Proxy forces backed by Ankara have been blamed for a growing ledger of abuses against the local population, residents say, undermining Turkey’s stated goal of creating a “safe zone” for civilians.
More than 200,000 people have been internally displaced in the month since Turkey intervened to drive US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters from a broad swathe of northern Syria, according to the United Nations.
Families that have been scattered across eastern Syria say that Turkey’s Syrian Arab proxies have carried out summary executions and beatings, kidnapped or detained their relatives and looted their houses, businesses and belongings.
The result, refugees say, is a form of ethnic cleansing – an operation they see as designed in part to force out Kurdish residents and their sympathisers and replace them with Arabs loyal to Turkey.
Turkey launched a cross-border military offensive into neighbouring Syria on Oct 9 with the aim of pushing the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an amalgam of Kurdish-led militias, away from its border.
The SDF had spearheaded a US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group in northeastern Syria.
But Turkey had long viewed the SDF’s presence near the border as a threat because of ties to a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the Turkish and US governments have designated a terrorist organisation.
Turkey essentially delegated the ground offensive to a proxy force, the Syrian National Army, an umbrella group in northern Syria consisting of an assortment of rebel forces opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many of the group’s factions, made up largely of Syrian Arab fighters, had already fought at Turkey’s behest in two previous military operations over the past three years.
It is the Syrian National Army that many residents blame for depredations against civilians that have driven thousands out of the area.
A senior officer affiliated with the force acknowledged some human rights violations, but said the SDF was exaggerating the abuses.
Last month, the Syrian National Army faced strong condemnation after graphic videos showed fighters from one faction, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, summarily executing captives on a highway it had just seized near Tal Abyad.
The same group has also been accused of murdering Ms HevrinKhalaf, a Syrian Kurdish politician, after ambushing her car south of the town on Oct 12.
In response to the backlash, the Syrian National Army formed a committee tasked with investigating crimes allegedly committed by the group’s members.
The committee is chaired by Colonel Hassan Hamadeh, deputy defence minister in the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government.
“We admit that we have soldiers who commit human rights violations,” Col Hamadeh told The Washington Post.
“The Syrian National Army’s lack of homogeneity renders the task of disciplining everyone harder. It’s like we’re patching torn clothes.”
However, he dismissed most of the accusations that have been circulating online, describing them as part of an SDF-led slander campaign. He did not specify which charges he views as specious. (Source: The Straits Times)