It took the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which is a Syrian armed group that opposes President Bashar Assad’s regime but supports the Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, more than two days to reject the US Treasury decision to designate the group’s most prominent formation as a terrorist organization that is subject to sanctions.
The Syrian National Army that receives military and logistic assistance from Turkey described as “unfair” the US decision issued late July to name its “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” a terrorist group, while the decision was hailed by the Syrian Democratic Council, which represents the political arm of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that is backed by Washington.
On July 28, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on eight individuals and ten entities in Syria, in a series of measures aimed at combatting terrorism which are the first sanctions imposed since the arrival of US President Joe Biden to the White House.
The sanctions included the group “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” and both of its leaders Abu Hatem Shaqra, whose real name is Ahmed Ihsan Fayyad Al-Hayes, and Raed Jassim Al-Hayes, nicknamed Abu Jaafar Shaqra.
“Sanctions imposed recently by Washington on the militias of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army are a great step towards justice,” said the activist and media person Mustafa Abdi, who is the director of the Violation Documentation Center in North Syria (VDC), a non-profit organization concerned with monitoring violations committed by the Turkish army and Turkish-backed Syrian militias against citizens of Syrian areas under the army and militias’ control.
Abdi told Majalla that “the sanctions pave the way for the submission of these militias’ leaders, whether they are military men or politicians, to prosecution for the crimes they committed over 10 years under various names, such as the National Council, Coalition, Free Army, National Army, etc.”
He also added, “We are awaiting similar sanctions from the European Union against these militias.”
He pointed out that “these sanctions against the Turkish-backed group are the first of their kind to be imposed by Washington which used to ignore war crimes committed by them.”
“The statement issued by the US Treasury explicitly referred to crimes committed by these militias against Kurds,” said Abdi. “It also mentioned that former ISIS leaders and fighters have joined these militias.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press statement, “The United States is taking action to promote accountability for entities and individuals that have perpetuated the suffering of the Syrian people. The United States is sanctioning eight Syrian prisons, five Assad regime officials in the institutions that run those facilities, two militia groups, and two militia leaders. These actions underscore the U.S. commitment to promote respect for human rights and accountability for abuse against Syrians.”
He also added that “(t)he United States is also imposing sanctions on armed Syrian opposition group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, for being responsible for serious human rights abuses, including abduction and torture, as well as on two of its leaders.”
The statement added, “Ahrar al-Sharqiya is reportedly involved in looting private property from civilians and barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes. The group has been implicated in the unlawful killing of Hevrin Khalaf, a Syrian Kurdish politician, in October 2019. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has also integrated numerous former ISIS members into its ranks.”
Turkey formed the militia of Ahrar al-Sharqiya in 2016, in preparation for the post-ISIS era when ISIS control over Syrian cities was fading. Ahrar al-Sharqiya emerged during armed clashes between Arab tribes in northern Syria and ISIS elements, as Ankara seized the opportunity and supported the first party. Currently, the militia represents Ankara’s military arm inside Syrian territories along with the Sultan Murad Division.
In line with the Turkish hardline stance against the Syrian Democratic Forces, Ahrar al-Sharqiya has repeatedly declared its animosity towards the SDF which was formed of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and others in 2015.
A militia element previously admitted that his group executed the Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf by shooting, after she was tortured along with her companions and driver during the latest broad Turkish assault against SDF-controlled lands in Northern Syria in October 2019. The unit was also accused of killing relief workers, nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers by shooting them dead too.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya came to control the decision-making and leadership of various pro-Ankara militias, for fear of any potential charges against the Turkish interests in Syria. It used internal fighting among the majority of Turkish-backed groups, by aligning with one of the warring parties.
The same militia also, along with other Ankara-backed militias, assumed the recruitment of Syria mercenaries for outside missions such as in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, it may send a number of its elements to Afghanistan to protect its capital’s airport if Ankara could persuade Washington of protecting Kabul International Airport.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).