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Human Rights

Turkish Intervention in Syria: An Existential Threat for Yezidis

Turkish intervention in northern Syria jeopardizes the long-term existence of Yezidi communities in the country while benefitting individuals and entities involved in genocidal acts against the Yezidis of Sinjar. The Turkish policies and strategies that created these conditions also pose serious regional and international security risks.

In order to ensure justice for genocide survivors, guarantee a future for Yezidis in their homelands in Syria, and promote long-term stability and security, Turkey and Turkey-backed armed groups must be deprived of territory and prevented from launching future military operations against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and perpetrators of abuses against Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities must be held accountable.

Turkish Strategy in Northern Syria: Harming the Most Vulnerable

Three of Turkey’s strategic choices in northern Syria have had a disproportionate negative impact on Yezidi civilians: the targeting of regions of Syria where Yezidis live, the facilitation of large-scale forced demographic change in these regions, and the use of militias that openly threaten ethnic and religious minorities and that have links to ISIS and other extremists. It is important to note that this disproportionate impact is measurable, serious, and worthy of a policy response regardless of whether it is intentional or not.

Two out of three Turkish military campaigns against the AANES and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have targeted regions where Yezidis live. Operation Olive Branch (January-March 2018) resulted in Turkish and Syrian National Army (SNA) control of Afrin, once a Kurdish-majority region with significant Yezidi and Alevi minorities. Operation Peace Spring (October 2019) resulted in Turkish and SNA control of Ras al-Ain, which was home to Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, Assyrians, Armenians, and others.

In its military operations in Afrin and Ras al-Ain, Turkey pursued a two-pronged strategy of forced demographic change—displacing non-Arab and non-Muslim communities and moving predominantly Sunni Arab IDPs and refugees from other parts of Syria into occupied zones.

A news release from the Office of the Turkish Presidency explained this strategy in January 2018, just after Operation Olive Branch began:

“President Erdogan indicated that necessary steps were taken last night with the air operation which was followed by a still on-going ground operation. Drawing attention to the fact that the population of Afrin consists of 55% Arabs, 35% subsequently positioned Kurds and 6-7% Turkmens, President Erdogan made the following remarks: “Now, the main objective is to hand Afrin over to its true owners. What is our goal? Do we have 3.5 million Syrian refugees living on our lands? Yes, we do. Our target is to repatriate these Syrian brothers and sisters as soon as possible. There are current steps taken in this direction.”

By making the false claim that Afrin was an Arab-majority region and explicitly discussing the transfer of displaced Syrians to the area, Erdogan revealed that demographic change was an official component of Turkey’s Syria strategy.

This was quickly reflected in practice. An influx of IDPs from other parts of Syria into Afrin was reported as early as June 2018, three months after Turkey captured the region. A 2019 Amnesty International report revealed that, prior to Operation Peace Spring, Turkey began to illegally deport Syrians living in Turkey back into Syria.

To fight for and govern these regions, Turkey has utilized Syrian armed groups responsible for a clear pattern of violence and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and women.

Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions have incorporated ISIS members into their ranks, destroyed minority religious and cultural sites, forced non-Muslims to convert to Islam, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and conduct, and been found responsible for torture, sexual violence, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and other abuses targeting local populations. Turkey has failed to prevent this behavior or punish individuals responsible for abuses.

Syrian Yezidi Communities Decimated Under Turkish Occupation

As a direct result of these policies, thousands of Syrian Yezidis have been displaced. Those who were unable or unwilling to flee have been subjected to brutal violence on the basis of their identity. Almost all Yezidi religious and cultural sites in Afrin have been damaged or destroyed, and armed groups have imposed extremist interpretations of Islam in regions once populated by Yezidis.

Forced Displacement and Demographic Change

There is consensus among experts, international organizations, and community leaders that the vast majority of Yezidis who once lived in the Peace Spring and Olive Branch zones have been forcibly displaced.

In a comprehensive report on Yezidis in Syria published by the Wilson Center, Dr. Amy Austin Holmes found that:

“The two Turkish interventions into Syria in 2018 and 2019…have driven almost the entire Yezidi population in Afrin and Ras al-Ayn in Syria from their homes. All of the villages in northwest and north-central Syria with Yezidi inhabitants – some 51 villages in total – are now under occupation by the Turkish military and their affiliated militias, many of which espouse Islamist ideologies.”

