“When the shooting started on the street, I panicked. I saw bullets flying around me, and I was extremely scared. I tried to run away and hide. Then I noticed that I started bleeding. I was five months pregnant. With the sound of bullets emanating from every side and the excessive fear that gripped me, I did not realize what had happened. After the clashes subsided, I was transferred to a hospital in Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê. There, I learned that I lost the baby, my first child. This incident had a great impact on me. I no longer want to remain in this area. I want to go to Turkey or anywhere else, where there are no such clashes and a persistent feeling of fear. I do not want to have my children here, and I also need treatment for the stress and complications I developed after losing the baby,”
This testimony was given by a woman caught in a clash between fighters of the Syrian National Army (SNA).
This grim account presents a keyhole into the purportedly “safe areas”, which are recurrently cited in the Turkish government’s official plan to relocate over a million Syrian refugees in Turkey to northern Syria under the pretense of “voluntary return”. While safety is the crux of the plan, Turkey-held areas, comprising the “Euphrates Shield”, “Olive Branch” and “Peace Spring” strips, remain hotspots for weapon chaos and incessant intra-factional clashes between armed groups affiliated with the SNA of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)/ the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). The factions engage in hostilities, competing for gains at the expense of these areas’ civilians and indigenous population.
The plan coincides with the announcement made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that his country intends to launch an invasion/military operation into northern Syria to establish a new “safe area”, 30 km deep in the country. The Turkish National Security Council approved the operation. The intended operation was met by strong objections from the US, the Russian Federation, and other countries active in the Syrian context.
Connecting the dots between the Turkish plans and factional violence, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) prepared this report which documents the toll of intra-factional fights, the reasons underlying the fights, and their catastrophic impact on the lives and properties of civilians. Additionally, the report sheds light on the role of the Turkish authorities, who ignited and fueled the fights on some occasions, and ignored the havoc they wrecked on the area on others.
The monitoring and documentation process STJ carried out revealed that since early 2022 and up to late June, Turkey-held areas witnessed nearly triple the fights that occurred in 2021, more than the total of the fights in 2020, and about twice those the factions engaged in over 2018, 2019, and 2021 collectively.
The figures that STJ verified over the past months indicate a widening rift within the SNA’s military administration and an intensifying dispute spurred by pure personal interest, particularly financial gain, including royalty revenues collected from checkpoints, smuggling routes, and civilian properties across all three occupied stripes, while Turkish authorities did not take any serious measures to ensure the safety of the population in these territories.
Starting from 2018, STJ documented 69 SNA intra-factional clashes in the three strips, of which 28 occurred over the first half of 2022, nine in 2021, 26 in 2020, and six in 2018 and 2019.
In addition to immediate clashes, STJ registered several car-bomb and IEDs attacks in these areas, many of which were blamed on the Syrian government (SG) affiliated security services, Islamic State (IS) militants, and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, who operate in northeastern Syria. In other cases, the attacks were attributed to specific armed opposition groups, stemming from their disputes.
Moreover, STJ recorded several indiscriminate instances of shelling . In many of these attacks, the ammunition was fired from areas jointly controlled by Syria-Russia and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Notably, the population in these areas consists of locals and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who fled their original places of residence and sought refuge across these strips. The suffering of both locals and IDPs is not limited to clashes, blasts, and indiscriminate bombings. The populations also struggle in the throes of colossal daily human rights violations, including expropriation of properties and misuse of power by several faction commanders and fighters, who are not tried or held accountable for their wrongdoings over the past years, except in very rare cases and under popular pressure.
To track down the reasons at the heart of the clashes, STJ reached out to a variety of sources, including civilian victims, SNA commanders, and officials within the military and civil police. The sources said that the clashes are mainly motivated by a desire to seize civilian-owned properties and commercial structures. However, recently another reason triggered these clashes and created a detour in the course of the internal fighting, whereby factions fought each other for dominance over the military matrix as a whole.
The sources also attributed some of the clashes to the factions’ desire to control strategic and vital areas, which are viewed as key for financing factions. In this context, the factions fought over the administration of the drug and human trafficking between different control areas within Syria or in Syria-Turkey border areas. There are also military activities between factions and other forces active in Syria for the internal crossings demarcating the opposition’s areas of control.
In addition to reasons, affected civilians reported that the clashes caused deaths among civilians, cost them major financial losses, and threatened many with arrest. Involved factions embarked on raid and arrest drives, detaining persons on charges of dealing with enemy factions or for filing complaints against clashing factions.
