Nour hasn’t seen her husband Ahmed in over three years. “He is a civilian. He is innocent. He didn’t do anything. He is 57 years old,” she said. “Why did they arrest him?”
In October 2019, the father of four disappeared as Turkey and its rebel partners invaded northeast Syria to push alleged Kurdish terrorists away from its border and establish so-called safe zones for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. During an interview at her home in the Syrian-Turkish border city of Qamishli in August 2022, Nour wept as she spoke about the fate of her husband. Ahmed’s family believes he was one of the thousands of people who have been detained by Syrian rebels.
The nature of Syria’s 11-year conflict makes it impossible to know exactly how many people have been arrested or forcibly disappeared, but in August 2022, human rights monitors put the number at just over 154,000. During Turkey’s successful capture of a 120 km wide and 30 km deep patch of territory in 2019, rights groups and activists documented a number of human rights abuses, many of which were committed by Ankara’s rebel partners. Abuses included unlawful property seizures, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial killings.
Three years on, rights abuses continue. Ahmed and many other Syrians are still missing and Turkey is threatening to launch a fourth invasion into Syria. Turkey’s threats, coupled with its intensified attacks against northern Syria, have prompted backlash from governments and organizations worried about destabilizing consequences and further human rights violations.
DETAINED AND MISSING
After the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Kurdish forces seized territory in the country’s northeast as the Syrian government focused its efforts on countering rebel groups in other parts of the country. When the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged in 2014, Kurdish forces partnered with ethnic allies to combat a mutual threat, leading eventually to the formation of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The armed alliance of Kurdish, Arab, and other ethnic groups came to be one of the most influential players in the conflict as it pushed back ISIS and established a democratic enclave across a large swathe of northeast Syria.
Though not fully independent, the territory and its civil administration enjoy a large degree of autonomy from the Syrian government. Still, the enclave’s fate in a final settlement for Syria remains unclear. A large reason for that has to do with Turkey, which views the territory as a national security threat. While the SDF has proven itself as Washington’s most reliable partner in Syria, Turkey accuses its Kurdish core of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara. While the US backs the SDF, Turkey worries that a strong Kurdish presence along its southern border will embolden the PKK.
Citing what it sees as a major national security threat, Turkey has launched multiple operations against the SDF. Alongside Turkey has been the Syrian National Army (SNA), whose formation overseen by Ankara in 2017 brought together a mix of armed groups ranging from the anti-government Free Syrian Army to more radical factions, including Islamists.
Since 2016, Turkey and its rebel allies have launched three military incursions into northern Syria. Turkey’s first operation in 2016, Euphrates Shield, targeted ISIS militants, but it also split territory controlled by Ankara’s Kurdish foes. The following two incursions, Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019, directly targeted the SDF.
While Turkey delivered heavy blows to the SDF and territory under its control, both operations were “fraught with human rights abuses.” Rebel groups that carried out the operations alongside Turkish forces in particular were charged with extrajudicial killings, pillaging and unlawfully seizing properties, and forcibly disappearing individuals. Such rights abuses continue to occur, even as rebel groups say they have taken steps to crack down on such behavior and hold perpetrators accountable.
Despite the number of Syrians who have allegedly returned or moved to the safe zones, going back can be difficult, if not life-threatening, for some.
Among the myriad actors in the conflict, the SDF and the SNA constitute two of the key actors, specifically in northern Syria. Though the frontlines have largely remained unchanged since Ankara’s last operation in 2019, Turkey and the SNA have waged a steady slow-burn campaign of shelling and airstrikes against the SDF, which regularly retaliates with its own attacks. In the process, both sides have committed human rights abuses. The SNA and other anti-government factions have detained or forcibly disappeared more than 3,800 individuals. The SDF has reportedly detained or disappeared over 4,200 people.