These findings were cited and reaffirmed by the Yazidi Justice Committee’s report State Responsibility and the Genocide of the Yazidis

Today, between 1,000 and 2,000 Yezidis are estimated to remain in Afrin, out of about 20,000 who lived there prior to the Turkish invasion. At least 90% of Afrin’s Yezidi population has fled. Figures for Ras al-Ain are not readily available, though one source states that eight of fifteen Yezidi villages in the area were emptied in the first week of Operation Peace Spring and that ‘hundreds’ of Yezidis had fled during that time.

IDPs from other parts of Syria who have been brought into Afrin have been settled in deserted Yezidi villages there. For example, in the village of Shadiriya, which was once inhabited by Yezidis and Kurds, nearly 100 apartments intended to house Sunni Arab IDPs were recently constructed with the support of several Islamic NGOs from different countries.

Violence Against Yezidi Civilians

Turkey-backed SNA militias consistently target those Yezidis who remain in regions under their control. Members of these groups openly demonstrate extreme prejudice against Yezidis on the basis of their identity: reports of forced conversions and the establishment of mosques and Islamic schools in Yezidi villages surfaced in the first months of Turkish and SNA control of Afrin.

One Yezidi woman from Shadiriya provided the following account of a routine house raid to the Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights:

“Six masked fighters from [SNA militia] Faylaq Al-Sham stormed our house around 9 o’clock at night and accused us of cooperating with YPG. They brandished their guns in our faces – me, my husband, our five children, and my sister, who was with us that night. They claimed we were hiding terrorists and weapons in our house…

…More than once, they attempted to get close to me and my eldest daughter, who is 14 years old. They called her a terrorist and accused her of carrying weapons. One fighter tried to take her alone into her room to search her, claiming that she was hiding weapons under her blanket. She was covering herself with a blanket because she was in her sleeping clothes when they stormed the house. We were terrified that he would sexually assault her. I screamed in his face and refused to let him near her, insisting that a woman perform the search, and he backed off. They searched the entire house.

During the ordeal, they called us disbelievers who do not have any fear of God. They referred to us as ‘Zoroastrians’ and said that we deserved to be slaughtered. They asked my husband for his keys in order to search his car for weapons, and when they did not find any, they took the car and made us hand over all the money we had.”

Dozens of Yezidi civilians whose identities are known have been abducted for ransom, imprisoned on false or arbitrary charges or forcibly disappeared by SNA factions.

A 2021 United Nations report on arbitrary detention in Syria found that members of Turkey-backed militias “detained civilians, primarily of Kurdish and Yazidi origin, alongside other practices such as systematic confiscation of the victim’s property, extortion and beatings, which ultimately coerced many to leave their homes.”

In December of 2020, Faylaq al-Sham besieged the Yezidi village of Basofan in Afrin, where just 200 of about 3,000 pre-invasion residents remained. At least 10 Yezidi civilians— 5% of Basofan’s remaining indigenous population—were kidnapped and allegedly tortured. Most were later released. One victim, a woman named Ghazala Salmo whose case was cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was allegedly sentenced to six years in prison by a Turkey-backed court in Afrin in May of this year.

The case that has gained the most international attention is that of Arin Dali Hesen. Hesen, a Yezidi woman from the village of Kimar, was abducted by members of the Hamza Division in February 2020. Her fate was unknown until May 2020, when she was identified in a video showing female detainees being led out of a secret prison operated by the Hamza Division during clashes between SNA groups in Afrin city center.  She was released on ransom in December 2020, abducted a second time by members of the Hamza Division in September 2021, and then released again in February 2022. She was reportedly pregnant the second time she was abducted and allegedly suffered a miscarriage due to torture in custody.

Torture, sexual violence, and other cruel and degrading treatment are common in SNA detention. A Yezidi woman quoted in the same United Nations report described her experience in an SNA prison in Afrin: “They punched me and beat me with cables. The interrogator told me ‘Yezidis are infidels. We will kick you out from our land. You will die in here.’”

The report described the SNA’s treatment of ethnic and religious minority women as follows:

“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.”

Targeting Religious and Cultural Sites

The United Nations has found that the widespread destruction of Yezidi religious and cultural sites in Afrin is “challenging the precarious existence of the Yazidi community as a religious minority in Syrian National Army-controlled regions, and impacting both the tangible and intangible aspects of their cultural heritage.”

