HASAKAH, Syria — Seven months after Turkish forces and their Sunni opposition allies crossed into northeastern Syria, upending a fragile balance that made the Kurdish-run territory the safest and most stable in the war-ravaged country, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are struggling to survive in the squalor of camps and classrooms they now call home. Some are trying to recover from injuries that rights groups allege in some cases amount to war crimes. A propaganda war waged by both sides is continuing full blast.
Mohammed Hamid Mohammed is among the victims of the Turkish assault launched Oct. 9 against Syrian Kurdish forces. Ankara charges that they are “terrorists” seeking to dismember Turkey. The US-backed group known as the People’s Protection Units denies it harbors hostility toward Ankara.
The 12-year-old Mohammed became the symbol of Turkish impunity when graphic images of his body covered in oozing grayish ochre burns were plastered across global headlines. As the number of victims bearing similar burns grew, allegations that Turkish forces were using white phosphorus, a chemical agent deployed in military operations to produce smoke or provide illumination, against the civilian population began to circulate. Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, called the reports “fake news" peddled by the foreign media. Turkey denies possessing any chemical weapons.
Mohammed said he had been playing outside his house in the now Turkish-occupied town of Ras al-Ain — known as Serekaniye in Kurdish — when he suddenly heard an explosion and saw fire. “I didn’t feel anything until I woke up in the hospital. My dad was next to me,” Mohammed told Al-Monitor during an interview. “I was screaming because I could feel the burns on my body. Journalists were taking pictures of me. The pain was bad.”
As news of his plight grew, Massoud Barzani, the most influential leader of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, decided to act. With the help of the French government, Barzani arranged for Mohammed and his father, Hamid, to be flown in air ambulance to France, and Mohammed was treated for three months at a military hospital outside Paris.
Mohammed had to undergo seven surgeries. “I was tired of the pain of lying on the bed. One time I tried to walk a little, but after a couple of steps I fell to the ground,” Mohammed recalled on a recent afternoon.
Life at the ramshackle school in the city of Hasakah where he has sheltered with his parents, sister and four brothers since returning on March 10 is hard. The family relies on charity. The flow of water and electricity is erratic. Temperatures are rising and there is no air-conditioning, nothing unusual in the life of refugees. But exposure to heat can be a life and death matter for Mohammed, and Hasakah is subjected to extreme temperatures in the summer. His burned skin is also not supposed to be exposed to direct sunlight for the next five years.
A maze of leathery scars, some thick and lumpy, others spidery, crisscross his neck and body. They stretch his skin, impeding mobility and causing pain. He has to do special exercises and wear a full body vest. “It gets hot here and pus comes out from under my armpits and my wounds itch. It’s very painful,” Mohammed said.
Mohammed Khamis Mohammed does his exercises at a school converted into an IDP camp in Hasakah, Syria. Video by Ivan Hassib/Al-Monitor.
A report detailing his condition issued by the Hopital D’Instruction des Armees de Percy noted that Mohammed had been admitted for “severe extensive burns reportedly sustained due to phosphorus exposure during air bombing” on Oct. 10. But his clinical symptoms suggested that Mohammed’s burns had been suffered “earlier than reported and likely related to inflammation of clothes” which “may have been caused by phosphorus or not.”
That hasn’t stopped some media outlets such as the Saudi TV channel Al Arabiya from continuing to claim that the boy was burned by white phosphorus. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have steadily deteriorated since the October 2018 murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This has led to hostile media coverage about the other on both sides.
Hamid denies that his son had been injured prior to the Turkish invasion. The assertion that the boy had suffered burns before Oct. 10 was first made by a Turkish academic in a report by Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu. "It is unclear where and when the wounded child's photo was taken, but it looks like the wounds are from an old burn," opined Levent Kenar, professor and chair of Department of Medical Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense at University of Health Sciences.
Hamid said he found the boy lying on the ground outside their home on the second day of the Turkish attack. Hamid acknowledged that he did not know what type of munition had struck his son.
