Syria: Abuses, Impunity In Turkish-Occupied Territories, Says HRW

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Türkiye bears responsibility for the serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by members of its own forces and local armed groups it supports in Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kurdish residents have borne the brunt of the abuses due to their perceived ties to Kurdish-led forces that control vast swathes of northeast Syria.

The 74-page report, “Everything is by the Power of the Weapon: Abuses and Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Northern Syria,” documents abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, sexual violence, and torture by the various factions of a loose coalition of armed groups, the Türkiye-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), as well as the Military Police, a force established by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and Turkish authorities in 2018, ostensibly to curb abuses. Human Rights Watch also found that Turkish Armed Forces and intelligence agencies were involved in carrying out and overseeing abuses. Human Rights Watch also documented violations of housing, land, and property rights, including widespread looting and pillaging as well as property seizures and extortion, and the failure of attempted accountability measures to curb abuses or to provide restitution to victims.

“Ongoing abuses including torture and enforced disappearances of those who live under Turkish authority in northern Syria will continue unless Türkiye itself takes responsibility and acts to stop them,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power, and in some cases have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 58 former detainees, survivors of sexual violence, relatives, and witnesses of violations, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, activists, and researchers. Human Rights Watch researchers also spoke to an informed source who directly engages with the Military Police, and a Syrian source previously close to Turkish intelligence officials who had access to and oversight of various factions’ conduct in Afrin between July 2019 and June 2020, and who has since left Syria.

Türkiye’s military operations in northern Syria since 2016 resulted in its control of the predominantly Arab region north of Aleppo that includes Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarablus, the previously Kurdish-majority Afrin, and a narrow strip of land along Syria’s northern border between the ethnically diverse towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Through its armed forces and its intelligence agencies, Türkiye exerts control and directly oversees the Syrian National Army, providing it with weapons, salaries, training, and logistical support. Türkiye also exercises administrative control over occupied regions via governorates in provinces of Türkiye bordering Syria.

The Turkish government has declared its intention to establish “safe zones” in the areas under its occupation, contending that the Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria are affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Türkiye, the United States, and the European Union regard as a terrorist group, and with which Türkiye has been engaged in a decades long conflict. The Turkish government also sees the “safe zones” as facilitating the return of Syrian refugees from Türkiye.

However, Türkiye has failed to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population, and life for the 1.4 million residents of the region is marked by lawlessness and insecurity. “Everything is by the power of the weapon,” said one former resident who lived under SNA rule for just under three years.

SNA factions and the Military Police have arbitrarily arrested and detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and subjected to unfair military trials scores of people with impunity. Kurdish women detainees have reported sexual violence, including rape. Children as young as six months old have been detained alongside their mothers.

In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission of Inquiry, and other human rights organizations, Kurds have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of these abuses. Arabs and others perceived to have close ties with Syrian Democratic Forces have also been targeted.

Factions of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and Military Police committed abuses in detention centers where Turkish military and intelligence officials were sometimes present, according to former detainees, who also said Turkish officials were sometimes directly involved in their torture and ill treatment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people who experienced housing, land, and property rights violations.

Since Türkiye’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in the Tel Abyad – Ras al-Ain strip in 2019, hundreds of thousands of residents in the area have been displaced from their homes. Subsequently, SNA factions engaged in widespread looting, pillaging, and seizure of properties. The majority of those affected remain without proper restitution or compensation. “The hardest thing for me was standing in front of my house and not being able to enter it,” said a displaced Yezidi man from Ras al-Ain. The cycle of looting, pillaging, and property seizures persists, leaving those who challenge these actions vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, kidnapping, and enforced disappearance.

Accountability for serious human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Turkish-occupied territories remains elusive. Human Rights Watch investigated the cases of four high-ranking people alleged to be involved in serious abuses. None have been prosecuted, and three currently hold high-ranking positions within the SNA structure, according to informed sources.

Neither the SNA’s military courts, lacking independence, nor Türkiye, as the occupying power and primary backer of the SNA, have adequately addressed the serious crimes by those in power in Turkish-occupied territories. Human Rights Watch attempted to engage Türkiye in dialogue on these matters and shared detailed research findings in a letter sent twice by email to Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan on November 21, 2023 and on January 4, 2024, but the letterhas been met with silence. A letter to the SIG Defense Ministry on November 20, 2023 and January 8, 2024, inquiring among other things about any judicial proceedings related to four publicly reported deaths in detention, has also received no reply.

Türkiye is obliged to ensure its forces strictly observe international human rights and international humanitarian law, including the law governing its duties as the occupying power and the de facto government in these areas of northern Syria. This includes restoring and maintaining public order and safety in territories it occupies, protecting inhabitants from violence, holding those responsible for abuses accountable, providing reparations for all victims of serious human rights abuses at the hands of its forces and local forces it controls, and guaranteeing the rights of property owners and returnees, including compensating them for the unlawful confiscation and use of their property and any damage caused. Türkiye and the Syrian Interim Government should grant independent investigative bodies immediate and unhindered access to territories under their control.

“Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has facilitated a lawless climate of abuse and impunity – it’s the furthest possible thing from a ‘safe zone,’” Coogle said.

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