Turkish-backed militias are found culpable of an “onslaught” of war-crimes often conducted in the presence of Turkish officers

An “onslaught of violations” against civilians including “war crimes” of “hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and rape” committed by Turkish-controlled militias in Syria, a new UN report has found. Rojava Information Center helped the UN speak to civilians kidnapped, tortured and racially abused by Turkish-controlled militias in newly-occupied Sere Kaniye (Ras-al-Ayn).

The report also includes extensive information on atrocities and war crimes committed by the Syrian Government and HTS (the former al-Nusra Front). The report also criticizes SDF, particularly for conditions for ISIS-linked individuals held in Hol Camp, and calls on the international community to support SDF with repatriation efforts rather than turning its back.

This summary includes key highlights followed by relevant extracts going into detail about atrocities, war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing committed by Turkish-controlled ‘SNA’ militias, sometimes with the knowledge and presence of Turkish officers. The full 25-page report is downloadable here.

Summary

The UN’s key findings in Turkish-occupied areas include:

  • “Civilians ‘primarily of Kurdish origin’ beaten, tortured, denied food or water, and interrogated about their fath and ethnicity”
  • “Prevalent and recurrent” hostage-taking and torture for extortion and to punish dissenters
  • Kurds systematically and violently displaced from their homes, told: “if it were up to me, I would kill every Kurd from 1 to 80 years old”
  • Women tortured in presence of Turkish officers
  • Mass rape, abduction, forced marriage, ‘climate of fear’ for women now unable to leave home
  • Gang-rape of a minor as method of torture
  • 30 women raped in Turkish-occupied Tel Abyad in one month
  • Mass detention of Kurdish and Yezidi women in unknown black sites
  • Yezidi women pressured to convert to Islam
  • “‘Systematic’ and ‘coordinated’ looting and property appropriation
  • “Coercing primarily-Kurdish residents to flee through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, detention”
  • Desecration and destruction of graveyards, historic & religious sites, threatening “precarious” Yezidi minority

The report also condemns the poor security situation, “barrage of IEDs and shelling” in Turkish-held areas and child recruitment by SNA.

Turkey may be culpable for war crimes both witnessed by Turkish officers (such as torture) and co-ordinated by these officers (unlawful deportation and property looting), the UN conclude.

The report also criticizes SDF for poor conditions & lack of legal recourse for ISIS-linked individuals, especially in Hol Camp; 8 instances of unlawful detention, including 4 conducted alongside US security services; 2 instances of torture.

1500 locals have left Hol in an ongoing release program, while international states must repatriate their own citizens, the UN find. The SDF are also criticized for 8 instances of child recruitment, though UN praises SDF’s removal of 69 children from its ranks.

Almost all Christians and Yezidis and a large majority of Kurds have been forcibly displaced from their homes by Turkish forces

Key extracts

B. Violations outside of the context of hostilities

46. During the period under review, the Commission corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation[1] as well as widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty[2] perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.[3] After civilian property was looted, Syrian National Army fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled,[4] or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention. The Commission notes that, during the reporting period, a member of Brigade 123 (the Ahrar Al-Sharqiyah Brigade) was sentenced by a military court of the “Syrian interim government” – which is affiliated to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – for the deliberate killing of Hevrin Khalaf and others in October 2019.[5] The “Syrian interim government” also indicated that, in May, it had issued a permanent order on the prohibition of child recruitment.

                         Looting and property appropriation

47. Throughout the Afrin region, multiple accounts indicate that the property of Kurdish owners was looted and appropriated by Syrian National Army members in a coordinated manner. For example, in September 2019, civilians in the Shaykh al-Hadid subdistrict (of the Afrin region) described how members of Division 14, Brigade 142 (the Suleiman Shah Brigade) of the Syrian National Army had gone from door to door instructing Kurdish families with fewer than three members to vacate their houses to accommodate individuals arriving from outside of Afrin. Others had been forced by Syrian National Army members to pay a “tax” on agricultural harvests or a set amount of rent as a precondition for remaining in the homes they owned. Families recalled having been extorted for between LS 10,000 and LS 25,000, depending on their means and ability to pay.

“If it were up to me, I would kill every Kurd from 1 to 80 years old”

– Commander in Turkish-controlled SNA forces

48. Also in Afrin, in December 2019, a senior member of another Syrian National Army brigade went from door to door in a large residential building, requesting proof of ownership only from the Kurdish inhabitants. One resident, unable to provide such documentation, was forced to appear at the brigade’s security office, where he was verbally abused and told “if it were up to me, I would kill every Kurd from 1 to 80 years old”.He was also threatened with detention. Fearing for his family’s safety, the man fled shortly thereafter. One woman who approached Turkish officials in Sheikh Hadid district to complain about the appropriation of her home was told to speak with the Suleiman Shah Brigade, to whom authority had apparently been delegated by Turkey to deal with such cases.

