Nadia Hassan Suleiman remembers well the day she was arrested. It was in the city of Afrin, northwest Syria, in June 2018. Her husband, Ahmed Rashid, had disappeared two months earlier. She had received a voice message from him. The men who pulled up in a car beside her said they were detailed to bring her to visit her husband. Instead, Nadia, a Syrian citizen hailing from Afrin, was taken into custody. A two-year nightmare had begun.
With no charges brought against her, and no legal process, Nadia was imprisoned in a series of unofficial jails across northwest Syria. For four months she was held in a facility she believes is maintained by Turkish Military Intelligence, and interrogated by Turkish-speaking officers.
Then, as part of a group of 11 other women, similarly held without charge, she was transferred to a jail of the Sunni Islamist, Turkish-supported Hamzat Division. In the frequent interrogation sessions to which she was subjected, Nadia was accused of association with the Assad regime and the Kurdish PKK.
Throughout her captivity, Nadia was repeatedly tortured, and on several occasions raped. As she describes it in her recorded testimony: "Each of the female detainees underwent various forms of torture and rape. The torture was daily, individually or collectively, and we were repeatedly raped. They gave us narcotic pills, and sometimes they poured cold water on all of us in the harsh winter cold. Even young children were not exempt from the torture."
Released after two years, Nadia succeeded with the help of smugglers, to escape from the Turkish-controlled area of Syria. She never heard from her husband again, and now believes him to be dead.
Survivor testimonies reveal systematic and grave human rights violations by Turkish-supported Islamist militias.
Nadia Hassan Suleiman's story is only one of many. Evidence is emerging of systematic and grave violations of human rights carried out by Turkish-supported Islamist militias in northwest Syria.
Testimony of survivors reveals a pattern of illegal incarcerations with no judicial process or oversight, grave abuses of detainees, including sexual abuse, rape, torture and instances of murder.
A dossier received by this author, and currently also in the hands of the US State Department, contains extensive testimony and detailed evidence. The dossier was compiled by Syrian activists unaffiliated with any political body. Independent Syrian experts who have examined the evidence find it to be credible.
According to two human rights bodies, the Violations Documentation Center and the Zaytouna Project, 8,590 people have been held in this system of off-the-grid prisons since 2018. Of these, 1,500 have disappeared entirely, leaving no record.
To understand what's going on, a little background is necessary. In January 2018, in the ironically named Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish armed forces destroyed the Kurdish-controlled Afrin canton, in northwest Syria.
In close cooperation with Sunni Islamist militias allied with Ankara, Turkey took control of the area. Around 300,000 residents, mainly Kurdish and Yazidi, fled to other parts of Syria.
Since then, the self-styled "Syrian Interim Government," which is based in Turkey and supported by Ankara, has been the ostensible governing authority in this area. Day-to-day control is in the hands of the Islamist militias who make up the so-called "Syrian National Army."
The real power supporting and training these militias and maintaining ultimate control in the area is Turkey. The unofficial prison system in which Nadia Suleiman was incarcerated is the product of this arrangement.
The names and locations of the places of incarceration making up this network of undeclared houses of confinement are known, and can be verified. The network extends from Idlib and Afrin in the west, through Azaz, Marea and al-Rai, to Jarabulus and al-Bab in the east.
The facilities forming part of this archipelago include: the prison of the security office of the SNA's Hamzah Division, in Afrin; the Mazraa Prison, in Afrin's Maarata District, in the hands of the Hamza Division's Al-Ghab Brigade; the prison camp at Kafr Jannah, controlled by the Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front); the prison of the Levant Front's security office, at the Souq al-Hal area in Afrin; al-Barad prison, under the control of the "Tanzim al-Ustaz" (more on this organization below); al-Masara Prison in the al-Ra'I area, controlled by the Turkmen Sultan Murad Division – from which no detainee has ever been released – and the prison of the security office of al-Mutasim Division in the Marea area.
In these places, Syrian citizens like Nadia Hassan Suleiman are incarcerated for long periods without any legal oversight. Conditions, as described to the author by former detainees, are primitive in the extreme. Prisoners are kept in filth-encrusted cells, with no access to natural light.
Electric shocks, systematic starvation, beatings, and sexual abuse are routine.
Torture by means of electric shocks, systematic starvation and beatings are meted out to all. Sexual abuse of both male and female detainees is routine. Photographic evidence of these conditions, taken at great risk by detainees, has been seen by the author.
So who is responsible for this system? What is the overall structure of command? According to the testimony of "Yusuf," a recent defector from the militias, a central coordinating body for the various security structures which maintain these facilities does exist. It is known as the "Tanzim al-Ustaz," (Organization of the teacher/professor), or more formally as the "Mukhabarat al-Sari" (Secret Intelligence).
This structure is responsible for the overall coordination, supervision and management of the network of secret prisons described above. It is the supreme authority for the various security and intelligence teams maintained by the factions.
The individual who stands at the pinnacle of this structure, the "professor" of the organization's title, is Kamal Ghazwan Kamal, also known as Abu al-Hassan, an Iraqi by birth, with a Turkish wife. A former senior security official of ISIS in Mosul, Kamal was arrested by the Turkish authorities in 2017.
He then assisted in the apprehending and arrest of ISIS members and formed relationships with senior figures in the Turkish-linked Syrian opposition. As a result of this collaboration, he emerged as a trusted figure with apparently relevant skills.
No official investigation into any of these allegations is currently underway. The Islamist militias in control on the ground in this area make the normal conduct of journalistic or other inquiry impossible.
But northwest Syria is not an abandoned territory. Rather, it is under the de facto control of Turkey, a NATO member state in good standing. There is a solid body of evidence to suggest that terrible crimes, like the ones inflicted on Nadia Hassan Suleiman, are being committed on a systematic and ongoing basis in Turkish-controlled northwest Syria. Pressure needs to be applied, and soon, to enable the investigation of these multiple allegations.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.