Two Turkish-backed military groups operating within the occupied region of Afrin in Syria’s northwest have been targeted by sanctions, as announced by the US Treasury Department on 17 August. The sanctions come after allegations of severe human rights abuses occurring within the Kurdish-majority region.
The first group named by the Treasury department was the Suleiman Shah Brigade. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) specifically accused the group of performing abductions and extortion on the Kurdish civilian population.
The other group, the Hamza Division, is also implicated in abductions as well as torture and looting or theft. The Hamza Division has also gained a level of infamy for the operation of detention facilities which host an array of human rights violations such as prolonged detentions, demanding of exploitative ransoms and incidents of sexual abuse.
Both factions are affiliated with the coalition of Islamist opposition groups, known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). The US State Department and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria have both thoroughly documented human rights violations against Kurds, Yazidis and other elements of the local populations at the hands of SNA groups. Suleiman Shah Brigade and Hamza Division gained power in Afrin following Turkey’s invasion in 2018 in addition to other SNA factions affiliated with Turkey.
It is good to see some action finally being taken, beyond the US or UN’s ‘documentation’ or at best ‘condemnation’ of their crimes. The action was well received by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
But the SDF recognised that sanctions are only the first step, and more action must be taken to genuinely bring an end to the abuses perpetrated by Suleiman Shah or Hamza, as well as other Turkish-backed factions. They also highlighted the elephant in the room, that must be addressed before any real solution can be realised for Afrin or Syria as a whole – Turkey.
The SDF referred to the acts the sanctioned groups were accused of as ‘part of a systematic and strategic campaign’ organised by Turkey. Their statement continued to assert that Turkey is responsible for funding and therefore enabling the factions to carry out crimes such as ‘demographic manipulation,’ abductions, and sexual abuse to name a few. The SDF makes it abundantly clear that Turkey must be held accountable, in addition to the groups Turkey backs in the Syrian conflict.
Unfortunately, it seems doubtful that the US is ready to take this step and recognise Turkey has blood on its’ hands concerning Afrin. Early this month, during a Press Briefing, on 2 August, US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller blatantly and openly denied any intention on Turkey’s behalf to conduct demographic change in Afrin. Miller, in fact, thanks Turkey for ‘generously hosting’ Syrian refugees. Even though it is with these exact refugees that Erdoǧan’s Turkey attempts to alter the demographics of regions south of his border.
Following the invasion of 2018, when tens of thousands of Kurds fled, Turkey has forcibly deported, and at times even coerced, non-Kurdish Syrian refugees to settlements in Afrin. Using refugees as pawns in Turkey’s game, Erdoǧan has succeeded in drastically altering the demographic make up of the region as well as funding jihadist groups terrorising the local population.
Until the United States realises, or more to the point, admits that Turkey is the planner, bankroller, and the one who stands to benefit from the human rights abuses and demographic change in Afrin, actions like the recent sanctions will never go far enough. Who are Suleiman Shah Brigade or Hamza Division without Turkish funding and support? As long as the US continues to meekly avoid discussing the criminal actions of their NATO ally, while hypocritically condemning Turkey’s cronies, real progress will not be made and the people of Afrin will continue to suffer.
Robin Fleming is an American Researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre and specialises in North and East Syria.