The US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned a variety of individuals and organizations in Syria on Wednesday, among them a group backed by Turkey that has carried out widespread human rights abuses.
The sanctions came amid a group of sanctions on "eight Syrian prisons run by the Assad regime's intelligence apparatus, which have been sites of human rights abuses against political prisoners and other detainees." Of interest is the decision by the Biden administration to finally speak up about the abuses of extremist groups backed by Ankara which have been targeting Kurds and other minorities.
This is a major change from the Trump administration, which tended to be silent on abuses of minorities in Syria, and even worked with Turkey to empower some extremist groups.
According to the statement "OFAC is also sanctioning Syrian armed group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which operates in northern Syria, for abuses against civilians, and is also sanctioning two of the group's leaders." Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture, and seizures of private property, the statement said. "The group has also incorporated former Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) members into its ranks. These horrific acts compound the suffering of a population that has repeatedly endured mass displacement."
This is a major decision and reflects a change in tone from the new administration, as well as a shift in policy. In interviews, former Trump administration officials revealed that there was an active pro-Ankara policy being pushed by some in Washington. This pro-Ankara policy believed the US could use Turkey and Turkish-backed extremists, some of whom were jihadists similar to ISIS, to confront Iran.
Under this bizarre policy, Ankara was permitted to invade and ethnically cleanse Afrin, a peaceful area in Syria. Afrin was attacked not only by Ankara but also by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, a rabble of jihadists and mercenaries Turkey had recruited from among Syrian refugees and which Turkey then radicalized and armed, encouraging them to attack Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and women in Afrin.
Since 2018, Afrin has been ethnically cleansed of some 170,000 indigenous Kurds and women have been targeted for kidnapping, rape and imprisonment in secret prisons run by groups backed by Ankara.
According to VOA and its expert reporter Sirwan Kajjo, "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." Various other local media have documented abuses by groups like Ahrar al-Sharqiya, often targeting women.
The worst abuse by Ahrar al-Sharqiya was in October 2019 when then US president Donald Trump agreed to let Turkey invade eastern Syria and ordered US troops to withdraw. Kurds, who had been helping the US fight ISIS, were suddenly vulnerable to Turkish-backed jihadists. Ahrar al-Sharqiya, likely with intelligence provided by Ankara, hunted down the young female politician Hevrin Khalaf in eastern Syria and murdered her. They chanted jihadist Islamist slogans as they cheered the murder of the unarmed woman and as they kicked her lifeless body on a video they proudly circulated. This was seen as a gross human rights abuse at the time and France 24 called it an extrajudicial killing. Far-right media in Turkey, which is a member of NATO, praised the operation.
While some US officials, such as Deputy US Special Envoy William Roebuck, at the time raised concerns about Turkish-backed extremists, others did not. Matthew Petty, at the time writing at The National Interest, noted that "in addition to the uptick in tense verbal exchanges, the three different sources described to The National Interest how State Department officials attempted to condemn the brutal murder of Kurdish-Syrian politician Hevrin Khalaf only to have their efforts waylayed by Ambassador James Jeffrey, who oversees anti-ISIS efforts. Jeffrey blocked the statement, they said.
Today the former Trump administration officials who were sympathetic to Turkey are out of office. Although Hevrin Khalaf's life can never be brought back, the change in views in Washington at the highest levels means that Ankara's extremists may not get the quiet approval they got from 2018-2020.
The days of the US thinking it might use NGOs or even media people to reach out to extremist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, another sanctioned group, appear to be over. During the previous US administration there were attempts at outreach to these extremist groups, perhaps under a fantasy that they could be used either against Iran or the Syrian regime.
Evidence has shown that Turkey's extremist proxies never fight Iran or the Syrian regime.
Evidence has shown that these groups never fight Iran or the Syrian regime, they spend most of their time killing and kidnapping women, stealing, looting, and ethnic cleansing or gathering money from stolen property that is under Turkey's occupation. They thus receive the protection of a NATO-member air force while committing human rights abuses.
By going after Ahrar al-Sharqiya, the US is putting on notice all the jihadist, extremist, Islamist and far-right groups of militias, bandits and ethnic cleansers backed by Ankara in northern Syria. These groups operate openly in Afrin, in areas near Jarabulus and in areas outside of Aleppo which Turkey invaded between 2016 and 2020.
The US designation notes that Ahrar al-Sharqiya "has a record of human rights abuse that includes the unlawful killing of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician and Secretary General of the political party Future Syria, as well as her bodyguards in October 2019. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights identified the murders as a possible war crime." It goes on to note that Ahrar al-Sharqiya has killed multiple civilians in northeast Syria, including health workers.
The militia has also engaged in abductions, torture, and seizures of private property from civilians, barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes. Ahrar al-Sharqiya constructed and controls a large prison complex outside of Aleppo where hundreds have been executed since 2018.
"The group has also used this prison to operate an extensive kidnapping for ransom operation targeting prominent business and opposition figures from the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has also integrated former ISIS members into its ranks," the report also says. "Ahrar al-Sharqiya is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13894 for having engaged in the commission of serious human rights abuse in Syria." This shows that groups aligned with Ankara may now be sanctioned for abuses. The era of Ankara backing these groups may now be more difficult. Turkey hasn't only backed them in areas it occupies in Syria, but has exported them to conduct human rights abuses in Libya, Azerbaijan and perhaps other countries.
The US also singled out Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes, Ahrar al-Sharqiya's leader, who Washington says "is directly complicit in many of the militia's human rights abuses. Hayes commanded Ahrar al-Sharqiya's prison outside of Aleppo, where hundreds of detainees have been executed since 2018.
Ahmad al-Hayes has been implicated in the trafficking of Yazidi women and children and has integrated former ISIS members into the ranks of Ahrar al-Sharqiya. A number of former ISIS officials had sworn allegiance to Hayes and worked to support Ahrar al-Sharqiya's ransom and extortion efforts."
Another extremist mentioned is Abu Ja'afar Shaqra, a cousin of Ahmad al-Hayes, who "has been the military commander of Ahrar al-Sharqiya since late 2017. As a senior figure within the militia, Raed al-Hayes has personally supervised and profited from the militia's organized theft and sale of equipment from civilian homes and farms. He also commands former ISIS members, including a former member of an ISIS force known for frequent torture of civilians, who is now a heavy weapons official in Ahrar al-Sharqiya."
What is extraordinary is that under the US anti-ISIS Coalition the US was working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish fighters against ISIS, while other US officials were working with Ankara which supported groups like Ahrar al-Sharqiya to fight the SDF and basically continue the ISIS legacy of abuses. With one hand the US was fighting ISIS, but other officials and former think tank members and Turkish lobbyists in DC were hoping that extremists similar to ISIS might dominate Syria one day.
This bizarre contradiction was built into a US policy that has been corrupted by countries like Turkey which funnel money to US think tanks which in turn hire former US officials or channel them into administrations. The US under the Obama administration intervened and agreed to send troops back to Iraq to fight ISIS in part because of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis. Yet by 2019 groups seeking to kidnap and enslave Yazidis and continue the ISIS war crimes were being backed by Ankara to do so.
By putting out such a major and unprecedented statement about Ahrar al-Sharqiya's crimes the US administration is illustrating that it will stand by its promise to put human rights first. This includes a promise to support women and minorities in Syria.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.