The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report released on August 14, 2020, that the Syrian armed factions loyal to Turkey have committed war crimes in three main areas that they control with the support of the Turkish government. The report published based on investigations conducted between January 11, 2020, and July 1, 2020, also spoke of ISIS cells returning to activity and carrying out several attacks. Below are what have mentioned about Afrin and Ras Al-Ain/ Serekaniye areas.
IV. Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions
- During the period under review, civilians residing in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo and Hasakah Governorates witnessed an onslaught of violations perpetrated by members of the Syrian National Army as well as shelling and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
A. Conduct of hostilities
- Between January and April, civilians residing in the Afrin region of Aleppo suffered a barrage of shelling and car bomb explosions, which killed and injured scores of inhabitants and damaged civilian infrastructure, including markets and homes.
- On 20 January, at around 12.30 p.m., shelling, reportedly from Tall Rif’at, destroyed a house in Al-Barid neighbourhood, located near both a hospital and a school in the city of Afrin. The attack killed a pregnant woman and her toddler son inside their home. Though the deceased mother delivered her baby girl posthumously, the baby did not survive. Two boys from the same family, aged 4 and 12 years, were also injured in the attack. The Commission did not receive information suggesting that a military objective was located nearby.
- Similarly, at around 1 p.m. on 18 March, at least five rockets, reportedly fired from nearby Tall Rif’at and surrounding areas, struck a residential area, impacting both a house and a market in the city of Afrin, about 150 metres from a Syrian National Army site. Three men and two children were killed, and another seven men were injured. A pharmacy and several commercial shops were damaged. Information obtained by the Commission indicates the use of 122 mm rockets fired from a BM-21 “Grad” multiple-barrel rocket launcher system.
- The previous month, on 10 February, at approximately 7 p.m., a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated on Rajo Street in central Afrin, killing 6 civilians and injuring 11 others.
- Also on Rajo Street, in a particularly grave attack, at least 41 civilians were killed, including 11 children, and 61 others were wounded, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device on a truck was detonated in a crowded market on 28 April. Imagery and video footage analysed by the Commission indicates possible use of an ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosive substance, detonated from inside the truck, likely mixed with additives thus optimizing the incendiary effects emanating from the explosion.
- Witnesses described the market area as civilian in nature, located some 500 metres from the building of the Turkish governor (wali), and known to be busy between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Information obtained by the Commission suggests that Syrian National Army brigades, including Sultan Murad, Ahrar Sharqiya and Jabhat Shamiya, were headquartered on Rajo Street at the time of the attack.
- Several civilian houses adjacent to the market, and vehicles parked nearby, were also destroyed, as were numerous shops. Interviewees described seeing large-scale destruction, burning cars and charred bodies scattered along Rajo Street. One doctor who treated victims recalled that many had suffered second-degree burns. The DNA samples of at least 25 unidentifiable bodies were sent by the Afrin central hospital, which is administrated by the Turkish health ministry, to Turkey for analysis. Following the attacks, standard emergency response and police functions were carried out by the Syrian National Army Military Police, sometimes alongside Turkish officials, who arrived at the scene shortly after the attacks and subsequently inspected, secured and sealed off the areas and collected witness testimonies. Victims requiring specialized medical assistance were transported to hospitals in Turkey.
- With regard to the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in the city of Afrin (see paras. 41–44 above), no party has claimed responsibility for the two attacks. Moreover, while there is insufficient information to identify the perpetrator(s) of the two shelling and rocket attacks (see paras. 39–40 above), there are significant indications to conclude that all four of these attacks launched on and in the city of Afrin were carried out by armed group factions or fighters, as opposed to members of State forces. The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that these four attacks may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians. Investigations are ongoing.
B. Violations outside of the context of hostilities
- During the period under review, the Commission corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation as well as widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions. After civilian property was looted, Syrian National Army fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention. The Commission notes that, during the reporting period, a member of Brigade 123 (the Ahrar Al-Sharqiyah Brigade) was sentenced by a military court of the “Syrian interim government” – which is affiliated to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – for the deliberate killing of Hevrin Khalaf and others in October 2019. The “Syrian interim government” also indicated that, in May, it had issued a permanent order on the prohibition of child recruitment.
