On 9 October 2019, Turkey launched the sweeping “Peace Spring” offensive into northeastern Syria, backed by several factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA), an affiliate of the Syrian Opposition Collation(SOC). In the aftermath of the operation, the involved factions established control over a territorial strip covering Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tal Abyad, and the areas in between. Soon after, the SNA-affiliated factions carried out large-scale pillages against private and public properties in the areas they controlled, including in Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê city. The factions looted the contents of over 220 stores, warehouses, and industrial facilities in the Ras al-Ayn Industrial Zone, robbing the original owners of the targeted facilities of possessions worth millions of dollars.
The SNA factions responsible returned only a small collection of the items they looted from the industrial zone to owners, smelting or selling most of the pillaged contents to local Syrian or Turkish merchants.
The three partner organizations who contributed to this report— PÊL- Civil Waves, Hevdestî (Synergy) Association, and Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)— obtained numerous testimonies confirming that the Sultan Murad Division, led by commander Fahim Issa, was the chief perpetrator of the assault on the industrial zone, where its division members sometimes pillaged, looted, and confiscated all the contents of targeted facilities. Another set of collected testimonies proved that the Mu’tasim Division, led by commander Mu’tasim Abbas, perpetrated a smaller segment of the thefts in the industrial zone. Notably, even though the Turkish army maintains an extensive presence in the targeted area, they enforced no measures to prevent the looting and pillage operations.
In addition to the industrial zone, the partner organizations recorded similar looting operations in the Peace Spring Strip— including Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, Tal Abyad, and the areas between them— perpetrated by the military factions operating in the region. The perpetrators, among them the Northern Hawks Brigade and Tajammu Ahrar al-Sharqiya/Gathering of Free Men of the East, pillaged public properties to extract structural brass used in the construction of target facilities, damaging power and irrigation networks, as well as several buildings and agricultural lands.
The testimonies collected by the field researchers with the three partner organizations demonstrate that the Ras al-Ayn Local Council, affiliated with the SOC’s Syrian Interim Government (SIG), was also implicated in the looting operations. The testimonies verify that the council facilitated the pillages, as well as the sale transactions of the looted structural metals, in return for money.
Pertaining to the sale transactions, an informed local source told STJ that metal sales in the “Peace Spring” strip were carried out with the consent of the governor of the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa. The source added that the governor coordinated the sales and played the intermediary between Turkish merchants and the two divisions of the Sultan Murad and al-Hamza/al-Hamzat. Importantly, Turkish authorities usually prohibit such imports to control competition with locally manufactured products, especially because the stolen materials imported from Syria are sold for prices below the standard prices on the Turkish markets.
In addition to exports to Turkey, STJ obtained information indicating that some of the looted materials were sold to the Syrian government. These transactions are arranged by merchants from Damascus, who mediate the operations between the government’s 4th Division on the one side and the opposition’s Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Eastern Army/Jaysh al-Sharqiya on the other. STJ discovered that the looted items left the region three months after Operation “Peace Spring” through the Tufaha Crossing, headed to the Hamsho factories in government-held areas.
This report’s findings corroborate those unearthed by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in their report of 14 August 2020, numbered (A/HRC/45/31). In section B, paragraph 49, the commission states the SNA-affiliated factions were “engaged in widespread and organized looting and property appropriation in Ra’s al-Ayn.”
Furthermore, the factions’ activities documented in this report constitute a blatant violation of a number of war laws, as well as several terms of the “historic agreement” between the U.S. and Turkey which lead to a ceasefire and put an end to the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria. The lootings reported herein are at odds with the agreement’s fourth term, in which “the two countries reiterate their pledge to uphold human life, human rights, and the protection of religious and ethnic communities.” The operations also breach the seventh term, in which “The Turkish side expressed its commitment to ensure the safety and well-being of residents of all population centers in the safe zone controlled by the Turkish Forces . . . and reiterated that maximum care will be exercised in order not to cause harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
The testimonies the partner organizations obtained confirm, beyond a doubt, that Turkey did not abide by the terms they signed. Furthermore, this report demonstrates that while Turkish forces were mostly passive to the reported violations, they were also sometimes engaged in activities that might amount to war crimes.
In order to deter armed groups from continuing their looting practices with impunity, PÊL, Hevdestî Association, and STJ propose that the United States expand the scope of the sanctions they imposed in September 2021 on the opposition-affiliated Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction to include the Sultan Murad Division and the Mu’tasim Division, as well as their commanders, in addition to the Ras al-Ayn Local Council, for perpetrating large-scale looting and confiscation of civilian properties, particularly of Syrian Kurds, in Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê city.
Other Syrian organizations, like the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, described the U.S. designation of the Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya as a positive step on the path to safeguarding human rights in northeastern Syria. Additionally, the center demanded that the U.S. widen the range of the sanctions to cover other armed groups, including SNA factions, notably the Suleiman Shah Brigade (also known as al-Amshat), which are committing human rights violations in the region with impunity. Furthermore, the center called for coupling the sanctions with diplomatic pressure to combat attempts at normalizing the Turkish occupation of northwestern Syria.