The fate of Afrin’s Yezidi Cultural Center shows how these attacks are connected to a broader strategy of demographic change. Prior to Operation Olive Branch, the Center “served as a civil registry, a magistrate court, a religious education center, and a cultural center that familiarizes the Yazidis with their customs and traditions and organizes ceremonies for their religious events,” according to one of the founders of the region’s Yezidi Union.

The center was destroyed in early 2018. A recent investigation conducted by Syrians for Truth and Justice revealed that an Arabic-language school that includes courses on Islamic law as part of its curriculum is being constructed in its place, with the support of Turkish and Kuwaiti NGOs.

Genocide Perpetrators Find Safe Haven in Turkey’s Sphere of Influence

While less obvious than the impacts of Turkish intervention in northern Syria on Syrian Yezidi communities, the impacts of Turkish intervention in northern Syria on Yezidis from Sinjar are very real. Eight years after the genocide began, ISIS members have taken advantage of permissive security conditions near Turkey’s borders to evade justice and have faced no obstacles to joining Turkey-backed armed groups. Relatedly, many missing Yezidi women and children are known or suspected to be in Turkish-controlled Syria.

ISIS Leaders Hide in Northwest Syria, Members Incorporated Into SNA Militias

Senior ISIS figures Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, and Maher al-Agal were all found and killed near the Turkish border in northwestern Syria: Baghdadi and Qurayshi in HTS-controlled Idlib, where Turkey maintains a military presence, and Agal in Jinderes in western Afrin.

Northwest Syria is an ideal place for ISIS leaders to hide for several reasons. Neither Turkey nor various armed groups present in the region prioritize the fight against ISIS in the way that other actors in Syria and Iraq do: conflicts with the Syrian government and Kurdish groups, and even conflicts among rival rebel factions, occupy far more time and resources. In both Idlib and Afrin, the presence of large, mobile displaced populations in which individuals who do not wish to be noticed can easily disappear also helps ISIS figures hide.

It is worth noting that the presence of an ISIS leader in Afrin is a far greater indictment of Turkish policy than the presence of such figures in Idlib is. Turkey’s military and civilian institutional presence in Afrin is more extensive, and Turkey has a level of influence over the SNA that it simply does not have over HTS.

In addition, by forcing Afrin’s indigenous Kurdish, Yezidi, and Alevi populations to flee, Turkey destroyed a community that had no organic support for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups and that had a demonstrated willingness and capability to defend its borders from such groups. Territory that was once a base for the fight against extremists is now, after Turkish intervention, territory where senior jihadists can operate—a massive security and human rights failure.

The identities of dozens of lower-level ISIS members who have been actively incorporated into the ranks of the SNA in Afrin and Ras al-Ain are known. Reports of former ISIS fighters joining the SNA to fight against the YPG were publicized when Operation Olive Branch began. Later reporting from the Rojava Information Center and Syrians for Truth and Justice identified many of these individuals, including some who had held important positions within ISIS and who now serve in SNA factions known for abuses against minorities and women.

The lack of meaningful legal action to prosecute ISIS members for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity and the possibility that ISIS or a group with a similar ideology could commit further crimes against Yezidis and other populations are serious obstacles to justice and recovery for Yezidis. Any ISIS leader or member who is in hiding in northwest Syria or who has simply joined another abusive, sectarian militia there has escaped justice—and is capable of further civilian harm and destabilizing actions in the future.

Missing Yezidis Known or Suspected to be in Areas of Syria under Turkish Influence

The United Nations recognized the abduction and enslavement of thousands of Yezidi women and children in 2014 as an element of ISIS’ commission of the crime of genocide against the Yezidi people. For years, Yezidi civil society has called on the international community to make finding all missing Yezidis a priority. As long as these individuals remain in captivity, the genocide is ongoing.

Yet today, the fate of more than 2,700 Yezidis is still unknown. Of those who are still alive, many are known or suspected to be in areas of northern Syria that are under Turkish influence: including the Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch zones and Idlib. The presence of current and former ISIS members and individuals with links to ISIS in these regions is likely a major reason for this.

When the United States imposed sanctions on Ahrar al-Sharqiya and two of its leaders in 2021, it noted the fact that the group’s commander “has been implicated in the trafficking of Yazidi women and children and has integrated former ISIS members into the ranks” of the militia. A 2021 report on missing Yezidis published by the New York Times featured a Yezidi man who was aware of six relatives who were being held captive in northwest Syria by a former ISIS fighter who had joined the SNA. Local media in Afrin has reported that Yezidi women have been seen there with their ISIS captors.

