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Nothing is left of my home except the keys!


Tell Abyad & Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê: Violations of property rights during and after Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring

by z.ujayli
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Executive Summary

When Saadoun Salman’s uncle died, he wished to be buried in his hometown, Daoudia village. Now, when Saadoun Salman, 52, visits his uncle’s grave in one of the cemeteries in rural al-Hasakah, where they were displaced after Operation Peace Spring, he mourns his family’s failure to fulfill his uncle’s wish. The village of Daoudia, which is located in rural Abu Rasen/Zarkan, was bulldozed by the Turkish Army. Most local houses were leveled and replaced by a military base. Salman’s family worked hard to fulfill their uncle’s wish to be buried in Daoudia,  but the Turkish forces stationed there did not allow them to enter the village and told them not to return. Consequently, Salman’s uncle was buried in a village near al-Hasakah, where his family was displaced. Salman recalled the traumatic incident to Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), saying:

“Following my uncle’s death, we contacted locals in Daoudia village asking them to help us bury him there. It was my uncle’s will to be buried in his hometown, where our family members are usually buried. The locals indicated their readiness to assist in the funeral ceremonies. They also volunteered to obtain the consent of the Turkish forces in the village to get the dead buried there. An hour later; however, they came and told us that the Turkish official in the village refused to let them enter the village saying: ‘no one is allowed to approach the village neither dead nor alive. It is a secure Turkish military base’.”

Salman is one of 175,000 people, among them 80,000 children, who were forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, and among many who later realized they could not return.[1]

Shortly after Turkey took control over Syria’s Afrin region, its allied armed groups began conducting systematic violations against civilians. These violations include looting and arbitrarily seizing properties, especially those belonging to Kurds, to prompt their owners to leave the area.

Turkey’s allied armed groups wrote their names or the names of their leaders on property walls to mark them as seized. Seizures were mostly made under the pretext that those properties belonged to members affiliated with the Autonomous Administration or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the International Coalition in its fight against the Islamic State (IS). Armed groups also seized properties from owners who did not have official property papers, neglecting to recognize that sales in the area are often based on oral contracts and trust between the buyer and the seller.

According to Article 42 of the Regulations Respecting Laws and Customs of War on Land in the 1907 Hague Convention[2], and the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949,[3] Turkey’s presence in Syrian territories and its overall control of parts of it directly or through its proxy militias is considered an occupation. Thus, as an occupying power and a High Contracting Party to the Four Geneva Conventions, Turkey is obliged to ensure the security and safety of civilians in the territories it occupies.[4]

Consequently, the violations cited in this report are considered clear violations of international law, especially international humanitarian law. Most of these violations also constitute war crimes[5]  for which, in addition to state responsibility, individual perpetrators could be held criminally responsible.

Introduction and Methodology

The right to property is one of the most basic human rights. The denial of this right means the denial of a stable, decent, and safe life. Therefore, properties, whether they are used for housing or for agricultural or commercial investment, are fundamental to people’s lives.

Turkish forces and the armed groups of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which are backed by Turkey, took over areas in northern Syria, like Afrin, during “Operation Olive Branch”.[6][7] Following a second operation, “Operation Peace Spring”, the aforementioned forces captured the area between Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad. Afterwards, the region witnessed systematic and widespread violations by the occupying forces against the civilian population. Violations include looting and seizing civilian property, and forcing their residents to surrender their properties  by threatening, blackmailing, and even torturing, killing, kidnapping, or detaining them.

On the third anniversary of the occupation of Afrin and the first of the occupation of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad, STJ obtained recent statements from 12 Syrian civilians (Arabs and Kurds), mostly from the provinces of Raqqa and al-Hasakah, who were affected by property seizures. We concealed the names of witnesses who asked for anonymity. Seven of the witnesses were pursuing legal procedures to verify their property rights in the occupied areas, attempting to obtain documents from the Syrian government proving the seizure of their property. Our legal expert reviewed the documents that were provided to the organization, and they varied between:

  1. Title deeds (locally known as “green deeds”)
  2. Real estate records
  3. Real estate area plans
  4. Decisions proving ownership issued by Syrian courts.
  5. Unofficial outright sale contracts

STJ examined the cases witnesses provided and saw how they violate Syrian laws as well as international law. We also monitored the procedures pursued in official departments in al-Hasakah, noting the extent to which these procedures are consistent with Syrian laws. Using our witnesses’ testimonies and legal experiences, we outlined recommendations that may help preserve civilians’ property rights in Syria.

