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US sanctions on Turkey-backed Syria faction offer solace to Kurdish victims

It remains to be seen what practical and immediate effect Wednesday's sanctions will have.
Hevrin Khalaf's mother, Souad Mohammad, is seen with an image of her daughter in this undated photo.

On Oct. 12, 2019, three days after Turkish forces invaded northeastern Syria with President Donald Trump’s blessings, a rising young Kurdish politician named Hevrin Khalaf was ambushed by Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, a Turkish-backed armed Sunni brigade, and savagely executed. When the militants were done with the 35-year-old, her body was riddled with bullets, the flesh from her scalp ripped off, and her leg and skull fractured from repeated blows. Apparently unworried about retribution, the militants posted a video of the war crime online.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration rolled out its first sanctions directed at Syria. They targeted Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and its boss, Ahmed Ihsan Rayyad al-Hayes, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Hatem Shaqra, who was present during Khalaf’s murder. The sanctions also targeted eight Syrian prisons, five officials in President Bashar al-Assad’s regime who run them, and a pro-regime militia. Ahrar al-Sharqiyah also was accused by the US Treasury Department of recruiting members of the Islamic State and of killing multiple civilians in northeast Syria. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “These sanctions underscore the US commitment to promote respect for human rights and accountability for abuse against Syrians.” Some of the sanctioned prisons, including the notorious Saydnaya, appeared in a cache of gruesome photographs provided by the Syrian defector known as “Caesar.” A slew of sanctions to financially punish the Assad regime introduced by the Trump administration was named after this defector.

The announcement offered a measure of solace to Khalaf’s mother, Souad Mohammad, who said her daughter’s face had been so badly mutilated by her killers that all that was left intact was her jaw.

America's quiet acquiescence in the face of Turkey’s “Peace Spring” blitz against the United States' Syrian Democratic Forces allies helped contribute to the displacement of more than 200,000 Syrian Kurds and Arabs according to the United Nations and left countless others who thought they enjoyed US protection feeling betrayed. There was none more so, perhaps, than Mohammad.

Contacted via WhatsApp at her home in the town of Derik in northeast Syria, Mohammad said, “I am happy about what America has done, to expose the murderers of Hevrin Khalaf. It’s an important step. So, I thank the Biden administration.”

“However,” she added, “the real perpetrators, the real forces behind my daughter’s death, ought to be punished. I mean Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The leader of Turkey.”

One reason it took so long for the United States to act against Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, the first Turkish-backed opposition brigade to ever be sanctioned, is because of fierce resistance from officials in the Trump administration. Their line was that this would strain ties with Turkey, a NATO ally. Ankara’s protagonists within the Trump administration would claim that the brigades were the victims of disinformation campaigns and when confronted with the evidence would say the timing was not right or that the administration had other bilateral priorities. 

The Turkish-backed factions operate under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA). The SNA, in turn, reports to the opposition-led Syrian Interim Government in Istanbul. They have participated in all three of Turkey’s major military interventions in north and northeast Syria and help enforce the Turkish occupation. Senior figures in many of these groups, including Hayes, are believed to have been granted Turkish citizenship and operate commercial enterprises within Turkey.  

“Abu Hatem Shaqra and his brother have made millions from pillage, extortion, smuggling and kidnappings for ransom,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a doctoral student at Princeton University and a fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy who is counted among the most knowledgeable sources on the Syrian opposition factions.

The Biden administration has set a markedly different tone in its dealings with Turkey and enjoys bipartisan support in Congress for its tougher line. The State Department has criticized Ankara over its dismal human rights record on numerous occasions. In July, the department placed Turkey on the list of countries that deploy child soldiers; this was in connection with another Sunni brigade, Sultan Murad, which has also committed gross abuses. Sultan Murad has recruited minors to fight against United Arab Emirates-backed forces in Libya on Ankara’s behalf. Turkey issued an angry rebuttal over the designation but has not commented on Wednesday’s sanctions. 

A senior Biden administration official speaking on background to Al-Monitor declined to comment on the Trump team’s advocacy of Ankara. The official said, “I won’t speak to any of the actions of the previous administration except to say with this particular action we wanted to make clear that we were going after groups that were responsible for perpetuating human rights abuses and that includes actors on all sides.”

The official laid out the administration’s Syria strategy as “one where we are prioritizing mitigating suffering of the Syrian people.” This included its unsuccessful push for Russia to allow the resumption of UN humanitarian aid flows through three Syrian border crossings, with Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. 