Looting and property appropriation
- Throughout the Afrin region, multiple accounts indicate that the property of Kurdish owners was looted and appropriated by Syrian National Army members in a coordinated manner. For example, in September 2019, civilians in the Shaykh al-Hadid subdistrict (of the Afrin region) described how members of Division 14, Brigade 142 (the Suleiman Shah Brigade) of the Syrian National Army had gone from door to door instructing Kurdish families with fewer than three members to vacate their houses to accommodate individuals arriving from outside of Afrin. Others had been forced by Syrian National Army members to pay a “tax” on agricultural harvests or a set amount of rent as a precondition for remaining in the homes they owned. Families recalled having been extorted for between LS 10,000 and LS 25,000, depending on their means and ability to pay.
- Also in Afrin, in December 2019, a senior member of another Syrian National Army brigade went from door to door in a large residential building, requesting proof of ownership only from the Kurdish inhabitants. One resident, unable to provide such documentation, was forced to appear at the brigade’s security office, where he was verbally abused and told “if it were up to me, I would kill every Kurd from 1 to 80 years old”. He was also threatened with detention. Fearing for his family’s safety, the man fled shortly thereafter. One woman who approached Turkish officials in Sheikh Hadid district to complain about the appropriation of her home was told to speak with the Suleiman Shah Brigade, to whom authority had apparently been delegated by Turkey to deal with such cases.
- Similarly to in Afrin, the civilian properties of Kurdish owners in the Ra’s al-Ayn region who had fled battles during Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 were also appropriated by Syrian National Army forces. Members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) of the Syrian National Army engaged in widespread and organized looting and property appropriation in Ra’s al-Ayn, including by marking house walls with the names of individual brigades. Civilians narrated consistent accounts to the Commission conveying their fears about remaining and their inability to return to their homes, which had been looted and occupied by the brigades or their families in the immediate aftermath of hostilities. On two occasions, civilians recalled being instructed not to return by Syrian National Army commanders and fighters.
- Looted household items were transported and sold through a coordinated process, which may indicate a premeditated policy implemented by several brigades. Such items were often moved freely through Syrian National Army-staffed checkpoints by both Syrian National Army fighters and senior-ranking members and were stored in ad hoc locations such as warehouses, or sold at open markets. In one such case in March, a returnee to Tel al-Arisha village found his house looted, including its windows, doors and generators, which had also happened to numerous other houses on the same street. A senior member of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army sold back to him his own household goods from a warehouse that was being used as a storage point for looted goods. He fled immediately thereafter.
- In another case, the home of a Kurdish family was appropriated by members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) and later converted into an institute for Qur’anic studies run by a Turkish NGO, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. On 22 June, its official opening was inaugurated by the governor of Şanlıurfa (Turkey). Reports of the use of civilian houses for military purposes by Turkish ground forces in Dawoudiya village have also been received. The residents of Dawoudiya have been prevented from returning to their homes, some of which were destroyed between April and June, while other houses have been appropriated for military purposes by Turkish armed forces (see annex II).
Unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and ill-treatment
- As their properties were systematically looted and appropriated by Syrian National Army forces, civilians approached senior Syrian National Army members in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions to lodge complaints. In response, many found themselves threatened, extorted or detained by Syrian National Army members, while others were abducted and forced to pay ransom directly to Syrian National Army senior members for their release. The Commission remains concerned by the prevalent and recurrent use of hostage-taking by Syrian National Army forces.
- Regarding incidents of detention, civilians in both Ra’s al-Ayn and Afrin were most often detained by Syrian National Army members for their alleged past links to the self-administration, and were deprived of access to legal counsel, and on some occasions, interrogated by Turkish officials with the assistance of interpreters prior to or while in detention. In most cases documented by the Commission, civilians were detained in the Afrin central prison or in an underground unit of the Syrian National Army Military Police headquarters located in the building of a former commercial high school in Afrin. The unit is comprised of five larger cells and four solitary confinement cells. Others were taken to unknown detention sites.
- In detention, civilians – primarily of Kurdish origin – were beaten, tortured, denied food or water, and interrogated about their faith and ethnicity. One boy described to the Commission how he had been detained by the Syrian National Army Military Police in the city of Afrin in mid-2019, and held for five months in the Syrian National Army headquarters, before being transferred to the Afrin central prison and released in March 2020. While detained, both Syrian National Army members and Turkish-speaking officials dressed in military fatigues were present. The boy was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling. He was then blindfolded and repeatedly beaten with plastic tubes. The boy described how the officers interrogated him about his alleged links to the self-administration. In another case, two women were detained by the Syrian National Army in November 2019, at a checkpoint operated jointly with Turkish officials in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, when returning to their homes. One of the victims described how, during interrogation, she had been threatened with rape and beaten on the head by Syrian National Army members, in the presence of Turkish officials. The Commission also received information on joint arrest operations launched by the Syrian National Army Military Police and Turkish police forces in Afrin, including criminal forensic units.
