The United States has tasked Turkey to investigate alleged human rights violations and war crimes carried out by the rebels it backs in Syria, a senior State Department official has said.
Speaking on the eve of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's scheduled visit to the White House, the official told reporters that the U.S. was "following up" on persistent reports that Ankara-backed groups, dubbed the Syrian National Army, have been involved in human rights violations amid Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria.
Turkey launched an offensive in northern Syria with the rebels on Oct. 9 to clear its border from militants of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the main ally of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
The move was slammed by both Republicans and Democrats, with U.S. lawmakers urging U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel an invitation to Erdoğan that's set to take place on Nov. 13 following a month of fast-moving events between Ankara and Washington.
During the briefing, the official specifically mentioned several incidents, including the ambush and execution of Syrian Future Party Secretary General Hevrin Khalaf, the use of white phosphorus munitions in civilian areas and the targeting of military personnel.
"One involved the shooting up of a vehicle where there was a Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on October 12th. There was another incident that involved an individual who was filmed by members of one of these rebel groups being executed as the individual was on the ground with his hands tied behind him," the official said.
"We’ve seen several other issues and incidents. There was one report of a chemical weapon, specifically white phosphorous, being used, several examples of people – medical units and such – being hit by shellfire and such," added the official.
Saying that the number of these incidents "is not large," the official noted that U.S. authorities asked Ankara "to chase them down."
What the Turks told us is that they do take them seriously. They have passed many of them that, if they involve the Syrian National Army, to the Syrian National Army’s deputy defense minister, who is operating, I think, in Ras al-Ayn, and they have set up a commission," the official said.
"Now, we don’t know these people particularly well. We don’t know how well they’re going to do. As far as we’re concerned, our interlocutor on these things is Turkey because Turkey has been supporting these people and Turkey took the initiative to go across the border."
Upon a question regarding Erdoğan's meeting with Trump, the official said "Don’t look at these things as rewards; they’re the execution of diplomacy."
When asked about the future of Washington's partnership with the U.S., the official noted that it will continue since anti-ISIS operations on the ground in northeast Syria are ongoing.
"One, the President has directed us to continue D-ISIS [Defeat ISIS] operations on the ground in northeast Syria. That includes specifically continuing our partnership with local forces, including, in particular, the SDF. Now, that’s the first point," the official said.
"And then secondly, if we do not have a local partner, we cannot operate in northeast Syria against ISIS. We’ve made that very clear to coalition partners and others. I have made that very clear to Turkey in my meetings last week in Ankara," added the official.