Ahmed’s family believes he is one of an unclear number of Syrians detained by the Turkey-allied rebels around the time of Operation Peace Spring. Some of those detained were reportedly released after ransom payments. Others were transferred to Turkey, where they faced trial and prison.
When Turkey and its rebel allies descended on the border city of Ras al-Ain – known as Sere Kaniye in Kurdish – under the cover of air attacks and shelling in October 2019, Nour and three of her children fled. Believing they would soon return, they left with only the clothes they wore. “We left even our phones there as the air strikes started,” Nour said. Ahmed opted to stay and watch over the family’s home and property. A poor farmer with no ties to local officials, he believed he would be safe.
But he was wrong.
Three days after fleeing, Nour lost contact with Ahmed. A few days later, she received word from a Turkish acquaintance. Ahmed had contacted him and said to tell his family that he had been taken to a jail in Şanlıurfa, a province neighboring Ras al-Ain that holds de facto control over the adjacent Syrian territory.
It is unclear why Ahmed was detained and transferred to Turkey, but Turkish court records provided by Syrian lawyers add an insight into the circumstances and fate of at least 182 other Syrians arrested shortly after Operation Peace Spring. According to one lawyer, who lives outside of Syria and asked to remain anonymous because he frequently travels to Turkey, all 182 detainees were civilians. In Turkish court indictments for 10 of the 15 detainees overseen by the lawyer, the detainees admitted to being members of Kurdish forces, albeit rank-and-file members with mundane assignments who were mostly conscripted into the armed group, sometimes forcefully against their will, or due to financial difficulties.
Despite all being Arab, the detainees were told that if they admitted to being members of the PKK, they would be released, the lawyer said. In their statements, the detainees tended to paint the Syrian Kurdish forces in a negative light, sometimes describing them as terrorists affiliated with the PKK. All were charged by a court in Şanlıurfa with undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state, membership in an armed terrorist organization, and attempted murder. “These 15 people are wrongly accused,” the lawyer said. “These people are originally Arab and don’t know even one word in Kurdish. How can they be members of the PKK?” Turkish authorities largely failed to provide sufficient evidence for the charges. The lawyer said that the transfer of Syrians to Turkey and trial by Turkish law is also a violation of international law.
Though the detainees state in their indictments that Turkey and its rebel allies treated them well, the lawyer said they endured torture. The lawyer said it was a rebel group called the 20th Division that carried out the detentions. Closely allied with Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a rebel faction sanctioned by the United States for human rights violations and recruiting former ISIS fighters, the 20th Division’s leader, Abu Barzan, is also the former deputy commander of Usud al-Sharqiya, a rebel group that reportedly received support from the United States.
The lawyer said he urged Barzan to go to Turkish authorities to ask for the detainees’ release. After initially denying that he detained them, Barzan agreed to intervene but was ultimately rebuffed by Turkish officials. The matter, Barzan allegedly told the lawyer, was out of his hands. Barzan could not be reached for comment, but in an interview earlier this year he seemed to acknowledge that rights violations had occurred.“Most of the fighters were ordinary civilians before the war began or before they joined the armed groups,” Barzan said during the interview. “They have never received formal training on the rules of war and IHL (international humanitarian law) in particular. So obviously some mistakes have been made by them, which is something that we now are trying to rectify through our engagement with Geneva Call.” Geneva Call, a humanitarian organization that works with armed groups and governing authorities to promote adherence to international humanitarian norms, did not respond to a request for comment.
Out of the 15 detainees that the lawyer handled, he said four were charged with attempted murder and given life sentences. The other 11 were charged with lesser crimes and sentenced to five years in jail. One life sentence was successfully appealed, and the lawyer said he is working to overturn the others as well. At least ten of the detainees have been released on Turkey’s version of parole and are serving the remainder of their sentences in Şanlıurfa province. As for the other 167 detainees, the lawyer does not know about their whereabouts or fate. A lack of funding has prevented the lawyer from being able to follow their cases.
Like those 167, Nour is unsure of Ahmed’s fate.
