Turkish-backed forces may have committed war crimes in northern Syria - U.N. report

A newly released U.N. Commission report calls on the Syrian National Army (SNA), a collection of Islamist factions under Turkish control, to immediately cease all looting of civilian property, including of religious and archaeological sites, return such property to its owners, and discipline or dismiss those individuals responsible while making the findings public.

There are reasonable grounds to believe that Turkish-backed SNA members committed war crimes in Syria, including hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture, and rape, the report says.

“The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” report published on Tuesday, touches on human rights violations and living conditions in both government-held areas, as well as regions of the country that are independent from Damascus.

There are no clean hands in Syria, “behind the frontlines and the headlines, armed actors continue to subject civilians to horrific and increasingly targeted abuse,” it says.

Turkey and Turkey backed Syrian factions have control of three different areas in Syria's north – the northwestern enclave of Afrin, Idlib, and Ra's al-Ayn.

Grave human right violations are being conducted by Turkish-backed SNA and its affiliates in all three areas, the report finds.

According to the commission, Turkey is responsible for all individuals present in such territories, and it needs to “ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children. Turkey remains bound by applicable human rights treaty obligations vis-à-vis all individuals present in such territories.”

The looting has been rampant in Afrin, which was taken over in early 2018 by the Turkish Armed Forces as well as Turkey backed Syrian opposition fighters, the report said. Civilian properties of the Kurdish people both in Afrin and Ra's al-Ayn, a northern Kurdish town was also seized by Turkey backed forces in October of 2019, being appropriated by SNA members, it says.

According to the report, Turkish forces were aware of these grave human rights violations, and may have violated the human rights treaty obligations of Turkey in failing to address them.

“The Commission corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriationas well as widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions,’’ the report says.

“After civilian property was looted, Syrian National Army fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention,’’ it added.

The report emphasises that the accounts indicate that the property of Kurdish owners were looted and appropriated by SNA members in a coordinated manner, rather than accidentally.

More than 170 women have been kidnapped by Turkish-backed rebels in Syria’s Afrin province since the start of the Turkish occupation in January 2018, including 11 more in August, and that Turkey has no intention of responding to reports of war crimes and rights violations in Afrin or northeast Syria, researcher Meghan Bodette told Ahval.

Turkish troops, along with militia groups like the Free Syrian Army, took control of Afrin following several months of intense clashes with Syrian Kurdish forces, who had at the time carved out an enclave in northeast Syria relatively isolated from Syria’s ongoing civil war, save for attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS).

“Looted household items were transported and sold through a coordinated process, which may indicate a premeditated policy implemented by several brigades,’’ one of reported findings in the study says. “Such items were often moved freely through Syrian National Army-staffed checkpoints by both Syrian National Army fighters and senior-ranking members and were stored in ad hoc locations such as warehouses, or sold at open markets.”

The 25-page report says civilians who approached senior SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions to file complaints were faced threats, extortion or detainment, while others were abducted and forced to pay ransom directly to SNA senior members for their release.

The report also allocates several pages focusing on sexual and gender-based violence in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, the regions under the control of Turkish government via proxy Syrian forces.

“During the period under review, cases of sexual violence against women and men at one detention facility in Afrin were documented. On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instil fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army Military Police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor,’’ the report indicates.

“The Commission received further information that families from Tall Abyad chose not to return to their homes, fearing rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Syrian National Army members,’’ it adds.

Another part of the violations covered in the report on attacks against cultural property which points that SNA members also looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites of profound significance in the Afrin region.

For example, SNA forces looted and excavated ancient artefacts, including mosaics, from the Hellenistic archaeological site of Cyrrhus, as well as the Ain Dara temple, protected by the UNESCO. Satellite imagery showed that both sites had likely been bulldozed between 2019 and 2020.

The commission also found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the SDF and related entities may have committed the war crime “of cruel treatment and ill-treatment of those deprived of liberty in military intelligence facilities,’’ and has “reasonable grounds to believe that in holding tens of thousands of individuals in Hawlcamp and its annex, the majority of them children, for 18 months with no legal recourse, the SDF forces held these individuals in inhuman conditions.”

The commission noted that it welcomed the development of Women’s Protection Units, taking action to remove 51 girls ranging between 13 and 17 years of age from their own ranks and housed in a “rehabilitation centre”. Eighteen boys were also in the process of being formally released at the time of reporting.

Syrians continue to be killed, suffer severe hardships and grave rights violations, despite a relative reduction in largescale hostilities since the March 5 ceasefire, the U.N. Syrian Commission of Inquiry report finds.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.