Syrian National Army, backed by Turkey, is threatened with sanctions for its torture prisons

Members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army at a checkpoint placed at the eastern entrance of Azaz city in the northern countryside of Aleppo- 17 April 2021 (Enab Baladi- Walid Othman)

Members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army at a checkpoint placed at the eastern entrance of Azaz city in the northern countryside of Aleppo- 17 April 2021 (Enab Baladi- Walid Othman)

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Enab Baladi – Khalid Jar’atli

Activists have repeatedly circulated videos on social media platforms that show members of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army(SNA)torturing civilians in northern Aleppo. 

In one of the recent videos, a number of the SNA members wearing their military uniforms were brutally torturing a civilian by beating him with a whip and a stick all over his body after they stripped him down to his underwear. Furthermore, they insulted him verbally and forced him to apologize to those torturing him while filming their acts, presenting that apology as directed to Deir Ezzor residents.

The date of the young man’s arrest, who is from Raqqa governorate, is still unknown. However, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported on 10 September that the young man was arrested at the beginning of September.

The young man was arrested because he insulted the people of one of the Syrian cities, according to matching information received by Enab Baladi. 

In the 10 September report, the SNHR indicated that the name of the civilian who was being mistreated and tortured is Ali al-Sultan al-Faraj. He was held by individuals the SNHR believes to be affiliated with the 20th Division/ Soqoor al Sonna, one of the divisions of the SNA near his home in the village of Balwa. Balwa is administratively a part of Slouk district in the northern suburbs of Raqqa governorate.  

The SNHR added that the security group took the detainee to an undisclosed location. He was not allowed to communicate with his family or a lawyer. No warrant was issued by the judicial authority for his arrest. All these factors together make the detention process more like a kidnapping than a legitimate arrest. 

In its report, the SNHR said, “The signs of torture and the brutal means used to violate the sanctity of the citizen Ali al-Faraj remind us of similar practices used by the Syrian regime’s shabiha and security forces, who have appeared in dozens of videos, filming themselves torturing Syrian citizens and bragging about doing so.”

SNA disavows

In audio recordings obtained by Enab Baladi, the commander of the Soqoor al-Sonna Division, alias Hassan Abu Nour, denied the responsibility of his division and its members for the arrest and torture of the young man and described the arrest process as “contrary to the principles of the revolution and Islam.”

He added that the detainee, Ali al-Sultan al-Faraj, is now free. Thus, any entity could go and ask him about the identity of his actual kidnappers, “who absolutely do not belong to the Soqoor al-Sonna Division.”

Meanwhile, the Military Police of the SNA issued a statement, saying that in cooperation with the 20 Division, it captured the five perpetrators of the arrest operation against the young man. 

 The police, in its statement, said that it continues to carry out investigations into the above-mentioned acts of torture and aggression are still underway. Furthermore, it will still search for the rest of the perpetrators and hold them accountable.  

The detainees, then, will be brought before the court of the SNA; after the investigations are completed, the SNA-linked Azem operations room separately declared that on Twitter.

Ali al-Sultan al-Faraj, appeared on a separate recording after he was released, talking about how he was thrown by the kidnappers, who belong to the 20 Division of the SNA, on a street near Slouk district in the countryside of Raqqa.

 The SNA usually denies responsibility for arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in its areas of influence, which it controls with Turkish support.

Spokesperson of the SNA Youssef Hamoud denied, in previous statements to Enab Baladi, that the military factions in Afrin and the countryside of Aleppo had carried out arbitrary arrests or enforced disappearances, following a report prepared by the Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)organization. STJ, in its report, documented that the SNA and its associate security services released 30 out of 43 persons; who were arrested within only one month in 2020, after their families and relatives paid money bails and ransoms.  

International sanctions loom 

For the first time, the US Department of the Treasury (USDT) imposed sanctions on some of the Syrian opposition factions, including the faction of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, as part of a new package at the end of last June. The sanction included figures and entities affiliated with the Syrian regime. 

Commenting on the possibility of imposing further sanctions, Mohammad al-Abdallah, Director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center, said such practices could lead to additional sanctions on the SNA, whose continuous violations have become “shameful scandals for its factions.” 

The SNA-linked factions committed several violations against civilians and the local population, most notably robberies, kidnappings and lootings.