49. Similarly to in Afrin, the civilian properties of Kurdish owners in the Ra’s al-Ayn region who had fled battles during Operation Peace Spring[6] in October 2019 were also appropriated by Syrian National Army forces. Members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) of the Syrian National Army engaged in widespread and organized looting and property appropriation in Ra’s al-Ayn, including by marking house walls with the names of individual brigades. Civilians narrated consistent accounts to the Commission conveying their fears about remaining and their inability to return to their homes, which had been looted and occupied by the brigades or their families in the immediate aftermath of hostilities. On two occasions, civilians recalled being instructed not to return by Syrian National Army commanders and fighters.

50. Looted household items were transported and sold through a coordinated process, which may indicate a premeditated policy implemented by several brigades. 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. In one such case in March, a returnee to Tel al-Arisha village found his house looted, including its windows, doors and generators, which had also happened to numerous other houses on the same street. A senior member of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army sold back to him his own household goods from a warehouse that was being used as a storage point for looted goods. He fled immediately thereafter.

51. In another case, the home of a Kurdish family was appropriated by members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) and later converted into an institute for Qur’anic studies run by a Turkish NGO, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. On 22 June, its official opening was inaugurated by the governor of Şanlıurfa (Turkey). Reports of the use of civilian houses for military purposes by Turkish ground forces in Dawoudiya village have also been received. The residents of Dawoudiya have been prevented from returning to their homes, some of which were destroyed between April and June, while other houses have been appropriated for military purposes by Turkish armed forces (see annex II).

                         Unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and ill-treatment

52. As their properties were systematically looted and appropriated by Syrian National Army forces, civilians approached senior Syrian National Army members in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions to lodge complaints. In response, many found themselves threatened, extorted or detained by Syrian National Army members, while others were abducted and forced to pay ransom directly to Syrian National Army senior members for their release. The Commission remains concerned by the prevalent and recurrent use of hostage-taking by Syrian National Army forces.

53. Regarding incidents of detention, civilians in both Ra’s al-Ayn and Afrin were most often detained by Syrian National Army members for their alleged past links to the self-administration, and were deprived of access to legal counsel, and on some occasions, interrogated by Turkish officials with the assistance of interpreters prior to or while in detention.[7] In most cases documented by the Commission, civilians were detained in the Afrin central prison or in an underground unit of the Syrian National Army Military Police headquarters located in the building of a former commercial high school in Afrin. The unit is comprised of five larger cells and four solitary confinement cells.Others were taken to unknown detention sites.

54. In detention, civilians – primarily of Kurdish origin – were beaten, tortured, denied food or water, and interrogated about their faith and ethnicity. One boy described to the Commission how he had been detained by the Syrian National Army Military Police in the city of Afrin in mid-2019, and held for five months in the Syrian National Army headquarters, before being transferred to the Afrin central prison and released in March 2020. While detained, both Syrian National Army members and Turkish-speaking officials dressed in military fatigues were present. The boy was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling. He was then blindfolded and repeatedly beaten with plastic tubes. The boy described how the officers interrogated him about his alleged links to the self-administration. In another case, two women were detained by the Syrian National Army in November 2019, at a checkpoint operated jointly with Turkish officials in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, when returning to their homes. One of the victims described how, during interrogation, she had been threatened with rape and beaten on the head by Syrian National Army members, in the presence of Turkish officials. The Commission also received information on joint arrest operations launched by the Syrian National Army Military Police and Turkish police forces in Afrin, including criminal forensic units.

55. Syrian National Army forces also held civilians in undisclosed detention sites. For example, on 29 May, video footage widely circulated in the media showed members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) rushing out from an undisclosed detention facility, while ushering 11 women, including one Yazidi and three Kurdish women, and a baby boy to another location. The Commission confirmed that some of the women had been detained by Hamza Brigade members since 2018. At the time of writing, their current location remains unknown.

56. Other women belonging to the Yazidi religious minority were also detained by Syrian National Army forces, and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during an interrogation. Similarly, the Commission is currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yazidi women were detained in both Ra’s al-Ayn and Afrin by Syrian National Army members between November 2019 and July 2020.

57. The Commission also obtained information that indicates that Syrian nationals, including women, who were detained by the Syrian National Army in the Ra’s al-Ayn region were subsequently transferred by Turkish forces to Turkey, indicted for crimes that would have been committed in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, on charges including murder or membership of a terrorist organization, under Turkish criminal law.

