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Turkey suspected of war crimes as occupying power in northern Syria, says HRW report

By Bne IntelliNews

March 4, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Turkey as an occupying power is suspected of stark human rights violations and potential war crimes in swathes of northern Syria.

That’s the conclusion of an extensive 74-page report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on February 29.

The allegations could prove highly damaging to Ankara—hardly a day goes by without Turkey’s Erdogan administration fiercely denouncing war crimes it says Israel is committing in its conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The HRW report — titled Everything is by the Power of the Weapon: Abuses and Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Northern Syria — found that Turkish military forces and intelligence personnel, together with affiliated local militias, can be credibly accused of activities including abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, sexual violence and torture.

“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, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

“Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power,” Coogle added. “In some cases [Turkish officials] have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.”

The allegations made by New York-based watchdog HRW add to the disquiet caused five months ago when Turkey’s move to loudly condemn Israel for its brutal assault on Gaza prompted Mazlum Kobane, commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to point out the hypocrisy Ankara can be accused of given the nature of its military assaults on, and besieging of, parts of northern Syria still under the control of its foes.

bne IntelliNews on October 11 reported Kobane as saying: “The Turkish president’s statement naming the war that leads to cutting off water, electricity and roads and destroying infrastructure, places of worship and schools as ‘massacres’ [in Gaza] is exactly what his government is doing in north-east Syria. Turkish occupation commits 'massacres' and war crimes every day.”

Turkey exercises administrative and military control on the Syrian side of parts of its southern border both directly and through a de facto proxy it helped create, the Syrian National Army (SNA), a loose coalition of armed opposition groups largely made up of former Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters.

In its report, HRW notes: “The Turkish government has stated that it aims to turn the areas it occupies into ‘safe zones,’ both to create a security buffer on its southern border and to accommodate returns of Syrian refugees living in Türkiye.

“But these areas are not safe; they are rife with human rights abuses primarily perpetrated by factions of the SNA and life for the region’s 1.4 million residents is characterized by lawlessness and insecurity. ‘Everything is by the power of the weapon,’ said one former resident who lived under SNA rule for just under 3 years.”

The claims made in the report are based on interviews with 58 victims, survivors, relatives and witnesses of violations, as well as various representatives of non-governmental organisations, journalists, activists and researchers.

The report, said HRW, documents abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, including of children, sexual violence, and torture by the various factions of the SNA, the Military Police, a force established to curb such abuses, and members of the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish intelligence agencies, including the National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, MIT) and a number of military intelligence directorates. 

By directly implicating Turkish officers in “apparent war crimes”, the report goes further than previous UN and HRW reports that have called attention to widespread abuses particularly aimed at Kurds, the Christian and Yazidi minorities, and women.

Detailed entries in the report include the cases of six detainees who reported witnessing deaths in detention, four victims who said they endured sexual violence and a man who alleged he was forced to watch Kurdish women being gang-raped.

The report also relays claims of detainees suffering torture, including “severe and prolonged beatings – often using cables, electric wires, and metal pipes – teeth and nail pulling, being tied up to the ceiling or to tires with ropes, and being burned with cigarettes.”

One Kurdish torture victim told HRW researchers: “To get me to confess they waterboarded me, electrocuted me, beat me with cables, and removed all my fingernails, then injected them [the fingers] with needles, I’m surprised I’m still alive. In the winter, they would strip me naked, pour freezing cold water on me and then beat me with cables.”

The report addresses a series of proposals to Turkey, which HRW said is “obliged to restore public order and safety, protect inhabitants, hold those responsible for abuses accountable, provide reparations, and guarantee the rights of property owners and returnees”. 


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