Since 2012, ECCHR has worked together with affected Syrians, human rights activists and lawyers to address and prosecute the grave crimes of the Assad regime against its own people. To ensure that the crimes committed by the pro-Turkish and Islamist militias against the Kurdish population in Syria are also investigated, we filed a criminal complaint, together with six survivors and the organization Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) and its partners, with the German Federal Prosecutor General's Office in January 2024.

This dossier presents an overview of the political and military situation in the Afrin region in northern Syria since the outbreak of the civil war and also includes our criminal complaint and other relevant materials. These materials are intended to provide context regarding the political dimension of the conflict, as well as illuminate the challenges faced when criminally prosecuting these international crimes. As new information becomes available, the dossier will be continually updated and expanded.

Crimes in Afrin: A blind spot in the investigations

Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, almost all of the parties involved in the conflict have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country – above all the Syrian government, the Islamic State (IS) and other militias.

Since 2011, the reckoning with these international crimes has only advanced piecemeal and without the participation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Due to the fact that Syria is not a state party to the Rome Statue, the court can only investigate the crimes committed if the UN Security Council requests it to do so. Such a ‘referral’ regarding Syria has already failed several times, most recently in 2015, as a result of vetoes from both Russia and China.

This led to a subsequent shift in focus toward criminal proceedings based on the so-called principle of universal jurisdiction which enables states to prosecute international crimes regardless of who committed them, where they were committed or against whom they were committed. Public prosecutors’ offices in Germany , France, Sweden , the Netherlands, Norway and other countries have achieved considerable success with this approach – with arrest warrants issued against high-ranking perpetrators and criminal proceedings numbering in the double digits, most of which have ended in convictions.

In this respect, the case of Syria stands as an example of both the effectiveness of international criminal justice – and its selectivity. After all, glaring gaps remain in the efforts to address such serious crimes, and as is so often the case, such efforts tend to stop short of calling politically powerful perpetrators to account. Aside from one exception, there has been no attempt to come to terms with the role of Western companies in the conflict and its atrocities. Only the cement manufacturer Lafarge (now part of Holcim) has been under investigation in France since 2016 after ECCHR, together with 11 survivors and the French NGO Sherpa, filed a criminal complaint against the company in 2016.  

ECCHR: Universal jurisdiction

The principle of universal jurisdiction provides for a state’s jurisdiction over crimes against international law even when the crimes did not occur on that state's territory.

Read the glossary entry

Explainer video: What is Universal Jurisdiction?

Syria – Torture – Al-Khatib trial

ECCHR: First criminal trial worldwide on torture in Syria

The first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started in Germany in April 2020. The main defendant is Anwar R, a former official under Assad.

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ECCHR

Syria – Torture – Sweden

ECCHR: Sweden: Criminal complaint against torture in Syria – ECCHR

(Also) Sweden can play an important role in the fight against impunity for turture in Syria. This is why, in February 2019, nine torture survivors submitted a criminal complaint in Stockholm against senior officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – including for crimes against humanity.

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ECCHR

Syria – Torture – Norway

ECCHR: Norway: Syrian torture survivors file criminal complaint

Torture, murder and rape – these are some of the crimes that the Syrians suffered or witnessed in intelligence detention facilities.

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ECCHR

Syria – Armed conflict – Lafarge

ECCHR: Lafarge in Syria: Complicity in human rights violations?

Eleven former Syrian employees of French cement company Lafarge submitted a criminal complaint against Lafarge.

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ECCHR

With this criminal complaint, we are attempting to close another gap in the investigation of these crimes: the acts of violence committed by the Turkish military and the militias, which were founded in part by Turkey for the express purpose of attacking the Kurdish self-administered zone that emerged in northern Syria.

The crimes committed by the militias, primarily against the Kurdish, but also the Yazidi, populations of Afrin – murders, looting, displacement, abductions, rape – have received little attention outside Syria. As a result, these acts of violence have yet to be dealt with within criminal legal proceedings. While some aspects of the panorama of violence in Syria have been addressed with relative precision, here an enormous gap remains. Is this due to the fact that many crimes were committed at the behest and with the support of Turkey?

