The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in a monthly report for June details large-scale human rights abuses in areas under Turkish military control, specifically Syria’s Afrin province, which was wrested from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) by the Turkish military in March.
OHCHR has called on the Turkish government to ensure that rebels under the umbrella of Turkey’s ally the Free Syria Army (FSA) adhere to international humanitarian law, Wladimir van Wilgenburg writes in a report for Kurdistan 24.
“Civilians now living in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups continue to face hardships, which in some instances may amount to violations of international humanitarian law and violations or abuses of international human rights law,” the OHCHR report said.
Turkish-backed FSA forces and the Turkish army took vast territory in northern Syria during Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017) and Operation Olive Branch (January-March 2018) to prevent the Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomous region.
As a result of these operations and agreements with Russia and Syria, Turkey now controls a large contiguous area from Jarabulus to Idlib. According to the report, the security situation under Turkish-backed rebel control remains volatile, with internal fighting among Turkish-backed groups.
“Sources in Afrin and other areas in northern Aleppo Governorate report to OHCHR that there are high levels of violent crime,” the report says. “With civilians falling victim to robberies, harassment, abductions, and murder. OHCHR continues to receive allegations of discrimination against civilians perceived to hold sympathies or affiliations to Kurdish forces.”
“OHCHR has received reports of lawlessness and rampant criminality committed by armed groups in areas under the control of Turkish forces and armed groups operating under their control in northern Syria,” the report adds.
“Civilians have informed OHCHR that a number of members of armed opposition groups operating in the area are former well-known local criminals, smugglers, or drug dealers.”
Furthermore, OHCHR confirms reports that large-scale looting of private property from houses and shops along with government and military facilities, and seizures of private real estate by fighters from various Turkish-affiliated armed groups took place.
“Large-scale looting is believed to have taken place immediately after each area was taken, although reports continue to be received that looting – particularly of vehicles and agricultural equipment – continues on a daily basis,” the report added.
According to the report, a substantial amount of looted property is believed to have been sold in marketplaces in Azaz, despite claims that the local “police” in Azaz have detained many individuals accused of responsibility for the looting.
Furthermore, the report details the abduction of civilians, which information indicates is often motivated by ransom. “OHCHR has documented at least 11 cases in which civilians including women and children were abducted, some of them later released after paying ransoms ranging between USD 1,000 to 3,000, while the whereabouts of others remain unknown,” the report said.
The report confirms that thousands of fighters, their family members and civilians displaced and evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta, rural Homs, and Hama governorates are now occupying homes of mostly Kurdish civilians who fled violence in Afrin in February and March.
“Many civilians seeking to return to their homes have found them occupied by these fighters and their families, who have refused to vacate them and return them to their rightful owners,” the report said.
OHCHR is concerned that permitting ethnic Arabs to occupy the houses of Kurds who have fled effectively prevents the Kurds from returning to their homes and may be an attempt to change the ethnic composition of the area permanently.
Furthermore, there are reports that civilian property is being confiscated under the pretext that the person had in some way been affiliated with Kurdish forces.
OHCHR also continues to receive complaints that civilians, including women, are taken from their homes or detained at checkpoints, based on accusations of being affiliated to Kurdish forces.
“The whereabouts of a large number of such civilians remain unknown,” the report states.
“As a matter of priority, OHCHR urges the Republic of Turkey to ensure that all armed groups over which it exercises control in Afrin and other areas of Syria strictly adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law. Furthermore, OHCHR urges all parties to strictly adhere to all applicable rules of IHL in relation to the protection of civilians.”
The report also calls on Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels to ensure that displaced persons are facilitated in returning to their homes in dignity and safety in full compliance with humanitarian principles.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military on Sunday completed its 11th round of patrolling in the northern Syrian city of Manbij as part of a deal with the US to rid the area of the YPG/PKK. In a message posted on its official Twitter account, the Turkish General Staff said both countries’ forces conducted separate coordinated patrols in the area between the Operation Euphrates Shield region and Manbij.
The first patrols by Turkish and US troops in the region began on June 18. The Manbij deal between Turkey and the US focuses on the withdrawal of the PKK-affiliated YPG from the city in order to stabilize the region. Should the Manbij model prove to be a success, Turkey will push for a similar arrangement in eastern Syria.