Recommendations

STJ heard from victims of the Turkish invasion into northeastern Syria. Mostly civilians, these victims lost their properties by destruction or seizure by force, even at gunpoint. Others had their properties looted or turned into military bases without their permission. In order to strengthen the institutions which will keep these violations from recurring, as well as to hold perpetrators accountable, STJ recommends:

  1. To enshrine in the Syrian Constitution the supremacy of international law and obligations over domestic law, especially those set forth in human rights conventions that Syria has ratified, which include the right to property. The national laws must be amended accordingly, and in the case of conflict with national laws and international obligations, the national courts must be able to refer to and directly apply the provisions of those international human rights conventions.
  2. Any transitional governing entity that will be formed in the future, must issue a law or a decree to consider all title transfers of real property in occupied territories null, including decisions of local councils and courts located in those areas, and the burden of proof must lie with anyone claiming otherwise.
  3. To exert pressure on Turkey, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and the Syrian Interim Government to stop their affiliated military organs from committing violations against civilians and their properties in the areas they occupy. Additionally, to pressure western and European governments financing and supporting Turkey and its affiliated militias to reevaluate their support while the forces occupy Syrian territory and commit violations against the civilian populace.
  4. Carrying out awareness and education campaigns for victims to impress the need to document the violations of their properties, shedding light on the importance to resort to courts and property departments to obtain documents confirming their ownership, and to submit reports at police stations – if necessary – on what occurred. These steps will work to protect victims against fraud, especially victims who were forced to sign papers and contracts stating that they surrendered their property to those who unlawfully seized it.
  5. As an occupying power, Turkey should assume its full responsibilities to indiscriminately protect civilians and their property, and respect the dignity and rights of these civilians, including individual property rights, their right to a safe return to their homes, and the restoration of their seized properties, in addition to compensating them for all violations committed against them by Turkish forces or militia members affiliated with Turkey in the territories it occupies.
  6. Ensuring impartiality and inclusiveness in documenting human rights violations in all Syrian regions, especially those related to property, and preventing any kind of politicization that may lead to discrimination among victims on the basis of ethnic or national affiliations.

Difficulties and Challenges

Witnesses recounted some of the challenges they faced when filing complaints and following up legal procedures to verify their property rights in the governmental institutions in al-Hasakah province prior to and during the editing of the present report.

a. Situational Challenges

Several impediments faced civilians while pursuing legal procedures, including security tension resulting from the military engagements which sometimes occurred in northeast Syria between the Autonomous Administration forces and the Syrian Army or the National Defense Forces allied to the Syrian government. Furthermore, the restriction of movement imposed by the Autonomous Administration on the security zones in al-Qamishli and al-Hasakah, which still retain most Syrian government institutions, including civil registries, for more than two weeks during January and February 2021. The restriction was a response to the embargo imposed by the Syrian government on the Shahbaa area north of Aleppo, which houses tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) from Afrin, as well as on Aleppo’s Kurdish-majority neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyye. The embargo prohibited courts and civil registry staff from attending work. These restrictions were subsequently followed by  periodic lockdowns imposed on the area due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

b. Challenges in How Governmental Institutions Handled Complaints

According to witnesses and documents, some Syrian courts in the areas addressed in this paper refused to register property-related cases. The courts argued that they feared accountability since their areas are no longer under the government’s control. The courts also cited the inability of judges and property experts to reach and examine the properties cited in lawsuits located in areas occupied by Turkey and allied SNA.

Property Violations in Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê

Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the districts of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, the Turkish Army and allied armed groups affiliated to the SNA attacked the districts on 9 October 2019 in a new assault into Syria termed ‘Operation Peace Spring’. The assault allowed Turkey and its allies to fully control Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê on 27 November 2019 and resulted in serious human rights abuses against civilians. More than 100,000 people fled the targeted areas by 11 October 2019, and the number grew to 175,000 people, including 80,000 children, by 22 October of the same year.[8]

As soon as the Turkey-backed SNA groups occupied Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, they began conducting widespread, systematic violations against civilians. The violations include the destruction and the wanton seizure of properties, especially those belonging to Kurds, under various pretexts in order to drive the indigenous locals out of the area.

a. Accusing Property Owners with Associating with the Autonomous Administration

Seizing property started in the first days of the Turkish offensive into the area. The Turkish-supported armed groups of the SNA wrote their names or the names of their leaders on estates to mark them as seized. The main allegation which permitted these seizures was that their owners  were reportedly affiliated with the Autonomous Administration or the SDF, which the International Coalition supported in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).

