Home Investigative Reports “As If an Earthquake Had Struck”: Turkish Airstrikes Are Killing Life in Northeast Syria

“As If an Earthquake Had Struck”: Turkish Airstrikes Are Killing Life in Northeast Syria

The Turkish airstrikes in the region amount to attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law

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Fires at an oil facility in northeast Syria after a Turkish airstrike in October 2023. Source: STJ.  

Executive Summary

Over the last quarter of 2023 and January 2024, the Turkish Armed Forces launched three air campaigns into northeast Syria, targeting critical civilian infrastructure across the region. The region is known for the diversity of its population, as it is home to Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians, among other ethnic and religious communities.

The first campaign started on 5 October 2023 and lasted for five days. Türkiye launched nearly 90 airstrikes against over 150 critical sites, using drones and warplanes. The attacks rendered power transfer stations out of service, depriving people in the affected areas of electricity and water for weeks. The raids also hit energy facilities, including gas and oil fields. The airstrikes killed at least 48 people, including 11 civilians, and injured at least 47 others, including 15 civilians.

The airstrikes caused a rapid mass displacement from the target areas and their surroundings. People sought the suburbs, fearing for their lives. The airstrikes also acted as a catalyst for migration, prompting a significant portion of the region’s population to consider leaving Syria in search of safety. This decision was further fuelled by the deteriorating living conditions, which worsened even further after the raids. Several of the report’s sources said children in affected areas developed health conditions, including urinary incontinence, after the bombing.

In matching statements, several of the report’s sources, including eyewitnesses from targeted energy facilities, also stressed that the 2023 airstrikes were larger in scale and more destructive than those the region witnessed in 2022. The airstrikes decimated numerous facilities in a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.

On 25 December 2023, Türkiye launched its second extensive and large-scale air campaign in the region, again using drones and warplanes. On 26 December 2023, the Turkish Intelligence Service (MİT)—headed by İbrahim Kalın—announced the toll of the attacks, revealing that they destroyed nearly 50 facilities in various cities across the region, including Qamishli/Qamishlo, Amuda, and Ayn al-Arab/Kobanî. These airstrikes targeted several healthcare facilities, killed at least nine civilians, and injured at least 18 others.

During this campaign, which consistently targeted civilian infrastructure, the Turkish aircraft again attacked the Auda oil field, among other energy facilities, while the bulk of the strikes focused on structures, such as food factories, industrial sites, warehouses, and healthcare centers. Two medical centers sustained damage and had to halt their activities entirely. The airstrikes also targeted the outskirts of a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in al-Hasakah city, forcing several humanitarian organizations active at the camp to suspend their operations.

In January 2024, Türkiye launched its third intensive air campaign, which continued from the 12th to the 15th of the month. Warplanes and drones targeted at least 64 locations in different areas across the region. The aircraft bombed most of the region’s critical civilian infrastructure, including the Suwaydiyah gas and power plant and sites at the Auda oil field, all of which had suffered complete or partial destruction in the previous two campaigns. This time, the aircraft rendered the attacked facilities out of operation. The airstrikes injured six civilians, including two children.

Legal Opinion and Recommendations

International humanitarian law (IHL) does not provide a direct definition of “civilian infrastructure.” However, its provisions and rules, which are binding at all times and circumstances, enable all parties in a conflict to identify these structures. The most important of these provisions—which take on the character of customary rules in international law—are the distinction between civilian objects and military objectives; the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks; proportionality and precaution in attacks; and the prohibition of attacks against objects that are indispensable for the survival of the civilian population. The duty to constantly distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives when conducting military operations is considered a “cornerstone” of IHL because it reflects its main goal, which is to protect civilians and civilian objects. Without a doubt, all infrastructure-classified facilities are fundamentally civilian objects that require protection from direct attack. These objects are “the physical and organizational structures and facilities that support the daily life of a civilian population and are critical for a functioning society. Civilian infrastructure can include transportation networks; utilities; healthcare facilities; educational institutions; housing and residential areas; communication systems; [and] public services.”[1]

