Local outrage, international inaction after Turkey kills women’s rights activists outside Kobanê in North and East Syria

KOBANÊ, Syria – On Tuesday evening, three women were killed by the Turkish military in a drone strike on a house in the village of Helincê, east of Kobanê, in North and East Syria.

Among those killed was prominent feminist activist Zehra Berkel.

Berkel was an official with Kongreya Star in Euphrates Region, an umbrella organization for women’s rights groups in North and East Syria. Born in Kobanê in 1987, Berkel studied law in Aleppo and joined the women’s movement in 2013 and worked at one of the region’s ‘Women’s Houses’ (Mala Jin) – women’s shelters that provide a range of services to women especially focused on helping women escape domestic violence and abuse. She went on to work for the Kurdish Red Crescent, was elected co-mayor of Kobanê, and served as co-chair of the Justice Commission of Kobanê. Since 2018, Berkel had worked as a coordinating member of Kongreya Star.

Zehre Berkel, women’s rights activist and coordinating member of Kongreya-Star, killed by a Turkish drone strike on 23 June 2020.

Also killed in the strike were Hebûn Mele Xelîl, a member of Kongreya Star, and Amina Waysî, owner of the house targeted by the drone strike.

Hebûn Mele Xelîl was also a member of Kongreya Star. Xelîl was born in Pêndir village near Kobanê and suffered from cancer.

Hebûn Mele Xelîl, women’s rights activist, killed by a Turkish drone strike on 23 June 2020.

Amina Waysî, mother to five children, was born in 1965 in Helincê and was known throughout her community for her dedication to the women’s movement.

Amina Waysî, mother of five, killed by a Turkish drone strike on her home on 23 June 2020.

According to North Press Agency, local sources indicated that Berkel was at the visiting the home during the strike. The same sources also stated that the surrounding homes were also damaged in the bombardment and several other civilians were injured and transferred to a nearby hospital.

Given the residential location of the drone strike, the lack absence of any armed forces in the immediate facility, and Berkel’s outspokenness about the various Turkish invasions in northwestern and northeastern Syria, it is likely that the bombing was a targeted assassination.

The aftermath of the deadly Turkish drone strike on a civilian residence in the northern Syrian city of Kobanê. 23 June 2020. (Image: ANHA)

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) of North and East Syria stated that a Turkish drone had been hovering over the Helincê prior to the strike.

The Kobanê Internal Security Forces issued a statement condemning the attack, saying that this is not the first time that the Turkish occupation has targeted civilians in the region. The latest Turkish strike, said the statement, was on in a larger framework of criminal practices against women.

The Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) of Euphrates Region issued a statement hours after the attack, condemning it as “cowardly”, and held Russia, alongside Turkey, responsible for this attack and previous Turkish attacks.

According to the agreement Russia brokered with Turkey seven months ago, Russia bears responsibility for the security and stability of the region. The DAA statement called on Russia to fulfill its obligations.

The DAA also called on the United States and the International Coalition to prevent the Turkish attacks on the region in accordance with the ceasefire agreement it made with Turkey.

Following the Turkish invasion of North and East Syria in October 2019, Russia and the U.S. reached separate ceasefire agreements with Turkey. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed proxies have controlled the Tel Abyad, Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn) and the surrounding countryside since.

The ceasefires are routinely broken by Turkey and Turkish-backed forces who continue to shell and occasionally attempt to raid further into North and East Syria.

Condolences were quick to come from U.S. officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his sympathies to the families of those killed via Twitter, “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of innocent civilians killed and those wounded in Syria in the terrorist attack in Tel Halaf and the airstrike in Kobane. A continued spiral of violence impedes hope for a lasting political resolution to the conflict in Syria.”

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus wrote via Twitter that, “The U.S. condemns the terrorist attack in Syria in Tel Halaf. We also express profound regret at the civilian casualties in Kobane, and reiterate strong support for a nationwide ceasefire and efforts to facilitate a political resolution under UNSCR 2254.”

However, despite condemning the attack, the U.S. State Department refused to name Turkey in their denunciation.

Although no official Turkish outlet has claimed responsibility for the attack, pro-government media published claims that “four terrorists” were “neutralized” in the strike, claiming the women activists were members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed political group that has been engaged in an armed conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s.

On 18 May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish news channel CNNTurk that, “anyone who cooperates with the PKK/YPG is a legitimate target.”

Kurdistan24 reported that local officials and civilians fear the Turkish drone strikes are a prelude to a future Turkish invasion of Kobanê:

“All of the cities at the border are under threats, but particularly when it comes to Kobani, even the Russians tell us from time to time that there is the danger that the Turks will attack you again,” Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, said during a May 29 online event organized by the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign.

“So this is something that the Russians inform us of. So, of course there is a fear that Kobani will be attacked.”

The sentiment of local officials was echoed in a message from Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who stated via Twitter that, “Turkey breaks ceasefire (again) by drone strike killing 3 women who were part of Kongra Star women’s movement @starrcongress. At @USCIRF June 10th Congressional Hearing, we warned Kobani could be target for another invasion into NE #Syria.”

On Wednesday, in Zalin (Qamishli) in Gozarto (Jazira) Region, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the United Nations building to protest the targeted killings and demanded international organizations do something to stop the repeated Turkish attacks on the region.

Protest against the Turkish drone strike in front of the U.N. building in Zalin (Qamishli). (Image: North Press Agency)