Drone footage adds to concerns over alleged war crimes, but some caution evidence isn’t conclusive
U.S. military officials watched live drone feeds in October that appeared to show Turkish-backed Arab gunmen targeting civilians during their assault on Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, attacks the Americans reported to their commanders as possible war crimes, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the incidents said.
U.S. surveillance videos of two incidents were included in an internal report compiled by State Department officials laying out concerns regarding four credible cases of alleged war crimes by Turkish-backed forces, the U.S. officials said.
The existence of the military surveillance videos, which hasn’t been previously disclosed, provided what some of the U.S. officials saw as firsthand evidence of apparent war crimes by forces backed by Turkey, an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Others said the videos were inconclusive.
The footage now has become a focal point of a broader debate within the Trump administration over how to address mounting concerns by U.S. officials that the Turkish-backed fighters could commit more war crimes if the U.S. doesn’t do more to stop them.
The possible war crimes and other issues related to Turkey’s incursion are expected to arise during a White House visit on Wednesday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan has vowed to investigate reports of war crimes, but some U.S. officials say they doubt Turkey will take the issue seriously.
“Those who commit such atrocities are no different than the members of Islamic State,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters at a briefing in Istanbul on Oct. 18 when asked about alleged war crimes in Syria, adding that the army is “going to take care of that.”
While U.S. officials said they are pressing President Trump to raise concerns about the war-crimes allegations with Mr. Erdogan, there is no guarantee that the two leaders will discuss the contentious issue in any detail. The two men are aiming to smooth over sharp divisions and find ways to resolve other major disputes, including Turkey’s decision to buy an advanced Russian missile-defense system over U.S. objections. U.S. lawmakers, frustrated by Mr. Erdogan’s military moves, are poised to impose economic sanctions on Turkey, which has few allies in Congress.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan is relying on his unique relationship with Mr. Trump to advance Turkey’s interests. Both men have used bluster, bluffs and political power for leverage in their negotiations. Last year, the Trump administration imposed punishing tariffs and sanctions on Turkey that helped secure the release of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been held for more than two years on questionable terrorism-related charges. In October, Mr. Trump abruptly pulled U.S. forces off the Syria-Turkey border after Mr. Erdogan threatened to press ahead with his military operation targeting American-trained Kurdish forces over Washington’s objections.
Asked about the status of Turkey’s investigation into alleged war crimes, one Turkish official said he wasn’t aware that any formal probe had been launched.
Turkish officials said several U.S. officials have voiced concerns about alleged war crimes. But the U.S. officials never passed along drone surveillance footage or mentioned its existence, the Turkish officials said.
Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national-security adviser, said in a Sunday appearance on CBS that the administration had outstanding concerns that Turkey needs to take seriously.
“The U.S. won’t stand for it, and we’ve made that position very clear to the Turks,” he said.
Some in the U.S. military who saw the American drone footage said the video, combined with initial, internal military reports, raised strong concerns about apparent war crimes, several U.S. military officials said.
U.S. military officials reported the alleged war crimes up the chain of command, as they are required to do by Pentagon regulations, officials said. The reports were met with skepticism.
“They were flagged by operators for the chain of command of a possible war crime that were not determined to be definitive proof of war crimes and appeared inconclusive upon further review,” one U.S. military official said.
Another U.S. official said the Trump administration was aware of one “clear-cut case of prisoners with tied hands being shot” by Turkish-backed forces and a dozen other allegations reported by Kurdish-forces and local aid workers that are still being investigated by human-rights groups.
The Turkish assault in northeastern Syria began on Oct. 9, three days after Mr. Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from the area. U.S. concerns about the actions of Turkish-backed fighters began almost immediately, officials said.
A series of videos posted on social media raised suspicion among human-rights groups and others that Syrian gunmen backed by Turkey killed a Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on Oct. 12 as she rode in an armored vehicle on the main east-west highway in northeastern Syria. Human-rights groups and the United Nations raised alarms about two other videos posted on social media the same day that appeared to show Turkish-backed forces executing two prisoners along the same road.
The following day, the U.S. military sent a drone over the highway to monitor Turkish-backed forces as well as the safety of U.S. forces, who were quickly leaving after Mr. Trump’s announcement, U.S. military officials said. The drone’s cameras captured footage of what the U.S. officials said appeared to be Turkish-backed fighters shooting a civilian in a van.
One 19-second video from the drone footage is titled “Alleged TSO Civ Cas Shooting,” using military abbreviations for the terms “civilian casualties” and “Turkish-supported opposition.”
The video shows a sport-utility vehicle driving down the highway and pulling over near a van parked along the road, said military officials who have seen the video and described the footage. It also shows one person get out of the SUV and into the van. Some U.S. military officials said the drone footage showed Turkish-backed forces killing a Kurdish civilian. Others who saw the videos weren’t so sure, the officials said.
American military officials again watched live drone footage of Turkish-backed forces the next day as they appeared to swarm two trucks by the side of the highway, the officials said.
A crowd surrounded someone lying on the ground behind one of the trucks, the officials said. The person on the ground appeared to be a victim, officials said, but exhibited signs of life by moving. Then, he was placed into the back of the other truck. A 30-second video of the incident was also titled “Alleged TSO Civ Cas Shooting.”
In this incident, some military officials said they believe the man was clearly shot while on the ground and tossed into a truck. Others said it remains unclear exactly what the video captured.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has raised the issues with his Turkish counterpart, and U.S. officials said they believe the Turks should hold anyone accountable for any battlefield wrongdoing.
“We expect them to investigate it, we expect them to hold these people to account and we will continue to push that with them,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman.
Other top U.S. officials, including James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special envoy on the fight against Islamic State, have raised concerns publicly and privately with Turkey about alleged war crimes.
“We’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes,” Mr. Jeffrey told U.S. lawmakers in October.
Some among U.S. military and diplomatic personnel want the administration to do more to pressure Turkey to restrain the fighters it backs.
“One day when the diplomatic history is written, people will wonder what happened here and why officials didn’t do more to stop it,” William Roebuck, the State Department’s top diplomat in Syria, wrote in an internal memo critical of administration policy that has been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. government should be much more forceful in calling Turkey out for its behavior.…The TSO gangs must be withdrawn.”
—David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul contributed to this article.