August 21, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Target Turkey-Backed Militias in Syria, but Not Turkish Authorities 

August 21, 2023 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Target Turkey-Backed Militias in Syria, but Not Turkish Authorities 

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Thursday against a pair of Turkey-backed Syrian militias — the Suleiman Shah Brigade and the Hamza Brigade — responsible for serious human rights abuses, including abduction, extortion, torture, and sexual violence. Treasury’s announcement avoided any reference to the brigades’ relationship with Turkish authorities, likely reflecting Washington’s longstanding aversion to holding Ankara responsible for its proxies’ behavior. 

Amid multiple interventions by Turkish troops in the Syrian civil war, Turkey established control of an enclave on Syria’s side of the two countries’ common border. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially sought to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, once Assad solidified his control with aid from Russia and Iran, Erdogan shifted his focus to wresting territory away from Syrian Kurdish forces that achieved substantial autonomy because of Assad’s weakness. To that end, Ankara organized an array of Syrian rebel militias into the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA), including the two groups Treasury designated on Thursday.  

In addition to sanctioning the brigades themselves, the new round of U.S. sanctions extends to four other persons: Mohammad al-Jasim, commander of the Suleiman Shah Brigade; Walid al-Jasim, his younger brother; Al-Safir Oto, an Istanbul-based company owned by the elder Jasim; and Sayf Abu Bakr, commander of the Hamza Brigade. 

According to Treasury, Mohammad al-Jasim “ordered the brigade to kidnap local residents, demanding ransom in return for their release and confiscating their property as part of an organized effort to maximize the brigade’s revenue, likely generating tens of millions of dollars a year.” Jasim also “allegedly raped the wife of a member of the brigade and threatened her and her family with harm if she did not remain silent.” 

Meanwhile, the Hamza Division “has been involved in abductions, theft of property, and torture. The division also operates detention facilities in which it houses those it has abducted for extended periods of time. During their imprisonment, victims are held for ransom, often suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Hamza Division fighters.” 

Two years ago, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Ahrar al-Sharqiya, another Turkish proxy responsible for wide-ranging abuses. At the time, local human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice called on Washington to designate other abusive militias and commanders, specifically naming the Suleiman Shah Brigade and Mohammad al-Jasim. Local journalists also reported on the abuse and identified Al-Safir Oto as one of Jasim’s assets.  

Similarly, previous editions of the State Department’s annual reports on human rights in Syria indicated that the Hamza Brigade was responsible for abductions, torture, and other abuses, as were several other SNA-affiliated militias. Given the availability of such information, it is surprising that Washington did not impose sanctions until now. 

The State Department’s reports have also presented information that directly implicates Turkish authorities in abuses perpetrated by SNA militias. The current edition, like the previous one, cites UN reporting on “the frequent presence of Turkish officials in SNA detention facilities, including in interrogation sessions where torture was used.”  

Attention to SNA abuses comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan, who expressed interest last month in direct talks with Assad to normalize bilateral relations. Last week, Assad shot back that Erdogan only wants “to legitimize the Turkish occupation in Syria,” and “Terrorism in Syria is made in Turkey.” Washington’s sanctions make it harder for Erdogan to justify the Turkish role in Syria to other regional governments, even though SNA abuses pale in comparison to Assad’s atrocities.  

Thursday’s sanctions represent a step forward on human rights. However, they appear to target only a fraction of the violations by SNA-affiliated militias, while Ankara continues to escape responsibility for its proxies’ criminal abuses in Syria. Nor has the administration made a serious effort to enforce sanctions on Assad for his grave offenses. It is time to correct both these shortcomings. 

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident research fellow with FDD’s Turkey Program. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from the authors, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Sinan on Twitter @adesnik and @SinanCiddi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


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