Officials from the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria air frustration with the media’s fixation on the child. “Mohammed’s story is undoubtedly tragic. But there are hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians and tens of thousands of children who are suffering as a result of the Turkish occupation,” said Fawza Youssef, a top Kurdish official.
Mohammed Hamid Mohammed plays wıth his 6-month-old cousin Roslin at a makeshift camp in Hasakah, May 25, 2020 (photo by Ivan Hassib/Al-Monitor)
“Just recently in Afrin 12 children were hit by Turkish mortar attacks. Six were martyred, some lost their hands, some their legs, others their eyes and there was no attention drawn to their plight. This illustrates the hypocrisy of the world politics. Mohammed’s plight is the plight of all our children. His plight is that of all Kurdistan,” Youssef told Al-Monitor in a WhatsApp interview. Afrin, a mainly Kurdish enclave was occupied by Turkish forces and their Sunni opposition allies in January 2018. The UN’s Human Rights Council said in a March 2 report on Syria, including areas under Turkish control, that “Cases of detentions, killings, beatings and abductions, in addition to widespread looting and appropriation of civilian homes, by a variety of armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army have been documented, in a consistent, discernible pattern previously documented in Afrin.”
The United Nations also noted the summary execution of the young woman politician Hevrin Khalaf and her driver on Oct. 12 by the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya brigade near Tell Tamar and the deaths of 11 civilians the same day as they were travelling to Ras al-Ain. “At around 3.30 p.m., the convoy was hit by an air strike, targeting the first vehicle, in the centre of Ras al-Ain, near the Great Mosque,” the report said. "The Turkish authorities have either denied involvement in or indicated that they have no record of these incidents. The Commission continues to investigate these incidents, and calls on the Turkish authorities to launch its own investigations and make the findings public." Turkey has not revealed any findings.
Mourners attend a funeral for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others including civilians and Kurdish fighters in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on October 13, 2019 (photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)
While the French findings cast doubt on Mohammed’s possible exposure to white phosphorus, Dr. Abbas Mansouran, an Iranian Swedish epidemiologist, says there is no doubt that it was used on some burn patients he treated during the early days of the Turkish incursion at a hospital in Hasakah. Some 30 victims, mostly civilians, were admitted to Hasakah’s main hospital with “severe and unusual burns and smoke injuries to their faces, ears and other areas.” These bore characteristics “very different to those that I would expect to have been caused by anything other than chemical incendiary weapons like white phosphorus,” Mansouran observed in a report. "My experiences go back to the first half of the Iran-Iraq war [in the 1980s], including working in the burns unit,” he said. Both sides used chemical weapons in the eight year long war, including sarin and mustard gas.
The 69-year old, who traveled to Syria as a volunteer and is a research principal at Sweden’s PEAS institute for infectious diseases, told Al-Monitor that he had shared the report in a Jan. 21 meeting with Julie Tetard, a political affairs officer at the Geneva office of the UN special envoy for Syria. “I never heard back from the UN,” he told Al-Monitor.
The UN had also rebuffed the Kurdish Red Crescent’s appeals to investigate whether Turkish forces had used chemical agents against several Syrian Kurdish civilians and fighters who were transferred to Iraqi Kurdistan for treatment. Kurdish Red Crescent leader Dr. Sherwan Bery told Al-Monitor that the UN had said the request could only come from a government, not a nongovernmental organization. Bery said they still had taken hair, blood and urine samples from some 10 victims, all of them fighters, and that they were being stored in Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. "We cannot confirm that white phosphorus was used," he said, because local medical facilities lacked the means to do so. Bery added that his organization had shared its own findings with the Swedish, Italian and German governments.
A Western diplomat familiar with the UN’s deliberations said, “The UN special envoys’ offices are not involved in anything related to accountability. They won’t say the word ‘war crime’ even if it happens in front of them. It is too sensitive.”
