Turkey-backed Syrian fighters stand guard in Afrin on Monday. Photo by Bakr AlKasem/AFP.
AMMAN: When Bilal Srewel was released last week after days in detention—in Turkish-administered Afrin—it was with a black eye, calves heavily discolored by bruises from the beating and cigarette burns down his back.
A media activist from East Ghouta who was displaced to Syria’s rebel-held northwest earlier this year, Srewel was out photographing in the streets of Afrin when a fighter from the Turkish-backed rebel faction Sultan Murad Division arrested him, reportedly for taking photos without a permit.
What exactly happened next, and who is responsible, is still being investigated by the Turkish authorities, according to a faction official, but the marks on Srewel’s body tell a story of severe beating and mistreatment.
And while Srewel was subsequently released, his experience has shed light on the hostile environment for Syrian journalists in areas of rural, opposition-held Aleppo province, where civilians are caught between a slew of Turkish-backed rebel factions operating with relative impunity.
“Honestly the situation for media workers is really sickening here,” says Amer a-Raabi*, a media activist displaced to Afrin from southern Syria earlier this year, describing how he and fellow colleagues “have distanced ourselves and kept our eyes off political and military issues.”
“As journalists, we’ve started to feel oppressed and powerless.”
In the wake of Srewel’s release one week ago, and the photos of his injuries from torture that started circulating on social media shortly afterwards, Syrian journalists and media activists in the Turkish-held pocket of northwestern Syria are starting to speak up about the hostile environment that journalists there are forced to navigate.
But while media workers in the area appear to be more outspoken following the incident, increasingly unstable security conditions leave question marks over whether those responsible for abuses against journalists will ever be held accountable.
According to Soad Khobia, a member of the pro-opposition Syrian Journalists Association (SJA) in Turkey, which monitors violations against journalists throughout Syria, nine journalists have been detained and later released in Afrin city and the outlying countryside—either by the Turkish army or Turkish-backed rebel factions—since January, when Ankara first launched Operation Olive Branch to seize areas along its southern border from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
While Bilal Srewel’s case might not be the first of its kind, it is the first to get this much media attention.
According to Khobia, journalists rarely speak publicly about their experiences, fearing repercussions from local factions or the Turkish authorities they answer to.
She suggests that Bilal’s case “stuck out” this time around because of “his journalist colleagues’ insistence on making their voices heard.”
The day Srewel was released, his brother tells Syria Direct, their house was crowded with visitors and fellow journalists coming to document the marks of torture on his body. A few hours later, the pictures of his bruised face were shared widely over social media—though without the expressed consent of the family.
SJA followed Srewel’s release with an official statement, claiming that violations committed by Turkish-backed armed factions in northern Syria “can no longer be ignored,” and calling on the Turkish government to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Afrin, a city of ‘gangs’
Afrin has effectively been under Turkish military occupation since March, when the Turkish military—as well nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated factions with Turkey’s backing—ousted the YPG from the city and outlying countryside. Since then, public institutions and service providers in Afrin have increasingly become entangled in Turkish webs of governance. Security in the area is also provided by a so-called “Syria Task Force,” affiliated with the Turkish Police, that has also been charged with training new police forces in Afrin.
The stated aims of Operation Olive Branch were to “establish security and stability along the Turkey-Syria border region and to protect Syrian civilians from the terrorist groups’ depredations,” according to a statement from the Turkish Presidency back in January.
And yet Afrin has since become a symbol of lawlessness, one where armed factions enforce their rule with virtual impunity.
The arrival of the “Syrian Task Force” in Afrin on November 15. Photo courtesy of Afrin Media Center.
The UN and human rights groups have documented looting and confiscation of property, arbitrary arrests and other abuses including extra-judicial executions. Meanwhile, civilians have repeatedly found themselves caught in the middle of intermittent inter-factional clashes between local rebel groups.
On November 18, an alliance of local rebel factions—reportedly in coordination with Turkish forces—launched a campaign against one supposedly rogue faction accused of “corruption” and violations against Afrin’s civilian population, but also crucially disobeying Turkey. The factions participating in the operation, however—among them the Sultan Murad Division, which detained and tortured Srewel—have themselves been accused of looting and theft, extrajudicial killings and other abuses against civilians.
