This report outlines the instances, circumstances, and implications of enforced disappearances in Turkey and in Turkish-occupied northern Syria in the context of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, incorporating data and insights from human rights defenders from Turkey and Syria.
An estimated 1,352 people have disappeared in Turkey since the 1980 military coup, according to the Truth Justice Memory Centre. The majority went missing in the mid-1990s.The victims of these enforced disappearances were often political activists and were predominantly ethnic Kurds.
The perpetrators were almost never held accountable. Activists who spoke out for justice faced judicial harassment and police brutality. This reality stands as a testament to the ongoing reality of discrimination, erasure, and silencing of Kurds and other minorities in Turkey—a major driver of conflict and instability in Turkey and neighboring countries.
But enforced disappearances related to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict are not a thing of the past, nor do they only occur in Turkey. As northern Syria became the primary flashpoint of the military conflict between the government of Turkey and armed Kurdish groups, disappearances perpetrated by Turkey-backed armed groups in areas of northern Syria under Turkish control became a major human rights issue.
According to the Synergy Association for Victims, more than 1,200 civilians in Turkish-controlled Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Tal Abyad have reportedly been disappeared. Victims are often targeted on the basis of their Kurdish ethnicity or their real or perceived support for or participation in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
These crimes impact their immediate victims, their families, and their communities—as well as fueling mass displacement and conflict between Syrian Kurdish groups and Turkey at the strategic level.
Any future political and security understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurds will have to, at a bare minimum, allow displaced Kurdish populations to return safely to their homes and have a fair and representative stake in the governance and security of their region. This will not be possible without justice for the victims of disappearance and meaningful guarantees of non-recurrence.
Humanitarian measures around disappearances in Turkish-occupied Syria could be manageable confidence-building measures towards de-escalation. Political steps towards a lasting, just Turkish-Kurdish peace could build on the basis of narrow human rights-based action addressing urgent conflict flashpoints in northern Syria.
RECOMMENDATIONS for policymakers
- Publicly and privately convey to Turkey that Turkish forces and all Turkey-backed armed groups must:
- Reveal the fate of all persons to have gone missing in Turkey in the Olive Branch and Peace Spring zones since they came under Turkish control;
- Release those victims who are still alive in detention, regardless of their geographic location or whether they are held in official or unofficial facilities;
- Hold accountable all perpetrators of disappearances and related abuses like extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence and remove individuals and entities involved in these violations from the Olive Branch and Peace Spring zones;
- Offer meaningful, tangible guarantees of non-recurrence to impacted families and communities; and
- End all retaliatory action against individuals and entities that document disappearances and other human rights violations and work for justice on these issues.
- Continue to use yearly Country Human Rights Reports on Turkey and Syria to document conditions in the occupied areas of northern Syria, including enforced disappearances. Extensive engagement with Syrian and Kurdish organizations documenting abuses in the Olive Branch and Peace Spring zones should be continued.
- Provide diverse and strategic support for civil society organizations, particularly Kurdish-led organizations, working to document and seek justice for human rights abuses in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict and in particular its cross-border military operations in northern Syria. Given the sensitivities of accepting open international support and funding in some contexts, this support can be offered in partnership with civil society groups, international organizations, and other third parties. It should enhance the most needed capacities of these organizations based on their own evaluations. It should include support on how to access international justice mechanisms, given the extremely low likelihood that victims will receive justice in Turkey’s current system.
- Coordinate greater governmental and NGO support for IDPs in northern Syria displaced by Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring. This should include both humanitarian support to meet basic needs of displaced communities in under-resourced refugee camps and specialized medical and psychological support for survivors of torture, sexual violence, and other abuses in the occupied areas. These individuals often flee to said under-resourced camps after escaping the Olive Branch and Peace Spring zones, where they are unable to access the specialized support they may need.
- Take concrete steps towards international accountability processes that will address the grievances of victims in Turkish-held Syria. This should start with an international fact-finding mission to the areas occupied by Turkey during Operation Peace Spring and Operation Olive Branch and to IDP camps in northern Syria home to communities displaced by these military operations. The mission should include representatives of the U.S. and other Coalition member governments, UN bodies, and human rights organizations, as well as representatives of North and East Syrian institutions previously representing the occupied regions and NES-based NGOs engaged in monitoring violations in these areas. It should be guaranteed complete access to the relevant areas free from Turkish or SNA intervention and assurances that subjects will not be subjected to retribution. The goals of this mission should be:
- To extensively and accurately document the impact of the two Turkish incursions on communities, including documentation of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights abuses (including disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and the theft of land and property), the conditions of displaced communities and their humanitarian needs, and the preferences and opinions of both displaced communities and those remaining in the occupied zones. This documentation should be published as a report to inform policymakers and the public.
- To establish the basis for the creation of an internationally-supervised complaints office based in these regions under international supervision. This office should take complaints of rights violations from residents of these regions and follow up with local authorities to ensure their just and timely resolution. It must be able to ensure that complainants will not face retribution for registering violations against them.
- Reassess the application of counter-terrorism frameworks to the Kurdish question in Turkey and the resulting armed conflicts, as well as any other policies that may legitimize common pretexts used by Turkey and Turkey-backed groups for disappearances and common justifications for impunity for actions taken by security forces in the course of the Kurdish conflict.