Last week, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against two Turkish-supported Sunni Islamist militias based in Syria. The organizations are the Hamza Division and the Suleiman Shah Brigade. The announcement of the sanctions noted that the organizations in question had committed "serious human rights abuses against those residing in the Afrin region of northern Syria."
The announcement further states: "The Afrin region of Syria is largely controlled by a patchwork of armed groups, many of which use violence to control the movement of goods and people in their respective territories. These armed groups have exacerbated the suffering caused by years of civil war in northern Syria and hindered the region's recovery by engaging in serious human rights abuses against vulnerable populations."
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives' Appropriations Bill for 2024, in a section entitled "Syria – Unlawful Prisons," requires that "the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the appropriate congressional committees on reported unlawful prisons run by Islamist militias in northwest Syria, wherein extensive human rights abuses are allegedly committed, including against United States-aligned actors."
What neither the Treasury Department nor the House Appropriations Bill make clear is that the militias in question, despite appearances, are not autonomous organizations. Neither are they self-sustaining or capable of continuing their activities without the support of their state patron.
Turkey backs Islamist militias in Syria's Afrin region
The state that maintains, arms, trains, and underwrites the continued existence of the two groups named, and other Islamist militias like them in northwest Syria, is the Republic of Turkey.
The statements by the Treasury Department and the House of Representatives are the result of tireless efforts by activists both inside and outside the Afrin area to raise the alarm regarding what has been going on in this largely forgotten corner of northwest Syria since the Turkish invasion in 2018. Behind the dry language of the announcements is a reality of lawlessness, abductions, killings, disappearances, and severe abuse of detainees at the hands of these militias and others like them.
THE JERUSALEM POST was the first English-language publication to draw attention to what was going on in Afrin at the hands of Turkey's militias. In an article published on April 15, 2022, "Erdogan's Secret Prisons in Syria," we revealed precise details of the squalid detention centers maintained by the Suleiman Shah Division and its leader, Abu Amsha.
The Post's report was based on testimonies of both guards and detainees in these facilities, among other sources, that were obtained by a group of determined Syrian, mostly Kurdish, human rights activists. The 140-page report they produced entitled "Saydnaya of the North" contains the most detailed account yet of what is taking place in Turkish-controlled northwest Syria.
Saydnaya jail is a famous military prison maintained by the Assad regime close to Damascus. It was the site of mass executions by the regime in the course of the civil war in Syria. For Syrians, Saydnaya is a byword for abuses of the worst kind.
The report contains extensive details of the routine torture and abuse meted out to those Syrian citizens randomly detained in the detention centers of the militias. But it also contains names and details of the individuals responsible for maintaining this system.
Among the leaders is Kamal Ghazwan Kamal, a former ISIS operative from Mosul, Iraq, whom the report cites as one of the top officials responsible for maintaining the incarceration centers of the Hamza Division and of organizations not yet sanctioned but involved in similar activity, such as the Sultan Murad Brigade.
The report depicts Kamal, nicknamed "the Professor," as heading "a team that works with the security offices of the factions in a secret and organized manner, and is considered the supreme authority for all the intelligence teams and security offices of the factions in the areas under their authority in northwestern Syria."
Thus, the incarceration centers and torture chambers maintained by the newly sanctioned militias are not off-the-grid independent initiatives. They are part of a centrally administered network maintained by the de facto authorities of northwest Syria.
The Treasury Department, meanwhile, notes that both the Hamza and Suleiman Shah groups are part of a larger structure called the Syrian National Army (Jaish al Watani al Suri, in Arabic).
The SNA, reckoned to consist of 60,000-70,000 fighters, was assembled by the government of Turkey in 2017. It was formed from the remnants of the Sunni Islamist insurgency against the Assad regime, which Ankara had supported since 2012. By 2017, the insurgency had largely been defeated by Assad with the help of Russia and Iran.
The establishment of the SNA turned the Syrian fighters from independent insurgents into military contractors in the employment of Ankara. The SNA is trained, armed, and equipped by Turkey. It has been deployed by Ankara far beyond the borders of Syria. SNA fighters have operated on behalf of their patron in both Azerbaijan and Libya.
Moreover, the area of control of the SNA in northwest Syria remains viable only because of the presence of conventional Turkish forces in the area. Ankara maintains a ring of military positions around the SNA's ostensible area of control (and the adjoining area maintained by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida franchise in Syria).
Without these positions, it may be assumed that the area in question would fall to the regime's armed forces and their Russian allies within a short period.
There are no independent enclaves remaining in Syria today. Everyone is working for someone else. In the case of northwest Syria, the Islamist factions that rule it are part of a structure that answers to Turkey, takes its orders from Turkish military and intelligence personnel, and is dependent for its continued existence on the maintenance of Turkish support.
This week, the US Treasury Department decided to sanction two of the many battalions engaged by Turkey in northwest Syria for heinous violations of human rights. The House of Representatives requires that the secretary of state look into the matter of illegal incarceration facilities maintained by militias in the same area.
The question is, what will happen now? Will pressure be placed by the US on its NATO ally Turkey to change the behavior of its Syrian proxies and bring to justice such individuals as the Suleiman Shah Division's Abu Amsha, and the former ISIS man turned go-between, Kamal Ghazwan Kamal? Or will the fiction that these are independent actors and organizations be maintained?
If the latter course is taken, paradoxically, continued Turkish patronage and protection are likely to ensure that the sanctions will have little effect on the fates of these men and others like them. Experience shows that pressure on Turkey can lead to results with regard to the activities of its proxies. It remains unclear, however, if the requisite pressure will be applied.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).