HRW: Turkey bears responsibility for abuses and crimes in occupied territories in northern Syria

HRW reports abductions, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, and torture in occupied territories, saying “Turkish officials bear responsibility as the occupying power, and in some cases have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.”

Turkey bears responsibility for the serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by members of its own forces and local armed groups it supports in Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kurdish residents have borne the brunt of the abuses due to their perceived ties to Kurdish-led forces that control vast swathes of northeast Syria.

The 74-page report, “Everything is by the Power of the Weapon: Abuses and Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Northern Syria,” documents abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, sexual violence, and torture by the various factions of a loose coalition of armed groups, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), as well as the Military Police, a force established by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and Turkish authorities in 2018, ostensibly to curb abuses. Human Rights Watch also found that the Turkish Armed Forces and intelligence agencies were involved in carrying out and overseeing abuses. Human Rights Watch also documented violations of housing, land, and property rights, including widespread looting and pillaging as well as property seizures and extortion, and the failure of attempted accountability measures to curb abuses or to provide restitution to victims.

“Ongoing abuses including torture and enforced disappearances of those who live under Turkish authority in northern Syria will continue unless Turkey itself takes responsibility and acts to stop them,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power, and in some cases have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 58 former detainees, survivors of sexual violence, relatives, and witnesses of violations, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, activists, and researchers. Human Rights Watch researchers also spoke to an informed source who directly engages with the Military Police, and a Syrian source previously close to Turkish intelligence officials who had access to and oversight of various factions’ conduct in Afrin between July 2019 and June 2020, and who has since left Syria.

HRW pointed out that: "Turkey is obliged to ensure its forces strictly observe international human rights and international humanitarian law, including the law governing its duties as the occupying power and the de facto government in these areas of northern Syria. This includes restoring and maintaining public order and safety in territories it occupies, protecting inhabitants from violence, holding those responsible for abuses accountable, providing reparations for all victims of serious human rights abuses at the hands of its forces and local forces it controls, and guaranteeing the rights of property owners and returnees, including compensating them for the unlawful confiscation and use of their property and any damage caused. Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government should grant independent investigative bodies immediate and unhindered access to territories under their control."

“Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has facilitated a lawless climate of abuse and impunity – it’s the furthest possible thing from a ‘safe zone,’” Coogle said.