The British government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resumed arms sales to Turkey in December, two years after it suspended new arms deals with the country over the possible use of British-made weapons against Britain’s allies in the fight against ISIS.
“The UK is now arming Turkey again while its NATO ally is promoting former Islamic State militants and major human rights abuses, in north and east Syria and elsewhere,” Matt Broomfield wrote for Declassified UK on Wednesday.
Weapons exports had been suspended in 2019, when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, calling it ‘reckless’ and ‘counterproductive’.
Operation Peace Spring in 2019 had aimed to end Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border and create a so-called safe zone between Turkey and the territories governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). In the vacated areas Turkey started to settle its proxy forces.
But last December, the British government decided to return to a case-by-case assessment of weapons export permits, abandoning the blanket ban.
Upon Declassified’s Freedom of Information request, the U.K. Department for International Trade said disclosure of the names of any companies would ‘likely damage the trading relationship between the UK company and their customer’, while the Foreign Office said releasing information on the matter would ‘prejudice relations’ between the two countries.
Turkey has made agreements to purchase some £950 million worth of military equipment from Britain from 905 limited-value licences since 2016, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Another 83 licences were approved with unlimited value.
The bulk of the value in limited-value licences, some £583 million, was approved in 2017.
The most exported items from Britain to Turkey are components for combat helicopters, military combat vehicles, ilitary radars, and military aircraft. Among the exports are laser targeting systems for Turkey’s aging F-16 fighter jet fleet, guidance systems and bomb racks for its armed Bayraktar-2 drones.
Both have been used in Syria in operations against the Kurdish regions.
In the region Turkey has deployed militias known as the Syrian National Army (SNA), which consists of networks of armed groups that total some 35,000 full-time fighters. The groups are effectively “mercenaries” for Turkey, and “cannon fodder”, in the words of a Levant Front fighter, told terrorism expert Elizabeth Tsurkov in 2019, as published in the New York Review.
The decision-makers for the SNA’s actions in Syria were Turkish officials, Tsurkov said.
The network stands accused of a “myriad of violations” of human rights by the United Nations.
According to the U.N., the SNA has displaced Yazidis, and promoted murder, rape and torture of civilians on an ethnic basis.
The Rojava Information Centre in Syria documents instances of torture, rape and disappearances committed by the SNA. There are hundreds of documented cases of kidnapping, rape and sale into slavery of women at the hands of the SNA.
SNA’s abuses “may entail criminal responsibility for Turkish commanders”, the U.N. said in a report.
According to a more recent U.N. report, Turkish officials were present in several instances of torture and abuse of detainees in SNA facilities.
Among SNA factions funded by Turkey are former ISIS members and those who work closely with Al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The U.S. Treasury found that Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of the most notorious Turkish-sponsored groups in the SNA, had “integrated numerous former ISIS members into its ranks”.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya is responsible for the brutal killing of Kurdish politician Hevrin Xalef.
Declassified said it had been provided evidence that the United States was planning to sanction several other SNA militia groups controlled by Turkey.
SNA militias have also been deployed by Turkey in regional conflicts outside Syria, including in clashes in both Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey’s drones, produced with British-made components, have been extensively used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, and are said to have turned the tide against ethnic Armenians in the highly-disputed region, allowing a decisive victory for Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
Ankara’s role has been to do the United States’ and Britain’s ‘dirty work for them’ in opposing Russia on behalf of NATO, Broomfield wrote.
“The UK turns a blind eye to Turkey’s use of lethal technology against Britain’s Kurdish allies, and its deployment of jihadist militiamen across the Middle East and beyond,” he added.
With Britain increasing military and trade ties with Turkey, and NATO determined to oppose Russia, Turkey is likely not going to be held accountable, he wrote.
“But if the UK is serious about stabilising the region, it must not only restrain Turkey from sponsoring these militias, but also work more closely with the Kurdish-led SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] and its associated political and civilian institutions.”