Turkish-backed faction in Syria accused of human rights abuses in Arab-majority region

The Turkish-backed Sultan Suleyman Shah brigade confiscated an agricultural harvester from an Arab family in northern Syria, an activist group said on Monday.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Turkish-backed Sultan Suleyman Shah brigade confiscated an agricultural harvester from an Arab family in northern Syria, an activist group said on Monday.

The activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported on Facebook that the group confiscated a harvester belonging to the Attiyeh family in Khirbet a-Rizz in the Tal Abyad countryside on the pretext the machine is partially owned by a Kurdish family.

The Arab-majority sub-district of Tal Abyad, belonging to the Raqqa governorate, has been under the control of Turkey and Turkish-backed groups since Ankara’s military operation in October 2019 that pushed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the area.

Turkey previously attempted to legitimatize the operation in Tal Abyad by claiming the town is majority Arab and that the Kurdish-led forces carried out human right violations such as ethnic cleansing against the Arab population, a charge Kurdish fighters deny.

Turkey also said it would return the native population to the town. According to the latest UN data from January 2020, 41,817 individuals returned to Tal Abyad after October 2019.

Turkish-backed groups are now accused of human rights violations against residents in Tal Abyad.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24 that “the confiscation [of the harvester] was not justified by co-ownership with Kurds but about crossing into SDF areas with the machine.”

The machine cost the family over $70,000 and forced them to go “into debt that they are still repaying,” she noted, adding the machine supported four families, who “made their living off of sowing, driving, harvesting, and packaging the wheat.”

“Turkish-backed factions carry out such armed robberies on a daily basis.”

The Turkmen-dominated Sultan Suleyman Shah brigade is led by Mohammed al-Jassim (Abu Amsha) and was established during Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016.

According to Tsurkov, the group is largely made up of fighters “displaced from Hama, Homs, and has no history of ever fighting against the Assad regime.”

“While all groups backed by Turkey are abusive toward civilians, the lack of connection to the local population and the composition of the faction – the men were recruited in exchange for salaries and not to fight for a particular cause – makes this faction particularly abusive.”

In September 2019, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) suggested that the group was notorious for theft and human rights abuses in the former Kurdish enclave of Afrin, under Turkish control since March 2018.

The group has not only carried out abuses against local Kurds, Tsurkov stated, noting that abuses against the local Arab population “is the norm.”

“Back in 2016, during the first operation of the ‘National Army’ against ISIS, they looted al-Bab, an Arab city. While abuses of Kurds and Yezidis are particularly grave, no one is spared—Arabs and Turkmen are robbed and forced to pay ‘taxes’ too.”

A local Syrian source working with NGOs in northern Syria told Kurdistan 24 on condition of anonymity that not only Kurds, but “everyone who worked within the Self Administration, including Arabs, are subjected to arrests, kidnappings, and ransoms by [Turkish-backed] factions.”

According to the source, over 1,700 Arab families fled from Tal Abyad to Raqqa.

“Turkey intentionally keeps the Arab majority factions unorganized and corrupt in order to hit them whenever it wants while [it] keeps strengthening and giving utmost power and influence to the Turkmen-led groups loyal to Turkey,” the source added.

“The majority of these factions aren’t from their region, but from Aleppo, Idlib, Ghouta, [and] Homs. And the local population [does] not accept them.”

According to a report by the NGO, Syrians for Truth and Justice, published on April 22, at least 32 people were arrested in Tal Abyad in the first quarter of 2020 on different charges, often based on alleged links to the SDF. So far, six have been released.

SOHR reported that Al-Nu’aym tribe leader Ahmad al-Sheikh al-A’nizan was arrested for 24 hours on April 22 for allegedly dealing with the SDF.

The Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah faction, originally from the Aleppo governorate, also attempted to arrest the Tal Abyad Council head on April 23. However, locals prevented the arrest from happening.

In a report in March, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused the Turkish-backed groups of war crimes in northern Syria.

The Commission concluded that if there is proof these groups act under effective Turkish army command, “these violations may entail criminal responsibility for such [Turkish] commanders who knew.” 

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany