Thursday, 10 October 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I welcome the fact that we have the opportunity to raise this issue today. The expression "words fail me" is totally inadequate to describe how I felt when I heard President Trump say earlier that the Kurds did not help the US in Normandy in the First World War, so why should he defend them now. These are the same Kurds who have fought alongside the US against ISIS for the past five years. This Turkish offensive is called, ironically, Operation Peace Spring. We know the history of the suffering of the Kurdish people. I do not think any people have suffered as much as the Kurds. Promises were made to them by the western allies after the First World War, which provided for a Kurdish state, but that was abandoned. Instead, the Kurds were given minority status in various countries, including Turkey where they have suffered appalling human rights violations. They have never had their own permanent state.
The Kurds were defending their enclaves in northern Syria against ISIS. Their Peshmerga forces defended parts of Iraq against ISIS when those areas were abandoned by the Iraqi army. We know about Kobane and Raqqa and other areas that had been taken over by ISIS, where the Kurds have been steadily driving ISIS out. We also know what happened in those ISIS-controlled areas. It appears that President Erdoğan's agenda is driven by the need to boost his own popularity after the mayoral defeat in Istanbul. Those who suffer the most are the civilians, most of whom have already been displaced from their own countries. We also have the issue of ISIS fighters who were captured in the area. Will they be released? If so, that will create new opportunities for them.
President Trump also commented to the effect that the Turks and the Kurds have been fighting each other for centuries, as if it were inevitable that there will be another conflict. We know that 11,000 Kurdish people have lost their lives in the conflict. The agenda has always been to displace the Kurds and there have been many examples of that. This looks like an attempt to annihilate them.
President Trump has reminded people that Turkey is a big trading partner of the US. Turkey is hosting Syrian refugees and has received €6 billion in that regard. However, it is looking for more money. Is it using this conflict as a playing card? In the middle of it all, the Kurdish people are suffering.
I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that what is unfolding in north-east Syria only compounds the misery of the Syrian people and the persecution of the Kurdish people. It has the potential to create more internal refugees in Syria. Some 60,000 people have already left the affected zone in northern Syria. In a quite incredible statement for a member of NATO and a President of Turkey, President Erdogan stated on Turkish television that he will flood Europe with millions of refugees if the European Union taunts Turkey regarding its interference in Syria. More than 500,000 people live within 5 km of the Syria-Turkey border. The Tánaiste will agree that foreign interference in Syria has created a quagmire of human misery. Some 500,000 people have been killed there in the past eight years. This is one of the worst civil wars humanity has seen. Given the events of the past three days and, in particular, the green light given by President Trump, it is ironic that the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, which were trained and armed by the Americans and were fighting ISIS, are now being battered by the Turkish military. This is a betrayal of the Kurdish people by the Americans. What can Ireland and the European Union do to address the situation?
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity to put several things on the record. Recent developments in Syria are deeply worrying. Turkey's military action in the north east of the country will further undermine the stability of the region, which is still reeling from the costly battle against ISIS. It will also undermine prospects for a lasting peace in Syria and exacerbate civilian suffering in a country that has been devastated by war and population displacements for eight and a half years.
On 6 October, the United States announced a withdrawal of US troops from an area of north-east Syria close to the Turkish border ahead of a Turkish offensive into Syrian territory. Subsequent statements stressed that the US is not involved in, and does not support, the operation. Turkey commenced unilateral military operations in the area on 9 October, with the stated aim of preventing what it asserted was the creation of a terror corridor along its border.
I am particularly concerned about the humanitarian impact of a military escalation and further displacement of civilian populations. In a statement issued on 9 October, I stressed that the protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law must be paramount. I urge all parties to ensure unhindered, safe and sustainable humanitarian access. The position of the EU was made clear yesterday in a statement reaffirming that a sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict cannot be achieved militarily and calling upon Turkey to cease unilateral action.
There are long-term security implications implicit in the US withdrawal and subsequent Turkish incursion in northern Syria. The fight against ISIS made considerable progress earlier this year. Unilateral military action against groups which played a decisive front-line role in this fight clearly risks undermining that progress. The resurgence of ISIS remains a significant threat to regional and international security. I am concerned that these developments will lead to further instability and that ISIS could take advantage of the vacuum. It is imperative that terrorist fighters remain securely detained to prevent them from joining or rejoining the ranks of terrorist groups.
It is vital that the rights of the ethnic Kurdish population in north-east Syria are protected. The EU has confirmed that it will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored. The safety and protection of all civilians and respect for international humanitarian law must be paramount. We must call out situations where that does not happen. Military action in Syria also risks undermining the work of the UN in attempting to facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict and a political transition which meets the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Syria. I take this opportunity to reiterate Ireland's strong support for the work of the UN special envoy, urge Turkey to cease military operations and call on parties to engage with the UN-led process.
We know there are diverging opinions on the matter in the US. The EU has condemned the Turkish action but I understand that the ambassadors on the EU Political and Security Committee have not been able to agree a common position, possibly due to the relationship of Hungary and Turkey. How effective can the UN security council be in this situation, particularly with regard to the possibility of a country exercising a veto over any action to be taken? I acknowledge that the Tánaiste made a strong statement regarding humanitarian issues and the implications in terms of instability. I presume that he will reiterate those points at the EU meeting of foreign ministers on Monday. There is a need for action because otherwise the situation will worsen.
As Syria is moving towards peace talks and recovering from the humanitarian disaster there, the emphasis should be on the right of safe return for Syrians who left their country and not this pending disaster which will worsen.
This situation has the potential to escalate into a regional war. In terms of the geopolitics of the area, there is a significant Kurdish minority in Turkey as well as Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Iran. The history of the Kurdish people is one of absolute persecution. They have been bitterly betrayed by the Americans, although that is no surprise for the Kurdish civilians as the Americans have bitterly betrayed many people having interfered in foreign policy.
One practical thing the Tánaiste can do is to summon the Turkish Ambassador to ask him whether he will take responsibility for the civilian deaths which are occurring on his watch. There is blood on his hands.
A collective EU statement has been issued. There was a delay in it being issued, which I understand was caused by Hungarian concerns regarding what was proposed. All 28 members have now signed up to a statement of collective EU position, which is very welcome. Several members of the UN Security Council have requested that the issue be formally raised before the council, which would be appropriate.
I have been to Kurdish cities in northern Iraq and to western Turkey, where many Kurds live. I met many community leaders there. The Turkish action has the potential to create significant tension in the area and the mass movement of people. That is why I was one of the first EU Ministers to issue a fairly strong statement on the issue. If I think it would be helpful to call in the Turkish Ambassador, I will do so. I am not sure what purpose it would service immediately, but it may be useful to do so to try to understand in detail the Turkish perspective and have an opportunity to question it. I will have an opportunity to raise the matter at the Foreign Affairs Council next Monday and the General Affairs Council next Tuesday. I will be meeting many of my colleagues and am sure this will be one of the key issues under discussion.