On Oct. 9, as bombs fell across northeastern Syria and civilian life came to a halt, two U.S. allies went to war.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the operation as an effort to “neutralize terror threats against Turkey” and root out Kurdish forces — forces that have been stalwart partners for the U.S. military and have been crucial in the counter-ISIS campaign. To add insult to injury, Turkey is using American weapons against Syrian Kurds, which could be in violation of the terms of arms sale agreements and challenge future U.S. arms transfers to Ankara. The tragic situation unfolding on the ground in Syria shines a stark light on the complicated realities and risks of America’s role in the global arms trade.
As a NATO ally, Turkey maintains a privileged position in terms of access to U.S. military equipment. Since the 1950s, Turkey has received more than $20 billion in U.S. arms, ranging from fighter jets and helicopters to artillery and munitions. Indeed, U.S. fighter jets have long been the backbone of Turkey’s air force, and reports suggest that Turkey is using these jets in Erdogan’s “Operation Peace Spring” to conduct strikes against Kurdish forces. Within 36 hours of Turkey’s incursion, more than 60,000 civilians fled their homes. And the continued assault puts millions of civilians, many of whom have already shouldered the burden of Syria’s eight-year civil war, back in the crossfire. So far, at least 60 civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, but independent monitors say that number is sure to rise as Turkey presses ahead with its military offensive in Syria.
Turkey’s use of U.S. weapons to enable human rights abuses and cause other humanitarian harm is not a new phenomenon. For example, in the 1970s, Turkey used U.S.-supplied weapons to occupy parts of Cyprus, prompting Congress to impose a three-year embargo on U.S. military assistance to Ankara. Two decades later, in the 1990s, the U.S. government found that Turkey repeatedly used U.S. weapons to commit egregious human rights abuses against Kurdish civilians, and Turkey’s use of weapons supplied by the United States, as well as other NATO allies, was condemned as violating the laws of war.
Given that U.S. weapons are being used to attack the Kurds in Syria, the United States is at the very least tacitly complicit in Turkey’s current offensive. Fortunately, the United States has several laws and policies in place designed to mitigate misuse and prevent civilian harm resulting from U.S. arms sales. The Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act, for example, both lay out specific criteria for permitting U.S. arms transfers, including that arms sales align with long-term U.S. foreign policy interests, such as the promotion and protection of human rights, and that weapons are used for legitimate defense purposes. The laws require end-use monitoring of U.S. arms sales to ensure that weapons sold to foreign countries are used responsibly and as intended, per the terms of sale. Violations of these terms could prompt the suspension of future arms sales and deliveries. Additionally, the 2018 Conventional Arms Transfer Policy requires the administration to take into consideration human rights and international humanitarian law when making arms transfer decisions.
Unfortunately, even with these measures in place, U.S. weapons still contribute to human suffering. Human rights and humanitarian concerns can and do take a backseat to other security interests in arms transfer decisions, and end-use monitoring of U.S. arms sales is notoriously insufficient as it focuses primarily on risks of diversion rather than risks of misuse. That holds especially true for arms sold to NATO allies, such as Turkey. As the current situation in Syria indicates, weapons sold ages ago can still cause great harm years later, especially when the weapons are not used as intended.
In the meantime, several European countries have voiced their opposition to Turkey’s actions, and some have already taken steps to limit future arms sales to Ankara. France, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway each announced their commitment to suspend arms transfers to Turkey, with most suspending new arms sales and the Netherlands stopping current arms deliveries if Turkey does not withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria. U.S. lawmakers have a similar opportunity and may follow suit in prohibiting arms sales to Turkey.
A cruel reality of this latest offensive is that American weapons are firing on both sides, as Syrian Kurds have also received U.S. armaments (though at a significantly different scale than Turkey), making it almost inevitable that civilian harm caused by either side in this war can and will be traced back to the United States. Given these realities, the United States should adopt a principled position that reinforces its decades-old commitment to human rights protections, enhance its end-use monitoring, and ensure that U.S. arms, especially those sold to our allies, are not used to enable abuses or significant humanitarian harm.
If the U.S. does not take these steps, American weapons will continue to be used against innocent civilians, and the United States will remain culpable in an assault that has already fueled more human suffering in Syria.
Shannon Dick is a research analyst with the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center.
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