The practical basis for parties to the conflict to apply the principle of distinction is that any object is considered civilian, and attacking it is prohibited as long as it does not meet the two criteria that define a military objective: it has to effectively contribute, by virtue of its nature; location; purpose; or use, to the military action—that is, the object plays a significant and direct role in military operations, enhancing the military capabilities or objectives of one of the parties to the conflict—and its total or partial destruction; capture; or neutralization must offer a definite military advantage to the attacking party in the circumstances ruling at the time.[2] Each object must be assessed individually. The attacking party must not merely assume that an object, itself or others that resemble it, is contributing to the military action of an adversary and thus confer on themselves an immediate and inherent right to attack it. Perhaps the statement made by the representatives of the Turkish State embodies such an assumption. The statement does not classify the listed objects based on their compliance with the two criteria of a legitimate military target, but rather on the basis of mere “affiliation” to the adversary. If the attacking party is certain that the object it intends to attack “contributes effectively to the military action of the adversary,” it must demonstrate that the attack’s military advantage is “direct and specific,” meaning it must be substantial and relatively close; transpires within the period during which the object fulfills a military purpose; and not be a hardly perceptible or would only appear in the long term.[3] Claiming that any object is a legitimate target just because of its field or administrative affiliation with the adversary renders the principle of distinction void and violates IHL’s essence and purpose. This is because, by analogy, any party to the conflict can treat all objects located in the opponent’s territories of control as legitimate targets.

Under IHL, for an infrastructure facility to be considered a legitimate military target in such a way that it loses the protection granted to it as a civilian object, the attacking party must prove with certainty that: first, the facility in question is being used for military purposes; second, attacking it will achieve a direct and specific military advantage during that use. The lack of information confirming these two conditions casts doubt as to whether this object is dedicated for civilian purposes or is being used to make an effective contribution to military action. Therefore, the attacking party must assume that this object is not being used for such a contribution and refrain from attacking it.[4] Should there be verified information that certain civilian infrastructure possesses “dual-use” functionality, serving both civilian and military purposes, that attacking party remains obligated to comply with the principle of distinction, which entails the fulfilment of the interconnected elements of the definition of military objective, as well as the principles of proportionality and precaution.

In this context, if we assume the attacks on power plants and transfer stations, as well as the oil fields reported herein, were carried out considering that these infrastructures are of dual-use and in accordance with the principle of distinction, this in itself does not automatically establish the legitimacy of the attacks. The principle of proportionality necessitates that the attacking party carefully consider the potential long-term impact of such an attack on the provision of essential services to the civilian population. This includes, as the report demonstrates, healthcare, access to clean water, and other basic needs essential for the civilian population’s survival and well-being under the conditions in place at the time of the attack. The existing contextual conditions in areas affected by the attacks confirm that the harm that will be caused to civilians is excessive compared to the direct and substantial military advantage of each attack,[5] especially in light of the water crisis; the complexities of humanitarian access; economic distress; and limited healthcare services. Therefore, attacks that do not meet the principle of proportionality in this particular context may also amount to a violation of the prohibition against depriving civilians of objects that are essential for their survival. When making the proportionality assessment, parties to the conflict must consider not only the immediate harm that may arise from the attack, but also the potential reverberating or long-term harm that could befall the civilian population. This comprehensive evaluation takes into account the target’s specific context and circumstances. For example, considering the airstrikes documented here, neither the number of residents who rely almost entirely on the basic services provided by the targeted infrastructure nor the lack of viable alternatives can be overlooked. This is not to mention the high cost and time required for rehabilitation, while civilians are left without access to those basic needs necessary for their survival.

After verifying the military objective status of a civilian infrastructure object and ensuring compliance with the proportionality requirements, the attacking party must simultaneously take all feasible precautions to prevent or minimise harm to civilians or civilian objects during attacks. The long-term dimensions of proportionality requirements dictate that precautionary measures must consider various factors such as the location of the object; the type and timing of the attack; its precise location; and the weapon of choice. Furthermore, an in-advance declaration that all infrastructure facilities are legitimate targets also violates the duty to exercise “constant care,” which requires that parties to the conflict maintain an ongoing assessment of the situation and continuously adapt their military operations to prevent or minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. This implies that the parties to the conflict are not only required to take precautions during the planning and execution of individual attacks, but also in their broader military strategy and tactics.

