enough for our resolution to be followed up.”
The Brussels Times