The United States has targeted Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of Turkey’s affiliated armed groups in Syria, with sanctions.
The armed group was responsible for the summary execution of Kurdish politician and Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, Hevrin Khalaf and her driver, on the 12 October 2019 when the group were carrying out brutal executions of Kurdish civilians on the M4 highway in North East Syria.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses against Kurdish civilians and it is the first time that the US has targeted Turkey’s affiliated armed groups in Syria.
The US authorities have also targeted one of Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s two leaders, Abu Shaqra, who has strong relations with Turkish authorities and officials. In April 2018, Abu Shaqra reportedly attended a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The United States has also imposed sanctions on the Turkish based individual Hasan al-Shaban, an alleged Al-Qaeda fund-raiser.
The US Dept of Treasury announced the sanctions on 28 July. It also targeted eight Syrian prisons run by the Syrian intelligence agencies for human rights abuses against political prisoners and other detainees and other individuals responsible for fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria such as Al Qaeda.
While Turkey began supporting armed groups fighting against the Syrian government in 2011, its military offensives starting in 2016 targeted the Kurds in North and East Syria – not the Assad regime – and attacked the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) who fought against ISIS/Daesh.
During the fight against ISIS, Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the fight against ISIS complained on American news networks that the Turkish authorities did nothing to stop the transit of ISIS fighters through Turkey to Syria. Many observers went further, stating that Turkey was actively supporting ISIS fighters against the Kurds in North and East Syria.
Turkey’s President infamously announced during the ISIS seige and attack against the Kurds in Kobane that ‘Kobane will soon fall.’
Ahrar al-Sharqiya, made up of remnants of ISIS and al Nusra members who were defeated by the Syrian Democratic forces in Deir Ezzor, has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture and seizures of private property, according to the US Treasury and human rights groups.
The US Treasury statement announcing the sanctions noted that “Syrian armed group Ahrar al-Sharqiya has a record of human rights abuse that includes the unlawful killing of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician and Secretary General of the political party Future Syria, as well as her bodyguards in October 2019.
“The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights identified the murders as a possible war crime. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has killed multiple civilians in northeast Syria, including health workers. The militia has also engaged in abductions, torture, and seizures of private property from civilians, barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes.”
Aykan Erdemir, a senior analyst at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies in Washington, said the US designation of Ahrar al-Sharqiya sent a strong message to Ankara.
The partnership between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and Ahrar al-Sharqiya has prompted Ankara to turn a blind eye to the militant group’s numerous crimes against humanity targeting ethnic and religious minorities in parts of northern Syria under Turkey’s direct or indirect control, he told VOA.
Erdemir added that Washington’s designation of Ahrar al-Sharqiya showed that “the Biden administration’s patience is running thin when it comes to the Erdogan government’s utilisation of former jihadists as proxies in Syria in ways that undermine US efforts against ISIS.”