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The Militarization and Exploitation of Northern Syria

6 May, 2024

by Sam Biden, Junior Fellow

Turkish Presence in Northern Syria

Throughout the Syrian civil war, one prominent actor has played a pivotal role in shaping the dynamics of the conflict: Turkey. The country has positioned itself as a key ally of the Syrian National Army (SNA, formerly Free Syrian Army), hosting their initial military headquarters and providing a logistical base that facilitated collaboration among FSA members and supporters.

Turkey’s strategic priorities shifted in 2015, with a focus on containing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), serving as the official military for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), a de facto, self-governing region in northeastern Syria. Turkish influence began to place a focus on targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. As a result, these Free Syrian Army groups were rebranded as the SNA, signifying a closer alignment with Turkish interests. By providing effective training, salaries and weapons, Turkey cemented the SNA as a pivotal force within its own military operations. The success of this alliance between Turkey and the SNA is bolstered by shared ethnic (Turkmen) and religious (Sunni Arab) elements, fostering compatibility in socio-cultural views.

The SNA emerged as an anchor of Turkey’s continual expansion in Syria, incorporating groups from Idlib’s National Liberation Front (NLF), a former Syrian rebel coalition. However, Turkey’s attempts to exert similar control over nationalist, Idlib-based Islamist armed groups in northwest Syria, such as Feilaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, faced challenges, leading to the establishment of the NLF as an umbrella organization without significant support in Idlib. Initially, Turkish efforts proved successful as the NLF swiftly garnered significant manpower, assembling an estimated 55,000 to 70,000 fighters. Moreover, the NLF demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with the Turkish-backed SNA during military operations in northwest Syria, as well as with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella organization composed of revolutionary and opposition forces. Turkey continued to orchestrate the merge of various NLF groups with the SNA throughout 2019, placing strategic importance on defending liberated territories against Russian and Syrian regime offensives, compelling the remaining skeptical NLF commanders to accede to unification. The merger created a more centralized force, comprising several corps and approximately 80,000 fighters under the command of the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defence, with effective control being held by Turkey.

A new collaboration was fostered between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group known for promoting Salafi-Jihadism and Turkey. In response to the internal diversity of HTS, Turkey initiated a subversion campaign within the group, aiming to distinguish between dogmatic factions within HTS, such as those affiliated with al-Qaeda and those who aimed to break away from terroristic ideology. A primary figure within HTS, Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, ensured that despite the newly formed relationship with Turkey that HTS maintained its autonomy. As part of this approach, HTS agreed to establish a joint operation room, named Al-Fatah al-Mubin, with other factions such as the NLF and SNA, to enhance resistance against Syrian regime offensives in Idlib. Additionally, Turkey secured a commitment from al-Jolani to assist in combating the PYD, yet HTS maintains a degree of independence from the NLF, only operating with Turkey when necessary.

Key Operations

Three key operations allowed Turkey to cement itself as a primary actor in northern Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield (2016), Operation Olive Branch (2018) and Operation Peace Spring (2019).

Operation Euphrates Shield marked a significant military intervention in northern Syria under the pretext of self-defense as per Article 51 of the UN Charter. The operation’s primary objectives were to safeguard border security and combat terrorism perpetrated by Daesh. In the first 50 days, 1,100 square kilometers was successfully captured, later expanding to secure a total of 2,000 square kilometers, with areas of significant cultural importance to Daesh, such as Azaz-Mare and Dabiq, being focal points. Territorial gain moved south towards Al-Bab, yet retreated from the east, losing Afrin to the PKK in late 2016, resulting in heavy Turkish casualties. Despite these challenges, Operation Euphrates Shield expanded Ankara’s influence in northern Syria and provided a greater degree of diplomatic leverage in the region.

Operation Olive Branch commenced in January 2018, with Turkey similarly claiming self-defense under the UN Charter, with Syria condemning this rationale. The operation cited similar aims as Euphrates Shield, leaning on the combating of terrorism and establishing a ‘safe zone’ along Turkey’s borders, to which many Turkish supporters lay. However, underlying this justification was rhetoric promising to restore Afrin to its ‘rightful owners’, hinting at intentions for demographic change. The campaign began as violently as it ended, with cross-border shelling and airstrikes by Turkish fighter jets that were quickly supported by an estimated 25,000 ground troops consisting of Arab and Turkmen fighters, rallying under the SNA umbrella. President Erdogan announced the commencement of military operations in Afrin, situated in northwestern Syria and a pivotal component of the AANES. The initial phase of the military campaign honed in on rural villages surrounding Afrin with airstrikes and artillery shelling, aiming to create a clear path for ground troops to advance upon Afrin. By mid-March, Turkish and SNA forces encircled Afrin, followed by the town’s evacuation and capture.

In October 2019, the Turkish Armed Forces and SRA launched Operation Spring of Peace in northern Syria, similarly targeted terrorist organizations PKK/YPG and Daesh, yet this time, over resource conflict, with both parties allegedly funneling gas and oil to the Mediterranean via Hatay. This corridor became a key focus of Turkey with the thwarting of the formation of this purported corridor being essential to Turkish control in the region. Additionally, Turkey aimed to put an end to the frequent attacks carried out by PYD/PKK terrorists, including rocket and mortar bomb assaults targeting Turkish territory. Beyond these security objectives, Turkey sought to further address the demographic changes as highlighted by Operation Olive Branch, although these changes were enforced by the PKK/PYD-YPG, leading to the expulsion of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds opposed to their rule, aiming to restore the original demographic structure of the region. In light of these demographic changes, Turkey aimed to create a safe zone in Syria to facilitate the return of Syrian asylum seekers residing in Turkey and Europe to their homeland.

