Press Release

October 22, 2019
VIDEO: Cardin Questions State Dept. Official about War Crimes Committed by Turkey at SFRC Hearing
"…Never again should mean never again. And the only way that's going to mean anything is if people, regimes that commit war crimes, are held accountable."

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the following questions Tuesday at a hearing titled “Assessing the Impact of Turkey’s Offensive in Northeast Syria.” In an exchange with witness James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Senator Cardin called upon the State Department to commit to taking steps to hold Turkey accountable for war crimes in Syria.

 View Senator Cardin’s remarks HERE

Read the transcript below

War Crimes in Syria

SENATOR CARDIN: “Are you familiar with the reports that had been issued by the United Nations and other groups about expected war crimes that have been committed by the Turkish forces in their invasion into northern Syria?”

MR. JEFFREY: “We have seen some preliminary concerns. We haven’t seen any detailed reporting. The detailed reporting, of course – and there’s volumes of it – is on the Assad regime’s actions throughout Syria. But we’re very, very concerned about what we and all of us have seen on video footage and some of the reports that we’ve received from our SDF colleagues and we’re looking into those as I speak.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “Well, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last week that Turkey appears to be committing war crimes. You disagree with that?”

MR. JEFFREY: “We would say that Turkish supported Syrian opposition forces, who were under general Turkish command, in at least one instance did carry out a war crime. And we have reached out to Turkey to demand an explanation.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “Congress has already acted on this making it clear that never again should mean never again. And the only way that’s going to mean anything is if people, regimes that commit war crimes, are held accountable, and it’s not just swept under the rug as part of any other type of resolution of a conflict. Do you agree with that?”

 MR. JEFFREY: “I certainly do. Whether they’re foes of the United States or allies of ours, that everybody has to be held accountable.

SENATOR CARDIN: “So do we have your commitment here before this committee today, that the information concerning these actions will be made available? And if it rises to the level of war crimes that the United States will seek an international forum to hold those responsible accountable?” 

MR. JEFFREY: “Within our constitutional requirements to carry out foreign policy, this will be a very high priority. Exactly.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “That’s not exactly what I said. My point is, are you willing to make an assurance to this committee that you personally will make sure that we don’t just once again, refuse to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable for their actions? It’s a simple answer.” 

MR. JEFFREY: “We will do everything in our power is in administration to ensure that the world knows if there are war crimes and that actions are taken to see that they don’t happen again. Absolutely.

SENATOR CARDIN: “Well, I would appreciate if you would get back to me and compliance with the law passed by Congress as to compliance with the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act. Senator Rubio and I introduced that legislation. We expect our laws to be carried out. And I do think one of the consequences of the failure to carry out accountability for war crimes is more war crimes that are committed. If we had a clear indication that those crimes that had already been committed in Syria, that there was now a process going on internationally to hold them accountable, I am very confident that Turkey may have done things differently in northern Syria.”

MR. JEFFREY: “We will do our best to adhere to our legal requirement and also the spirit of what you said, Senator.”

U.S. Troop Withdrawal

SENATOR CARDIN: “You’ve indicated that you were not consulted in regards to the decision to withdraw our troops from northern Syria. Do you agree that the consequences of that encouraged or gave ability for Mr. Erdogan to move forward into northern Syria? And that that added to the national security concerns of America which you’ve already testified to in regards to facilitating Russia, Iran and the Assad regime?”

MR. JEFFREY: “No, I do not think that contributed to this very tragic decision by the Turkish government.” 

SENATOR CARDIN: “So if our troops were still there – if we hadn’t removed our troops – you believe that we’ve seen the same scenario with Turkey engaging American troops in northern Syria?”

MR. JEFFREY: “They wouldn’t have engaged American troops, first of all, because it was understood that neither side would ever engage the other regardless of what happened.

SENATOR CARDIN: “Wouldn’t it have been different? Where our troops are today, Turkish forces and Russian forces are there now. If we had our troops there today, you think we’d have had the same consequences?” 

MR. JEFFREY: “We had the troops there. The withdrawal did not take place or really start until well after the… essentially most withdrawals of American troops did not take place …”

SENATOR CARDIN: “You really believe that Turkey was going to do this current engagement, even if American troops were in the region, making it very likely there’d have been a conflict between two NATO allies in northern Syria? That’s not believable.”

MR. JEFFREY: “Senator, let me explain this. If U.S. troops have been given the order to stand and fight against a NATO ally, I think you’re right, the Turks may have thought twice. They have never been given that order over two administrations. In fact, we had told Turkey the absolute opposite that we would not…” 

SENATOR CARDIN: “You don’t think that Turkey was holding back an aggression against northern Syria because of the U.S. presence in that region?”

MR. JEFFREY: “No, I don’t think that at all.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “Well, I’ll tell you, you’ve lost me on the credibility of your comments. Every person, every expert I’ve talked to on the military side, has said that Turkey would not have risked an engagement against U.S. troops. That that was something that would never have happened.”

MR. JEFFREY: “That is absolutely true, Senator, but the U.S. troops would have to have had the mission of resisting the Turks. They did not have that mission. And a good question to ask any military expert that says that is: did they have that authority and would they have acted without that authority? I think the answer is no.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “Complete this then: you agree with the president’s decision? That you as a professional, you are fully in accord with the president’s decision to relocate our troops?”

MR. JEFFREY: “I carry out the instruction.”

SENATOR CARDIN: “My question to you – you’ve now said it didn’t have any effect. So do you agree with this policy or not?”

MR. JEFFREY: “I agree that presidents have to make that decision, not people in the bureaucracy such as me.”

SENATOR CARDIN:  “For the record, you did not answer my question.”