AMMAN—Following individual bilateral, Turkey-US and Turkey-Russia agreements, the Turkish-led military offensive in northeast Syria, “Operation Peace Spring,” seems to be drawing to an end.
According to the agreements, Turkey has committed to suspending “Operation Peace Spring” in exchange for the withdrawal of the Kudish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to areas 30 kilometers away from the Turkish-Syrian border.
But post-SDF withdrawal, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) – which will now extend its control over areas previously controlled by the SDF – will be put to the test as it must now protect civilians in areas east of the Euphrates in order to justify its participation in the military offensive.
Civilian protection seems especially challenging for the group, as some of the SNA factions have already committed abuses against civilians in areas it has recently entered.
In fact, the leadership of the SNA acknowledged these violations to Syria Direct, while also vowing to hold the perpetrators responsible and address the grievances of their families.
Despite the SDF’s rhetoric about protecting civilians and accountability, activists have documented abuses against residents by the SDF itself, under the pretext of confronting Turkish forces.
An official Turkish statement justified ‘Operation Peace Spring’ by claiming it was “clearing the area of YPG [People’s Protection Units], PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and Islamic State (IS) fighters, and creating a safe zone for the return of Syrian refugees to their country.”
However, the military campaign has caused rifts at both the local and international level. Among Syrians in particular, it became clear that the motives for either supporting or rejecting the military operation were either political or ethnically-driven.
Meanwhile, humanitarian and human rights organizations have intensified their warnings about the consequences of the military operation, especially as civilian casualties and displacements mount.
Days after the start of “Operation Peace Spring,” Tal Abyad, northern Raqqa, Ras al-Ain and its countryside witnessed wide-scale robbery and looting at the hands of the SNA. In an interview with Syria Direct, one of the Arab residents commented, “we were suffering under PKK, [but now] we have to suffer under those [SNA fighters].”
The director of Reporters Without Borders-Raqqa, a local media network, Furat Al-Wafa, considered Operation Peace Spring as a “chance for salvation for the displaced from northeastern Syria by the SDF, especially after being harassed in neighboring countries,” he told Syria Direct. However, he grew quickly disappointed “after the abuses against people and their possessions.”
Hasakah Youth Union, a local media team, reported several complaints by civilians in Hasakah province against members of the SNA shortly after it took control of areas in the city of Ras al-Ain and its countryside. For example, on October 18, the al-Hamza battalion took over seven civilian vehicles in the villages of Al-Alloush and Al-Maqsouma of Ras al-Ain. Before that, the Mimati battalion opened fire on three civilians in the village of al-Nasiriyah.
Local activists documented the looting by members of the al-Majd brigade, who joined the ranks of the SNA after taking control of Tal Abyad and its countryside.
In response, “a committee has been formed and its phone numbers have been circulated to everyone,” according to the spokesperson of the SNA, major Yousef al-Hamoud. “We have already received complaints about violations,” he told Syria Direct.
The SNA also “imprisoned a group leader in the northern countryside of Aleppo, after he was involved in more than one incident of assault,” al-Hamoud added.
For his part, Turkish journalist Hamza Tekin, who enjoys close ties to the Turkish government, told Syria Direct that “in some of the battles, there have been lapses and violations of commands and instructions,” and that “abuses happen on a very small scale, on an individual basis,” adding that the “exaggeration by the media is unethical and illogical.”
At the same time, Tekin stressed that, “anyone who is confirmed to be involved will be subject to the proper procedures. Since he gave the order to start Operation Peace Spring, President Erdogan has made it clear that no civilian should ever be fired upon.”
Nonetheless, on October 26, a video and a series of photos surfaced, provoking widespread controversy and debate, even among the Syrian opposition. In one of the pictures, Yasser Abdul Rahim, the commander of the SNA-affiliated al-Majd Corps, is shown taking a ‘selfie’ with a female fighter from the SDF after she was captured in battle.
In the aftermath of the incident, the investigative committee established by the SNA decided to suspend a group of officers for “publishing a video of them capturing the Kurdish fighter.”
On the other hand, SDF fighters also committed crimes against civilians after they withdrew from Ras al-Ain, where three civilian corpses were found. According to local activists, the three men were executed by the SDF on charges of being members of sleeper cells for the SNA.
In another incident, SDF members killed a civilian in the village of Bab al-Khair, east of the city of Ras al-Ain, after they were accused of having relations with the SNA, according to Al-Khabour news site, which also pointed to other civilian killings by the SDF.
However, reports regarding ethnic cleansing cases are “still under verification,” a member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told Syria Direct, as “the families of the victims have not been reached until now to confirm the cases.”
The example of Afrin
Since the beginning of “Operation Peace Spring,” Syrian activists warned against a repeat of Afrin, a city in the northern countryside of Aleppo. Factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) engaged in large-scale looting of civilian property after taking over the city in March 2018 as part of the Turkish-backed military offensive, “Operation Olive Branch.”
Two FSA factions–al-Hamza Division and Sultan Murad Division– were accused of human rights violations in Afrin. Both factions are a part of the SNA and are currently participating in “Operation Peace Spring.”
These previous accusations provided further credibility to SDF propaganda against the military offensive, even before violations had been committed.
According to a media activist from Hasakah province, “the SDF promoted the abuses against civilians, especially against Kurds, and even exaggerated some of them. This is not unusual as the SNA is its enemy.”
He told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, that “the ongoing SDF propaganda campaign does not mean that abuses committed by elements of the SNA have not taken place. But it has primarily been the Arabs of Hasakah province who have been on the receiving end of these violations.”
Despite the SNA acknowledging the abuses, promising to hold perpetrators accountable, serious concerns nonetheless remain. “If there were clear and serious intentions to stop these abuses, they would not have been repeated,” noted Furat al-Wafaa.
Many of those who have been accused of abusing civilians continue to act with impunity, receiving no punishment for their actions. According to a resident of the city of Ras al-Ain, “many of the people who assaulted civilians in al-Nasrah and al-Aliyah have continued to operate in the area without being charged.”
While there are similarities between eastern Euphrates and Afrin in terms of abuses against civilians, the SNA faces a much more difficult path forward in its latest offensive.
The eastern Euphrates is more diverse in terms of ethnicities and sects, and the Arab tribes play a much larger role there. In addition, there are fears that the SDF will set up cells to operate after their withdrawal.
The SNA is aware of such dangers–as is clear in a recording obtained by Syria Direct in which an FSA commander pleads with members of the SNA to stop committing abuses against civilians.
“Brother, please understand that eastern Euphrates is not like Afrin,” the recording says. “In the east, if you do not have the popular support, you will die and will remain hated and afraid. [In the] Eastern Euphrates, if you do not have the popular support, you will die. Its people are Arab.”
Al-Wafa reiterated the recording’s message, noting that “the SNA and the Syrian and Turkish leadership of “Operation Peace Spring” must realize that, without the support and trust of the people, they will disappear.”
“Daesh [IS] and the SDF are living examples of this. The intelligent person is the one who learns from others’ examples.”
A version of this report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Calvin Wilder, and Rohan Advani.