As It Happens

Turkish MP defends military operation in Syria, says civilians have not been targeted

In an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, a Turkish MP repeatedly denied that her country's military operation in northeast Syria has in any way targeted civilians. 

Rumeysa Kadak, a Turkish MP for the ruling AK Party, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday

A family from Qamishli, Syria, arrives at refugee camp in Iraq on Oct. 24. The camp has continued to swell in numbers as Syrian Kurdish refugees flee the recent Turkish incursion. (Byron Smith/Getty Images)

In an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, a Turkish MP repeatedly denied that her country's military operation in northeast Syria has in any way targeted civilians. 

Turkey launched its offensive against the Kurdish-led YPG militia in Syria after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the area.

The Kurdish-led fighters were allied with the U.S. for five years in the long and bloody campaign against ISIS in Syria, but Turkey considers them terrorists linked to the PKK, Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

As of Tuesday, Kurdish fighters had completely withdrawn from the area along the Syrian-Turkey border, according to Russia, which helped hammer out a peace plan. This follows a ceasefire brokered by the U.S., which the Kurds accused Turkey of repeatedly violating.

The effect of the Turkish-led incursion into the area has been devastating for civilians. The UN says nearly 180,000 people have fled the area. The death toll varies, but the Kurdish Red Crescent told the Wall Street Journal that about 235 civilians have been killed.

Rumeysa Kadak is a Turkish MP for the ruling AK Party. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday. Here is part of their conversation.

Has Turkey's military operation in northeastern Syria been worth it, do you think?

We have to state that the footage actually was not really right. So Turkey did not initiate any attack unless there was an attack coming from the other side. We were very clear when it comes to that.

What we're talking about here is the attack on civilians. You have ...

That is not true.

Well, but civilians have died. You're denying what the UN says? That nearly 200,000 people have fled and that there are hundreds, according to the [Kurdish] Red Crescent ... 235 civilians at least killed, including two dozen children. You deny that?

On the contrary. The whole operation that we are conducting against terrorist PKK is actually for civilians, Carol. So this information is the propaganda spread by terrorist PKK, which is a terrorist organization not only in the eye of Turkey, but also in the eye of NATO and, indeed, of Canada too.

So to give us some perspective to our Canadian audience, the number of ethnic Kurdish refugees that we have accepted from Syria is actually 10 times more than what Canada accepted.

Ms. Kadak, we know all that. What we're talking about is a military operation of recent weeks, and we have seen the footage. We have seen people being forced out. We have reports from objective reporters who are at the border seeing the people who are crossing or trying to cross into Iraq, trying to escape into Kurdish-held areas because they're fleeing for their lives. They are terrified. They are being killed. They are being driven out.

Look, let's make it clear. First of all, most of the footage, it actually comes from terrorist PKK. 

And if there are any clashes happening it's because of the self-defence. But let me be clear, there is no clashes happening against civilians.

Ms. Kadak, airstrikes. PKK is not having airstrikes. Turkey has a very large military power. It has the ability to hit from the air. You have been striking civilian areas, whether your targets ...

That is not true.

Well, the people live there. Whether your targets are civilian or not, civilians have been hurt. And the shelling? You're saying that this hasn't happened in civilian areas?

No, this is not true. Turkey has been very clear that this is not against civilians. We're doing this operation in order to save civilians in Syria.

There are so many civilians whose lives are in danger. And we have two objectives from the very beginning of this operation. One is to secure our borders.

And the second objective of ours is actually to secure a safe zone where millions of civilians in Syria will actually have a ... safe place to go to.

Rumeysa Kadak, a Turkish MP for the ruling AK Party, speaking to As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday (@RumeysaKadak/Twitter)

I'd like to know who it is that you think could be safe there. Your president, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, said himself this week that the land in that area is not suitable for Kurds because it's flat desert land, and that Arabs would be better suited to that area. Are you attempting to change the demographic by force?

That is not true. PKK is the only force that actually changes the demographics in the region. We had two operations in the past.

We respect the integrity of Syria. And let's not forget Turkey is the only country that took the initiative for civilians in Syria.

People are fleeing, Ms. Kadak.

We have more than four million refugees in Turkey, and there is no country in the world that took this much initiative for civilians in Syria.

You're being accused of ethnic cleansing because of the ...

That is not true. That is unacceptable. 

Well, the Kurds are leaving and ... your government has said ...

That is not true. They are not Kurdish people. 

Excuse me for a second. Your government has said it wants to ... open that space for refugees who are in your country, and your president has said that the Kurds are not suited to be there. They are leaving in droves. Trying to change the demographic by force amounts to ethnic cleansing, does it not?

I think we have to make something very clear right now. This operation is not against Kurdish people. This operation is carried out against terrorist PKK, which does not represent Kurdish people at all.

And, in fact, they bring suffering to Kurdish families, kidnapping their children, forcing them to fight at the age of six, seven and eight. Actually, they use soldiers, child soldiers, and this has been actually reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN.

So when it comes to Kurdish people, we have 400,000 Kurdish people in our country who fled the war happening in Syria and the oppressions of PKK.

PKK does not represent Kurdish people. And I think it needs an apology.

In the limited time we have, I want to ask you about the Turkish-backed militias who have been assisting your forces, who have actually made videos of themselves executing civilians, some of them bound, and one of them being a woman, [Hevrin Khalaf], a Kurdish female politician, called a pig and later killed. So what responsibility do you take for the Turkish-backed militias who are assisting your forces?

We're against every war crime. We're against every human rights violation, no matter who is doing that.

And you're actually talking about Free Syrian Army.

[Editor's Note: Free Syrian Army, also known as the National Army, is a coalition of Syrian militias equipped and supported by Turkey. Originally, they were a rebel faction in the Syrian Civil War that aimed to topple the government of Syrian President Bashir al Assad. Until 2017, they were trained and equipped by the United States and its allies.]  

A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter stands at a back of a truck, as the Syrian opposition flag is seen in the background, in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

No, we're talking about your own forces, Ms. Kadak, sorry. 

I'm sure you have a misunderstanding.

Turkish-backed militias.

No, we're working on the ground with Free Syrian Army, who was formerly trained by United States and supported by the West. 

They're the only forces that we work with. And they are the only forces which are 100 per cent Syrian army and the local people. And they lost thousands of its troops fighting against ISIS.

And now they actually set a committee in order to investigate war crimes. And we have always stated we're always against war crimes.

But let's also mention that PKK is actually the one committing war crimes. They have persecuted Christians, Assyrians. They have turned children into suicide bombers. This is unacceptable. They're not different than ISIS.

And we have been very clear that we should co-operate against this terrorist organization with our allies. We should all come together.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.