Four members of the US House of Representatives have written to President Donald Trump’s Syria envoy asking him to spell out what information the US has about the alleged use of white phosphorus by Turkey against Syrian Kurdish civilians in October.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and three of her colleagues in the House called on Ambassador James Jeffrey to provide a full briefing – in private if necessary – into whether the US believes the incident during the Turkish invasion two months ago amounts to a war crime.
“The United States is uniquely positioned, as a NATO ally of Turkey and a partner of the Syrian Kurds who are the alleged victims of this attack, to take the lead on a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the October 16th attack,” they wrote.
Pictures emerged at the time of Syrian children who had been horrifically burned, prompting accusations that they had been targeted by Turkish forces using white phosphorus in or around the border town of Ras al-Ayn.
“Turkish-backed forces appear to be using munitions loaded with white phosphorus — a chemical that can maim and kill when it comes in contact with human flesh — in their violent campaign against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria,” Foreign Policy reported on Oct. 17, a day after the attack.
“If Turkish proxies are intentionally using white phosphorus-loaded munitions to target civilians, that could constitute a war crime. After publication of this article, U.N.-backed investigators said they were looking into the accusations,” Foreign Policy said.
White phosphorus is routinely held by militaries around the world and is used legally in combat as a smokescreen in daytime and as an incendiary to light up an area at night. But it is illegal to use it against civilians because it causes serious and exceptionally painful burns upon contact with skin.
Inspectors at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, initially said they were “collecting information” on the incident but subsequently concluded it would “not initiate an investigation.” The OPCW said the case fell out of its remit because the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon was intended to exploit its thermal properties and not its chemical properties.
The congressmen mentioned in their letter that the day after the alleged attack the Turkish government donated 30,000 euros to the OPCW for a Chemistry and Technology Center, saying that at the very least the donation presents the appearance of impropriety
The four members of Congress say the situation has become “a matter of urgency” and called for a study of tissue samples from the alleged victims, held in Iraq, so “the United States and the international community can have the full evidence necessary to investigate these allegations.”
They also ask Jeffrey to spell out what the US State Department’s position would be “in the event it is proven that Turkey used white phosphorus against civilians”; whether it will “commit to a full, impartial, and multilateral investigation into the allegations of chemical weapons use by Turkey in Syria” and if it will commit to “full accountability for the perpetrators of the attack if it is found to be in violation of domestic or international law.”
Turkey has previously said that the accusations were false. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in October, “It is a fact known by everyone that there are no chemical weapons in the inventory of the Turkish Armed Forces.”
US President Donald Trump unexpectedly gave Turkey a green light to invade Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria in October when he suddenly said he would withdraw US troops from the border region. After a brief period of fighting between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces, a ceasefire was brokered with the involvement of Russia leading to the establishment of a security zone.
The other congressional signatories to the letter are Karen Bass and Juan Vargas of California and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.