UN inquiry on Syria details extensive human right abuses, war crimes in Afrin

Arbitrary arrests and looting have become widespread in the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin after it was captured by Turkish military and its Syrian Islamist allies from Syrian Kurdish forces a year ago, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic said in a report on Thursday.

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, backed by Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, aimed to clear Afrin from People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group the Turkish government sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984.

After Afrin was seized by Turkish forces, the lack of effective complaint mechanisms and the presence of dozens of armed actors power-sharing at the sub-district level, created confusion among civilians as they were not sure where to report alleged rights abuses, the commission said.

Infighting among armed groups and a series of car bombs exacerbated instability in Afrin, while armed groups and criminal gangs abducted residents for ransom, it said. People abducted include numerous physicians, pharmacists and other civilians as well as their children and demands for ransom ranged from a few hundred dollars to $100,000, or more, the commission said.

There are numerous cases involving arbitrary arrests by armed group members, as well as credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, the report said. Such acts reportedly targeted particularly individuals of Kurdish origin, while arrests on some occasions were followed by confiscation of those individuals’ property. Individuals accused of being linked to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) or the YPG were also detained by unidentified armed groups and were later interrogated by both armed group members and Turkish officers, the report said. 

Civilians in Afrin also complained of pillaging by armed groups and criminal gangs, particularly of the olive harvest, a major source of income in the district. Instead of appropriating the olive harvest, other armed groups levied a tax on farmers, the report said. 

The commission said it had also received reports of harassment, including of women, by armed group members and demands for bribes from individuals wishing to pass checkpoints.

While the Turkish military largely left the control of the city to FSA rebels, some residents said some Turkish troops remained in the area and used school buildings for military purposes. 

Turkish authorities have reportedly been controlling, coordinating, and financing administrative, judicial and executive structures, and are in charge of issuing identification documents which are a prerequisite for civilians to move freely within Afrin, the commission said. 

The commission concluded there are reasonable grounds to believe that armed group members in Afrin had committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and pillage. It said it was unable to confirm whether Turkish forces were capable of exercising actual authority and carrying out governmental functions in the town. 

The commission’s report also detailed the situation in Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, where, according to a deal agreed in September, Ankara and Moscow have been working on the establishment of a demilitarised zone and disarming radical jihadist groups. The commission also found an extensive pattern of kidnappings and abductions in Idlib. It said that al Qaida linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which consolidated its power in the area, had also been arbitrarily detaining civilians in a systematic effort to stifle political dissent.

Meanwhile, the commission said that in areas of northeast Syria under the control of the YPG, thousands of people, including children, continued to be unlawfully interned or detained, while some of them were being held in makeshift camps unfit to meet their basic needs.