There is no effort by Turkish, SNA or Syrian Interim Government (SIG) authorities to find these women and children in the regions of Syria they control, nor to punish or exclude from the SNA ranks fighters found to have been involved in the genocide and enslavement of Yezidis.

Future Turkish Operations Will Displace Yezidis, Bolster ISIS

Turkey continues to threaten a fourth military incursion into northern Syria. If it is allowed to carry out such an operation, the impacts for Yezidi communities will be devastating.

Most Yezidis who remain in Syria live within 30 kilometers of the Turkish border east of the Euphrates River—the area that Turkey views as a potential “safe zone” in which it may intervene. Many of the Yezidis who fled Afrin after Operation Olive Branch are now internally displaced in Tal Rifaat, a region Turkey has recently threatened.

Overwhelming evidence from Afrin and Ras al-Ain shows that Yezidis cannot live safely under the conditions that exist in Turkish-controlled Syria today, and that would likely exist in any territory captured by Turkey and the SNA in future operations. A large enough Turkish incursion could conceivably force almost all Yezidis who remain in Syria today to flee, never to return.

U.S. officials and AANES authorities alike have stressed the fact that any further Turkish incursion will hinder the fight against ISIS and could even result in the escape of the thousands of captured ISIS members held in prisons across the region. Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring both had documented negative impacts on the military campaign against ISIS.

If ISIS is able to regroup while the Syrian Democratic Forces—their most effective enemy—are also contending with a Turkish attack, the jihadist group would likely attempt to resume the same genocidal practices towards Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities that it committed before its defeat. The possibility of putting ISIS members on trial for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, already a difficult task, would become almost impossible.

Policy Responses

The international community has consistently refused to address the dangers that Turkey’s militaristic approach to Kurdish armed groups and political entities in Syria and Iraq poses to millions of civilians in the region. Nowhere is this more clear than in the impact of Turkish policy on Yezidi communities in both countries over the past eight years.

Legal experts have found that Turkey both failed to meet its obligation to prevent the Yezidi Genocide and was itself complicit in this genocide by allowing ISIS fighters to freely travel into Syria and allowing ISIS-related economic activity to take place.

This morally and legally questionable approach to ISIS atrocities was a result of Turkey’s view that Syrian Kurdish autonomy posed a greater threat than ISIS did—a threat prioritization shared by no other state in the Middle East or the world.

That same skewed threat prioritization drove two deadly and destabilizing Turkish military campaigns against the AANES and SDF. Once again, ethnic and religious minority civilians, including Yezidis, were left the worst off.

The United States already recognizes ISIS crimes against the Yezidi people as a genocide and has reiterated the importance of an enduring defeat of ISIS and a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict as policy objectives. Addressing those elements of Turkish policy in Syria that have the greatest harmful impact on Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities would align with existing goals on atrocity prevention and regional security, and would ultimately benefit the region as a whole.

To that end, policymakers should:

  • Continue to put meaningful diplomatic effort into preventing any further Turkish incursion into Syria, including by promoting sustainable and just political solutions to both the Syrian civil war and conflicts between Turkey and armed Kurdish groups.
  • Pressure Turkey to provide and adhere to a timeline to withdraw from northern Syria and remove affiliated SNA groups. If pressing for a complete withdrawal is unfeasible, policymakers must at least demand for a withdrawal from areas captured in Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring.
  • Coordinate and participate in international efforts to find missing Yezidis.
  • Identify all ISIS members who have joined the ranks of the SNA and all members of the SNA, whether previously affiliated with ISIS or not, who have engaged in the trafficking or enslavement of Yezidi women and children or other acts of genocide; sanction those SNA groups known to have incorporated ISIS members and genocide perpetrators; and bring perpetrators to justice.
  • Promote and lead efforts to repatriate all ISIS foreign members from Syria and ensure that all ISIS members who engaged in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are put on trial.

About the Author

Meghan Bodette - KPI Research Associate

Meghan Bodette

Director of Research

Meghan Bodette is the Director of Research at the Kurdish Peace Institute. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, where she concentrated in international law, institutions, and ethics. Her research focu…

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