Legally, it is easier to first take action against direct perpetrators within the militias, who only in rare cases have Turkish citizenship. The criminal complaint filed in January 2024 is thus directed against them. However, their crimes cannot be investigated without indirectly obtaining information about Turkey's involvement. Those who look more closely at the violence perpetrated will quickly discover that Ankara directly monitors and orchestrates many of the operations of the militias in Afrin.

Investigations in Germany, involving soldiers, secret service agents and politicians of a NATO ally, are politically delicate. However, such concerns cannot play a role in criminal investigations if the credibility of international criminal justice is to be maintained. Only when international crimes are comprehensively investigated, including against our own allies, our own soldiers and our own companies, will we be able to expose the argument, increasingly put forward by the despots and dictators of this world – namely that international law is a neo-colonial instrument of power wielded by the “West” – for what it often is: a populist fig leaf to divert attention away from their own crimes.

Beyond this political dimension of the criminal complaint lies a personal one: tens of thousands of people have lost relatives and were forced to flee the violence, leaving their families and all their belongings behind. They now are in countries where they may testify as witnesses to local authorities and provide important evidence. By filing a complaint, however, they have become much more than this: they have become active claimants in pursuit of their own cause, who no longer want to passively endure their pain and suffering, but instead, have transformed it into legal action and a political demand for justice and recognition.

Background

The conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state has a long history. It goes back to the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire (1917), the subsequent liberation struggle (1918) against the division of Anatolia by the victors of the First World War – Great Britain, France, Italy and Greece – and a broken promise by the first president of today's Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, to establish a joint state composed of Turks and Kurds in exchange for the support of Kurdish tribal leaders and politicians against the occupiers. This promise was never realized. Instead, after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, all other ethnic groups of the former Ottoman Empire gradually became subordinate to the dominant Turkish culture and language. In the course of numerous resettlement measures involving the deportation of Kurds and the settlement of Turks, many Kurds lost their homes and were prohibited from using the Kurdish language.

Afrin during the civil war in Syria. A photo report by Thomas Schmidinger from his book Kampf um den Berg der Kurden: Geschichte und Gegenwart der Region Afrin

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The Afrin region is known for its olive groves with an estimated 14 million olive trees, some of which are over 100 years old. Before 2011, 75% of Afrin's population worked in agriculture. Since March 2018, roughly three quarters of Afrin's olive groves have been seized by armed groups.

For centuries, the area has been dubbed “Kurd Dagh,” “Mountain of the Kurds,” famous for its landscape of hills and fertile valleys.

With over 360 Kurdish villages, Afrin, or Efrîn in Kurdish, is the most densely populated Kurdish region in Syria – roughly 90% of its population were Kurds. After the Turkish invasion, this proportion fell to below 30%.

The city of Afrin is the only urban center in the region. Locals and displaced people from other parts of Syria meet in the city park.

Funeral of a “martyr” from the Women's Defense Unit of Afrin, who died in the fight against IS in Kobane.

Êzîdî cemetery in the village of Faqîra in the south of the Afrin canton. Here, on the edge of the mountain range known as Jebel Seman/Çiyayê Lêlûn, lie most of the Yazidi villages in the region.

Historical Development of Kurdish-Turkish relations

The conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state has a long history. It goes back to the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire (1917), the subsequent liberation struggle (1918) against the division of Anatolia by the victors of the First World War – Great Britain, France, Italy and Greece – and a broken promise by the first president of today's Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, to establish a joint state composed of Turks and Kurds in exchange for the support of Kurdish tribal leaders and politicians against the occupiers. This promise was never realized. Instead, after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, all other ethnic groups of the former Ottoman Empire gradually became subordinate to the dominant Turkish culture and language. In the course of numerous resettlement measures involving the deportation of Kurds and the settlement of Turks, many Kurds lost their homes and were prohibited from using the Kurdish language.

