The United States has imposed sanctions on two Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) militias and their leaders over serious human rights abuses against Kurds and women in Afrin, northwestern Syria, the Department of the Treasury announced this week.
Sanctions Designation Highlights Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, Targeting of Ethnic Kurds
The Suleiman Shah Brigade and the Hamza Division were sanctioned “in connection to serious human rights abuses committed in northern Syria, including abduction, severe physical abuse, and rape,” said State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller.
Mohammad al-Jasim and Walid al-Jasim, leaders of the Suleiman Shah Brigade, and Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr, leader of the Hamza Division, were also sanctioned “for their connection to serious human rights abuses.”
The Treasury designation noted that the Suleiman Shah Brigade “subjects the populace of this area [Afrin] to abductions and extortion. The brigade has targeted Afrin’s Kurdish residents, many of whom are subjected to harassment, abduction, and other abuses until they are forced to abandon their homes or pay large ransoms for return of their property or family members.”
Commander Mohammad al-Jasim directed members of the Brigade to “forcibly displace Kurdish residents and seize their property, providing vacated homes for Syrians from outside the region who are often related to fighters in the brigade” and “ordered the brigade to kidnap local residents, demanding ransom in return for their release and confiscating their property as part of an organized effort to maximize the brigade’s revenue, likely generating tens of millions of dollars a year.”
The designation noted that both Mohammad al-Jasim and Walid al-Jasim have been accused of sexual assault.
The Hamza Division, the designation said, “has been involved in abductions, theft of property, and torture. The division also operates detention facilities in which it houses those it has abducted for extended periods of time. During their imprisonment, victims are held for ransom, often suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Hamza Division fighters.”
While Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr has been commander, it added, “the Hamza Division has been accused of brutal repression of the local population, including kidnapping Kurdish women and severely abusing prisoners, at times leading to their death.”
Use of Executive Order 13894 Responds to NGO, Expert Demands
The sanctions were imposed under Executive Order 13894, which was put forward in response to Turkey’s invasion of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in 2019 and which targets individuals engaged in “actions or policies that further threaten the peace, security, stability, or territorial integrity of Syria” or “the commission of serious human rights abuse.”
When extending this authority in 2022, the White House said that Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region.”
This was first identified as an authority that could be used against Turkey-backed groups responsible for violations against Kurdish women in the U.S. Department of Defense Lead Inspector General report to the United States Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve covering the period between April and June 2020.
It noted that “the United States has not sanctioned any TSOs in response, although the Executive Order on Syria-related Sanctions [E.O. 13894] provides authority to do so if certain criteria are met, according to the DoS.”
In October 2020, over 40 Syrian, Kurdish, and international organizations and advocates signed an open letter calling on the U.S. to take a stronger position on rights violations in Turkish-occupied northern Syria, including Afrin. The letter referenced SNA abuses against women, Kurds, and religious minorities, and recommended that the U.S. “impose sanctions on armed groups and individuals found to be responsible for human rights abuses in the occupied areas, under the authority provided by Executive Order 13894 of October 14, 2019.” The Hamza Division and Suleiman Shah Brigade were noted in the letter as groups responsible for abuses.
The Missing Afrin Women Project, which I created that year to track kidnappings and disappearances of women in Afrin and raise awareness of the overall gendered threats to Kurdish women in the occupied areas, was one of the signatories of this letter. My data consistently found the Hamza Division and Suleiman Shah Brigade among the worst offenders in terms of abuses against Kurdish and Yezidi women, with their track record including kidnappings and disappearances, torture, sexual violence, and forced marriages.
That same month, I explained in the National Interest how Turkey’s invasions of Afrin and Ras al-Ain “brought a wave of violence and terror targeting Syrian women and the institutions they had fought so hard to build,” citing COI reporting and other evidence of SNA abuses against women. I argued that “sanctioning the Syrian armed groups that kidnap and assault Kurdish women on a daily basis” under Executive Order 13894 would “call the legality and legitimacy of international support for these groups into question, an important step towards weakening their authority.”
The authority was first used against a Turkey-backed SNA group involved in abuses targeting women and ethnic and religious minorities in 2021, when Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and its leaders were designated for actions including the assassination of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf and the trafficking of Yezidi women and children. The sanctions were welcomed by Syrian Kurds and human rights organizations, but widely viewed as a half-measure absent stronger action for accountability and justice.
Why It Matters
Since taking control of Afrin in 2018, Turkey and the SNA have carried out a policy of chaos, criminality and abuse predominantly targeting the Kurdish communities who once made up Afrin’s demographic majority. Documentation and analysis from the United Nations, NGOs, and expert researchers have identified these abuses as part of a strategy of forced demographic change intended to destroy Kurdish armed groups and political bodies in Afrin and remove the Kurdish communities that supported them.
Sexual and gender-based violence and the exclusion of women from governance, security, and other areas of public life are among these violations.
