The abuses have been directed against women and children, and primarily target minorities such as Yazidis, Kurds and Christians.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters walk together near the border town of Tel Abyad,
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkish-backed extremists have committed a litany of abuses in northern Syria after Ankara illegally occupied Afrin, Jarabulus, Idlib and Tel Abyad over the last three years. The allegations have gained exposure in recent years and are now part of a UN Human Rights Council biannual report. This is the year with the clearest and most comprehensive evidence of the massive abuses that run contrary to international humanitarian law, reports indicate.
The abuses have been directed against women and children, and primarily target minorities such as Yazidis, Kurds and Christians, many of whom have been ethnically-cleansed from the Turkish occupied areas of Syria. A report at Al-Monitor by Amberin Zaman tells of a boy who was kidnapped by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in 2019. “While detained, both Syrian National Army members and Turkish-speaking officials dressed in military fatigues were present.”
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The report also details how the Turkish-backed Syrian extremists “forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor.” This took place in Afrin, an area Turkey invaded in 2018. More than 150,000 Kurds were forced to flee the invasion and Ankara has engaged in demographic change similar to the process of ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s. Ankara has brought in settlers from other parts of Syria and replaced indigenous Kurds with groups it considers loyal. These groups have illegally stolen olives from the locals, taken over their homes, attacked religious sites of minorities and kidnapped women and kept them at secret “black site” prisons.
Turkey invaded Afrin in 2018 claiming to be fighting “terrorism” but there was no evidence of any terrorism there or directed at Turkey from there. Ankara has used its offensives in Syria, and now in Libya, to recruit Syrian refugee to fight its wars abroad. A US report last month accused Turkey of transporting thousands of Syrians to fight in Libya. It sought to hijack the Syrian rebellion and turn it against Kurdish fighters in Syria. Ankara accuses these Kurdish fighters of being members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In 2015, a Turkey-PKK ceasefire broke down and Ankara has used its war with the PKK as an excuse to invade its neighbors.
As reports of abuses at the hands of pro-Turkey Syrian rebels emerged, Ankara has sought to claim that it is reining them in. Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, one of the most militant, extremist and abusive of the Turkish-backed groups, supposedly had a member sentenced in a “military court martial” for a role in murdering Syrian activist Hevrin Khalaf. Khalaf was hunted down by Turkish-backed extremists and killed in October 2019 during an invasion of Syria that was enabled after Turkey orders US troops to withdraw.
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump has reportedly said he agreed to Turkey’s invasion because he admires leaders who are “mean” and “tough” and that Turkey’s far-right ruling party embodies this quality.
The mean and tough approach led to the death of Khalaf, an unarmed woman who was captured by the Turkish-backed group and beaten and machine gunned to death, the men stamping on her face and cheering in video they posted online. Ankara did nothing at the time to condemn the murder; instead its far-right media celebrated the killing as “neutralization of a terrorist.” There was no evidence Khalaf was a “terrorist.”
Turkish drones have often targeted women activists in Syria and Iraq, claiming that they are “neutralizing terrorists.” The word “terrorist” in Turkey is often applied to anyone who disagrees with the government. Comedians are sentenced to prison for comedy sketches about historic figures, and thousands were sentenced over the last year for “insulting the president.” Ankara has also become the largest jailer of journalists in the world.
While the Turkish-backed Syrian groups affiliated with the SNA claim they aren’t paid enough by Ankara as a reason for their abuses, evidence shows that those who they kidnap, rape and attack generally come from poorer minority communities.
Accusations against Turkey are now growing. Information from the Rojava Information Center asserts that ISIS members are now on Turkey’s occupation payroll in northern Syria. The US has carried out clandestine airstrikes against Al Qaeda members and other extremists in and around Idlib near where Turkish army posts are over the last year, pointing to the presence of these extremists.
THE UN report includes discussions of systematic looting and also SNA members going door to door to seek out Kurdish residents, a practice that other extremist regimes, such as the Nazis, once did against minorities. It now appears that Ankara is trying to reduce criticism for the crimes committed in the Syrian occupied zone. A report notes that it is trying to not only pretend it disciplined the factions of the SNA involved in abuses, but has sought to stop the Syrian extremists fighting each other. This is because areas like Afrin that were once peaceful have become scenes of gunfights between the Ankara-backed factions.
Under international law the occupying power is supposed to guarantee the rights of the local inhabitants. The reports indicate widespread extrajudicial killings, disproportionate force, and disappearances and targeting of women and minorities. During Ankara’s initial invasions of the area in 2018 and 2019 the UN, NATO, EU and US all appeared to approve, either due to Turkey’s threats or because they accepted its claims that it was imposing security in northern Syria. Instead northern Syria became less secure and a haven for extremist groups.
The only part of Syria today where people have more rights to freedom of expression and are generally free from the kinds of abuses common in Afrin and Damascus are in eastern Syria where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are present.
It remains to be seen if the UN report will lead to changes in northern Syria and the Turkish-occupied areas. The evidence of abuses and ethnic-cleansing is growing, but the world is generally one that is no longer a liberal, rules-based international order, so countries no longer have to adhere to international laws. That is why many areas of the world have been subjected to new, more draconian authoritarianism in recent years.
As Washington indicates that it won’t do anything – and as NATO appears to give a blank check to Turkey and the EU wrestles internally with its own problems – there may be little hope for Afrin and its civilians. That means more shocking stories of women being kidnapped and armed gangs backed by NATO-member Turkey being allowed to do as they want. Those like Hevrin Khalaf, who believed the US and its values of democracy and human rights would enable her to be a peaceful activist, found out how thin those protections really were.