North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Kurdish group claims Turkey is using chemical weapons. Why is nobody investigating?

The international community is failing in its duty to investigate allegations that Kurdish forces are being killed in Turkish attacks

Sarah Glynn
5 November 2021, 12.00am
Protest against the Turkish military deployment in northern Iraq and the EU and NATO silence. Stuttgart, Germany. 30 Oct 2021
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Christoph Schmidt/dpa/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has called on international organisations to investigate its claims that Turkey has used chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq more than 300 times. The party invited international delegations to visit the region and inspect the mountain tunnels where it alleges chemicals still linger and examine the bodies of PKK guerrillas whom it says were killed in the attacks.

The PKK has published videos of gases welling from tunnel entrances, as well as details of those who have allegedly been killed and accounts of survivors.

There are also reports of gases affecting local people who attempted to remain in their village homes. On 11 October, the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency reported receiving information that 548 people living in an area close to the site of the alleged Turkish attacks had been hospitalised due to complaints of ‘excessive tearing of the eyes, blurred vision, sudden headaches, nosebleeds, difficulty in breathing and rash’. The agency also reported that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, was working with Turkish officials to suppress news of what was happening.

An earlier report from a news outlet close to the KDP, which is critical of the PKK, described a local family affected by a ‘suspected chemical attack’ on 4 September, and the government’s unwillingness to investigate.

Answers needed

That these reports have not given rise to an independent investigation is shocking – though in the light of historical precedent, it is not surprising. In June, Malin Björk, an MEP from the Swedish Left Party, tried to raise concerns about the alleged attacks in a written question to Josep Borrell, the vice-president of the European Commission and high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.

Borrell’s answer, dated 11 October, reiterated the EU’s hostility to the PKK, stating that the bloc considers the party to be “a group involved in terrorist acts under EU restrictive measures”. Though Borrell accepted that “Turkey is militarily active in northern Iraq where it carries out strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party”, he dismissed the question about reported war crimes with the statement: “No reports of confirmed chemical attacks have, however, been presented.”

Without independent investigation of the attacks, international leaders can continue to look away – but it is only those leaders who are in a position to demand such an investigation.

Selective investigations

The use of chemical weapons has been banned since the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997 and which Turkey has signed, also requires all parties to destroy their chemical weapons and allows any party state to request an inspection of another party state at any time.

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However, the red line around chemical warfare – like other aspects of international relations – depends not so much on what you do, but on who you are. When the Syrian regime was accused of using chemical weapons, in attacks starting December 2012, it made headlines around the world. The accusations against Turkey hardly get a mention.

Reports of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime also produced UN investigations and an international programme to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stocks – though this failed to prevent more attacks, and further international action was blocked by Russian vetoes.

By contrast, although there have been reports accusing Turkey of using chemical weapons against the PKK since the late 1980s – including a 1999 report by German public-service broadcaster ZDF that cited a member of a Turkish military special unit – these have had little response.

Definitive proof as to whether Turkey has deployed the chemical weapons is always difficult to obtain, as Turkish authorities impede attempts at investigation, but there has been little pressure for action from international organisations.

In 1994, Christopher Milroy, a forensic pathologist from the UK , wrote an account in the British Medical Journal of a visit he made to Turkey to investigate claims of government use of napalm (a chemical weapon) against PKK guerrillas. He found that the descriptions he was given of burnt bodies were “consistent with the use of napalm”, but extreme harassment by Turkish police prevented him from conducting any direct investigation. The area of the attack had been sealed off and bodies had been buried in a mass grave that had been concreted over. He was told that “a man who was going to try and collect samples from the bodies in a local village had been arrested by the Turkish authorities, along with his entire family”.

In 2010, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that “shocking images of dead Kurdish fighters” had been authenticated by an expert on photo forgeries, while a forensics report from Hamburg University Hospital had concluded that it was highly probable that the eight Kurds died “due to the use of chemical substances”. Gisela Penteker from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War told the paper that local people had repeatedly claimed that chemical weapons had been used but that the authorities had delayed releasing the bodies, so a thorough autopsy was difficult.

Chemical attacks are not the only extra-judicial method allegedly used by Turkey to crush the Kurds without any wider repercussions or accountability.

Turkey is a strategic NATO member and an important trading partner to many in the Global North, as well as now also essentially being a holding centre for refugees, and both the US and Europe have been accused of appeasing its government.

In 2018, Turkey and allied factions were accused of using chemical weapons in Afrîn, northern Syria. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that shells from Turkey or its allied factions had left six people with "enlarged pupils" and "breathing difficulties", and the hospital claimed their symptoms were consistent with a chemical attack; but the accusations were simply dismissed by the US as ‘extremely unlikely’.

The Kurds are horribly familiar with the impacts of chemical attacks, and they are also familiar with selective silence

Kurdish doctors also alleged chemical weapon use by Turkey in the invasion of Ras al-Ayn, in north-east Syria, in 2019, when numerous sources, including SOHR, cited medical reports of injuries that could result only from unconventional weapons. . ,

Tests performed by Wessling AG laboratories in Switzerland on a skin sample from one of the victims found that, “the type of wound (chemical burns) in combination with the significantly high amount of phosphor found in the sample demonstrates that phosphorus reagents (white phosphorus munitions) have been used.” However, this appears to have elicited little response from outside the Kurdish community.

The US Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons agreed to look into the alleged Turkish attacks, which had produced burns consistent with the use of white phosphorus. But its investigation was soon abandoned, saying it was not investigating because white phosphorus injuries are produced by thermal, rather than chemical, properties and were thus outside of its remit.

An unreported invasion

Brutal though they were, those earlier attacks by Turkey were relatively isolated. But what is happening today, according to the PKK guerrillas, is a concerted campaign of chemical attacks.

Turkey’s current operation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq began on 23 April. It is effectively invading, and attempting to occupy, Iraq’s northern borderlands, where the PKK have their mountain bases. Turkey labels the PKK a terrorist organisation and portrays this invasion as anti-terrorism action, but the Turkish military is building its own bases and infrastructure.

Turkey is getting practical support from the KDP whose oil deals have made its government dependent on Turkey. Additionally the KDP would be happy to see the vanquishing of the PKK and its competing ideas about Kurdish autonomy, even at the expense of greater Turkish dominance over the region.

A dark history

The Kurds are horribly familiar with the impacts of chemical attacks, and they are also familiar with selective silence. While there seems to be no evidence to support the common claim that chemical weapons were used to defend the British Mandate in Iraq (technical difficulties trumped Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm), in Saddam Hussein’s al-Anfal genocide against the Kurds, and his bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, thousands died of a lethal cocktail of chemicals, and many thousands more were left permanently damaged.

The United States was well aware that Iraq was using chemical weapons in the war with Iran – this was even investigated and condemned by the UN in 1983 – but any means were deemed acceptable in order to defeat the Iranians, and by 1987, the US was assisting the Iraqi forces by supplying the vital intelligence that enabled them to direct their attacks against Iranian troops.

The US took a long time to respond to the Halabja massacre, and when it did, it attempted to put equal blame on Iran. It wasn’t until the First Gulf War, when Iraq became the enemy, that the US began to trumpet the Kurdish genocide.

The international community has a duty to investigate all allegations of chemical weaponry, and to act on what it finds – promptly and not only according to political interests. Without pressure from below, this is unlikely to happen, and states deemed too useful to criticise will be able to get away with impunity.

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