“For the last few months, we have built, brick by brick, a broad strategy that utilizes our presence in the [Kurdish-controlled] northeast to fight [the Islamic State], expands humanitarian access throughout the country and works to sustain cease-fire agreements that are in place in the [rebel-held] northwest and the northeast, and with today’s action, makes clear that elevating human rights remains a priority even as we work to ensure that sanctions do not block or impede any type of humanitarian activity,” the official said.

The official continued, “Ahrar al-Sharqiyah is one of the most egregious actors and has shown a consistent pattern of abuse against Syrian civilians in areas it controls and specifically targeted minority groups in Syria to include Yazidis and Kurds. We assessed that this group was worthy of particular singling out for the abuses that they have carried and continue to carry out.”

The reason it had taken so much time to sanction Ahrar al-Sharqiyah was because accumulating unimpeachable evidence “takes a very long time.”

The official added, “I would also say that behind the scenes, we worked very hard to engage various elements within the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian National Army about our persistent concerns over these human rights abuses.” The pressure had no effect.

“With Ahrar al-Sharqiyah in particular I have not seen a change in their behavior. I am not aware that our engagement has any discernible impact and that’s why we thought it was important to send a clear message that this group in particular was a group of concern and I absolutely would not paint every Syrian National Army faction with the same brush,” the official said.

Hayes’ recent commercial ventures allegedly include smuggling the wives and children of foreign Islamic State fighters from the al-Hol camp in northeast Syria to Turkey, according to a militant from the Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigade who briefed Al-Monitor on the clandestine activities of the factions, on condition that he not be identified by name. 

Two individuals linked with al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadi group that controls Idlib, were also named in the sanctions list. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department, the United Nations and Turkey. However, it’s no secret that Turkish security services work closely with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a tactical, if strained, alliance that benefits both sides.

Ankara has facilitated passage for several journalists in recent months to interview Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who is seeking to rebrand himself as an Islamist moderate in order to be accepted as a legitimate opposition actor. Washington is unimpressed.

The senior administration official briefing Al-Monitor said the US position on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham “has not changed. Jolani specifically remains designated by the United States and as you know there is information out for his arrest.” The official added that the Biden administration supports a cease-fire in Idlib province, does not want to see any kind of Russian or regime offensive and also does not want to see Hayat Tahrir al-Sham used as a pretext for any offensive. “We are not open to normalizing or engaging or changing our posture towards that group.”

It remains to be seen what practical and immediate effect Wednesday's sanctions will have. 

Roger Lu Phillips, legal director for Syrians for Justice and Accountability, a Washington-based organization that is documenting rights abuses in Syria, told Al-Monitor, “Symbolically it's a good thing to name entities and their branches committing violations. But as far as Turkey is concerned, it’s very difficult to measure what impact it will have.”

He said, “The United States is faced with a very difficult balancing act. How do you impose sanctions on Turkish-backed militia groups without creating tensions with Turkey with which you have a lot of shared interests? There was a very clear effort to distinguish between Turkish military forces and the Syrian militias intertwined with these forces. How are you going to seize or control funds [of the sanctioned factions] without having some better leverage than naming them alone? That is not going to solve the problem.” 

The Biden administration is currently in talks with Turkish officials over securing Kabul airport

Turkey has offered to retain its troops there after the United States pulls out all of its own by a Sept. 11 deadline. This has spurred speculation that the Biden administration is now less inclined to assail Turkey over human rights violations for fear of torpedoing the negotiations.

Despite such caveats, the Kurdish led administration in northeast Syria welcomed the sanctions package and said it expected more of them. Sinam Mohammed, the Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, which shares power in northeast Syria, called the action “a great success.” She told Al-Monitor, “I am looking forward to seeing the other groups being sanctioned as well, such as the al-Hamza Brigade, Sultan Murad, Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigade, who committed crimes, rape, murder and robbed my property in Afrin."

Tsurkov said she believes there is ground for optimism, saying, “The sanctions placed on Ahrar al-Sharqiyah will have an actual impact. First, it will make it difficult for leaders of the faction to engage in any future political process. In addition, their access to the dollar-denominated banking system will be cut off.” 

She argued that the sanctions will give Turkey leverage to rein in the abuses. “I am hearing from sources within the Syrian National Army that the commanders of other factions, which have all engaged in similar abuses, are concerned they are next.”

Back in Derik, Khalaf’s mother insists that the United States could have prevented her daughter’s death. “Still,” she added, “we the Kurds, we say, ‘Sehid Na Mirin.’” That is Kurdish for “martyrs never die.”

Correction: July 31, 2021. An earlier version of this article said half a million Syrian Kurds were displaced by Turkey's Operation Peace Spring.

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