Human Rights Watch (HRW) has identified serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by both the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxies in Syria, warning that Turkish officials appear directly involved in apparent war crimes.

Turkey is directly implicated in serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by both members of its own forces and its armed proxies in the regions it has occupied in northern Syria, the international watchdog and rights monitor Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said. By directly implicating Turkish officers in “apparent war crimes”, the report goes further than previous UN and HRW reports which have long identified wide-spread abuses particularly targeting Kurds, the Christian and Yazidi minorities, and women.

“Türkiye bears responsibility for the serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by members of its own forces and local armed groups it supports in Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria,” the report’s authors write. “Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power and, in some cases, have been directly involved in apparent war crimes in what it calls a ‘safe zone.’”

The extensive report, entitled “Everything is by the Power of the Weapon”, draws on interviews with nearly 60 interlocutors including victims of Turkish violence, as well as anonymous individuals with links to the occupying Turkish forces. It documents abuses including abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, sexual violence, and torture, as well as violations of housing, land, and property rights, including widespread looting and pillaging as well as property seizures and extortion. The report particularly notes the rape of female Kurdish detainees, the detention of children as young as six months alongside their mothers, and the systematic seizure of property from Kurds and Yazidis driven out of the region. The report’s authors identify “cycle of looting, pillaging, and property seizures,” thus “leaving those who challenge these actions vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, kidnapping and enforced disappearances.”

Six detainees report witnessing deaths in detention, four victims reported experiencing sexual violence first-hand, and one man was forced to watch Kurdish women being gang raped. All of these incidents targeted Kurds. Other detainees suffered torture, including “severe and prolonged beatings – often using cables, electric wires, and metal pipes – teeth and nail pulling, being tied up to the ceiling or to tires with ropes, and being burned with cigarettes.”

One Kurdish torture victim described his treatment in the following words: “To get me to confess they waterboarded me, electrocuted me, beat me with cables, and removed all my fingernails, then injected them with needles, I’m surprised I’m still alive. In the winter, they would strip me naked, pour freezing cold water on me and then beat me with cables.”

Many of these crimes were committed by the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of scores of militias armed, funded and controlled by Turkey, many of them subscribing to a Salafi jihadist ideology, which were used as ground forces as Turkey invaded and occupied majority-Kurdish regions in 2018 and 2019, displacing the majority of Kurdish residents. But the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and intelligence agencies were also directly involved in these abuses, HRW has found.

Since then, Turkey has used these armed groups to terrorise and intimidate the local population, allowing them to extort money and conduct rampant abuses, while maintaining ultimate control over the region. “In swathes of northern Syria, Türkiye is an occupying power,” according to HRW. The organisation report that they have attempted to engage with Turkish officials over the accusations, but their letters have gone unanswered, while senior officials implicated in the serious abuses remain in position. The report names three senior officials who remain in post following allegations of sever abuse.

As such, the report concludes with a series of proposals directly addressed to Turkey, which is “obliged to restore public order and safety, protect inhabitants, hold those responsible for abuses accountable, provide reparations, and guarantee the rights of property owners and returnees,” HRW write. The report adds evidence to Kurdish representatives’ repeated demands that the Turkish occupation be brought to an end and the democratic, Kurdish-led administration be allowed to resume their governance in what were once the safest and most democratic regions of Syria.