58. Furthermore, the Commission is concerned at reports that Syrian National Army forces are recruiting children to be used in hostilities outside of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.[8]

                         Sexual and gender-based violence

59. The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions have faced acts of intimidation by Syrian National Army brigade members, engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes.[9] Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of “female honour”.[10]

60. 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. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch in an act that amounts to torture.[11] One eyewitness recalled that Turkish officials had been present in the facility on the first day, when the rape was aborted, suggesting their presence may have acted as a deterrent. Another detainee was gang-raped in the same facility some weeks after this incident.

61. 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. At least 30 women had reportedly been raped in February alone. A former judge in Afrin confirmed that Syrian National Army fighters had been charged with rape and sexual violence carried out during house raids in the region, however none had been convicted, but rather had been released after a few days.

62. The Commission also received reports of forced marriage and the abduction of Kurdish women in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, which primarily involved members of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army. In January, a woman was abducted by a member of the Brigade, who forcibly married her and divorced her shortly thereafter.

                         Attacks against cultural property

63. Syrian National Army members also looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites of profound significance in the Afrin region. For example, Syrian National Army 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 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).[12] Satellite imagery showed that both sites had likely been bulldozed between 2019 and 2020 (see annex II).

traditional practices and rites.[13]

                         Findings

65. The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army fighters, in particular members of Division 14, Brigade 142 (the Suleiman Shah Brigade), Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) and Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade), repeatedly perpetrated the war crime of pillage in both the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions (see paras. 47–51 and 64 above) and may also be responsible for the war crime of destroying or seizing the property of an adversary.[14]

66. The Commission also has reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army members committed the war crimes of hostage-taking (see para. 55 above), cruel treatment and torture (see para. 54 above),[15] and rape,[16] which may also amount to torture[17] (see para. 60 above). Syrian National Army members also looted and destroyed cultural property, in violation of international humanitarian law (see paras. 63–64 above).[18]

67. In addition, the Commission notes that, in areas under effective Turkish control, Turkey carries a responsibility to, as far as possible, ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children.[19] Turkey remains bound by applicable human rights treaty obligations vis-à-vis all individuals present in such territories.[20]

68. In this regard, the Commission notes the allegations that Turkish forces were aware of incidents of looting and appropriation of civilian property and that they were present in detention facilities run by the Syrian National Army where the ill-treatment of detainees was rampant, including during interrogation sessions when torture took place. In failing to intervene in both cases, Turkish forces may have violated the above-mentioned obligations of Turkey.

69. The Commission further notes that transfers of Syrians detained by the Syrian National Army to Turkish territory may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation of protected persons (see para. 57 above).[21] Such transfers provide further indication of collaboration and joint operations between Turkey and the Syrian National Army for the purpose of detention and intelligence-gathering. The Commission continues to investigate the precise extent to which various Syrian National Army brigades and Turkish forces have formed a joint command and control hierarchy and notes that, if any armed group members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, violations by these actors may entail criminal responsibility for such commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.[22]


                     [1]   A/HRC/43/57, paras. 39–42; and A/HRC/42/51, paras. 55–58.

                     [2]   A/HRC/43/57, paras. 39–40.

                     [3]   The Commission sent related information requests to Turkey and to the Syrian National Army, on 30 June and 2 July respectively.

                     [4]         A/HRC/43/57, para. 48.

                     [5]   Ibid., para. 58.

                     [6]         Ibid.

                     [7]   A/HRC/40/70, para. 66.

                     [8]   See also www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25970&LangID
=E&fbclid=IwAR0xKFfdKKvbdfnRRHTQAC5q-rDDwJFyEfpA3_Nwe8knCpsCl1cSU5S1_nk.

                     [9]         A/HRC/43/57, paras. 88–90.

                    [10]   A/HRC/29/27/Add.3, para. 19.

                    [11]   International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Anto Furundžija, IT-95-17/1-T, judgment of 10 December 1998, paras. 127 and 129.

                    [12]   The Commission has previously documented that the Ain Dara temple was damaged on 21 January 2018; see A/HRC/39/65, para. 19.

                    [13]         Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, art. 1.

                    [14]         International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) rules 52 and 156.

                    [15]         ICRC rules 90, 96 and 156.

                    [16]         ICRC rules 93 and 156.

                    [17]   See, for example, International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Kunarac, Kovač and Vuković, IT-96-23 and IT-96-23/1-A, judgment of 12 June 2002, para. 150.

                    [18]   ICRC rule 40.

                    [19]   See A/HRC/34/CRP.3, para. 103, available from www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session34/Pages/ListReports.aspx.

                    [20]   Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 2004, paras. 107–113; and see European Court of Human Rights, Al-Skeini and others v. United Kingdom (application no. 55721/07), judgment of 7 July 2011, paras. 138–149.

                    [21]   Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, art. 147.

                    [22]   Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, art. 28. See also A/HRC/43/57, para. 59.