Meanwhile, the lawlessness that has come to characterize Afrin since the end of Olive Branch has left journalists and media activists particularly vulnerable.
“Some gangs see the media worker as ten thousand dollars just walking around,” jokes a-Raabi.
“You can’t tell [people] that you’re a media worker or carry your camera with you in the street—you’d be afraid of being kidnapped.”
In other rural border areas further east—under Turkish control since Operation Euphrates Shield, a separate military campaign that ousted Islamic State (IS) fighters from the region in 2016—journalists describe similar risks.
“If they see that you have a camera, they might take advantage of the situation by kidnapping you or stealing your camera,” says Abdelrahman al-Ali, an Afrin-based media activist who also works in areas east of the city that residents now call “Euphrates Shield areas,” after the anti-IS military campaign there two years ago.
Travelling between different areas of the Turkish-held north can be particularly challenging, he says, as media workers are often subjected to interrogations and questioning at checkpoints.
“For this reason,” al-Ali explains, “you hope that the the word ‘media worker’ isn’t mentioned at the checkpoint you’re standing at.”
Still, journalists tell Syria Direct, the unwieldy power-sharing between Turkish military officials and administrators, as well as the numerous Turkish-backed factions on the ground, makes it hard for media workers to even know what the red lines are—let alone what happens when one is deemed to have crossed one.
Determined to continue his work in Afrin, a-Raabi, the displaced media activist from southern Syria, did his best to navigate diverging rules put in place by various local authorities, but to no avail.
In July, the FSA-affiliated military police in Afrin issued a circular demanding that all journalists and media workers obtain a permit in order to continue their work. While a-Raabi did subsequently manage to get hold of a permit, he quickly discovered that neither the civilian police nor the Turkish authorities recognized it—and he was told he would need a permit from the Turkish governor with authority over Afrin instead.
At the governor’s office, however, a-Raabi was met by closed doors and a guard telling him that such a permit could only be issued in Turkey.
A-Raabi started to laugh.
“‘If I was able to go to Turkey’,” he remembers telling the soldier guarding the office, “‘do you really think that I would stay here in Afrin?’”
Permit or not—and despite the fact a-Raabi has since decided to stop covering issues related to Turkey, let alone Turkey’s controversial presence in northwestern Syria—he has also had his own run-ins with the authorities. He was recently detained for five days for photographing in the street in Afrin.
When he was finally put him in front of a judge, he was let go.
“‘Turns out you’re innocent’,” a-Raabi recalls the judge telling him, “because there is no law in the first place for you to violate’.”
‘A lesson to us all’
Despite the chaos and widespread reports of human rights abuses, not everyone appears to agree on the extent of the violations facing journalists in northwestern Syria.
“You can’t generalize and say that the media activists don’t have any freedom at all,” says Asem al-Halabi, a photographer and reporter based in al-Bab. “But yes, there are red lines that no one can cross, and these lines differ from area to area and from faction to faction.”
Even though al-Halabi was himself arrested by a faction last year and detained for two months, he is hesitant to conclude that the incident reflects a larger issue.
What happened to him and Srewel, he says, represent “individual cases.” Factions are usually “afraid of scandals,” he adds.
Srewel’s brother, Raed, is also reluctant to place the blame for his brother’s detention on either the Turkish authorities or the Sultan Murad Division as a whole.
Seemingly putting his faith in the Turkish authorities and Sultan Murad to investigate and resolve the incident, Raed Srewel says that all he and his family wants is accountability.
“The issue is in the hands of the Turks now,” he says. “For us it’ll be enough that the perpetrator is held accountable.”
Meanwhile, an official from the Sultan Murad Division, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told Syria Direct that the incident is currently being investigated.
“I assure you that the person who arrested him will be punished,” the official said.
Bilal Srewel confirmed to Syria Direct that Turkish authorities had, after his release, interrogated him before taking him to Turkey for medical treatment, but gave no further comment on the issue.
But in the future, Srewel’s brother hopes, the uproar surrounding his brother’s case will be a turning point for the working conditions of journalists in an area still dogged by endemic lawlessness and impunity.
“Violations will no longer let go quietly,” he says. “God willing, what happened will be a lesson to us all.”
*Syria Direct has changed the names of all journalists and media activists quoted in this report to protect the identities of sources.