In addition to arrests, civilians were sometimes forced to temporarily flee their homes fearing death during clashes. Upon their return, many found that their houses had been looted. Following a few similar cases, the warring factions announced peace agreements, which usually provide for compensating civilians for their material losses and paying the victims’ blood money. However, several of the affected civilians did not receive compensation, and those who dared demand compensation were arrested or threatened with death.
The evidence and testimonies collected by STJ refute the allegations that Turkey-held areas are safe and demonstrate that these areas do not meet the criteria for voluntary return set by the United Nations (UN). Therefore, the findings of the report reiterate the commentary by the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, presented in their last 2021 report. The commission stated that “The Syrian Arab Republic does not yet offer a safe and stable environment for sustainable and dignified returns” (Document No. A/HRC/48/70).
For the purposes of this report, STJ carried out 11 intensive and focused interviews, with four affected civilians and seven first- and second-rank commanders within the SNA and affiliated bodies. Additionally, STJ reviewed the available documentation archive including videos, footage, and data saved in a dedicated database, and analyzed dozens of open-source videos and images that document the factional clashes and the harm they inflicted upon the residents in the factions’ operation areas.
Exploiting the Refugee Card and International Tensions
On 3 May 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged a new project aimed at returning one million Syrian refugees from Turkey to Syria “voluntarily.” Two days later, the Turkish newspaper Sabah published the eight-term plan and identified the areas of return. Refugees will be sent to the cities of Azaz, Jarabulus and al-Bab, in Aleppo’s countryside, Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa, and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, northwest of al-Hasakah province. All these areas are SNA-controlled, (and practically Turkey-held).
However, only 20 days later, the Turkish government tried to exploit international tensions to expand the scope of its geographical control in northern Syria and occupy additional batches. To this end, Turkey built on the exasperating stress between Russia and the West due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which started on 24 February 2022, and the proposal to join Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Finland and Sweden sought to persuade Turkey into voting with acceptance.
To back the expansive plans in Syria, the Turkish government claimed that the US and Russia did not abide by their commitments to withdraw the YPG, the backbone of the SDF to a distance of 30 KM from the Turkish border.
On 23 May 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced: “the completion of the construction of the remaining part of the safe zone, with a depth of 30 KM along the border with Syria.” He stressed the importance of completing the “security belt” as soon as possible, considering it an “urgent necessity.”
The “security belt” declaration was built on several preceding measures taken by the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which address Syrian refugees in the country. The measures, according to STJ’s researchers, fall within the framework of political competition and the desire to take the refugee card from the opposition’s hand. While the opposition constantly threatens to return refugees to Syria as soon as they are in power, they also treat the refugee card as their way to power, by convincing the Turkish people that returning refugees is the only solution for most of Turkey’s economic problems.
The onset of these measures was the foreigners’ residence limit across the Turkish neighborhoods. The Turkish authorities raised the limit from 20% to 25%, closing 1,200 neighborhoods, instead of the previous 781, in all 54 Turkish states. With this, Syrian refugees are left with tight choices of places of residence.
Following residence limits, the Turkish authorities opted for tighter policing measures against Syrians who reside in the country illegally and started deporting them to northern Syria, through Bab al-Hawa, Jarabulus, Bab al-Salameh, and Tal Abyad border crossings. Cases of illegal residence include refugees who live and work in Istanbul while possessing a kimlik (temporary protection identity documents) issued by Gaziantep province. Notably, the measures did not pay heed to potential family disintegration. Several families were broken because fathers were deported to northern Syria while the rest of the family members remained in Turkey.
In addition to unfair deportation measures, STJ discovered a huge gap in the figures reported on “voluntary returns”. Official statements by Erdoğan and the immigration department claim that 500,000 Syrians returned home, while the UN documented only 134,907 returns since 2014.
While the returns and the measures governing them contextualize the military operation intended by Turkey, any such military activity in Syria cannot be launched without a relative consensus among international actors in Syria, including the US, the US-led coalition which backs the SDF, and Russia which backs the SG. The US’s response to the Turkish planned military escalation had an evident effect on the goals and the course of the discussed military operation. On 24 May 2022, only two days after Erdoğan’s operation declaration, the US cautioned Turkey against embarking on any new military campaign in northern Syria.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said his country is “very concerned” about the Turkish declaration. “We condemn any escalation and support maintaining the current ceasefire lines.” Turkey’s response to US concerns was relayed by Erdoğan personally, who stated that “We are entering a new phase of our decision to establish a safe zone 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) deep south (of the Turkish-Syrian border)”, adding that they are establishing control over Tall Rifat and Manbij in Aleppo’s countryside.
