ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) handed over 44 bodies of Syrian soldiers that were killed by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 to representatives of Damascus on Monday, said the SDF and media reports.
The SDC is considered the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and administers Kurdish-controlled areas in the country.
On July 21, local authorities in Ain Issa discovered found four mass graves of Syrian soldiers killed by IS at the headquarters of the Army’s 93rd Brigade, local news agency Hawar previously reported. They then formed a team to extract the remains and collect additional samples for identity verification.
The soldiers are thought to have been killed when IS took over the base in August 2014.
After news of the handover was reported by the Russian-controlled Sputnik news agency and other outlets, the SDF media center confirmed that it had occurred.
The delegation, headed by Zozan Alush, Co-chair of Syrian Democratic Council office for Development and Humanitarian Affairs and Layla Mustafa, co-chair of the Raqqa Civil Council, turned over custody of the remains to government officials who then transferred them to Aleppo’s military hospital for initial examination.
The handover of the bodies, characterized by the SDC as “part of a humanitarian initiative,” could be part of their recent negotiations with Damascus.
An SDC delegation met Syrian government officials in the capital earlier this week at Syrian president Bashar Assad’s invitation and the sides formed joint committees to continue dialogue.
Raqqa still contains dozens of mass graves and thousands of civilians are still missing. Last week, 400 corpses were recovered in a Raqqa zoo by an initial response team tasked by the Raqqa Civil Council with the grizzly mission, the local news agency Hawar News reported. To date, the team has found 1,650 corpses.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published in early July, the number and scope of mass graves in the city of Raqqa and surrounding areas is unknown and thousands of bodies remain to be recovered.
The report said that local authorities affiliated to the Raqqa Civil Council are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of collecting and organizing information about the bodies recovered and providing it to families searching for missing or dead relatives.
“Raqqa city has at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
“Without the right technical assistance, these exhumations may not provide families with the answers they have been waiting for and could damage or destroy evidence crucial to future justice efforts.”
According to HRW, international organizations are reluctant to support local authorities in Raqqa for fear of angering Damascus or Turkey, both of which are hostile to the local authorities.
However, the attitude of Damascus could potentially soften, now that talks the Syrian Kurds have begun.
“Local groups are doing what they can,” said Motaparthy, “but they need support to carry out their difficult and dangerous work in a way that fully supports families’ right to accurate information about those killed.”
Editing by John J. Catherine