These operations, alongside the evolving political and religious landscape between armed groups in northern Syria and Turkey, resulted in years of widespread human rights violations at the hands of Turkish forces and their associates, highlighted in a groundbreaking report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Human Rights Violations in Turkish-Occupied Territory

1. Detention Conditions

Turkish military and intelligence forces, factions of the SNA and the Military Police have been implicated in detention-related abuses. Numerous accounts documented by HRW and the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) paint a distressing picture of these conditions. The involvement of Turkish officials in these abuses are currently alleged, with reports suggesting most abuses occurred within SNA faction detention centers or makeshift military police facilities.

Former detainees and their relatives have recounted instances of prolonged incommunicado detention, lasting from weeks to over two years. Many were held in small cells for solitary confinement, with infestations from insects, a lack of access to sanitary facilities as well as no mattresses to sleep on being commonplace. Many victims have been Kurds, often targeted based on suspected affiliations with Kurdish armed groups or authorities. Families have been left in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones, often learning of their detention months or even years after the fact. For these families, the ordeal extends beyond the confines of detention centers. Prolonged periods of incommunicado detention in makeshift facilities have caused permanent physical and psychological damage to the victims, with families having to recount reunions with loved ones whom they ‘barely recognize’ anymore.

The situation remains troubling in central prisons, however improved, where detainees were transferred ahead of their trials. Living conditions marginally improved in terms of access to food and hygiene, with reports of torture and mistreatment falling as well. Detainees noted a stark contrast in treatment during their time in the facility, with no reports of beatings or torture, and limited communication with their families was maintained throughout.

2. Torture

Former detainees recount nightmarish accounts of torture during interrogation, ranging from brutal beatings with cables, electric wires and metal pipes to grotesque acts such as teeth and nail pulling. HRW gathered testimony from one Kurdish man who describes being subjected to repeated beatings, hanging from the ceiling and being forced into excruciating positions to extract false confessions that could be used against him. Similarly, a Kurdish woman shares her agonizing ordeal of enduring years of torture, including beatings, choking and electrocution allegedly at the hands of Turkish intelligence operatives, aiming to gather information relating to terrorism. Tragically, deaths due to this treatment are all too common, such as the case of prominent Kurdish lawyer Luqman Hannan, whose death under suspicious circumstances following detention raises grave concerns about the role of Turkish officials, allegedly being killed through torture.

3. Rape and Sexual Violence

Rape and sexual violence have been a tool of war for many decades and unfortunately, detention centers in Turkish occupied Afrin show a horrifying pattern of sexual violence against women. Former detainees explain their experiences of sexual violence, ranging from inappropriate touching to gang rape, often at the hands of officials in charge of operations at the facilities. Women describe how their interrogators would subject them to invasive questioning and inappropriate touching, while jailers would ensure they had no privacy when they had to use the showers. One distressing story comes from a woman whose six-month-old daughter was forcibly separated from her, to which she was then forced to strip as inappropriate photographs were taken off her against her will. The extremity of gang rape was a common threat often followed through on as female detainees recalling being threatened with rape if they did not confess to alleged affiliations with terrorist militant groups, further underscoring the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

4. Judicial Concerns

In February 2018, the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defense instituted a military justice system aimed at addressing violations within the SNA factions, in particular, the mistreatment of civilians and potential war crimes at the hands of the SNA and their affiliates. This initiative, launched during Operation Euphrates Shield, introduced military courts and the military police force in Turkish-occupied areas, later expanding jurisdiction to Afrin and Tel Abyad as Turkey’s territorial control increased.

However, the system’s integrity has been continually compromised as little real justice has been obtained. Many judges within the military courts are former SNA officials or have SNA ties to current officials, often being appointed in coordination with Turkish intelligence agencies, showing a major conflict of interest that intentionally affects the reliance of the new system. Moreover, detainees subjected to this system are routinely denied legal aid throughout their detention, with coerced confessions often forming the cornerstone of prosecutions. From the documented cases by HRW, detainees faced military judges between three weeks and two years after arrest, without access to legal counsel throughout the process, leaving them with no representation. Shockingly, eight detainees confessed to crimes under duress, while two were coerced into memorizing and reciting false statements on camera with both scenarios likely happening through torture during detainment. One man testified that he was coerced into signing a document stating he was a member of PKK intelligence, admitting further that he had been involved in terrorist activity. Detainees’ rights are further compromised by the prevalence of bribery, allowing families to secure releases outside the judicial process. These practices have further plagued and undermined the system’s credibility, eroding trust in the pursuit of justice.


The Turkish presence in northern Syria has been marked by a series of forceful military operations and strategic alliances that have negatively shaped northern Syria’s dynamic. Turkey’s collaboration with various armed groups, particularly the SNA, has enabled it to exert influence and establish control over key territories along the Syrian border, however, this relationship has become corrupt and resulted in clear abuses of power with little hope for legitimate, internal initiatives to seek justice for the victims. As Turkish influence becomes more and more ingrained in Syrian politics, it succumbs to growing scrutiny over its poor, continual misconduct against innocent people and the impact of its military operations on these civilian populations, especially regarding widespread torture, to which Turkish intelligence forces are primarily responsible.

Image: Turkish soldiers and rebel fighters at the building in Afrin that had hosted the PYD-led government of the region (Image: VoA/Public Domain)

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.