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No ceasing

Christian aid groups and monitors in Syria report devastating fighting and war crimes following the U.S.-orchestrated cease-fire

No ceasing

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters deploy near the town of Ras al-Ain, Syria, on Friday. (AP Photo)

Twenty-four hours after Vice President Mike Pence shook hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to inaugurate a five-day cease-fire in northeastern Syria, bombs and artillery fire rained on the town of Ras al-Ain in defiance of the agreement.

On Friday morning the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) attacked, said David Eubank, director of Free Burma Rangers. Eubank said on Friday his medical team was at the front line to help evacuate the wounded, but the FSA had blocked the team’s access. (On Saturday, Turkish forces allowed a medical convoy to enter Ras al-Ain and evacuate 37 wounded, Eubank later confirmed. His team was part of the convoy, along with International Red Cross and Kurdish Red Crescent.)

Turkey, after invading northeastern Syria on Oct. 8, is relying on proxies from the Free Syrian Army and Syrian National Army militias to battle the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish militias began with Syrian army defectors fighting in a civil war against the regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad. But they have grown into armies of transnational jihadists, funded and trained by Turkey since 2016, and largely composed of al-Qaeda militants.

Turkey’s defense minister announced it had seized control of Ras al-Ain (“Sere Kaniye” in Kurdish) last week, but fighting has continued and hundreds were reported wounded inside the city. On Thursday just as Pence arrived in Turkey for four hours of talks before announcing the cease-fire, Turkish militias blew up four ambulances trying to ferry wounded civilians away from the city. From the ambulances they captured four medics and executed them on the road and wounded five other medics, according to aid sources not identified for security reasons.

Nearly 300,000 residents have fled the fighting, and at least 400,000 others are without water in Hasakah, according to the United Nations. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that Turkey’s militias had initially prevented a convoy from the Kurdish Red Crescent and the Free Burma Rangers from entering Ras al-Ain to provide aid. It said it expected casualties to rise due to the high number of wounded who can’t access medical care.

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Smoke billows from a fire in Ras al-Ain on Friday. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A handful of Christian-led aid groups remain in northeast Syria, despite pullbacks from major aid organizations, including Doctors Without Borders. Partners Relief and Development, which established medical clinics across the region following the 2017 liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State group, has set up 38 kitchens to feed fleeing civilians. It also has set up additional distribution points for handing out blankets, pads to sleep on, and other items. In a Facebook post Friday, the Michigan-based group reported, “There is no cease-fire and there isn’t even a pause in the violence.”

Founder Steve Gumaer told me despite lethal shelling by Turkish forces, his teams were pressing forward to help the displaced and victims of violence. Earlier this week heavy rocket fire trapped the group’s aid coordinator, a Syrian Christian, inside a wedding chapel near Hasakah. He was trying to distribute blankets and mats to fleeing residents. “He was pinned down by what looked like ISIS fighters,” said Gumaer.

He estimated hundreds of civilian deaths this week and confirmed the targeting of medics and hospitals serving residents: “We are watching the gains in this region get torpedoed after working so hard toward stability and peace.”

Free Burma Rangers

Wounded evacuees from Ras al-Ain on Saturday (Free Burma Rangers)

Many towns and cities in Syria’s northeast—starting with Raqqa, which ISIS dubbed the capital of its caliphate—fell to ISIS beginning in 2013. On-the-ground fighting led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and SDF with U.S.-led coalition air support eventually liberated all the territories. Like Ras al-Ain, some have now fallen to Turks.

But the SDF hasn’t given up. Its units fought to regain control of the M4 highway, a crucial east-west artery, after an Oct. 12 ambush there by Turkish-backed militias. The attack killed at least nine civilians, including the 35-year-old head of the Future Syria Party, Hervin Khalaf. Party officials with Khalaf had worked closely with the United States since the party’s founding in 2018, and many regarded the Kurdish Khalaf as a champion of Christian and Yazidi rights.

According to an autopsy report, fighters repeatedly shot Khalaf at close range. The report said her legs and jaw were broken, and the skin of her scalp pulled out. A video posted on Twitter showed her bloodied body lying in gravel with booted fighters stomping on her.

Amnesty International on Friday charged Turkey’s military and the militias it backs with “a shameful disregard for human life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes.” The organization said it had “damning evidence” of Turkey launching unlawful attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.

The U.S. Congress this week also condemned Turkey’s invasion, with the House passing a resolution, 354-60, opposing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from northeast Syria and calling on Turkey to cease the invasion. Republicans voted 2-1 in favor of the resolution, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other key leaders.

That directly contradicts the diplomatic effort by Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pressed Erdogan for a temporary cease-fire contingent on the withdrawal of Kurdish-led forces in Syria’s northeast. “The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence said.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Vice President Pence speaks during a news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after their meeting with Turkish President Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A joint statement Friday from European and American leaders further underscored the Trump administration’s isolation over the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces and greenlight the Turkish invasion. The statement, issued by the chairs of foreign affairs committees in Germany, France, Britain, the European Parliament, and the U.S. House, condemned “in the strongest terms” the Turkish offensive as “a military aggression and a violation of international law.”

That could set the stage for a reckoning within NATO, which counts Turkey a leading member. The North Atlantic Treaty requires consultation among members to settle international disputes before armed attacks across borders, something neither the United States nor Turkey appear to have complied with.

—This story was updated with information about the medical convoy allowed to access Ras al-Ain on Oct. 19.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.


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  • DEBI
    Posted: Sat, 10/19/2019 12:02 pm

    You are a gifted writer but be careful ... 

    Saying that the president decided to

    "greenlight the Turkish invasion"

    is your personal opinion and not true.

  • Bob R
    Posted: Sat, 10/19/2019 02:43 pm


    You're splitting hairs; by going off-script in his phone call, Trump essential did just that, whatever you call it, by NOT establishing a "no-fly" zone in the area.  

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 10/20/2019 05:11 pm

    I agree with Debi and Bob.  Mindy should have at least included the word "essentially".  
    Did President Trump consciously proceed with this pull-out knowing Turkey would invade?  His comments otherwise suggest not.   This is more of a policy blunder with dire and tragic consequences. 

  •  SleeperSRT10's picture
    Posted: Tue, 10/22/2019 12:46 pm

    Debi, you are 100% correct.  Thank you for your post.

  •  burningheart's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/19/2019 01:28 pm

    Good job reporting on a very complex region.  There is more to the story, which I am sure you know.  Now that US military leaders have begun to speak out concerning abandoning allies, along with the congressional resolutions condemning the President's decisions, the nation is heading into a whirlwind unlike any we can find in history since the Civil War.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 10/20/2019 05:01 pm

    Where are the other NATO partners?  The Europeans?  I think the hasty pull out was a mistake but surely other western nations can help?  

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sun, 10/20/2019 06:35 pm

    Reply to Prior Comments: Whatever else we may do or say, let's not call a spade a spade, especially since the whole world is calling it that.

    Posted: Mon, 10/21/2019 12:17 pm

    "'They’re going to have to fight a little while’. Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while. Then people find out how tough the fighting is ... Sometimes you have to let them fight. It’s like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart."

    I think it's fair to say Trump "greenlighted" the invasion. He certainly did not "redlight" it, and from his own statements it sounds like he thought it was necessary.