WASHINGTON - Rights groups are voicing concerns over growing abuses against civilians by Turkish-backed armed groups in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin.
Last week, a video posted by activists on social media showed at least 11 women detained in a prison in Afrin. The women, who were found during clashes between the al-Hamzat Division and Jaish al-Islam, allegedly had been subject to torture by their al-Hamzat captors. Three other civilians were killed in the crossfire.
Malak Khalil Juma, a 17-year-old girl from a town near Afrin, was reportedly kidnapped in late May by the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad Division. Her family says her whereabouts are unknown.
Another woman, 24, was found dead near the town of Azaz, which is also controlled by groups supported by Turkey. Local rights groups have accused the groups of torturing and killing the unidentified woman.
The Kurdish-majority region came under the control of Turkish-backed militias in 2018 following a major operation that ousted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the area.
Since then, incidents of kidnapping for ransom, arbitrary arrests and seizure of properties have been rampant in the region, according to local sources.
With an economic crisis gripping the war-ravaged country, rights groups say human rights violations in Afrin and elsewhere in Syria remain a major concern.
“Afrin has seen mass displacement of Kurds and some religious minorities following the Turkish-backed incursion, and the rule of law continues to ebb and flow with the mood of local militia leaders,” said Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International.
In addition to the Turkish military, the al-Hamzat Division and Jaish al-Islam, there are at least a dozen Syrian militias that control different parts of Afrin, including the National Liberation Front and several other Islamist factions such as the Sultan Murad Division, Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Suleiman Shah Brigade.
Rights groups and experts accuse these groups of committing crimes against the local population on a regular basis.
“Lawlessness is so prevalent in these areas,” said Ahmed Rahal, a former Syrian military general who is now based in Istanbul.
“Armed groups in control of these areas often fight each other over revenue,” Rahal told VOA, adding that these groups “arrest civilians arbitrarily, seize their properties and impose taxes with impunity. They target civilians for simply being Kurdish and accuse them of affiliation with the SDF.”
Aykan Erdemir, senior Turkey analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, says proxy fighters who are armed, trained and paid by the Turkish government “continue to be an embarrassment for Ankara.”
“Turkish authorities have proven to be ineffective in bringing these rogue proxies under control and in guaranteeing the safety and security of the residents of northern Syria,” Erdemir told VOA.
“The international community needs to remind the Turkish government that it urgently needs to take steps to prevent the crimes against humanity committed by its proxies, bring perpetrators to justice and offer effective remedies, including compensation and restitution, to the victims and their family members,” Erdemir added.
Nassif of Amnesty International said that as the primary backer of local groups in parts of northern Syria, “Turkey remains responsible for any human rights violations that occur in territory it controls directly or via its proxies.”
In October 2019, Turkey and its allied Syrian militias launched another military operation against the SDF in northeast Syria, which led to the displacement of thousands of civilians in the region.
In its 2019 International Religious Freedom Report, released on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State said that while tens of thousands have returned to their homes following the Turkish-led incursion, many others have remained displaced.
“Humanitarian observers believed many ethnic and religious minorities were hesitant to return, given a pattern of intimidation by Syrian groups aligned with Turkey,” the report said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal government body, said in its annual report in April that the U.S. should exert pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria.
The report added that Turkey should ensure “that neither its military nor [Syrian] allies expand their area of control in northeast Syria, carry out religious and ethnic cleansing of that area, or otherwise abuse the rights of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities.”
Tony Perkins, chair of USCIRF, said Turkey and its Syrian allies have “brought in others to occupy” Afrin, which is home to Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities.
“What happened in Afrin is concerning that it would be a precedent for what we might see happening in other parts of northeast Syria,” Perkins told VOA in a phone interview.