Crimes in Syria: The neglected atrocities of Afrin

Afrin – Syria – Crimes against humanity

In January 2018, the Turkish army and allied armed militias invaded the northern Syrian region of Afrin. The so-called military operation "Olive Branch" lasted for over two months, beginning with intensive aerial bombardment followed by a ground invasion. As Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups seized control of the region, the predominantly Kurdish population was driven from their homes and stripped of their livelihoods.

What began back then still continues to this day. Officially, Afrin is administered by Syrian local councils, but de facto the region has been under Turkish control since March 2018. Turkish-backed armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which had already committed crimes in many places, have imposed arbitrary rule in Afrin. With Türkiye's knowledge, they systematically commit atrocities, including arbitrary arrests of civilians, sexual violence, torture, as well as systematic looting and killings.

These human rights violations committed by Turkish-backed and Islamist militias constitute crimes under international law and can be investigated anywhere in the world. Together with six survivors of the crimes, ECCHR, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) and their partners filed a criminal complaint with the German Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in January 2024, calling for a comprehensive investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Case

The so-called Operation Olive Branch began on 18 January 2018 with airstrikes by the Turkish army, which primarily struck civilian targets and paved the way for the armed militias of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA) to advance into the Syrian villages near the border and finally into the city of Afrin. One of Türkiye's main objectives with the offensive was to militarily reduce the size of the autonomous Kurdish region on the southern border with Türkiye, which was established during the course of the Syrian civil war. The SNA fighters proclaimed control over the captured villages and expelled the remaining residents through systematic looting and indiscriminate attacks.

All institutions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in Afrin were immediately dissolved and replaced by new Syrian administrative structures established and controlled by Türkiye. In addition to the introduction of the Turkish currency, postal services and payment transactions were also linked to Türkiye, while local administration sectors – including health, education and aspects of the judiciary – were brought under the control of the Hatay governorate in Türkiye.

Residents who wanted to return to their homes and villages often found them occupied and looted by fighters. Arbitrary arrests, torture, sexualized violence and conditions of inhumane detention became part of everyday life for the remaining civilian population. The new administration also established settlements to resettle Syrians  into Afrin who had once fled to Türkiye from other regions of Syria, even while the local population continues to be displaced. Kurdish street names and school curricula were changed to Arabic or Turkish, and the Kurdish New Year celebration Newroz was banned. While Afrin was historically the most densely Kurdish populated part of Syria, Kurds have become an ever-shrinking minority after the systematic expulsions.

The complaint filed by ECCHR and STJ addresses the human rights violations committed by the armed groups in Afrin. These include the displacement of the Kurdish population; the violation of property rights of the local population; the violent repression of the civilian population, in particular through detention and torture; targeted killings; and the destruction of cultural heritage sites.

Context

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, Germany can prosecute international crimes, regardless of who committed them, where they were committed or against whom they were directed. Germany has played a pioneering role in addressing the crimes of the Syrian regime, in particular since the al-Khatib trial at the Koblenz Higher Regional Court. The Federal Public Prosecutor's Office has also opened a structural investigation into crimes of non-state actors in the Syrian conflict since 2014.

Until now, ECCHR's work on Syria has focused on the crimes committed by the Assad regime. With the case on international crimes in Afrin, ECCHR and Syrians for Truth and Justice are now filing a complaint that calls upon the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate crimes by Turkish-backed armed groups against the Kurdish population in Syria. Transitional justice for Syria must include all actors who perpetrate crimes, as well as encompass particular harms committed against ethnic minorities.

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Definition

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. Crimes against humanity are part of the core crimes against international law and are subject to universal jurisdiction. Crimes against humanity can include acts such as murder, extermination, enslavement and deportation.

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Insight

Syria

The first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started in Germany in April 2020 at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz. The main defendant was Anwar R, a former official of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian General Intelligence Directorate. In January 2022, the trial ended with the convition of Anwar R to a life-long sentence for crimes against humanity. Already in February 2021, the court sentenced his colleague, Eyad A, to four years and six months in prison for aiding and abetting 30 cases of crimes against humanity.

In June 2018, it moreover became known that the Germany Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) had issued an arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, until July 2019 head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service. This warrant, which can be enforced internationally, and the al-Khatib trial in Koblenz are milestones towards justice and accountability for all those affected by Assad’s torture system.

The al-Khatib trial and the arrest warrant are, among others, the result of a series of criminal complaints regarding torture in Syria, which ECCHR and more than 50 Syrian torture survivors, relatives, activists, and lawyers have filed since 2016 in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

In Syria, torture, executions and disappearances of civilians, genocides and sexualized violence are only some of the crimes committed by almost all conflict parties. There is little prospect of accountability for these crimes on an international level. The International Criminal Court is not an option as Syria is not a signatory to its statute and Russia is blocking a referral by the UN Security Council. This leaves the path through national courts: In some third party states like Germany, the principle of universal jurisdiction allows for the crimes to be addressed legally and to hold high- as well as lower ranking perpetrators accountable.

ECCHR has been working on crimes committed by all parties of the conflict since 2012 and is cooperating with a network of Syrian and international organizations, lawyers and activists.

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