Unlike the US, Russia did not have a firm response to the operation, even though there are talks that the Russian command had already deployed reinforcements to Tall Rifat following the Turkish threats. The ambiguity overriding the Russian response was sustained in the call President Vladimir Putin had with President Erdoğan in May 2022, in which he did not voice his country’s stand on the operation. The same attitude later governed the statements of Mikhail Leonidovich Bogdanov, deputy minister of Russian foreign affairs, who said that Russia will make contact on the matter.
The operation remained on the sidelines even when Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign affairs minister, visited Turkey. Lavrov only hinted that the Turkish security concerns must be addressed. The only clear response was made by Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, who said that the expected Turkish military operation in Syria will not bring stability into the region.
It was not until 17 June 2022 that the Special Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, told the RIA Novosti, that his country would not fight the Turkish forces and the SNA. He added that “Our answer is to try to convince the Turks of the futility of this step. They can occupy the area, but it remains difficult to predict the consequences of further escalation.”
Under this heated debate on Syrian refugee returns and military operation, it is important to stress that the term “safe areas” is not used in any international humanitarian law instruments. Instead, the instruments deploy the term “protected zones”, to emphasize the continuity of the obligations of the parties in the conflict to provide protection to the civilian population. These obligations remain valid whether “protected zones” already exist or not.
In fact, “protected zones” are usually constructed when parties in the conflict do not comply with these legal obligations. Additionally, these zones are established as a means to reinforce protection in an attempt to compensate for the lack of compliance. Therefore, the purpose of establishing “protected zones” is to ensure protection for the areas because civilians and other protected groups must naturally be protected either outside or within those created zones.
There is no legal “obligation” that commits parties to the conflict to establish “protected zones” because their primary duty is to provide protection. One of the protection duty’s key binding rules—as a reflection of customary international humanitarian law, and also in the context of this report, is that constant care must be taken in the conduct of military operations to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects, and is that precautions must be taken in both attack and defense. Consequently, the protection duty is not only related to protection from enemy attacks or practices, but rather from the behavior of the defending party, which is related to the duty to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law by all parties. Thus, creating what Turkey calls “safe areas” should neither contradict nor nullify its principled duty and the duty of armed non-state actors it presides over to secure the protection of civilians in the areas they control.
In addition to the evident politicization of terminology, Turkey is exposing civilian populations to threats of attack and deprivation of necessary protection needs, through the intentional ambivalences it projects on concepts of “safety”, “protection”, and “state security and self-defense.” It is obvious that establishing the term “safe areas” mainly aims to pave the path for the forcible returns of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Through the term, Turkey alludes that safe return conditions exist, thus, abolishing its practices of the coercion they entail.
The UNHCR Working Group on International Protection has addressed this practice, stressing that no protection and prevention measures should replace the inherent right to asylum and non-refoulement. Special provisions in international law for “protected zones” or “demilitarized zones” apply to specific areas and/or objects, the most important of which are hospitals, which must be free from armed manifestations and spared any hostilities. Thus, manipulating terminology and trying to create the illusion of safety by borrowing concepts of a legal nature violates one of the key principles of international law represented in good faith during the implementation of its provisions. This deliberate mixing of terminology and positions exposes civilians – the very civilians Turkey claims it is seeking to protect- to hostilities by promoting Turkey’s right to “defend itself” and create a 30-KM-deep “safe area” in Syria.
The imposition of any de facto status on the territory of another country without the authorization of the Security Council, in accordance with Article 42 of the Charter of the United Nations, is a violation of the law of war, specifically Article 2 (4) of the Charter, which prohibits the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Because Turkey did not obtain a mandate from the Security Council, it resorts to the other exception, which is the ban on the use of force against another country under the pretext of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter. Regardless of the complexity of the concept of self-defense and its applicability in this case, the activation of this concept, in turn, gives the Syrian state the right to confront this status, in addition to the existing armed conflict or conflicts or ones that may result from this status with other non-state armed actors, like the SDF.
The claim of establishing “safe areas”, while target Syrian territories for these areas are considered active hostility hotspots- whether these hostilities are aimed at other parties or among parties affiliated with Turkey, as this report shows – renders the concept of “safety” meaningless and reduces the potential of protection, which is the duty of all parties.
 Commentary on the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, Vol. 4: Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, ICRC, Geneva, 1958 (ICRC Commentary on GC IV), p. 127.
 ICRC Customary International Humanitarian Law Database, rules 15 to 24.