After learning that he had been imprisoned in Turkey, a year and a half passed before Nour heard from Ahmed again. That time, again through an intermediary, he said he had been moved to another prison in Batman, Turkey. “I’m in jail. I don’t know why,” he said. “Just tell my family I’m alive.”
Nour has not heard from him since.
Three years since Turkey’s last military operation, human rights abuses continue to occur in territory controlled by Ankara and the SNA. While the SNA has taken measures to crack down on rights violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure accountability, arrests and detentions have risen since last year. SNA groups may have committed abuses against detainees that amount to war crimes. And the judicial and executive bodies established by the SNA to address rights abuses “remained nominal and with limited powers.”
While the Syrian National Army holds a degree of authority in the territories, Turkey ultimately has the final say.
Meanwhile, violence between SNA groups exacerbates insecurity in northern Syria. In Turkish-controlled territory in the northeast, at least 23 armed clashes have erupted between rebel factions this year, according to human rights activists. Fighting tended to break out due to disputes over power, property, smuggling, drug dealing, and human trafficking. The fighting left at least 20 people dead and 82 wounded, most of them SNA fighters.
“Turkey knows full well that a lot of the groups it’s supporting are a bunch of undisciplined thugs and will fight a little bit,” said Christopher Phillips, professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London. Still, Turkey takes steps to ensure that quarrels never get too out of hand, Phillips said, and has at times sent military forces to intervene.
Critics say that the fighting exacerbates fear and instability in the Turkish territories. Dissatisfaction with security conditions has prompted protests, at least one of which was met with violent force by the SNA. “They’ve been described by some as warlords in how they rule over that local population,” said Phillips. “I think that, at times, is an accurate description.”
While the SNA holds a degree of authority in the territories, Turkey ultimately has the final say. The extent of Turkish control could be seen in August 2022 when security forces in the SNA-controlled city of Azaz arrested protestors who burned Turkish flags following news reports suggesting a possible rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian government, anti-government forces saw such a move as a betrayal. “You see there really clearly that if certain lines are crossed, or certain infringements that Turkey isn’t happy with, then Turkey will step in and act,” Phillips said.
FEARS OF DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE
Turkey’s control over the territories has alarmed some former residents, particularly Kurds who accuse Ankara of attempting to change demographics by moving in large numbers of pro-Turkish Sunni Arabs. Turkey denies such allegations, even as SNA fighters continue to seize the homes and properties of former residents. Operation Peace Spring displaced some 180,000 people. While some have since returned, an estimated 44,000 to 60,500 remain displaced, with many living in displacement camps.
“Most people didn’t believe they would stay like this,” said Zaki Hagi, a lawyer from Ras al-Ain now living in Qamishli. “They were looking forward to going back.” Shortly after the operation, Hagi briefly returned to Ras al-Ain. He found his home partly looted and his stationary and law office completely empty.
“The whole city was like this,” he said.
After leaving a second time, Hagi said an SNA leader moved into his home.
Kurds once made up half of Ras al-Ain’s population, said Orhan Kamal, coordinator of Synergy/Hevdestî Association for Victims in North and East Syria, a rights group. Today, only 48 remain. “We know them by name,” Kamal said during an interview in August 2022. Similarly, only one Armenian, the caretaker of a church, remains in the city, according to Kamal. He said that 45 villages are empty of Kurds, Syriacs, and Armenians. SNA members and other Syrians, many of them Sunni Arabs, have moved into properties of former residents, Kamal continued. Synergy Association has documented the seizure of 5,500 homes and 1,200 properties in territory captured during Operation Peace Spring, which could amount to war crimes.
In Afrin, a situation similar to that in Turkish controlled territory in northeast Syria has unfolded. Kurds in the once predominantly Kurdish region now reportedly make up less than half of the population. “There is a Turkification policy in areas controlled by them,” Kamal said.