STJ met an Arab affected by the seizures. He confirmed that the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya seized his house in the city of Tell Abyad following the launch of Operation Peace Spring. He said:

“I fled to Raqqa with my family fearing the Turkish bombardments on our city. Months later, specifically in January 2020, things calmed down. Then, I decided to return to check on my property, but I feared arrest or kidnapping. So, I thought it would be better to send my wife first to inspect the situation there, and that is what happened.”

The man’s wife confirmed that members of the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya seized their house and settled in it. She also said that all of the house’s contents were stolen by anonymous individuals, and parts of it had been arbitrarily destroyed. The witness added:

“My wife asked them to vacate the house for us to return. They responded to her with insults. They would have arrested her on charges of spying for the SDF if it weren’t for the intervention of an Arab neighbor who guaranteed to them that she would not do it again. As advised by locals, my wife went to the court of Tell Abyad, established by Turkey, and filed a complaint against the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya, specifically the group that seized our house, which is led by a man called Ahmed al-Sa’ed from Idlib. As a result, she was detained for 24 hours on remand. They summoned me to be investigated on the charge of dealing with the SDF directed to me by the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya, despite me being a civil trader for years and not involved in any political or military action.”

The witness added that the same accusation was also directed to his brother, who stayed in his house during hostilities but was forced by the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya to surrender it.

b. Seizing Property from Owners Without Ownership Papers

SNA also seized properties from individuals who did not have official property papers. The seizures ignore the reality that for years many property sales in Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê were made on oral contracts and based on the trust between the buyer and seller, as well as the fact that many Syrians have lost their documents, including property deeds, after over 10 years of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, the SNA is not responsible for deciding property disputes — that  is the mandate of an independent and impartial judiciary.

A Kurdish witness met by STJ in January 2021 stated that Sheikh Abu Ali, a commander in the Sultan Murad Division of the SNA, seized his house in the eastern neighborhood of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê for not presenting ownership papers. The witness said:

“In mid-December 2019, I returned to Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and filed a complaint to the local council there demanding to retrieve my house. I did not bring official papers, including those of ownership, or any property for the fear of them being confiscated by armed groups. The local council approved my request after verifying my identity, and told me that I could return to my house. They gave me a certified written request directed to the military group members residing in my house, asking them to evacuate it, so that I can return.”

However, the military group refused to leave the house, citing the failure of the owner to present ownership papers. The witness added:

“I took the written request and went with an elderly neighbor – he had already returned with his wife to his house located in the same street – to present it to those settling in my house. We were received by Sheikh Abu Ali – a man in his forties with a long beard. I showed him the written request and told him that I wanted to return to my house. Then, he asked me to present the house’s ownership papers to make sure I’m honest, but I told him that I did not bring them with me. My neighbor and two men assured Abu Ali that I am the owner of the house. Keys to the house were with me and my picture with my wife was still hanging on one of its interior walls, but despite this, Abu Ali refused to vacate the house.”

The witness returned to al-Hasakah, where he was displaced with his children and wife following the Turkish offensive into northeast Syria. He fetched the requested papers and succeeded in restoring his home, but it was short lived. Members of the Sultan Murad Division forced him to leave his house, detained him, and beat him for attempting to take the house from them. On this, he said:

“After my return, I did not stay in my house for more than a couple of days. Armed groups hated me for being coerced to leave my house. In late 2019, armed group members stormed my house and beat me in front of my neighbor who was visiting me. Then, they took me to a headquarters of the group in the same neighborhood, run by the official who had seized my house. There, I was beaten and tortured until the morning, without being charged. Then, they told me to leave the city, or I would be killed. Thus, I went back to al-Hasakah the next day lest I be killed. It is not a big deal for those militias to kill a man, as no one would hold them accountable for that. They always justify their violations against civilians by accusing them of having links with the Autonomous Administration or the SDF.”

The witness sighed and said that he would not return to Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê as long as it is under the control of Turkey’s proxy armed groups. The groups continue to commit violations against civilians in view of the Turkish forces, who assigned them the control of the region.

c. Appropriating Property by Intimidation and Extortion

In addition to using the pretext of affiliation to the Autonomous Administration and the SDF, armed groups used intimidation and extortion to seize civilians’ property. Turkey’s allied armed groups arrested civilians for ransom and imposed various taxes on returning properties. The acts prompted locals to displace and abandon their properties, making it easier for armed groups to take over real estate under the pretext of the absence of their owners or investors.

An Arab local from Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, nicknamed Yahia al-Moussa, testified to STJ in January 2021:

“Following the launch of Operation Peace Spring on 9 October 2019, I fled Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê with my family as other locals feared bombardments. After the battle was decided for Turkey and its allies, I decided to return to my hometown on 14 December of the same year. The Sultan Murad Division was in control of the Zaradasht/the southern neighborhood, where my house was located. When I arrived there with my family, members of the group investigated us and took all security measures to verify our situation. Armed groups used to investigate every returnee to the city. We; however, were not investigated for long, given we belong to the Bu Assaf Arab clan.”

