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State Department remains concerned by Turkey’s proxy fighters in northern Syria

Turkey-allied fighters have faced widespread accusations of arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings and other abuses in northern Syria.

The State Department remains concerned by credible reports of human rights abuses committed by Turkish-backed fighters in parts of northeast Syria seized during military operations against US-allied Kurdish fighters, according to a new inspector general's report.

The State Department has received reports of “arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, seizure of and resettlement of new populations in private properties, the repeated and deliberate shutting off of water access to half a million civilians, and transfer of arbitrarily-detained Syrians across an international border into Turkey,” according to the Lead Inspector General report on Operation Inherent Resolve, the operational name for the US fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The report released Tuesday covers the period of April 1 to June 30.

“We have reiterated our expectation that Turkey, and the Syrian opposition, investigate alleged violations and abuses and promote accountability where appropriate,” the State Department said.

The State Department told investigators it had no evidence that the Syrian Interim Government, a political body that operates in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria, "has consistently arrested, prosecuted, or otherwise held accountable any [Turkish-supported opposition group] members implicated in human rights abuses or violations of the law of armed conflict."

Turkey’s military campaign against Kurdish fighters launched in October, which followed President Donald Trump's surprise decision to pull troops out of northeast Syria, garnered widespread criticism over the myriad rights abuses reportedly committed by the Syrian proxy fighters Ankara deployed to carry out its ground offensive. 

The Turkey-supported Syrian National Army, which consists of both moderate Syrian rebels who once fought the regime and more extreme factions, was implicated in a series of disturbing videos documenting torture and extrajudicial killings. The roadside execution of prominent female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, which was blamed on the hard-line Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction, prompted widespread condemnation. The Syrian National Army condemned the killing of Khalaf and eight other civilians and said it would investigate.

The new report noted that the United States has not sanctioned any of the Turkey-allied groups for abuses. If certain criteria are met, the Trump administration has the authority to do so under the executive order used in October to briefly sanction Turkey over its incursion. 

The situation in Afrin, a multi-ethnic city embroiled in violence since Turkey and allied rebels seized control in March 2018, is of particular concern to the State Department. Rights organizations accuse rebels in Afrin of abducting hundreds of women and girls, at least 150 of whom have been identified. Yazda, a group advocating for the long-persecuted religious Yazidi minority, says nearly 80% of the Yazidi religious sites in Syria have been looted by, desecrated, or destroyed by the fighters, including 18 sites in Afrin. 

With no presence on the ground, the State Department said it could not confirm the reports but said “many appear to be credible.”

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