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Feb 16 2019

Syrians in Idlib and Turkish-controlled areas fear arrests, torture - Al Jazeera

Armed groups in Syria have committed abuses against civilians in rebel-held Idlib and Turkish-controlled areas, according to rights groups, Al Jazeera reported on Saturday.

Civilians in Idlib fear arrest, torture, or both, though to a lesser extent compared to government controlled territory as well as to areas west of the Euphrates, it said. 

Turkey and Russia signed a deal in September over Idlib to prevent a potential military assault by the Syrian government. The deal included the establishment of a demilitarised zone, with Turkey taking the responsibility for dissolving jihadi groups.

The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) last month agreed a deal ending fighting with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate. The deal strengthened the jihadi fighters’ grip on the last major rebel-held enclave.

Though the deal between Ankara and Moscow has prevented an attack by the Syrian government, it has not been sufficient to protect residents from a failing economy and the lawlessness in the enclave, Al Jazeera said. 

Civilians live under the collective fear that they may be picked up and tortured if they are unable to pay a ransom to rebel gangs, it said. 

A report published by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in January said HTS was responsible for the kidnapping of at least eleven, and torture of six people, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights accused HTS of arresting 184 people in the last three months.

"We have seen HTS use some of the same tactics as the Syrian government, such as illegal detentions and torture,” Al Jazeera quoted Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, as saying. 

Turkey has lines of communications with HTS and should use its leverage over the group regarding their treatment of civilian population, Fakih said.

"Turkey is supposed to control Idlib, but it does not. HTS has defied Turkish requests all along,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Activists in Syria have been targeted by a range of groups over their real and suspected allegiances in Idlib and in areas west of the Euphrates, which are under the control of the Turkey-backed NLF, Al Jazeera said. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) pointed to human rights abuses in areas under Turkish control such as Afrin, al Bab and Jarablus in a report published in June. 

Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow at the Israel-based Forum for Regional Thinking, told Al Jazeera that Ankara had an obligation to protect Syrians living in areas under its control, especially given that the factions carrying out much of the abuse were financed and trained by Turkey.

During a trilateral summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Thursday, Turkish, Iranian, and Russian leaders agreed to take unspecified extra steps to clear radical groups in Idlib. 

On his way back from the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that Ankara and Moscow were determined to sustain the deal over Idlib. “Depending on the developments, joint operations can be launched any time,” Erdoğan said.