US imposes sanctions on Turkish-backed militias and leaders over human rights abuses in Afrin

"The brigade has targeted Afrin’s Kurdish residents, many of whom are subjected to harassment, abduction, and other abuses until they are forced to abandon their homes."
US Treasury Department (Photo: US Department of the Treasury)
US Treasury Department (Photo: US Department of the Treasury)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Thursday designated two Turkish-backed armed groups militias and three members of the groups’ leadership structures in connection with serious human rights abuses against those residing in the Afrin region of northern Syria.

In March 2018, Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) took control of Afrin during its so-called “Operation Olive Branch.”

Read More: Kurdish civilians are being doubly victimized by Turkish-backed groups in Syria: UN report

The groups have faced regular accusations of war crimes, including ethnic cleansing, kidnapping for ransom, torture, and gender-based violence by human rights organizations, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

The sanctions specifically targeted the Suleiman Shah Brigade and the Hamza Division “for being responsible for or complicit in, or for having directly or indirectly engaged in, the commission of serious human rights abuses against the Syrian people.”

The US Treasury said the Suleiman Shah brigade has targeted Afrin’s Kurdish residents, “many of whom are subjected to harassment, abduction, and other abuses until they are forced to abandon their homes or pay large ransoms for return of their property or family members.”

The Turkmen-dominated Suleiman Shah brigade was established during Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016.

Moreover, it said that Hamza Division, another armed opposition group operating in northern Syria, “has been involved in abductions, theft of property, and torture.”

“The (Hamza) division also operates detention facilities in which it houses those it has abducted for extended periods of time. During their imprisonment, victims are held for ransom, often suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Hamza Division fighters,” the US Treasury said.

The Hamza Division was created in April 2016 through a merger with other rebel factions to fight ISIS in northern Aleppo. Previously, the group was known as the Hamza Brigade, formed in 2013.

The sanctions also targeted the notorious Suleiman Shah brigade leader Mohammad Hussein al-Jasim (nicknamed Abu Amsha), who has been accused of several human rights abuses in Afrin.

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

“Under Abu Amsha’s leadership, members of the brigade have been directed to forcibly displace Kurdish residents and seize their property, providing vacated homes for Syrians from outside the region who are often related to fighters in the brigade,” the US Treasury said.

“Abu Amsha also ordered the brigade to kidnap local residents, demanding ransom in return for their release and confiscating their property as part of an organized effort to maximize the brigade’s revenue, likely generating tens of millions of dollars a year.”

Abu Amsha allegedly raped the wife of a member of the brigade and threatened her and her family with harm if she did not remain silent.

Read More: Syrian opposition fails to stop war crimes in Afrin: Kurdish National Council

The Kurdish National Council (KNC) in 2021 blamed the Syrian opposition, of which it is a part, for not stopping war crimes committed by Turkish-backed groups, especially by Abu Amsha, for seizing some 25 percent of olive production in areas under their control in Afrin.

The sanctions also targeted Al-Safir Oto, a car dealership based in Istanbul owned by Abu Amsha that provides an outlet for Abu Amsha to invest his income. 

Abu Amsha allegedly owns the Al-Safir Oto in partnership with the leader of the Syrian armed group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes, who was previously designated by US sanctions in 2021.

Read More: US sanctions Turkish-backed Syrian militia for human rights violations against Kurds

In 2021, the US treasury said that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture, and seizures of private property, including the killing of female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf in Oct. 2019 and integrating numerous former ISIS members into its ranks.

Also Walid Hussein al-Jasim, the younger brother of Abu Amsha was targeted, who is accused of sexual assault against women, abductions, muggings, and ransoms.

In addition, Walid reportedly killed a prisoner who was unable to pay ransom in 2020 following a month of abuse. 

The sanctions also targeted Hamza Division leader Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr. “While Abu Bakr has been commander, the Hamza Division has been accused of brutal repression of the local population, including kidnapping Kurdish women and severely abusing prisoners, at times leading to their death,” the US treasury said.

Read More: Syrian Kurdish official decries US position on Afrin’s demographic changes

The US has hesitated to criticize Turkey openly, because of the key role that Ankara is playing in regards to Ukraine.

The State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller in a statement on today's designation did not mention Kurds, Turkey or Afrin, only human rights abuses in Syria.

"Today, the United States is imposing sanctions on two armed Syrian factions – the Suleiman Shah Brigade and the Hamza Division – in connection to serious human rights abuses committed in northern Syria, including abduction, severe physical abuse, and rape," Miller said. 

US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel on Thursday also told Kurdistan 24 "that we believe the rights of all Syrians should be respected, and we’ll continue to identify and seek to hold to account individuals who abuse or violate those rights, including those related to housing, land, property rights."

On Aug. 14, the US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel also made clear that the US had nothing to do with Turkish attacks on Kurdish sites in either Iraq or Syria, without condemning the Turkish operations. 

Read More: U.S. Urges Restraint on Turkey

On August 2, US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller rejected the notion of Turkey having any intention to manipulate the demography in Afrin, which was criticized by Syrian Kurdish officials.

Read More: Syrian Kurdish official decries US position on Afrin’s demographic changes

A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published in June 2018, suggested that “permitting ethnic Arabs to occupy houses of Kurds (in Afrin) may be an intentional attempt to change the ethnic composition of the area permanently.”