An important report on human rights abuses in Syria has been presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The report documents human rights abuses and war crimes among all fighting parties in Syria, including the Assad government and the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Torture, murder, rape, sexual and gender-based violence, forced marriages, abduction, illegal detention, illegal deportation (from Syria to Turkey), illegal property seizure, holding of people for ransom, and theft are all human rights abuses and war crimes that were documented by the Commission, committed by members of the Syrian National Army (SNA) against the people of North and East Syria. Many of the war crimes that are listed are violations against women. The Commission specifically lists crimes committed by the SNA in the Afrin region and Ras Al-Ain, which are under occupation by the Turkish state. 

The report discusses Turkish involvement in these crimes, without implicating Turkey explicitly. The Commission found many eyewitness accounts that mention Turkish soldiers or personnel. As stated in the report, the Commission will continue to investigate the Turkish involvement in these violations:

“The Commission continues to investigate the precise extent to which various Syrian National Army brigades and Turkish forces have formed a joint command and control hierarchy and notes that, if any armed group members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, violations by these actors may entail criminal responsibility for such commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.”

Accusing Turkey for war crimes is an unusual step for the United Nations, as Turkey exerts significant pressure on other nations to ignore Turkish human rights abuses and war crimes. A newly-released report by the Rights Defence Initiative of Syria entitled, “A Report on Human Rights Violations and Crimes Committed by the Turkish State and Armed Factions in North-East Syria” makes an effort to quantify Turkey’s extensive abuses.

The report by the Rights Defence Initiative lists, for example, that 76 people were summarily executed, many of them also tortured, for the supposed crime of dealing with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). It notes that there are 64 fewer schools in the Afrin canton as a result of the January 2018 Turkish invasion and occupation, and that 27 schools in the Ras Al-Ain and Tal Abyad regions were directly targeted by bombings during the October 2019 Turkish invasion and occupation. The report states that 78 people were arrested during the October 2019 violence and illegally deported to Turkey to face trials in the Turkish judicial system, which is a war crime and violation of Syrian sovereignty. Many more crimes are outlined in an attempt to quantitatively analyze the massive number of Turkish abuses.

“I commend the United Nations for acknowledging human rights abuses by the Turkish state, Turkish military, and Turkish-backed militias,” said Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, Co-Chief of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. “This report provides a starting point for further investigation and inquiry into the horrific violations committed against the people of Syria, and the United Nations should take further action to halt these violations and protect our people. We encourage and support further investigation by the Commission into all human rights abuses in Syria.”

The United States Embassy in Syria issued a statement bearing the name of Ambassador James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, in response to the report. The statement takes the opportunity to mention the war crimes of the Syrian government. It further reads: “The United States condemns any human rights abuses or violations of international law by any group, and urges actors on the ground to take positive steps to end such behavior.”

The report also mentions the recruitment of child soldiers by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), meaning recruitment of children under 18 years of age. Child recruitment may occur because a girl is escaping a pre-arranged marriage, a child feels the desire to join the armed forces for protection of their community, the child has been forced into service, or another reason. The AANES and SDF have taken meaningful measures to address these problems and stop this recruitment.

In July 2019, the SDF signed a formal agreement with the UN to end the practice of child soldier recruitment. Although implementation of the agreement was slowed by the Turkish invasion into North and East Syria and the Turkish occupation, as well as the Coronavirus pandemic, SDF has made progress toward implementation. The SDF has returned more than 50 underaged girls and more than 30 underaged boys to their families. On August 3o, the AANES opened a special department to investigate and end the practice of child soldier recruitment.

The report also outlines a large number of abuses against women, perpetrated by Turkey and Turkish-backed militias. These include sexual crimes, murders, physical violence, and kidnappings, as well as crimes against women’s property, livelihoods, and political participation. In the areas occupied by Turkey and Turkish-backed militias, the report describes a climate of fear in which women are afraid to leave their homes. The issues are described in detail in the article, “The United States Can’t Ignore Turkey’s War on Syrian Women,” by Meghan Bodette.