In 2018, Turkey launched a military offensive into Syria’s Kurdish-majority city of Afrin. The offensive, code-named ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in reference to a symbol of peace, brought no peace. The offensive resulted in serious human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment. These abuses were verified by the testimonies of 40 victims who were arrested by Syrian armed opposition groups and Turkish forces.
The present paper is based on 40 testimonies we obtained in 2021 and early 2022 from witnesses in Afrin district. Witnesses shared their traumatic experiences of torture and ill-treatment during their visits to detention centres. They described arbitrary arrests, cruel torture, and acts of sexual violence. Most of the arrests were made in March 2018 by the Turkish Army and allied Syrian armed groups after Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. Victims’ prison terms ranged from days to months and many were released for large sums of money. The victims the organizations met with are all locals of Afrin, except for two who hail from A’zaz, which was taken by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield and which ended on 28 March 2017. After their release, most of the victims fled Afrin towards IDP camps and safe areas in Aleppo for fear of being rearrested, as has happened to survivors who remained in Afrin.
The arrest cases documented were of 25 young males, 15 young women, including a baby girl, as well as elderly men and women. Among those arrested were six Arabs. The rest were Kurds, among them Yazidis. According to the 40 testimonies we heard, several entities are responsible for the arrests made in Afrin:
- The Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya was accused of 12 arrests;
- The Military Police was accused of 10 arrests;
- The Tajammu Ahrar al-Sharqiya/Gathering of Free Men of the East was accused of 7 arrests;
- The Turkish Intelligence was accused of 7 arrests;
- The Sham Legion/Faylaq al-Sham was accused of 6 arrests
- The Sultan Murad Division was accused of 5 arrests
- The Suleiman Shah Brigade (also known as al-Amshat) was accused of 2 arrests;
- Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant/Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya was accused of 2 arrests;
- Elite Army/Jaysh al-Nukhba was accused of 2 arrests;
All-Fatah Brigade/Battalion of Conquest Brigade was accused of 1
Notably, some of those interviewed for the purpose of this paper confirmed being arrested and tortured more than once by one or more of the abovementioned entities. However, some victims could not identify those who arrested them nor the places where they were held. That was because they were blindfolded when they were kidnapped and arrested.
The present paper cites summaries of 40 interviews conducted in the context of a joint project between Human Rights Organization-Afrin and Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ). The interviews were conducted in 2021 and early 2022 with arrest survivors and/or members of their families in the Syrian Kurdish-majority Afrin region, northwest Syria.
The project of the two partner organizations aims not only to collect evidence on the human rights violations committed against the interviewed victims but also to provide various forms of psychological, medical, and legal support to those victims through specialized experts.
The present paper sheds light on crimes and violations committed by Turkish-backed Syrian armed opposition groups in control of vast territories in northwest Syria.
United Nations committees as well as international and local organizations have documented systematic patterns of violations perpetrated against residents of Afrin and other Kurdish-majority areas. The documented violations include arbitrary deprivation of liberty, forcing people out of their home areas through threats, extortion, murder, kidnapping, torture and detention, and rape and sexual violence against women and girls.
For the purpose of the present paper, the two partner organizations analyzed in detail the 40 testimonies given by the survivors and their families. The victims were interviewed by field researchers present in the Shahba’ IDP camp in northwest Syria, where many of Afrin’s locals were displaced after Operation Olive Branch.
Ethnically, the interviewed victims were 34 Kurdish men and women, among them a Yazidi man and woman, as well as six Arabs, including a woman.
We will conceal the identities of the victims in the present paper since it is intended for public publication. Some of the victims agreed to share their testimonies with international entities, including the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and a number of special rapporteurs.
 The Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya was formed in December 2014. It is the Syrian National Army’s (SNA) largest faction, as it alone makes the 3rd Legion of the Army. The front is headed by Muhannad Khalaf, nicknamed Abu Ahmed Nour, who also leads the Unified Command Room (Azm), under which most of the SNA groups operate. The front is active in northern rural Aleppo and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê.
 The witnesses reported cases of people who were arrested with them. However, our researchers managed to interview only 40 survivors of the reported cases.
 See, for example, the 21st report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic – A/HRC/45/31, 15 September 2020, paras 46-64. The report is available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/iici-syria/documentation