Will US sanctions on Turkey-backed groups push Ankara to change its approach in northern Syria?
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
In light of human rights abuses in the northwestern region, the United States imposed on August 17 sanctions on three leaders and their factions affiliated to the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned The Suleiman Shah Brigade (al-Amshat) and The Hamza Division (al-Hamzat), as well as their leaders, Mohammad Hussein al-Jasim (Known as Abu Amsha), Walid Hussein al-Jasim, and Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr. Al-Jasim’s Turkey-based car dealership Al-Safir Oto was also listed, according to The Associated Press.
With human rights organizations repeatedly talking about repeated violations, Turkey has not intervened to limit them in the areas that are considered within its areas of influence in northern Syria, as observers see the current sanctions as a “political message to Turkey” rather than sanctions of an economic nature.
The Suleiman Shah Brigade was accused of abductions and extortion of residents, especially Afrin’s Kurdish residents, to force them to abandon their homes and flee or to “pay large ransoms for the return of their property or family members”.
The Treasury said The Hamza Division was also involved in running detention centers where it held abducted victims for ransom who were tortured and sexually abused.
His younger brother, Walid Hussein al-Jasim, was accused of several cases of sexual assault, as well as killing a prisoner unable to pay ransom in 2020.
The first time that the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Syrian opposition factions was when its sanctions included the Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction, a key unit in the Syrian National Army, as part of a new package at the end of June 2021, which included figures and entities affiliated with the Syrian regime.
However, Mohammad al-Abdallah, Director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), believes that the latest decision of the US Treasury Department has a political impact on Turkey, as it sends a “clear message” to Ankara that relying on these factions and these leaders is unacceptable.
The human rights activist added to Enab Baladi that these figures are known for “widely documented violations,” which leads to reading the latest sanctions as an American message that it is unacceptable for the Turkish authorities to turn a blind eye to violations, as they have the actual authority over the lands in northern Syria.
The political impact of the sanctions is clear, according to al-Abdallah, as he believes that the American rejection of these figures may force Turkey to abandon them, restructure the factions, or even think about changing its strategy for dealing with northern Syria.
With the passage of a few days after the sanctions, Turkish media spoke of “establishing a new system regarding relations between Turkey and local councils in 13 different regions in northern Syria.”
After Ankara used to appoint seven governors coordinating what are known as the “buffer zones” in northern Syria, the Turkish newspaper Turkiye Gazetesi said that one governor would be appointed to manage northern Syria’s relations with Turkey.
The director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center expected Ankara to ignore sanctions during the first period, but we will see what the United States will ask Turkey later, as it must be wondered whether the sanctions will expand to include more individuals, or whether the United States will begin confiscating assets found in Turkish banks, or freezing bank accounts of people in Turkey, for example, in cooperation with Ankara.
Al-Abdallah added that punishing al-Jasim’s Turkey-based car dealership Al-Safir Oto could have a clear impact, as the properties of these figures, even in Turkey, will not be immune from the sanctions, which forces Turkey to reconsider excessive reliance on these personalities and the violations they commit mainly in northern Syria.
Delegitimize the opposition
Omer Ozkizilcik, a Turkish analyst focusing on Syrian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the American Treasury has once again become “a pawn in the hands of the political ambitions and goals of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units,” as the sanctions have no effect on the leaders of the SNA factions, and will not affect the ground, but they are in the interest of Kurdish groups in Syria.
Ozkizilcik added that the United States aims to “delegitimize the Syrian opposition and hinder the ability to re-engage with the opposition.”
The Turkish expert in the inter-rebel dynamics and security policy finds it “shocking” that the United States imposed sanctions on the Hamza Division, which once received $8 million in funding from Washington, as part of a train-and-equip program for the moderate opposition against the Islamic State Group.
When the US special forces entered northern Aleppo in 2016 as well, the Hamza Division was with them, and the United States even provided them with armored vehicles, but today it returns to impose sanctions on them.
