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US drones could have footage of Turkish war crimes in Syria: report

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters gather with their vehicles at a position near the northern Syrian town of Manbij on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. (Photo by Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
November 12, 2019

United States Drone surveillance videos may have captured two of four potential instances of war crimes by Turkish-backed forces that attacked civilian positions along the Turkish-Syrian border in October.

The drone surveillance videos, disclosed to the Wall Street Journal by U.S. intelligence officials, may add further controversy to a Turkish military offensive in October as well as President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria ahead of the Turkish offensive. The Videos are reportedly a part of a State Department briefing of potential Turkish war crimes.

U.S. drones were reportedly deployed on one occasion to monitor a highway in northern Syria where a Kurdish political figure, Hevrin Khalaf, was killed by a Syrian gunman believed to be backed by Turkey. During that surveillance effort, drones reportedly captured footage of an apparent shooting victim lying on the highway before being placed in a truck by Turkish-backed forces. Some officials believe the man had been shot, while others saw signs of movement by the supposed victim that complicated their view of what exactly happened.

Another U.S. official said they had uncovered a “clear cut” instance where prisoners who had their hands tied were shot by Turkish-backed forces.

Trump administration officials are expected to raise concerns about the potential war crimes during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the White House on Wednesday.

Throughout October, Turkish-backed militias were accused of attacking civilians in areas controlled by Kurdish forces. Turkey also faced allegations of using white phosphorus incendiary weapons and chemical weapons in its efforts to drive off Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Those war crimes allegations continued in spite of a U.S.-backed ceasefire agreement between the Turkish and Kurdish forces and later assurances by Turkey that it would conclude its military operations for a permanent ceasefire.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Erdogan has promised the Turkish army will investigate the war crimes allegations involving Turkey and its affiliated forces in Syria.

“Those who commit such atrocities are no different than the members of Islamic State,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on Oct. 18.

Some U.S. officials reportedly doubt the sincerity of Erdogan’s assurances. One Turkish official said he wasn’t aware that any formal war crimes probe had been launched, when the Wall Street Journal asked for comment.

“We expect them to investigate it, we expect them to hold these people to account and we will continue to push that with them,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said of the Turkish war crimes probe.

Turkish officials have acknowledged the U.S. concerns about war crimes but seemed unaware of the new drone footage that may substantiate those war crimes allegations.

Some U.S. officials see the drone footage as a key piece of evidence of Turkish war crimes, while other officials still reportedly believe the footage is inconclusive. Those who passed the drone footage up to the Pentagon, as is required of evidence involving war crimes allegations, reportedly encountered skepticism from those higher up officials.

William Roebuck, the State Department’s top diplomat in Syria, reportedly criticized the U.S. skepticism of Turkish war crimes in an internal memo provided to the Wall Street Journal.

“One day when the diplomatic history is written, people will wonder what happened here and why officials didn’t do more to stop it,” Roebuck said. “The U.S. government should be much more forceful in calling Turkey out for its behavior