Moreover, IHL provides special protection rules and measures for vital infrastructure, including those that incur disproportionate damage. This protection extends to incidents documented herein, especially those involving healthcare units;[6] objects and materials indispensable to the survival of the civilian population;[7] and the natural environment.[8] The special protection granted to these objects requires the parties to the conflict to take additional measures to protect them from and during attack. It also raises the threshold required for the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. In addition to being safeguarded from any form of attack, destruction, or requisition in all circumstances,[9] this special protection is not automatically forfited if they are used in activities that deviate from their humanitarian mission and may cause harm to the opponant. Protection endures unless a due and reasonable warning has been issued and the warning remains unheeded.[10] On the other hand, given the contextual circumstances addressed herein, several infrastructures—such as the dialysis center, oxygen production unit, and power plants—qualify as vital facilities indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Targeting these facilities or causing them catastrophic harm remains unjustifiable, as it is expected “to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or force its movement.”[11] Identifying the infrastructure necessary for the civilian population’s survival is context-specific. This means that destroying or disabling a power station that has no alternative and on which thousands of civilians, including IDPs, depend amounts to depriving this population of the means of survival, which is prohibited by IHL in all circumstances.[12]

It is of utmost importance to not exploit the protection granted to civilian infrastructure by placing military objectives or launching attacks in the vicinity of these objects, which are actions expressly prohibited under IHL. The IHL does not specifically prohibit the use of civilian objects for military purposes. Nevertheless, it imposes on parties engaged in armed conflicts the duty to protect civilians and civilian objects under their control from the adverse effects of attacks.[13] Objects granted special protection, including hospitals and other vital infrastructure, should always be protected from risks arising from military operations, primarily by refraining from using them for military purposes.

Recommendations 

  • The United Nations and Security Council must condemn the breaches of IHL posed by the repeated Turkish airstrikes in northeast Syria. They must also step up international de-escalation mediation to establish a ceasefire in the region so as to protect civilians and safeguard their fundamental rights.
  • The United States and U.S.-led Coalition must renegotiate the terms of the ceasefire signed with Türkiye so as to include airstrikes; close the airspace to drones and military aircraft targeting infrastructure, civilian objects, and populated areas; and have a clear stance against the airstrikes, which are undermining stability and the fight against the Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh) in the region.
  • The International Community must dedicate resources to rebuilding destroyed civilian infrastructure, including electricity and energy facilities, and adapt them so as to be resilient to potential future airstrikes. They must also reserve resources to support humanitarian organizations active in the region to help them meet the needs of communities in affected areas, as well as rights groups documenting the violations that occurred during the three air campaigns, including the temporary mass displacements.
  • Concerned Parties must impose sanctions and hold accountable Turkish officials involved in the bombing of civilian infrastructure in the region. They also must impose sanctions on Turkish individuals and companies, as well as agents, who are involved in the procurement of critical components Türkiye needs for its drone and aircraft programs.
  • Concerned Parties must press foreign producers and supply networks, which provide Türkiye with equipment and components for its drone and aircraft programs, to observe the principle of due diligence to ensure Türkiye is not using their products in airstrikes that could result in massive human rights violations and IHL breaches.

Methodology

For this report, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) conducted extensive research between October 2023 and March 2024. The investigation process included the collection of 21 testimonies by field researchers in northeast Syria who met with victims, relatives of victims, survivors, and eyewitnesses to the Turkish airstrikes.

Among the eyewitnesses are workers within the energy facilities targeted in the cities of Qamishli/Qamishlo and Amuda and al-Qahtaniyah/Tirbespi town, as well as administrative staff members at the region’s water and electricity departments, who described the extent of damage at the affected facilities and the impact the attacks had on the lives of civilians.

The interviews were carried out in Arabic and Kurdish. One interview was conducted online over secure messaging applications. The remaining 20 interviews were conducted in person in locations deemed safe and private by researchers and the interviewed people. Notably, several sources and witnesses were met twice. They provided input on the third air campaign, during which the Turkish airstrikes targeted facilities they had hit and partially damaged during the first campaign.

The field researchers obtained the interviewees’ informed consent. They clarified to all sources and witnesses the intended use of the information, including the development and publication of this report, and emphasized the potential risks involved. Therefore, the majority of the interviewees requested anonymity and the removal of all identifying details, fearing reprisals against themselves or relatives from Türkiye or its affiliated Syrian armed groups.

Additionally, STJ reviewed videos and images that were available online or exclusively provided by witnesses and sources. Several visuals were included in the report after thorough verification. STJ also reviewed multiple reports published by the media and other rights groups that monitored and documented the three Turkish air campaigns, citing a number in this report.