The United States was supervising the direction of support for the Syrian opposition factions in the north of the country through the Military Operations Center (known as the MOC Room) responsible for organizing support for the armed opposition factions, but its work was suspended in 2015.
Will Turkey’s policy change?
Regarding the allegations facing the SNA factions of being responsible for violations, the Turkish analyst, Ozkizilcik, believes that two basic aspects must be considered in this issue, namely proportion and quality.
He added that the quantity and quality of violations committed by the National Army are “relatively small” than those committed by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the Syrian regime, for example, as we have never witnessed the SNA factions detonating car bombs in the center of popular market, as well as the case with the SDF, which carried out more than 200 car bomb attacks north of Aleppo.
The second is the scale of violations observed by the National Army, and in contrast to the SDF and the Syrian regime, which follow a totalitarian approach, the National Army allows “freedom.”
Ozkizilcik attributed the reasons for the SNA violations to always coming to the surface, that its actions are subject to severe criticism and are promoted by the SDF, the regime, the Islamic State group, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Russia, Iran and some Western media outlets that support the Kurdish groups in Syria.
As a result of these two reasons, the violations depicted in northern Aleppo are “exaggerated” and are perceived as being much greater than normal.
In his turn, al-Abdallah believes that Turkey will not risk its political capital with the United States for the sake of figures such as “Abu Amsha” or Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr or factions such as “al-Hamzat” and “al-Amshat.” Therefore, the sanctions will have a negative impact on northern Syria.
The US-based rights activist told Enab Baladi that the impact of the sanctions and their political impact will not affect Abu Amsha physically today, but their impact lies in ending his future role within the opposition factions.
He added that the presence of “Abu Amsha” is not actually in anyone’s interest, neither the Syrians themselves nor even Turkey, which runs the region.
Internationally documented violations
On March 13, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syria released its report on violations in Syria, in which it said that the parties to the conflict were still committing violations and abuses against the Syrian people during the months preceding the earthquake disaster, forming a “pattern of failures” in protecting Syrian civilians.
The report, which was presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in the same month, documented ongoing violations of human rights and humanitarian law in all Syrian territories during the last six months of 2022.
In the northeast, the commission said that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to illegally detain 56,000 people, most of them women and children, who are suspected of family ties to Islamic State fighters in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps, where living conditions continue to deteriorate.
The commission believes, on “reasonable grounds,” that the suffering they have suffered may amount to a “war crime,” which represents an attack on personal dignity, and calls for their expedited return to their homelands.
In northwestern Syria, the HTS in Idlib and SNA factions in the Aleppo countryside arbitrarily detained and tortured people in a manner amounting to enforced disappearance, according to the report.
These authorities restricted basic freedoms such as the freedom to express opinion, and the commission received “multiple and credible” reports stating that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham carried out “executions by firing squad,” while in areas controlled by the National Army, the commission documented hostage-taking and looting and confiscation of property.
Following a similar report by the International Investigation Committee issued in mid-2022, the SNA responded to accusations that it was responsible for violations in areas under its control in northern Syria.
Lawyer Fahd al-Qadi, director of the legal office of the SNA’s Homeland Liberation Movement, told Enab Baladi that the report contradicted itself in many items.
Al-Qadi added that the initial investigations with the detainees, in addition to the judicial procedures, established charges supported by evidence and reached the “point of certainty” in their involvement, while “the authorities released those against whom the charges were not proven,” contrary to what the report says, that the arrests came without charges.
He also considered it natural for the authorities today to focus on the security aspect, since the region suffers from many security violations, especially since some of these areas were subject to the influence of the US-backed Kurdish factions, or the Islamic State in other areas.
Al-Qadi considered it self-evident that there were “security cells” for the “organizations” that controlled the region, and the danger of these cells lies in the fact that most of them are from the region itself.
In the SNA areas, which include the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in northeastern Syria, several SNA security and military units are active under many names and different banners. They periodically announce operations, whether security or military, and set up some checkpoints on the main roads or at the entrances to the markets.
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