By: Dale Gavlak & Margaret Besheer
Humanitarian concerns are growing as Turkey’s military incursion into northeastern Syria widens and desperate civilians flee on tractors, trucks and motorcycles, becoming the region’s newest refugees. International and local aid agencies fear that hundreds of thousands of people could be at risk, as Turkey launches airstrikes and pursues a ground offensive to clear once-U.S.-backed Kurdish forces from the border area.
Chaotic scenes are being repeated of frightened Kurdish, Syriac Christian and Yazidi civilians escaping on foot, carrying plastic bags with their worldly goods, while others are herded onto trucks or motorcycles, enveloped in plumes of dust from the latest Turkish bombardment of their land. Roads are gridlocked with hundreds of fleeing families saying they don’t know where to go for safety.
The International Rescue Committee says that “as the Turkish offensive in Syria begins, the IRC is deeply concerned about the lives and livelihoods of the two million civilians in northeast Syria who have already survived ISIS brutality and multiple displacements,” in a statement issued Thursday, using an alternate reference for Islamic State.
Catholic priest Father Emanuel Youkhana, who runs the Christian Aid Program northern Iraq to help displaced Iraqis resulting from Islamic State attacks, told VOA from the Dohuk region that he expects a “wave of refugees” from nearby northeastern Syria to flood into Iraq.
“The most stable, peaceful region of all Syria for years has been this area of northeast area. Unfortunately, and painfully to say, we are expecting the worst,” said Youkhana. “Definitely, the borders will be opened from the Iraqi side to innocent civilians. We do expect mass waves of refugees. ”
Youkhana and other humanitarian responders say they are suspicious and critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a so-called safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, where he plans to displace Kurds, Christians and Yazidis and move in two million Sunni Muslims from other parts of Syria.
“Erdogan this time is targeting all the people, except the terrorists,” said Youkhana. “Actually, it is a demographic change policy.”
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil says it does not have the capacity to accommodate all the people who are expected to be displaced as a result of the Turkish offensive.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that had been backed by the U.S. until this week, has called on the international community for assistance, saying the border areas of northeastern Syria “are on the edge of a possible humanitarian catastrophe.”
The U.N. Security Council met Thursday to discuss the military operation in northeastern Syria that Turkey says is a “measured and responsible” anti-terror operation, while the mainly Kurdish fighters in the region appealed for help to “save our people from genocide.”
Council diplomats were united in their concern that the Turkish incursion could exacerbate an already difficult humanitarian situation, and some members called directly on Turkey to end its operation.
“We call upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action as we do not believe it will address Turkey’s underlying security concerns,” Germany’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Jürgen Schulz said on behalf of the Security Council’s five European members plus Estonia, which will join the council in January 2020.
“Renewed armed hostilities in the northeast will further undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements, which will further increase the number of refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Syria and in the region,” he told reporters while flanked by his colleagues.
Turkey launched its long-planned operation on Wednesday with airstrikes and followed up with ground troops. Its defense ministry said in a statement Thursday the operation continues successfully.
In a letter to the United Nations, Turkey said its response would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.”
Ankara is targeting Kurdish fighters it views as terrorists, but which most of the West consider to be key partners in the fight against militants from the so-called Islamic State terror group. The military operation began days after an unexpected and widely criticized White House announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from the region.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, told reporters after the one-hour closed-door council meeting that Turkey bears full responsibility for protecting civilians and ensuring that no humanitarian crisis takes place.
“In addition, Turkey is now responsible for ensuring that all ISIS fighters in detention, in prison, remain in prison, and that ISIS does not reconstitute itself in any way, shape, or form,” she said, echoing tweets and statement from President Trump and using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group. “Failure to play by the rules, to protect vulnerable populations, failure to guarantee that ISIS cannot exploit these actions to reconstitute, will have consequences.”
Kurdish forces in the area run detention centers with thousands of captured IS foreign fighters.
While saying “all sides should exercise maximum restraint” during the operation, Russia’s U.N. envoy appeared to signal that Moscow would block the possibility of a unified statement from the 15-member council.
“If there is a product of the Security Council, it should take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis, not just the Turkish operation,” Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters. “It should speak about the illegal military presence in that country — and they need to terminate it immediately — and there are many other issues that are in the Syrian file that should be mentioned if there is any product from the Security Council.”
Russia objects to the presence of the U.S.-led coalition against IS in parts of Syria. (VOA)