Calls for war crimes investigations into the conduct of militias used by Turkey in Syria are mounting after a spate of new videos depicting Ankara-linked fighters torturing captives and mutilating dead bodies.
Footage of atrocities allegedly committed by Arab forces in northern Syria is circulating widely across Kurdish regions of the country, sparking fears of renewed fighting and a deepening ethnic divide in the region, even as a tenuous ceasefire begins to settle.
A video purportedly posted earlier this week by one Turkish-supported group shows a captured Kurdish fighter being dragged by the neck as his captors threaten him with beheading. Another shows dead Kurdish fighters being cut with a knife as Arab combatants jeer.
Kurdish officials, along with the US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, have condemned the videos, with the latter describing them as “potential war crimes” while the Kurds insist they represent ethnic cleansing.
Up to 170,000 Kurds have fled a battle zone along the Turkish border after a weeklong operation to push Kurds further into Syria.
Ankara has openly stated that it aims to send up to a million Syrians, who are currently living in exile in Turkey, into the area it has since dubbed a safe zone. Where the newly displaced – most of whom are Kurds – will settle remains uncertain, as does whether the recent spate of ethnic violence can be contained.
“One of our main challenges is to contain the emotional reaction,” said a senior Kurdish official, Arshan Mizgen Ahmad. “Those who killed here are not from this part of Syria. We are trying as an administration to calm them down.
“It is not a blood dispute in the usual sense of the term. This has been a cultural movement that has been prevailing for centuries. We are trying another approach. We have made great efforts not to see it as a blood dispute, but as a political manoeuver,” she said.
Ankara’s proxies are comprised of Syrians who fought against the Assad regime, and other groups who have since been recruited as hired hands. They also include several extremist units, who were responsible for the execution of the Kurdish female politician, Hevron Khalaf, who was hauled from her car two weeks ago and shot dead by a roadside along with her bodyguards.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has studied the Turkish proxies, said: “The factions fighting on Turkey’s behalf are largely made up of young men displaced from their towns and villages from across Syria and particularly eastern Syria.
“In 2016, it was clear to many Syrians that Turkey has altered its position regarding the Assad regime and will no longer attempt to topple it, and hence, those who joined this force after 2016 were often individuals willing to fight, in exchange for money, to advance Turkey’s interests.”
Ankara has denied sanctioning any atrocities in Syria amid reports it has used white phosphorus. Turkish military officials say they are investigating reports of executions.
“Turkey retains control over all strategic decision-making,” said Tsurkov. “It decides when and where to start and end offensives. Turkey pays the salaries of these fighters, trains them in Turkey and in northern Aleppo, provides them free medical care when they are injured, and oversees all operations. Turkey is ultimately responsible for the conduct of these factions.”
Meanwhile, Kurdish officials were struggling to make sense of Donald Trump’s announcement that he was sending US tanks to secure oil fields in Deir Azzour, in far eastern Syria. The surprise move came after his widely condemned decision to withdraw all US forces who were working alongside the Kurds on Turkey’s border, ahead of the operation in early October.