Within weeks of Turkey’s invasion of Syria’s Afrin province in January 2018, international watchdogs reported on war crimes committed by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, including torture, forced disappearances and displacement, cuts to water and electricity and the seizing and looting of property.
Yet as Turkey’s military moved on to other Syrian incursions, the world largely turned away from Afrin, allowing human rights conditions to deteriorate almost to the point of lawlessness, according to researcher Meghan Bodette.
In 2018, local monitors reported 52 kidnappings of women by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in Afrin, according to the website Bodette runs, Missing Afrin Women. With 55 kidnappings through August, this year is on pace for 82 – an increase of nearly 60 percent, amid rights groups’ assertions that atrocities have peaked.
“This is an unlivable situation,” Bodette told Ahval in a podcast. “This is an illegitimate occupation that has completely immiserated the lives of virtually all the civilians who were originally there.”
Seeking to eliminate the Kurdish militant presence along its border, Turkey snatched chunks of the Kurdish administrative region known as Rojava in Afrin in 2018 and in northeast Syria last year, with its widely denounced military offensive. Ankara sees the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which oversees Rojava, and its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as extensions of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades.
Turkey’s NATO ally the United States has continued to partner with the SDF, the crucial local fighting force against the Islamic State, aiding the continued existence of Rojava, which has been widely praised for its diversity and gender equality.
Although Turkey has armed, trained and paid its proxy fighters in Syria, it has been largely unable to bring them under control, either in Afrin or the northeast. Bodette, a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service who studies the Syrian Kurdish women’s movement, kept a close watch on Turkey’s Afrin occupation and decided early this year to focus on kidnappings, leading to the launch of the website in July.
“There were many of these very disturbing reports of women being kidnapped, being forced to marry members of armed groups, being subjected to torture and sexual violence and all kinds of atrocities and there was no attention being paid to this,” she said. “To see a place that was once a stable, peaceful centre for impressive relative gains in the rights of women, the rights of northern Syria’s different religious and ethnic communities, to see this now be a place where women are being subjected to these atrocities, was horrifying.”
Yet it was likely not a surprise. Prior to the Turkish incursions into both Afrin and northeast Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed hope that Turkey and its allies could force out the local Kurdish population and essentially replace it with Arab refugees from various parts of Syria. Turkey has been repeatedly accused of ethnic cleansing as tens of thousands of Kurds and Yazidis have been forced out of Turkey-controlled areas.
The rise in kidnappings underscores the problematic impact of Turkish control. In 2014, Rojava passed a series of laws that sharply increased protections for women, including the full criminalisation of gender-based violence and ensuring the presence of a human rights observer at relevant trials and legislative proceedings.
“All of this is something that fundamentally doesn’t exist in opposition-held areas,” said Bodette, pointing to a justice system that rarely punishes men who commit violence against women. “In Afrin, now that it’s under Turkish control, those men are likely to go on freely with their lives.”
This echoes the news from Turkey, where the number of women killed has leapt from 121 in 2011 to 474 last year, according to watchdog group We Will Stop Femicides, while the number of Turkish women who have suffered violence has increased 50 percent since 2015, according to Interior Ministry data.
In recent weeks the Turkish government has been mulling whether to pull out of the Istanbul Convention, the world’s top global compact for preventing violence against women, even as many men continue to receive minor punishments for violent crimes against women. “I think it would be very surprising if Turkey were in any way concerned about this,” said Bodette, referring to the kidnappings.
Using sources seen as pro-Rojava, anti-Rojava and apolitical, Bodette has documented 173 kidnappings since the Turkish occupation began, the vast majority involving Kurdish women.
In the 132 reports in which a specific group is accused of the crime, 51 were attributed to the military and civilian police, both of which were organised by the Turkish military.
The Syrian National Army-affiliated rebel group responsible for the highest number of Afrin kidnappings, 15, is the Hamza Division, which is closely aligned with Turkey. Visiting Hamza’s new military base in Aleppo last week, Sky News highlighted how the Turkish flag was as prominent as that of the Syrian opposition.
For Bodette, the kidnappings and rampant rights violations in Afrin are a trickle-down effect of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) views on women and Kurds as well as the administrative regime and justice system Turkey established.
“I do think that the structure of Turkish-backed governance contributes a lot to it,” said Bodette. “It also contributes just a general lawlessness and lack of punishment or oversight.”
Bodette pointed to the brutal roadside killing of rising Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels last October, which Turkey’s pro-government media depicted as a successful counter-terrorist operation.
“That was how Turkey saw that horrific assassination of a person who had never picked up a weapon in her life,” said Bodette. “I don’t think they have any intention of responding to any of this behaviour in a serious manager beyond making statements.”
In recent months, as Turkey has pushed the envelope with Greece and in the eastern Mediterranean, human rights abuses by its affiliated rebels in Afrin have begun to draw greater attention.
In May, 20 Syrian human rights groups published an open letter to the head of the United Nations and its human rights commission asserting that crimes against African civilians had “reached the most dramatic and horrible intensity”.
In a report published last month, the U.S. State Department told military investigators that the Syrian opposition government that operates in Turkey-controlled areas had not “consistently arrested, prosecuted, or otherwise held accountable any members implicated in human rights abuses or violations of the law of armed conflict.”
This past Sunday, Sinam Mohamad, the SDC’s U.S. representative, tweeted out a photo of Arin Dali Hassan, a Yazidi Syrian woman kidnapped in February by the Hamza division, which has demanded a ransom the family cannot pay.
Hassan’s life may be at risk. A year ago, a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome was killed in Afrin with his father and grandfather after their family failed to pay the $10,000 ransom.
Turkey severely limits access to the Syrian areas under its control, thus the world has had to rely almost solely on local reporting, which is often censored. Few reliable humanitarian or journalistic reports have been published on life on the ground in Afrin in the past year.
This helps explain why 109 women kidnapped in Afrin remain missing. It is unknown whether they are alive or dead, being held in the area, elsewhere in Syria or facing trial in Turkey, as some reports say.
“The only people who know where they are are the authorities in Afrin – which is the Syrian National Army, the Turkish government and the civilian opposition government,” said Bodette. “We need to keep up the pressure on this…demand more accountability and investigate.”