The earthquake in Turkey and Syria is one of the worst natural disasters of this century. The death toll has now risen to a staggering thirty-five thousand people — though that number is expected to rise significantly. Tens of thousands more have been injured, overwhelming the already-strained hospitals in Syria and Turkey. Large swaths of Northern Syria and Southern Turkey have been reduced to rubble, and millions are in desperate need of humanitarian relief.
Yet even in the immediate aftermath of this humanitarian crisis, at a time when resources, personnel, and state assistance is gravely needed, Turkey continues to attack the Kurds. According to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and statements from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on February 12 (less than one week after the earthquake), Turkey bombed an SDF vehicle in Kobanî, a Kurdish-majority city in Northern Syria, and bombed Kurdish forces in Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo. There is no indication that these bombings are going to stop.
In sharp contrast to Turkey’s abysmal, dysfunctional initial response to the earthquake, Turkish militarism seems as functional as ever.
Though these recent attacks highlight the particular brutality of bombing communities suffering and grieving in the wake of a natural disaster, Turkish attacks on the Kurds are by no means new. Turkey’s record of atrocities against the Kurds is long and well-documented. Though ostensibly fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a militant organization pushing for greater autonomy and civil rights for Kurds — Turkey has killed scores of Kurdish civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In the 1990s, Turkish forces killed tens of thousands of Kurds in Southern Turkey and in recent years has bombed Northern Iraq hundreds of times.
In Northern Syria, Turkish treatment of Kurds has been particularly brutal. Turkey frequently bombs Kurdish communities in Syria, targeting the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG) and SDF, Western allies largely responsible for the defeat of ISIS in Syria. In a single weeks-long bombing campaign in January of 2018, Turkey killed over a thousand Kurds in the city of Afrin alone. Over the course of repeated invasions over the last seven years, Turkey has occupied extensive territory in Northern Syria, and Turkish forces have committed widespread and systematic war crimes against the Kurdish population, including ethnic cleansing.
Crucially, a map of Turkish air strikes in Syria produced by Airwars, an organization that tracks explosive weapon use in conflicts around the world, shows that the area most affected by the earthquake is also the area most frequently bombed by the Turkish Air Force in recent years.
Given that Turkey has demonstrated its refusal to terminate its attacks on the Kurds even in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters of this century, should the United States continue supplying the very equipment used to carry out this aggression?
The United States — and other Western countries — have a long history of arming Turkey with weapons subsequently used directly on the Kurds. Currently, the Biden administration is attempting to advance a massive arms transfer to Turkey. This arms package includes a new fleet of F-16s as well as upgrades to Turkey’s existing F-16s — the same jets used to conduct air raids on Kurdish cities.
Some members of Congress are objecting to this sale. Notably, Senator Bob Menendez has declared that he intends to block the arms transfer to Turkey due to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s continued efforts to “undermine international law, disregard human rights and democratic norms and engage in alarming and destabilizing behavior in Turkey and against neighboring NATO allies,” namely Greece. Other members of the Senate, however, are less adamant in their opposition to the sale. In a letter to President Joe Biden, a bipartisan group of twenty-nine senators have conditioned the arms transfer, stating that they would not support the deal unless Turkey agrees to approve Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. Even if Congress decided to block the arms sale, however, a two-thirds supermajority is necessary to overcome a presidential veto.
But in light of the earthquake, the Biden administration should consider whether they want to support and supply further Turkish aggression in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or use this moment to encourage reconstruction and diplomacy.
The United Nations estimates that over five million people became homeless as a result of the earthquake, and millions more are in dire need of humanitarian assistance — including several million children. According to experts at the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society, it could take years — or even a decade — to rebuild the infrastructure and houses destroyed by the earthquake. This F-16s arms package is estimated to cost an astonishing twenty billion dollars, money which should be diverted toward humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
Furthermore, this moment can be used to support diplomacy, rather than aggression. In light of the earthquake, the PKK issued a unilateral cease-fire, stating that since “thousands of our people are under the rubble,” they would terminate all operations “as long as the Turkish state does not attack.” Instead, the PKK spokesperson stated, “[e]veryone should mobilize to save our people from the rubble.” The Turkish government has not responded.
During a time of unimaginable death, destruction, and suffering, it is unconscionable for the Turkish state to divert critically needed resources away from humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, and toward funding its continued militarism. The United States should use this moment to encourage Turkey to accept the olive branch offered by the PKK, rather than send it advanced weaponry that will be used on a population already suffering from the devastating consequences of a natural disaster. This earthquake should be the final nail in the coffin of the Biden administration’s proposed F-16 arms sale. The United States has betrayed the Kurds many times before — this time should be different.