Turkey was added to a list of countries implicated in the use of child soldiers in the past year by the United States on Thursday, marking the first time that a NATO ally has been included in such a list. The move is likely to further complicate the already strained relations between Ankara and Washington.
In its 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the US State Department found that Turkey was providing “tangible support” to the Sultan Murad division in Syria, a Syrian opposition faction that Ankara has long supported and which Washington claims recruits and uses child soldiers.
The move elicited no immediate response from Turkey.
A senior State Department official also mentioned the use of child soldiers in Libya during a conference call with reporters, saying that Washington hoped to work with Ankara to address the issue.
“With respect to Turkey in particular … this is the first time a NATO member has been listed in the child soldier prevention act list,” the State Department official said. “As a respected regional leader and member of NATO, Turkey has the opportunity to address this issue — the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Syria and Libya,” she said.
Turkey has conducted three cross-border operations in Syria against the so-called Islamic State and US-backed Kurdish militias, and has frequently deployed armed Syrian fighters alongside its own forces.
Human rights organizations and the United Nations have accused some of these groups of indiscriminately attacking civilians, kidnappings, and looting. The UN had requested that Ankara rein in these Syrian rebels, but Turkey dismissed the allegations as “baseless.”
Turkey has also been involved in the Libyan conflict through proxies and its own armed forces. With Ankara’s help, the Tripoli-based government has been able to fend off a 14-month assault by eastern forces backed by Egypt and Russia.
Unless a presidential waiver is granted, governments on this list are subject to restrictions on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment, according to the State Department report.
It was unclear whether any restrictions would automatically apply to Turkey, and the move raised concerns that it might jeopardize Ankara’s ongoing talks with Washington over Turkey’s bid to run Afghanistan’s Kabul airport once the US troops leave.
Because the security of the airport is critical for the operation of diplomatic missions out of Afghanistan after the withdrawal, the mission could be a potential area of cooperation between Ankara and its allies amid strained ties.
Ankara has sought various financial and operational assistance to carry out this mission, and President Joe Biden said last month in a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan that US assistance would be forthcoming, according to Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Price described Turkey as a “very constructive and very helpful partner,” adding that Washington might have more to say about the implications.
“As you know there is a potential for waivers that would come down from the president but that will happen, if it does, in the coming months,” he said.