Kurds in Syria

The Afrin region has long been home to a Kurdish population, in addition to Christians and Yazidis, as well as Alevis from Turkey, those from Dersim/Tunceli for example, who were able to escape the large-scale massacres in 1938. Kurds in Syria have historically faced systematic discrimination and marginalization. In northeastern Syria alone, around 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship in the mid-1960s, making them stateless in their own country – not only without passports, but also without property rights to land or livestock and the formal rights of other Syrian citizens, such as the right to vote. This unprecedented despotic-bureaucratic measure was justified on the grounds that the then rapidly growing Kurdish population would jeopardize the “Arab character” of the country. At the same time, a state Arabization campaign in the region began, which aimed to split up the contiguous Kurdish settlements of the fertile and oil-rich region. For this purpose, a 350 km-long and 10–15 km-wide strip of land was forcibly Arabized, in which Arab villages were built specifically for Arab settler families who had lost their land in the course of the construction of dams in central Syria. The government ultimately expropriated two million hectares of arable land from Kurdish farmers in the course of this campaign.

Until the beginning of the Syrian democracy movement in spring 2011, the Kurdish region remained – with few exceptions, such as the protests in 2004 – largely in the shadows of Syrian domestic politics. The regime administered the region by means of police and secret service units, all of whom came from central Syria, just like the engineers and skilled workers in oil production. The majority of teachers and academics in the region were also non-Kurdish. The Kurdish language was not officially taught, and only a few Kurds were able to reach higher positions within the regional civil administrative bureaucracy.

For decades, the autocratic political system in Syria functioned as a practically seamless securitized state, combining notoriously cruel repression with targeted political co-optation. The ruling Baath Party presided at the helm of this structure, embodying a radical Arabism and, simultaneously, ideologically repudiating any form of Kurdish identity and designating it as a betrayal of the "Arab nation." Kurdish parties were allowed to participate in the political process if they acted in the interests of the regime, for example against Turkey. However, prior to 2011, northern Syria had a relatively active and heterogeneous political Kurdish movement compared to other parts of the country. Among these Kurdish political parties was the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitîya Demokrat, PYD) that emerged out of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK) in Turkey, which advanced political demands of the Syrian Kurds vis à vis the Syrian state. In some areas of northern Syria, such as Afrin, the PYD was firmly rooted in society, while elsewhere it was starkly criticized, for example by other Kurdish political parties or segments of the Arab population.

In the wake of the outbreak of mass protests in central Syria, the regime withdrew its security forces from the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria in the summer of 2012 in order to devote its resources to stamping out the democracy movement in central Syria and other cities. Not only were military, police and intelligence personnel withdrawn; high-ranking Baath officials, oil engineers and administrative officers fled the region as well. The PYD and allied parties subsequently attempted to fill the political vacuum. The removal of the regime's armed forces from the region was also accompanied by an alleged agreement between the PYD and the Syrian regime that stipulated that each side would tolerate the status of the other.

A largely autonomous system of self-governance was established – a historic step for Kurdish self-determination. It was intended in no small part to protect the Kurdish and ethnically and religiously heterogeneous population from the eliminationist violence and claims to power of radical Islamist militias. Instead of joining the revolution in central Syria alongside the Syrian opposition and other Kurdish parties, the PYD concentrated on building up its autonomous self-administered zone. Partly for this reason, the initial cooperation between Arab, Syrian and Kurdish groups in the protest movement continued to decline over the course of the civil war.

Their territory soon encompassed the entirety of northeastern Syria – its expansion owing to their fight against IS and the Syrian government’s tolerance of the PYD. Supported by the international anti-IS coalition, they drove out the jihadists and assumed control of their territories. The PYD's long-term plan was to implement a so-called "democratic confederacy," a concept that refers to a democratic-ecological civil administration, which does not endorse or seek the redefinition of borders or statehood but, rather, is constituted at the community level. This was to be coupled with the strengthening of women's rights, the secularization of the legal system and its institutions, and to a certain extent, the integration of the interests of ethnic and religious minorities.

Despite these attempts and the successful realization of some democratic practices in comparison to the other parts of Syria (especially those under the Syrian regime), the PYD's autonomous system of self-governance remained authoritarian in character in order to maintain its claim on the region. This system is also associated with serious human rights violations, repression and the persecution of other political parties and their members, as well as parts of the Arab population.

The political and military hostilities from Turkey exacerbated existing authoritarian tendencies within the PYD, leading to the social exclusion of Kurdish-Syrian critics, the persecution of their parties and associations, and the censoring of events and publications.

