Since Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, there has been mounting evidence of war crimes perpetrated against civilians in the region. Turkish-backed factions have been accused of executing prisoners and civilians, including the brutal murder of Kurdish women’s rights activist and politician Hevrin Khalaf. Civilians have accused Turkish troops in Tal Tamir of using white phosphorous, leaving civilians, including children, with horrific burns. A U.S.-brokered ceasefire was broken by Turkish-backed forces within hours of its implementation, leaving civilians in northeast Syria at continuing risk of violence and displacement.
Several countries have responded to the offensive against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria by banning or freezing arms exports to Turkey. Germany, France, Spain, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden were the first to impose arms embargoes on Turkey while the United Kingdom joined shortly after. The European Union passed a resolution to limit arms sales to Turkey but has not imposed a full weapons embargo. Canada temporarily suspended any new arms export permits to Turkey, while in the U.S., a bill was introduced to ban U.S. military assistance and prohibit the provision of financial, material, or technological support to the Turkish armed forces, including defense articles, petroleum, and natural gas. However, U.S. sanctions targeting individual Turkish officials and entities were quickly rescinded after the ceasefire was made indefinite.
The newly issued bans on arms exports to Turkey highlights the failure of short-term arms embargoes to have any practical stabilizing impact on situations like that unfolding in northeast Syria. Arms exports regimes have the potential to act as a deterrent to human rights violations and war crimes in active military conflicts, but only if international human rights law and international humanitarian law are consistently integrated into the issuing of arms licenses. Arms embargoes have important symbolic and political effect, but significant deficiencies in the legal framework governing arms exports need to be corrected in order to effectively discourage war crimes and protect civilians.
Will the arms export bans have an impact on the Turkish military operation in northeast Syria?
The U.S., Canada, and several European countries export significant arms and ammunition to Turkey both historically and in recent years. According to Eurostat, the EU exported 45 million Euros worth of arms to Turkey in 2018/19, with Germany being Turkey’s top arms supplier at $268 million in 2018 alone. NATO ally Canada has also sold an increasing number of weapons and weapons systems to Turkey: in 2018 Canadian defense contractors sold Turkey $115.7 million in arms as compared to only $7.5 million in 2015.
Turkey is particularly dependent on U.S. arms manufacturers when it comes to aircraft. The 333 combat aircraft used by the Turkish Air Force are primarily U.S.-supplied fighter planes, in addition to its thirty-one U.S.-made C-130 transport aircrafts. Further, over two-thirds of Turkey’s 3,600 armored personnel carriers are U.S.-made M-113s and the U.S. has supplied the majority of Turkey’s 2,400 main battle tanks. Turkey was originally a member of the F-35 joint strike fighter program and had agreed to purchase 100 F-35 stealth jets. However, Ankara was expelled from the program after purchasing the S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, which is designed to destroy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles and ground target objectives. As ties with its NATO allies fray, Ankara has increasingly turned towards Moscow: last week it was reported that Turkish and Russian government officials are close to finalizing a deal on Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft.
However, in part due to past European embargoes on Turkish arms exports, over the last two decades Turkey has aimed to reduce its dependence on foreign products. Currently Turkey claims that it produces 65% of its defense platforms and products, and that the recent freezes on arms exports will have little to no impact on the defense capabilities and inventories of the Turkish military.
While it is difficult to assess that claim, arms embargoes can serve as an important political and diplomatic strategy, relying on international isolation to deter countries from committing war crimes and human rights violations. The message sent by Western and European nations banning arms exports is tempered, however, by the puzzling inconsistency with which such bans are used. The decisive action to ban arms exports to Turkey within days of its incursion into northeast Syria stands in sharp contrast to the failure of the same governments to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite repeated allegations of war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Arms Exports Regimes: strengthening human rights protections
From a security standpoint it is unlikely that the recent bans on arms exports to Turkey will have any significant ramifications for the situation in northeast Syria. Any European or Western-supplied arms already operated by the Turkish military are far beyond the reach of new export bans, rendering such bans largely ineffectual and highlighting the urgent need to better integrate international human rights and humanitarian law into arms export regimes.
Some efforts have been made to ensure that international law functions as a ‘check’ to arms exports in democratic countries. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in December 2014 and has been ratified by 105 states, obliges member states to assess the potential that any conventional arms exported to other countries may “contribute to or undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, acts of terrorism, or transnational organized crime. Notably, though the agreement was signed by the Obama administration in 2013, President Trump stated in April 2019 that he would not ratify the ATT and would seek to formally withdraw the U.S. as a signatory. While major European powers including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have ratified the treaty, the world’s three largest arms traders – the U.S., China, and Russia – have not joined.
European arms exports to Turkey indicate that the ATT’s attempted regulations have been a failure. For example, there was evidence that German tanks were used by Turkish forces to commit human rights abuses against civilians in Kurdish-held Afrin in January 2018, yet German arms exports to Turkey in just the first eight months of 2019 amounted to €250.4 million, the highest since 2005. Similarly, the laser technology used by Turkish F-16s to bomb Afrin were made by an Italian arms manufacturer, Leonardo, that operates out of a factory in Edinburgh and was partially financed by the Scottish government. Yet again, despite clear evidence that arms exported to Turkey may violate the terms imposed by the ATT, Italy was the top arms supplier to the Turkish government last year, with Rome approving licenses worth $409 million in 2016-18. Finally, despite significant evidence that Turkish police and security agencies have perpetrated severe human rights abuses within Turkey itself following a coup attempt in 2016, the UK has sold $1 billion to the country since then, while Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany are among the top six arms exporting European countries to Turkey since the brutal post-coup crackdown.
While the U.S. has not ratified major international treaties regulating the global arms trade, namely the Arms Trade Treaty, Washington requires countries importing American arms to sign agreements about how the weapons and equipment will be used. However, new reports have emerged that Turkey may be using U.S.-provided weapons in northeast Syria. The Pentagon confirmed this week that the U.S. is investigating whether Turkey violated agreements with Washington about the use of U.S.-provided weapons and equipment in Syria. Specifically, the investigation is probing whether Ankara transferred U.S.-supplied weapons to its proxies in Syria, in violation of certain “end-user” monitoring agreements.
The weakness of the arms embargo regime has serious consequences. Arms exporting countries should strengthen human rights-based regulations and more strictly adhere to tests of international humanitarian law in issuing export licenses. Arms export controls have the potential to be leveraged as important deterrents to war crimes and human rights abuses in future, but only if checks and balances are more rigorously and consistently observed.