On Sept. 18, the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a report on human rights violations allegedly committed by various factions in the Syrian conflict, including Turkish-backed armed groups in northern Syria operating in areas that are controlled by Turkey. Among other things, the U.N. report documents kidnappings, illegal population transfers, killings and theft of property.
“People living in these areas whose rights have been violated are entitled to protection and a remedy,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Bachelet called on Turkey “to immediately launch an impartial, transparent and independent investigation into the incidents we have verified, account for the fate of those detained and abducted by the affiliated armed groups, and hold accountable those responsible for what may, in some instances, amount to crimes under international law, including war crimes.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded:
"We categorically reject both the baseless allegations of human rights violations claimed against the Syrian opposition, which operate on the ground to combat terrorism and ensure the return of Syrian refugees, and concerning our country in relation to them, as well as the groundless criticisms by the [U.N.] leveled against Turkey on the basis of the said allegations.”
This is misleading.
First, it is not true, as the Turkish Foreign Ministry claims, that the report ignores alleged atrocities by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which worked with the United States to combat Islamic State and also joined the fight against the Assad regime in the long-running Syria conflict.
Turkey views the YPG as a front for the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PPK), a separatist group that has operated in southeastern Turkey and which the United States and European Union have also designated as a terrorist group.
The U.N. report refers to the YPG’s past recruitment of child soldiers and states that the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG plays a major role, also uses child soldiers. The report accuses the SDF of detaining and torturing civilians.
The U.N. report mentions an April car bombing attack in the northern Syrian city of Afrin. The attack killed four Turkish soldiers and several dozen civilians, wounding some 50 others. Turkey blamed the YPG for the attack, and although the U.N. report does not assign blame it does not exonerate the YPG.
Regarding alleged abuses by Turkish-backed units, the report gets specific. A sample:
“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 ... and may also be responsible for the war crime of destroying or seizing the property of an adversary.”
Describing systematic looting in detail, the report states:
“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.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow and Syria expert at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington D.C.-based policy research institute, says that while Turkey publicly denies the accusations against its Syrian proxies, it has privately acknowledged excesses.
In a Sept. 19 Twitter thread, Tsurkov detailed a meeting between a Turkish intelligence officer and commanders from Syrian rebel groups that receive Turkish financing and aid. According an attendee identified as Abu Said, the Turkish officer brought up crimes committed by rebel fighters and told commanders to “halt the abuses against civilians.”
Tsurkov’s source said that Syrian rebel commanders were told they’d be held responsible for their subordinates’ crimes, but he did not say how Turkey would enforce this. She noted that Turkey supplies these groups with arms and salaries but thus far hasn’t used this leverage to modify any of the groups’ behaviors.
Turkey was an early supporter of the Syrian opposition after the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in 2011. Turkey not only provided refuge for defectors from the Syrian Arab Army who went on to form the Free Syrian Army, but subsequently took in 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since 2016, the Turkish military has operated inside Syria.
In January 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, aimed at driving the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG/YPJ from the Afrin region. In October 2019, it launched another offensive against the YPG/YPJ and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, which expanded Turkey’s area of control in northern Syria.
The Turkish military also maintains observation posts in the besieged northwestern Syrian rebel enclave of Idlib and conducts joint patrols with Russian forces in the area.