Since 2015, Turkey has intensified its violence against the pro-Kurdish opposition party in Turkey, the Peoples' Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP), and the Kurdish regions in its own country, suppressing uprisings in Diyarbakır, Mardin and Cizîrê. Since 2016, Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman expansionist policy has increasingly focused on the Kurdish region in northern Syria. Between 2016 and 2019, Turkey carried out three successive military offensives in the region in order to militarily diminish the size the Kurdish self-governing region bordering Turkey. Beginning in 2018, the second Turkish-led offensive, known as Operation Olive Branch, marks the beginning of the period in question within this criminal complaint. On the one hand, the operation aimed to gain military and political control over the Afrin region, which Turkey still holds today, and on the other, to expel the predominantly Kurdish population.

The Turkish invasion of Afrin in January 2018 represents Turkey's last attempt to date to resolve this conflict militarily. Officially, Syrian local councils have administered Afrin since March 2018, but de facto, Turkey controls the region. The armed Islamist militias, which previously committed crimes in multiple locations under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA) , have established a system of arbitrary rule: with Turkey's knowledge, they systematically commit atrocities, including arbitrary arrests of civilians, sexual violence, torture, systematic looting and killings. The Kurdish New Year festival Newroz was permanently banned. Street names and school curricula were changed from Kurdish to Turkish or Arabic. In Afrin, which used to be the most densely populated Kurdish region in Syria, Kurds are now the minority. As in previous decades, the population must either be assimilated, expelled or destroyed, but above all, Kurdish autonomy must be prevented. Turkish politicians speak of Afrin as part of the mystical “Red Apple” (“Kızıl Elma”), which represents the imperial aspirations of the Ottoman Empire. Afrin thus occupies a central symbolic place in Turkey's expansive imperial power politics.

Information on the initial situation, the uprising in Syria, the period of the Autonomous Administrative Region of North and East Syria, the role of Turkey as well as Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch and the current status quo can also be found in the criminal complaint on pages 16-27.

page 16–27

Information on the Syrian National Army (SNA) and its armed militias, their violent crimes and Turkey's influence can be found on page 28–38.

page 28–23

Overview of the political and military developments in Afrin since 2011, as well as the efforts to prosecute international crimes committed against the civilian population living there:

March 2011

Uprising in Syria

September 2011

German Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office opens first structural investigation

2012

Kurdish self-governance in northern Syria

2012–2018

Afrin as a place of refuge

August 2014

Second structural investigation in Germany

March 2016

Proclamation of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria

August 2016

Turkey's first military offensive in northern Syria: Operation Protective Shield Euphrates

20 January 2018

Launch of Operation Olive Branch

18 March 2018

Militias establish arbitrary rule

21 March 2018

Newroz celebrations are banned

October 2019

Third Turkish military offensive Operation Peace Spring

March 2021

Occupation in Afrin

March 2023

Deadly violence at Newroz celebration

January 2024

ECCHR files a complaint against the crimes of the militias in Afrin

Februar 2024

Syrian women's rights activist found dead in area controlled by pro-Turkish militias.

Accountability for Crimes of Violence

Numerous institutions, including the US State Department and the UN Commission of Inquiry (UN-COI), have identified extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by SNA militias against the predominantly Kurdish population. In particular, survivors report arbitrary detentions, acts of torture, sexual violence, targeted killings, violent forced evictions and looting, the destruction of Kurdish cultural heritage sites and the resulting displacement of the population. Certain methods of torture are applied repeatedly by various groups within different prisons throughout Afrin – another indication of their systematic dimension. Members of mercenary groups took over the houses of displaced people; fields and olive groves have been plundered. The population was and is undergoing forcible conversion and assimilation, as Kurdish names are being erased.  

The acts of violence relevant under international criminal law are described in detail in the criminal complaint on pages 38–65 and evidence is offered to further clarify them.

page 38–65

The Yazidis, who live in Afrin alongside other minorities, are also affected by these crimes. Their persecution is usually carried out on the basis of several types of discrimination – such as religious, ethnic and/or gender. As a result, the survivors' experiences of injustice are diverse and the consequences of the crimes are multidimensional.

