Turkish troops present at Afrin torture sites, U.N. says

(Updates with the Turkish Embassy's statement in the 11th paragraph)  

Turkish officials were present during the torture of prisoners at Syrian rebel bases, several survivors have told a United Nations commission.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry of the Syrian Arab Republic released a draft report into detention and disappearances on Monday.

The report includes several damning findings over the conduct of rebel groups occupying Afrin, a historically Kurdish region now controlled by Turkey.

A Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018 expelled the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and handed the territory over to an alliance of militias known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). Since then, the SNA has been accused of ethnic cleansing, mass looting, and human trafficking.

Hundreds of Afrin’s civilians have been reported kidnapped or disappeared after rebel militias began holding locals for ransom, a practice which gradually evolved into a systematic operation to extort Afrin’s Kurdish population, according to the U.N. report.

Survivors say their captors dished out “frequent and severe beatings” while demanding detainees confess links to Kurdish political factions. Rebel groups also sexually assaulted and abused women in their detention, kidnapping some and marrying them off by force.

The SNA has particularly targeted Afrin’s Yezidi religious minority. Yezidi shrines have been looted, and Yezidi families subjected to “exorbitant” ransoms, according to Wilson Center fellow Amy Austin Holmes.

“Even if they survive, this is a way to force demographic change, to force those few remaining Yezidis who still live in Afrin to leave,” Holmes told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in June 2020. “This is a way to engage in ethnic cleansing and demographic change without actually killing people.”

One Yezidi woman told U.N. investigators that rebels beat her with cables while threatening her life. “Yezidis are infidels. We will kick you out from your land. You will die here,” a militia member allegedly told the woman.

Turkish troops were frequently present at rebel detention centres and attended torture sessions, according to the testimony of survivors cited in the U.N. report.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington described the U.N. allegations against Turkish forces as "baseless".  

"The Turkish Armed Forces fully respect the international humanitarian law at all times," the embassy said in a statement to Ahval. "The Turkish Armed Forces did not get involved, directly or indirectly, in any incident of violation in Syria."

The embassy did not deny abuses had taken place but insisted Turkey could not be held accountable for governance in the region.

"The areas in the north of Syria that were liberated from terrorism through Turkish operations, are under the control of the Syrian Interim Government, which is affiliated with the representative of the legitimate opposition, namely the Syrian National Coalition," the embassy said.

"Hence any allegations attributed to the Syrian National Army should be inquired with the authorities of the Syrian Interim Government."

Reached by text message, Syrian National Army (SNA) spokesman Youssef Hammoud offered some advice.

“I’m no longer in a hurry to read reports like this,” he said. “The United Nations has been politicised in its affairs, so I don’t see a point in rushing to get informed.”

Hammoud said the report was being translated, and promised to come back with more specific comments, but had not responded to follow up messages ahead of this article going to press.

Detailing the abuses, the U.N. report found few clean hands in the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of witnesses told U.N. investigators that anti-government groups - including the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State, and offshoots of al-Qaeda - routinely disappeared and tortured their opponents.

The Syrian government has also run a well-documented campaign against dissidents, including systematic disappearances, torture, and killings. Human rights groups estimate that tens of thousands have died in Syrian regime prisons.

U.S.-backed forces have been implicated in torture too.

The U.N. said the Kurdish-led SDF had “arbitrarily detained and, on occasion tortured” its political opponents, including at a “black site” in al-Malkiya. Investigators found thirty such cases from 2013 to 2020, according to the report.

The SDF’s political office in Washington failed to respond to a request for comment ahead of publication.

On the other side of the front lines, the U.N. report named two rebel groups formerly backed by the United States, the Sultan Murad Division and the Hamza Division, as some of the worst torturers in Afrin.

The Sultan Murad Division received anti-tank weapons as part of a covert CIA program to fight the Syrian government. While the Hamza Division was vetted, trained and armed by the United States as part of a now defunct Department of Defense program to forge a rebel army against the Islamic State. Both groups later joined the SNA.

The Hamza Division’s “portfolio was later taken over by Turkey in the context of its late 2016 direct intervention into Syria and U.S. disengagement from north western Syria,” Alexander McKeever, a researcher at the Syrians for Truth and Justice campaign, told Ahval News.

“Since then, the group's size has significantly grown which, in conjunction with its close ties to Turkey, has allowed it to become one of the most prominent factions in Turkish-controlled parts of Syria,” he said.

The group has also engaged in mercenary work in Libya and Azerbaijan.

A series of incidents last year revealed the extent of Hamza Division abuses against Afrin’s civilian population.

During a May 2020 dispute at a local shop, Hamza Division fighters opened fire and killed several civilians. In response, an angry mob stormed the group’s headquarters, where they found eight women in a secret prison.

A video showed the women being escorted out of the prison by Turkish-backed military police. Kurdish groups called it “an insult to women all over the world” and demanded an impartial investigation.

Experts remain in little doubt over the root cause of theses abuses.

“Unless Turkey withdraws from the areas that it occupied, including Ras al-Ayn, Tal Abyad, and Afrin, it is unlikely that the original inhabitants - regardless of their religion, regardless of their ethnicity - will ever return to their homes,” Holmes said during her commission testimony.

“It is unlikely that the Yezidis and Christians who lived there for hundreds of years will ever be able to return home unless Turkey withdraws.”