Before Turkey’s incursion, many Kurdish women in Afrin were active in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) structures and in civil society organizing. They were an important constituency for the SDF/AANES model of autonomous governance and self-defense forces. Their participation strengthened these institutions in Afrin and beyond: many Kurdish women from Afrin took on leadership roles in structures bringing women into governance and security forces across North and East Syria.
This unique strength was a result of the influence of the Kurdish movement and its ideas about women’s liberation in Afrin: Kurdish women there had been involved in autonomous women’s armed forces and political structures seeking Kurdish self-determination since well before Syria’s war.
As a result, since Turkish military operations in Afrin began, Turkey and Turkey-backed forces have sought to punish Kurdish women in Afrin for their ethnicity, their gender, and their real or perceived participation in political life before the occupation.
The evidence of this policy, drawn from witness and survivor testimony, the work of Kurdish and Syrian human rights groups and women’s organizations active in northeast Syria, Syrian Kurdish women political and military leaders speaking up for their constituents, local and international media, NGOs, researchers, and others, dating back to the first days of the Turkish incursion in 2018 and going on to date, is extensive. Reports from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) paint a picture:
In March 2020, the COI raised the alarm about conditions for Kurdish women in Afrin, warning that:
“Recent gender-based violations committed against Kurdish women by armed groups with extremist ideologies have, however, demonstrated an attempt to dismantle these efforts. By targeting almost every aspect of Kurdish women’s lives in the Afrin District..armed groups generated a palpable fear of violence and duress among the female Kurdish population.”
A September 2020 COI report provided further evidence of sexual and gender-based violence:
“The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions have faced acts of intimidation by Syrian National Army brigade members, engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes. Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of “female honour.””
In March 2021, the COI reported that:
“As Syrian National Army detention practices rapidly evolved, women were increasingly rendered vulnerable to abduction (some for the purposes of forced marriage), and detained at checkpoints or during home and village raids. While detained, Kurdish (and, on occasion, Yazidi) women were also raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence, including degrading and humiliating acts, threats of rape, performance of “virginity tests”, or the dissemination of photographs or video material showing the female detainee being abused.”
These abuses in Afrin are connected to Turkey’s overall Syria strategy, which seeks to destroy the AANES and SDF and dilute or displace the social base that supports them or could support any other Kurdish autonomous project on Turkey’s borders in the future.
The gendered nature of this strategy and the ways in which gendered harms contribute to regional security challenges posed by Turkey’s policy is important to recognize. As a landmark report published by Kurdish Peace Institute and the New Lines Institute for Strategy in May 2023 identified:
“Turkey’s efforts to degrade and dismantle the AANES’s governance project in northeast Syria disproportionately impact women. Some elements, such as efforts to expand the control of abusive proxy gangs across northern Syria, create conditions that disproportionately put women at risk of violence and increase gender discrimination. A U.N. report on Turkish proxy rule in Afrin found a marked increase in sexual violence against women, including an increase in arbitrary detention and abuse in detention centers. Other elements target women’s political participation and physical safety directly, such as when Turkey bombed a girls school and killed four students in northeast Syria in 2022. This…also suggests that Turkey is aware that the role of women in the AANES and SDF is one of the region’s primary strengths and a model that could be exported to challenge authoritarians elsewhere.”
Like Turkey’s other anti-Kurdish practices in northern Syria, this strategy has its roots in Turkey’s domestic Kurdish conflict—in which Turkish forces perpetrated sexual and gender-based violence, exploited patriarchal norms that prevented victims from speaking out, excluded Kurdish women from politics, and employed paramilitary groups that committed similar violations and promoted extremely patriarchal ideologies among other tactics intended to put down Kurdish resistance.
Kurdish communities, human rights organizations, and analysts have sounded the alarm on the gendered harms of Turkey’s military campaigns against Kurdish groups since Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan abandoned peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, calling attention both to the immediate human rights impacts and to the overall threat to security, stability, and long-term regional peace that such violations cause.
The United States has been slow to recognize these dynamics—but this recent designation suggests that change may be in progress. To continue that progress, policymakers should:
- Increase engagement with human rights activists and civil society organizations, particularly Kurdish-led and women-led groups, to collect information and documentation about the gendered impacts of Turkey’s anti-Kurdish political and military strategies both within Turkey and in Turkey’s cross-border military operations; and incorporate that information into both public reporting and decision-making.
- Continue to publicly condemn and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuses targeting Kurdish women in Turkey and in Turkey’s cross-border military operations. Sanctions like those placed on Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, the Hamza Division and the Suleiman Shah Brigade can be a model for action against perpetrators of abuses like sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions of women politicians and activists—whether those perpetrators represent state or non-state actors.
- As previously recommended by the May 2023 Kurdish Peace Institute/New Lines Institute report on de-escalating the Kurdish conflict, use existing U.S. policy frameworks on gender policy and women, peace and security (WPS) to adjust U.S. policies that, insofar as they facilitate or encourage Turkish decision-makers to pursue militarized approaches to the Kurdish conflict, contribute to the unique gendered harms the conflict causes and thereby threaten regional stability and security.
(Photo: Stefano Montesi — Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)