Arming Turkey Breaks U.K. Arms Export Laws, This Is Why

While Saudi Arabia deploys British arms to turn Yemen into a moonscape, another U.K. ally, Turkey, is using them against its political enemies in neighbouring Afrin, the most densely populated part of Kurdish Syria.

Afrin was, until January 10, a safe haven for minorities, including Sunni, Shia and Turkmen refugees fleeing the violence of the Syrian Civil War.

Now it is under artillery bombardment and aerial assault by the Turkish military. Shelling has caused hundreds of casualties and thousands of internally displaced people.

True to form, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rounded up hundreds of anti-war demonstrators and said that they would "pay a high price," warning that his security services would "crush anyone who opposes our national struggle."

Turkish courts jailed 11 medics for criticizing the country's Afrin assault, euphemistically named 'Operation Olive Branch.'

Since the botched 2015 elections that precipitated the July 2016 coup attempt by military elements, Erdogan has tightened his grip on the country, assuming new constitutional powers and jailing thousands of Kurds, from MPs to children. After secret trials, parliamentary members of Labour's sister parties, the CHP and HDP, have been jailed, one for 25 years. Journalists who cry foul are also jailed; Turkey has jailed more reporters than any other country on Earth.

The British government has been eyeing Erdogan's authoritarian streak with something akin to excitement.

The Defence & Security Organisation, tax-payer-funded sales reps for the private arms sector, summed up the U.K.'s position in a public memo: "With increasing budgets and the second-largest army in Nato, there are opportunities for UK industry." Soon after this memo it named Turkey as a "priority market."

A Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighter gestures as he holds Free Syrian Army flag next to Syrian children holding Turkish national flag and a Free Syrian Army flag during a demonstration in support to Turkish army's Olive Branch operation in the Syrian town of Suran on February 1, 2018. Clashes raged between Turkish-backed forces and Kurdish militia in Syria's Afrin region on January 31, 2018, as wounded civilians fled intense Turkish air strikes. Turkey and allied Syrian rebels have pressed on with Operation Olive Branch in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave despite mounting international concern and reports of rising civilian casualties. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Since Erdogan strengthened his grip, the U.K. has licensed to Turkey £150m (€171m) in arms, principally aircraft, helicopters, drones, grenades, small arms and ammunition. Theresa May also singed a £100m deal for additional U.K. aircraft to be provided by BAE Systems and TAI, which has been awarded with an Open General Export Licence to ease the flow of weapons between the U.K. and Turkey.

But while Yemen has been written off by the government as an expendable backwater, the YPG is a key member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Britain's ally in its war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Several Britons, including a former marine, have fought with them on the ground. Only a month before the Turkish offensive, the Ministry of Defence was trumpeting British air support of the SDF's battles against "extremists in eastern Syria."

It now appears that now the Kurds have served their purpose in degrading ISIS, the Tories are prepared to lay them on the alta of the its new post-Brexit industrial strategy. This strategy constitutes playing fast and lose with U.K. arms export law to cash in on the rising tide of nationalism and violence in the Middle East.

Never mind the risk of blowback caused by our foreign policy potentially radicalizing another group of Muslims against us. And never mind the death and destruction wrought by nations who we enable and legitimise by licensing them arms sales. After all, long before Brexit, the Foreign Office said that human rights had been deprioritized to to business. Brexit has dropped them even further down the list of priorities.

Arming Turkey presents the same problems as arming Saudi Arabia. Both are internally repressive, both institutionally use torture and both have on occasion exercised violent collective punishment against minorities. They also both support al-Qaeda in Syria, a designated terrorist organisation, so both present clear diversion risks.

The ministerial forward to the government's 2016 Strategic Export Controls Report said that "rigorous export controls are vital" because they "safeguard Britain's national security ... [and] uphold our values by taking account of potential risks to human rights, international humanitarian law and sustainable development."

Does arming repressive nations that use jihadis to fight proxy wars uphold the values of this government? Perhaps it does. But the fact that we can—and do—certainly proves that our arms export control regime is broken.

These are exactly the markets that our system says it is illegal for U.K. arms manufacturers and brokers to sell to. Yet the deals keep getting cut and the bombs keep falling.

Nobody doubts that repression and war is big business, but it is not the business Britain should be in—for the security of both the Yemenis and the Kurds, but also British civilians on British soil. It is not complicated stuff, all I ask is for the government abide by the law.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle is a Labour MP and member of the Commons committee on arms export controls.