On 5 February 2020, less than two months after al-Moussa’s return, members of the Memati Bash Battalion of the Sultan Murad Division arbitrarily arrested his 16-year-old son, Udai. Al-Moussa recounted:

“At midnight and without respecting the privacy of our home, heavily armed men broke into my house. They took me and my son to the headquarters of their group in the al-Sina’a School near the chicken market. The headquarters is run by two men nicknamed Abu al-Mawt and Abu al-Bara’a, who are commanders in the Sultan Murad Division in the city of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê. The two men started torturing me and my son in front of each other to extract the confession of working for the SDF. Each time we told them the truth that we had no relationship with the SDF, they tortured us more. Under extreme pressure, I confessed to what they wanted me to for fear of my son’s life. After that the investigator cried to me: ‘Hey, you spy, we will kill you and your son if you don’t pay us 50,000 USD.

Then I realized the real reason behind our arrest. I told them that I did not have such an amount and cannot secure even half of it. They replied: ‘so, you must surrender your land, house and shop in exchange for your release with your son or you will both be killed.’ I had no choice but to surrender under their threats and pressure fearing for my family. They went to my house and fetched the ownership papers of it and of my land and shop. Then, they forced me to sign sale contracts and other documents which I did not recognize. After that, we were released after being told to evacuate our house in 48 hours.”

STJ also documented a similar case in which a group of the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya, led by Ahmed al-Sae’ed, seized a 250 square meter house of an Arab local of Tell Abyad. The victim’s brother stated to STJ:

“Months after the end of Operation Peace Spring, members of the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya arrested my brother for a month. He underwent severe torture before he was forced to sign a sales contract under which he gave up his house in exchange for his release. My brother said that the contract he signed provided the sale of the house for an amount of 11,000 USD. However, he did not get a penny of it. It is a legalization of the arbitrary seizures. The documents remained with the Levant Front/al-Jabha al-Shamiya, to register the house at the municipality established by Turkey in Tell Abyad.”

 

To read the full report as a PDF, follow this link.

 

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[1] See paragraphs (45 to 59) of the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which was published on July 7, 2020, at the forty-third session of the Human Rights Council. (Last visited: March 5, 2021).

https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/Documentation.aspx?fbclid=IwAR0eZ0192X0I4JizGbP57wFYq0RjBNFRi_BVp0N5C15if6wCoKOEYqO20wA

[2]  Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907, Art 42. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Article.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=01D426B0086089BEC12563CD00516887 (last accessed: 5 March 2021).

[3] The Geneva Conventions of 1949. https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-0173.pdf
(last accessed: 5 March 2021).

[4] Ibid., Art. 49.

[5] Ibid., Art. 147.

[6] In its first expanded report, following Operation Olive Branch, Amnesty International described the Turkish presence in Afrin as an occupation, speaking about the violations committed by pro-Turkish groups and the Turkish forces themselves. See: “Syria: Turkey must stop serious violations by allied groups and its own forces in Afrin”, Amnesty International, 2 August 2018 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/08/syria-turkey-must-stop-serious-violations-by-allied-groups-and-its-own-forces-in-afrin/ (last accessed: 5 March 2021).
In the same context, and with regard to Operation Peace Spring, Human Rights Watch described the areas of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad as occupied territories, talking about illegal transfers of Syrians to Turkey. See: “Illegal Transfers of Syrians to Turkey”, HRW, 3 February 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/03/illegal-transfers-syrians-turkey (last accessed: 5 March 2021).

[7] The SNA is directly affiliated with the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian Interim Government of the opposition, which is an organ of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

  For more, see paragraphs (46, 47, 48, 49, 50 and 51) of the report of Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICISyria). Issued during the forty-fifth session of the Human Rights Council, 15 September 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/Documentation.aspx?fbclid=IwAR0eZ0192X0I4JizGbP57wFYq0RjBNFRi_BVp0N5C15if6wCoKOEYqO20wA (last accessed: 5 March 2021)

[8] See paragraphs from 45 to 59 from the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICISyia) of 7 July 2020, the forty-fourth session of the Human Rights Council, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/Documentation.aspx?fbclid=IwAR0eZ0192X0I4JizGbP57wFYq0RjBNFRi_BVp0N5C15if6wCoKOEYqO20wA (last accessed: 5 March 2021).

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