Background

On 4 October 2023, Hakan Fidan, Türkiye’s Foreign Minister and previously the director of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), stated that [f]rom now on, all infrastructure, superstructure, and energy facilities of the PKK and YPG, especially in Iraq and Syria, are the legitimate targets of our security forces, armed forces, and intelligence units, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by their Kurdish acronyms. Türkiye classifies the PPK as a terrorist group and considers the SDF, primarily the YPG, to be its offshoot in Syria.

Following this statement, Türkiye launched three extensive air campaigns in areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). According to Türkiye, the first campaign was in response to the “terrorist attack” near the parliament in Ankara on 1 October 2023, for which the PKK claimed responsibility.

Türkiye’s reprisals for the attack targeted vital infrastructure and energy facilities in northeast Syria, even though Mazloum Abdi, General Commander of the SDF, denied allegations of involvement in the Ankara attack on X. He said, “Ankara’s attack perpetrators haven’t passed through our region as Turkish officials claim, and we aren’t party to Turkey’s internal conflict, nor do we encourage escalation,” adding that “Turkey is looking for pretexts to legitimize its ongoing attacks on our region and to launch a new military aggression that is of our deep concern.”

In a report documenting the impact of the intense airstrikes in northeast Syria, Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, stressed that “[b]y targeting critical infrastructure across northeast Syria, including power and water stations, Turkey has flouted its responsibility to ensure that its military actions do not aggravate the region’s already dire humanitarian crisis.” He added that “people in al-Hasakeh city and its surroundings, already facing a severe water crisis for the past four years, must now also bear the brunt of increased bombardment and destruction, exacerbating their struggle to get essential water supplies.”

In a joint statement, 151 Syrian civil society organizations also strongly condemned “targeting populated areas, power plants, oil facilities and critical infrastructure indispensable to the survival of civilians” and cautioned “the international community that these attacks will definitely exacerbate the ongoing existing humanitarian crisis and will greatly affect the region’s population with its diverse components.”

Notably, the campaigns Türkiye started in October 2023 are an extension of the attack it launched in northeast Syria in 2022 using drones and warplanes. The 2022 airstrikes also injured and killed civilians, including a journalist; destroyed oil infrastructure and terminals; and rendered several other energy facilities in the region inoperable.

Furthermore, the airstrikes mark an escalation of the Turkish drone war against northeast Syria. The drone attacks killed at least 83 people and injured at least 55 others between 2021 and the first third of August 2023.

In its March 2024 report, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) said, “The 5 October attacks on electricity infrastructure disrupted the provision of electricity to water pumping stations, depriving civilians of access to water. Such acts amount to attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as direct attacks against civilian objects, which may amount to war crimes.”

You may read and download the full version of the Investigation in PDF format by clicking here.

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[1] “Protection of Civilian Infrastructure in Armed Conflict”, Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Center, 8 December 2023 (last visited: 11 June 2024), p.4. https://www.diakonia.se/ihl/news/protection-of-civilian-infrastructure-in-armed-conflict/

[2] Protocol II Additional to Geneva Conventions, Article 52 (2).

[3] ICRC, Commentary on the Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, para. 2209.

[4] ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rule 10; Additional Protocol I, Article 52(3).

[5] Additional Protocol I, Articles 51(5)(b); ICRC Customary IHL Study, Rule 14.

[6] Additional Protocol I, Article 12; ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rule 28.

[7] Additional Protocol I, Article 54; Additional Protocol II, Article 14; ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rule 54.

[8] Additional Protocol I, Article 55; ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rules 43-45.

[9] Geneva Convention I, Articles 19-23 and 33-35; Geneva Convention IV, Article 18; Additional Protocol I, Articles 8 and 12-14; Additional Protocol II, Article 11.

[10] Geneva Convention I, Article 21; Additional Protocol I, Article 13; Additional Protocol II, Article 11; ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rule 28.

[11] Additional Protocol I, Article 54 (3)(b).

[12] For additional information, see: “Protection of Civilian Infrastructure in Armed Conflict”, Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Center, 8 December 2023 (last visited: 11 June 2024). https://www.diakonia.se/ihl/news/protection-of-civilian-infrastructure-in-armed-conflict/

[13] Additional Protocol I, Articles 58(c); ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rules 22-24.

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