It is unclear how many Syrians have moved into Turkish controlled territory, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in May 2022 that half a million Syrians had returned to the safe zones. Experts and critics see such resettlement, coupled with attacks against the SDF, as Erdoğan’s attempt to boost his popularity ahead of upcoming elections. It “give(s) the impression to the Turkish voters that Erdoğan is doing something about the refugees (in Turkey), which have become increasingly unpopular,” said Phillips. Some 3.6 million Syrian refugees reside in Turkey. “This is seen as a political move in an attempt to gain their support for the 2023 presidential elections, which it looks like he might actually win,” Phillips continued.
DANGEROUS ATTEMPTS TO GO HOME
Despite the number of Syrians who have allegedly returned or moved to the safe zones, going back can be difficult, if not life-threatening, for some.
Shortly after Operation Peace Spring, Mahmoud Hassan Omari and his mother attempted to return to their house in Ras al-Ain. Mentally handicapped and with paralysis in his hand, Mahmoud’s family, who had fled to the nearby city of Hasakah, thought he would be safe. Within minutes of arriving and greeting neighbors, a car rolled up with four armed men, said Mahmoud’s father, Hassan. The men began questioning Mahmoud and his mother, Hassan said. An argument ensued and then the men beat Mahmoud until he collapsed. Terrified, his mother fainted. Neighbors attempted to intervene, but the men fired into the ground and took Mahmoud. After regaining consciousness, Mahmoud’s mother went looking for him. She discovered that he had been taken by the Al Hamzat Brigade, an SNA group. Despite visiting the brigade’s leader and the prison Mahmoud was supposedly held in, she was told he was not there. After returning to her husband, Mahmoud’s parents began contacting anyone they thought could help free their son. Seven months passed, and then the family heard indirectly from another former prisoner that Mahmoud had been killed.
“We won’t believe anything until we see the body of our son with our own eyes,” Hassan said. “Then we will believe he is dead.”
THE IMPENDING INVASION
Since May 2022, Turkey has threatened to launch another invasion into Syria. Following an explosion in a popular tourist district in Istanbul in mid-November 2022, Turkey intensified attacks against the SDF. Ankara accused Kurdish forces of being behind the blast, which left six dead and 81 wounded. The Kurds denied responsibility, while SDF officials said the woman accused of placing the bomb had family members linked to ISIS.
During a press conference last week, SDF Commander General Mazloum Abdi said that Turkey had mobilized troops along its border with Syria and notified SNA groups to be prepared for military action. Speaking through a translator, Abdi painted the impending operation as one posing an existential threat. “This operation will be much wider than any other operations before, and impacts and influences of this operation will not be limited as other previous operations,” he said.
Both the United States and Russia, who maintain military footprints in Syria, have pushed back against the invasion, warning that it risks destabilizing the region. Still, Abdi stressed that Turkey is prepared to move forward with an operation and could do so within a week. The general also reiterated previous concerns that a Turkish incursion could allow ISIS, which has been operating underground since losing the last of its territory in 2019, to make a resurgence. The SDF temporarily seized joint counter-terror operations with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition as it focused efforts and resources on preparing for a Turkish invasion. On Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, the SDF resumed cooperation even as it continued to brace for a possible Turkish incursion.
After 11 years of conflict, many worry about yet another bloody chapter in Syria’s crisis.
“Already, we’ve got a displacement, economic, and humanitarian crisis that’s unprecedented,” said Hiba Zayadin, senior researcher for Syria and Jordan at Human Rights Watch. “The northeast cannot handle another invasion at this point.” There is also a considerable risk that human rights violations like those that occurred during Turkey’s previous operations will happen again, Zayadin added. “The vast number of human rights abuses that were documented at the time is going to happen again, but you’re talking about a Syria that’s even weaker at this point.”
Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Asia.
Cover image: An armed man looks on during a funeral procession in the Syrian-Turkish border city of Qamishli, Aug. 8, 2022.