Shortly after the completion of the military operation in March 2018, the organized population transfers of Syrians from Turkey into Afrin began. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both reported that Syrians in Turkey “were apprehended, detained and, against their will” taken back to Syria. The organization Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) documented the forcible return of 155,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey to Syria between 2019 and 2021. At the same time, internally displaced people throughout the entire country were told to resettle in northern Syria. The resettlement was itself facilitated by the Turkish military and humanitarian organizations. The extent and systematic dimension of the acts of violence against property, life and limb of the original population described above, which compelled them to flee, already indicate that this was a deliberate strategy to alter the population structure.

Details of the planned procedure for changing the population structure can be found on pages 61–65 of the criminal complaint.

page 61–65

Voices of Afrin

Thus far, the crimes of the Assad regime and Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, have been the focus of the investigations by the German Federal Prosecutor. Survivors of the crimes in Afrin are therefore requesting the Prosecutor’s Office to conduct comprehensive investigations into these perpetrators as well.

“Three years after my release from the prison, I still find myself stuck inside a painful nightmare. Everything that I experienced in Afrin was horrific. Because I know that the population still must live under similar conditions, I have made it my mission to make the world aware of the injustice in the hope that justice will be achieved and that the perpetrators will be held to account,” said one survivor and complainant.

This report by Weltzeit/Deutschlandfunk Kultur provides insights into the historical and political context around the invasion of Afrin. Witnesses speak of the brutal conditions of their detention and their experiences of torture at the hand of the militias.

Turkish crimes before German court

Listen to the report by Deutschlandfunk

At this panel, political activist Sabiha Khalil, journalist Erkan Pehlivan and lawyer Patrick Kroker discuss the political situation in Afrin and the ongoing struggle for justice by those affected, as well as how Western powers employ double standards in the fight against injustice. The panel was accompanied by a musical performance by Wassim Mukdad and Neroda Mohamad.

With Sabiha Khalil (Syrian-Kurdish feminist aktivist), Patrick Kroker (lawyer, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights) and Erkan Pehlivan (journalist). Moderation by Kristin Helberg (journalist). Music by Wassim Mukdad (musician, composer) and Neroda Mohamad (musician).

Collective dimension of international crimes

International crimes usually affect many people, frequently even entire populations. Furthermore, they do not only affect the groups of people who are immediately targeted, but also the international community as a whole. This is why some of these crimes are referred to as “crimes against humanity.” In this sense, international criminal law appeals to the conscience of humankind, which was forged out of the experience of unimaginable atrocities committed in the course of the 20th century. International crimes threaten the peace and security of the world, along with the sanctity of humanity as a whole, and are therefore the most serious crimes of international concern. They must not be allowed to go unpunished.

In the case of crimes against humanity individual crimes must be committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

War crimes on the other hand, are serious violations of international humanitarian law that are committed by warring parties in the context of an armed conflict or which are closely related to the conduct of war. Such crimes may concern an international or a non-international armed conflict.

It is the responsibility of the international community, but also of individual states, to ensure that these acts are effectively prosecuted. Our complaint appeals to this responsibility, while also serving as a reminder that we must continually work to reinforce it.

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population.

Read glossary entry

War crimes

War crimes are serious violations of international humanitarian law provisions applicable in international and non-international armed conflict.

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Detailed explanations of the legal standards of the facts – the legal assessment – starting page 70.

page70

Resources

In January 2018, the Turkish army and allied armed militias invaded the northern Syrian region of Afrin. The so-called military operation "Olive Branch" lasted for over two months, beginning with intensive aerial bombardment followed by a ground invasion.

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Q\&A

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Complaint

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In January 2018, the Turkish army and allied armed militias invaded the northern Syrian region of Afrin. Since then, the Kurdish population has been subjecte...

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2018 verübten türkische Truppen und Islamistenmilizen im kurdischen Afrin in Nordsyrien ein Massaker. Die Menschenrechtsorganisation ECCHR reicht Klage ein.

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July 2024

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© 2024 ECCHR

Partners

Syrians for Truth and Justice and partners

 

Gerechtigkeit für Afrin: Die unbeachteten Verbrechen in Syrien produced by Limo for Research, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and Syrians for Truth and Justice, in cooperation with Sebastian Cobler Stiftung and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung 

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Voices for Afrin: The Overlooked Atrocities in Syria, panel in cooperation with Maxim Gorki Theater, 06.03.2024