After many human rights organizations and groups, including the UN Commission of Inquiry, documented the SNA’s serious violations against civilians, the US started to consider sanctioning SNA more seriously. 

Mohammad al-Abdallah referred to a previous violation by one of the SNA factions. He said that a video spread of two factions belonging to the SNA fighting each other. The video revealed there were detainees, including Kurdish women, held in undeclared prisons.  

Accordingly, the scale of violations has mainly increased and is systematically committed by the SNA factions. Therefore, these violations cannot go unnoticed by the international community, according to al-Abdullah.

Stopping violations is “Turkish decision”

Al-Abdullah argued that the burden falls on Turkey, as a state and as a Turkish army stationed in Syria.

Turkey is responsible for controlling the practices of the SNA in Syria, which can be possibly done if Turkey so desires.

Even though Turkey is well aware of the presence of some notorious leading figures in the SNA, it does not discuss replacing them or getting them out of the picture in favour of more acceptable faces or at least those less provocative to the popular base. That’s to say, Turkey has not had the intention of that yet, al-Abdullah said. 

On the contrary, Turkish officials are bragging about having good relations with such figures. These figures, including the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division commander, Muhammad Husayn al-Jasim, nicknamed Abu Amsha, receive a warm welcome in Turkey. 

This is not considered in Turkey’s interest because sanctions may affect Turkish officials with close relations with the SNA-affiliated factions.

Although Turkey tried to make some reforms within the SNA entity and its areas of influence through the formation of the Grievance Committee, its impacts on the ground were very limited.

Muhammad al-Abdullah said that relying on such formations represented in the Grievance Committee is similar to depending on the investigation committee formed by the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to investigate the violations that took place in Daraa.

As for the proposed solutions that could stop this kind of practice, al-Abdullah suggested that sanctions are the best solution, even if they include Turkish personalities who have power over these factions and can change their behaviour.

 European courts could do their work

In the absence of a law that would stop these violations, Muhammad al-Abdullah believes that if European courts impose sanctions on the commanders of the SNA carrying out gross human rights violations and issue arrest warrants against them, this could constitute a “confusing factor” for Turkey. 

Europe often clashes with Turkey regarding the file of Syrian refugees—Turkey repeatedly threatens to open its border to refugees seeking to cross into Europe. 

Thus, filing cases against the SNA commanders violating human rights in the European courts could greatly contribute to stopping the barbaric practices of the SNA.    

It is noteworthy that Turkey is committed to extradition treaties and criminal and judicial cooperation agreements with many European countries. Thus, things will be more challenging if Turkey refuses to extradite SNA commanders.

Muhammad al-Abdullah pointed out that if legal proceedings took place to hold the notorious SNA commanders accountable, Interpol would have to issue international arrest warrants against them at the European courts’ request. In return, Turkey may not consider these warrants.  

However, Turkey will be uncomfortable when dealing with issues related to the SNA. 

Al-Abdullah stressed that this type of work is currently being studied and worked on.  

It is not their first time

A video of a child showing signs of torture went viral on social media in mid-August. 

 Activists circulated information on social media that the Sultan Murad Division, affiliated with the SNA, detained and tortured the child in Ras al-Ain city in alHasakeh countryside on robbery charges.

Then, a commander of the Sultan Murad Division stated a few days later during a video recording that the child was his cousin. He tortured him because he wanted to discipline him harshly. No documentation proves that he was held accountable for torturing a child of no more than ten years old. 

 Last August, the SNHR documented that seven civilians, including three children, got killed by the SNA-affiliated factions. 

In the 26 June report, the SNHR documented that 14,537 Syrians were killed under torture, from March 2011 until June 2021, including 180 children and 92 women (adult female), with the vast majority of all these victims killed by parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, mainly by the Syrian regime forces. 

The armed opposition factions (formerly represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSN) and currently the SNA) were responsible for the killing of 47 people, including a child and a woman, according to the SNHR.

The Syrian regime is responsible for the deaths of most victims of torture at a rate of 98.63 percent; 14,338 of these cases, including 173 children and 74 women. Then, the report notes that the Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF), which control northeastern Syria, come in second place, with 67 individuals, including a child and two women, killed due to torture. 

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