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Turkish-backed militias killing civilians in Syria, US spies report

A U.S. Soldier provides security during a coordinated, independent patrol along the demarcation line near a village outside Manbij, Syria, June 26, 2018. The U.S. recently started conducting these patrols with Turkish Military Forces, patrolling on opposite sides of the demarcation line. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster)
October 30, 2019

One week after the Turkish government announced the end of its military operation in northern Syria, unnamed U.S intelligence officials have raised concerns Turkish-backed militias are still fighting in the area and civilians are being killed.

Four unnamed U.S, military and intelligence officials have told Time magazine U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring areas once occupied by U.S. forces and they believe Turkish militias are still attacking. Further, those militias may have been armed by the Ankara government with weapons supplied by the U.S. to Turkey.

The intelligence officials base their concerns on Turkey’s deployment of more troops and weapons than would be necessary to maintain an established safe-zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The intended safe-zone is to be a roughly 20-mile wide stripe, across nearly 300 miles of the border.

“They’re far more than the Turks need to conduct the operations they’re supposed to be conducting,” one U.S. official said of the Turkish military buildup.

Fighting between Turkish and Syrian forces reportedly continued within the Turkish safe zone on Monday. Kurdish forces reportedly built fortified positions inside the safe zone despite the safe-zone’s intended purpose to keep Kurdish forces out.

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The U.S. officials said the fortifications may be a preparation for a Turkish attack if the ceasefire collapses. They warned such a collapse of the ceasefire agreement could result in wide-scale war crimes. They also warned that chaos in the potential ensuing conflict might allow captured ISIS fighters to escape and once again take up arms in the region.

Despite President Donald Trump’s announcement of a permanent Turkish ceasefire and his claims of Kurdish support for the peace terms, Gen. Mazloum Abdi — a Kurdish leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces — soon raised warnings of continued Turkish-backed attacks, contradicting the claimed end of their military operation.

U.S. intelligence officials continue to monitor Syria through drone reconnaissance and intelligence networks established throughout the U.S. deployment in the region.

Those officials speaking to Time said information on the potential Turkish offensive came through a combination of human and technical information gathering. Suggestions that U.S. arms to attack civilians remain inconclusive.

A prior report by Amnesty International, compiled around the time of the original Turkish military offensive, concluded 200 civilians were killed by Turkish forces and allies during their offensive.

The Amnesty International report notes Turkey has also claimed 18 Turkish civilians were killed and 150 have been injured in cross-border mortar fire they attribute to Kurdish forces.

During a House of Representatives hearing, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy to Syria told lawmakers the U.S. officials have questioned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about potential war crimes.

“We have several incidents we consider war crimes,” Jeffrey said.

Four U.S. senators have also issued a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seeking information about the alleged Turkish use of white phosphorous and chemical weapons during their offensive. The four senators — Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn — noted active investigations by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization is reportedly collecting evidence of a chemical weapon attack by Turkey.