Turkey is turning a “blind eye” to kidnap, torture, extortion and looting by Syrian armed groups against the civilian population in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, according to rights groups.
Turkey launched an invasion of Afrin alongside an array of Syrian rebel groups in January this year to push out the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara views as a terrorist organisation, but which the US has worked alongside in the fight against ISIS.
In a new report released Thursday, Amnesty International accused Turkey’s armed forces of giving rebel fighters “free rein” to commit a litany of crimes against residents since the takeover and turning a “blind eye” to the violations.
In a separate investigation, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said this week that as many as 1,000 people have been detained by various rebel groups since they completed their takeover of the Kurdish-majority territory.
Citing dozens of witnesses in the city, and many who have since fled, the two reports paint a picture of lawlessness and impunity among armed groups some six months after they swept into the city alongside Turkish forces.
“Turkey’s military offensive and occupation have exacerbated the suffering of Afrin residents, who have already endured years of bloody conflict,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East Research Director.
“We heard appalling stories of people being detained, tortured or forcibly disappeared by Syrian armed groups, who continue to wreak havoc on civilians, unchecked by Turkish forces.”
A Turkish diplomatic source described the allegations as “unfounded,” adding that earlier reports of looting “were promptly investigated and necessary measures were immediately taken by the Turkish Armed Forces”.
Operation Olive Branch, as it was dubbed by Ankara, led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people — mostly Kurds — from the area.
Since the end of the offensive in March, Turkey has made efforts to bring a sense of normality to Afrin, opening schools and hospitals, and investing in infrastructure.
Turkish soldiers maintain a heavy presence in the city. Hami Aksoy, spokesman for the foreign ministry, said last month that those forces would stay there to “continue with the development of the region”.
But while many Syrians welcomed Turkey’s occupation of the area, the Kurdish majority who previously lived in the area view it as an occupation. While it has opened schools, the rebel groups its supports and even Turkish soldiers themselves have taken over others. The arrival of Arab and Turkmen families from outside of the area has led to fears among Kurds of a permanent displacement.
Turkey claims that some 80,000 residents have returned to Afrin, but according to the UN almost 134,000 people remain displaced in surrounding towns and villages. Many are afraid to return, and the YPG is preventing others from going back, Amnesty said.
Family members of those detained by rebels said many were taken on suspicion of involvement with the YPG, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a guerilla war in Turkey’s southeast since the 1980s.
Arin, a former resident of Afrin who fled during the Turkish invasion, told The National that her uncle was detained by rebels and hasn't been seen since in four months.
“He went back to his home 10 days after the Afrin invasion, but it had been taken over and turned into a military base by the rebels,” she said by phone from Kobani, a Kurdish city in Syria’s northeast.
“He asked the soldiers if he could check on it and they took him in his own car. From that day he disappeared. Two guys later came to his wife and told her they were keeping the car.”
One man who was held in a jail in the border town of Azaz told Amnesty that he witnessed beatings of detainees by Syrian rebels.
“I wasn’t tortured, but I saw men being beaten in front of me by members of Sultan Mourad just for fun, and at night the sound of men screaming echoed through the building. I was released without seeing a judge. I thought I would never make it out of there,” he said, referring to a rebel unit backed by Turkey.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory documented similar abuses in its investigation. It said civilians were “investigated, tortured, and insulted.”
Amnesty said locals had reported at least 86 instances of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance. The Observatory said a total of one thousand people had been detained, of whom more than half were released after paying bribes or ransoms.
Since its forces were ousted from the Afrin region, the YPG has carried out a string of hit-and-run attacks on Turkish and Syrian rebel forces there. In recent weeks, those attacks appear to have increased. The group claimed to have killed more than a dozen Turkish-backed fighters in the last few days of July.
Amnesty said it was Turkey’s responsibility as the “occupying power” to protect the welfare of civilians in Afrin.
"Without further delay, Turkey must end violations by pro-Turkish armed groups, hold perpetrators accountable, and commit to helping Afrin residents rebuild their lives," Ms Maalouf said.