- Syrian National Army forces also held civilians in undisclosed detention sites. For example, on 29 May, video footage widely circulated in the media showed members of Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) rushing out from an undisclosed detention facility, while ushering 11 women, including one Yazidi and three Kurdish women, and a baby boy to another location. The Commission confirmed that some of the women had been detained by Hamza Brigade members since 2018. At the time of writing, their current location remains unknown.
- Other women belonging to the Yazidi religious minority were also detained by Syrian National Army forces, and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during an interrogation. Similarly, the Commission is currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yazidi women were detained in both Ra’s al-Ayn and Afrin by Syrian National Army members between November 2019 and July 2020.
- The Commission also obtained information that indicates that Syrian nationals, including women, who were detained by the Syrian National Army in the Ra’s al-Ayn region were subsequently transferred by Turkish forces to Turkey, indicted for crimes that would have been committed in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, on charges including murder or membership of a terrorist organization, under Turkish criminal law.
- Furthermore, the Commission is concerned at reports that Syrian National Army forces are recruiting children to be used in hostilities outside of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Sexual and gender-based violence
- The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions have faced acts of intimidation by Syrian National Army brigade members, engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes. Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of “female honour”.
- During the period under review, cases of sexual violence against women and men at one detention facility in Afrin were documented. On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instil fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army Military Police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch in an act that amounts to torture. One eyewitness recalled that Turkish officials had been present in the facility on the first day, when the rape was aborted, suggesting their presence may have acted as a deterrent. Another detainee was gang-raped in the same facility some weeks after this incident.
- The Commission received further information that families from Tall Abyad chose not to return to their homes, fearing rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Syrian National Army members. At least 30 women had reportedly been raped in February alone. A former judge in Afrin confirmed that Syrian National Army fighters had been charged with rape and sexual violence carried out during house raids in the region, however none had been convicted, but rather had been released after a few days.
- The Commission also received reports of forced marriage and the abduction of Kurdish women in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, which primarily involved members of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army. In January, a woman was abducted by a member of the Brigade, who forcibly married her and divorced her shortly thereafter.
Attacks against cultural property
- Syrian National Army members also looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites of profound significance in the Afrin region. For example, Syrian National Army forces looted and excavated ancient artefacts, including mosaics, from the Hellenistic archaeological site of Cyrrhus as well as the Ain Dara temple, protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Satellite imagery showed that both sites had likely been bulldozed between 2019 and 2020 (see annex II).
- In April 2020, several Yazidi shrines and graveyards were deliberately looted and partially destroyed across locations throughout the Afrin region, such as Qastel Jindo, Qibar, Jindayris and Sharran, further challenging the precarious existence of the Yazidi community as a religious minority in Syrian National Army-controlled regions, and impacting both the tangible and intangible aspects of their cultural heritage, including traditional practices and rites.
- The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army fighters, in particular members of Division 14, Brigade 142 (the Suleiman Shah Brigade), Division 22 (the Hamza Brigade) and Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade), repeatedly perpetrated the war crime of pillage in both the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions (see paras. 47–51 and 64 above) and may also be responsible for the war crime of destroying or seizing the property of an adversary.
- The Commission also has reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army members committed the war crimes of hostage-taking (see para. 55 above), cruel treatment and torture (see para. 54 above), and rape, which may also amount to torture (see para. 60 above). Syrian National Army members also looted and destroyed cultural property, in violation of international humanitarian law (see paras. 63–64 above).
- In addition, the Commission notes that, in areas under effective Turkish control, Turkey carries a responsibility to, as far as possible, ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children. Turkey remains bound by applicable human rights treaty obligations vis-à-vis all individuals present in such territories.
- In this regard, the Commission notes the allegations that Turkish forces were aware of incidents of looting and appropriation of civilian property and that they were present in detention facilities run by the Syrian National Army where the ill-treatment of detainees was rampant, including during interrogation sessions when torture took place. In failing to intervene in both cases, Turkish forces may have violated the above-mentioned obligations of Turkey.
- The Commission further notes that transfers of Syrians detained by the Syrian National Army to Turkish territory may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation of protected persons (see para. 57 above). Such transfers provide further indication of collaboration and joint operations between Turkey and the Syrian National Army for the purpose of detention and intelligence-gathering. The Commission continues to investigate the precise extent to which various Syrian National Army brigades and Turkish forces have formed a joint command and control hierarchy and notes that, if any armed group members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, violations by these actors may entail criminal responsibility for such commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.