Allegations that civilians had been exposed to white phosphorus were, however, backed in at least in one case by Wessling AG, a Lyss, Switzerland-based laboratory. In a Dec. 4 report viewed by Al-Monitor, Wessling said of the skin tissue of one of the victims "that the type of wound (chemical burns) in combination with the significantly high amount of phosphor found in the sample demonstrates that phosphorus reagents (white phosphorus munitions) have been used.”
Mansouran treated the patient whose sample was sent to Wessling. The doctor said the patient was a civilian from Ras al-Ain. The man was struck by an unmanned Turkish drone while traveling on a motorbike en route to his village on Oct. 17. “He was very strong, he survived,” said Mansouran.
Turkey’s NATO’s allies are typically reluctant to rebuke Ankara over rights abuses other than to pressure it for concessions on matters of strategic benefit to themselves.
In an Oct. 23 hearing held amid calls for an arms embargo on Turkey, the State Department’s envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that that there was “one report” of the use of white phosphorus, and “we are looking into that.”
James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US President Donald Trump's decision to remove US forces from Syria, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 23, 2019. (photo by Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Jeffrey told US Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, “White phosphorus is tricky because as you indicated it has military uses. You have to almost determine not what happened but what the intent was.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) told Al-Monitor in an email, “When white phosphorus is used as smoke, illumination or as an incendiary weapon, its use does not fall under the purview of the Chemical Weapons Convention or the OPCW. In such instances the intended effects are due to the white phosphorus’ thermal properties, rather than its (chemical) toxic properties.”
The organization noted, however, that its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations is banned under a 1980 UN convention. It added that that reports in the media that the organization had investigated Turkey’s alleged used of chemical weapons during its Peace Spring offensive “are incorrect.”
Responding to Al-Monitor's request for comment, a State Department spokesperson said, "The Turkish Government has acknowledged the cases we have brought to their attention, providing background and in some cases directing us to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) as the responsible authority. We are aware of one individual belonging to Ahrar al-Sharqiya prosecuted to date for killing unarmed civilians during the Peace Spring Operation, but we do not have sufficient details of the trial process as it has not been made public. We have requested and expect a firm Turkish commitment to continue its efforts to comply with its obligations under the law of armed conflict and mitigate harm to civilians, and to promote accountability for violations or abuses."
The spokesperson continued, "The Department of State continues to raise the issue of alleged human rights violations or abuses and violations of international humanitarian law with officials at high levels of the Government of Turkey, including as recently as March following the release of the most recent UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria report. We have reiterated our expectation that Turkey investigate alleged violations and abuses and promote accountability where appropriate."
On white phosphorus, the spokesperson added, "The State Department has raised this issue at very high levels with the Turkish authorities. They maintain any use of white phosphorus would have been to mask friendly forces through a smoke screen. We have no independent information related to Turkish forces using white phosphorus as a chemical weapon."
Eight days after launching the incursion, Turkey, an OPCW member, donated some $33,000 to the organization for the construction of a new chemical technology center. The new facility “is required to meet the demands of OPCW States Parties for enhanced verification tools, improved detection capabilities and response measures, as well as increased capacity-building activities,” the organization said in a press release.
Back in Hasakah, Mohammed and his family have some good news at last. A group of local volunteers collected enough money to put the family up in air-conditioned housing, and now the local government has agreed to provide for Mohammed’s treatment and future housing costs. Berivan Khalidi, a senior Syrian Kurdish official told Al-Monitor, “We have directed our relevant institutions to provide what Mohammed needs, in terms of monitoring his health, and even securing work opportunities for his relatives.”
But what Mohammed wants above all is to go back to Ras al-Ain. “I always dream of going back to Serekaniye, of going back to school. I was the best in my class. I want to become a surgeon.”
Mohammed realizes those dreams aren’t likely to materialize anytime soon. “I don’t think Turkey will stop its attacks. There will always be victims,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ivan Hassib in Hassakah and by Dan Wilkofsky in Washington.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication to include comment from a Syrian Kurdish official.