“Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas in February | “Abu Amsha” comes to the fore…security chaos leaves 65 people dead and wounded…nearly 45 people arrested and kidnapped in Afrin…prevalence of money laundering and the cultivation of hashish
Since Turkish forces and their proxy factions captured several areas in Aleppo, now known as “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas, humanitarian crises have been emerging and worsening gradually, with violations, attacks and explosions occur almost daily. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has monitored and tracked February’s prominent developments in these areas and summarised in the following main points:
Escalating security chaos: 65 people killed and injured
According to SOHR statistics, 12 people were killed in February 2021, half of whom were civilians, including two children and a woman, and the other half were fighters of Ankara-backed factions, including a dissident captain.
Also, 53 people, mostly civilians, sustained various injuries in explosions, assassinations, unknown circumstances and attacks in light of escalating security chaos in the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas.
In February, Turkish-controlled areas in Aleppo countryside experienced nine explosions, three of which took place in Afrin with booby-trapped cars and landmines, while six explosions took place in Al-Bab, Al-Ra’i and Sajo, north and north-east Aleppo, were all carried out by IEDs, except for an unknown explosion that took place inside a faction camp.
The blasts left five people dead, including two civilians and three Ankara-backed fighters, including a captain, and 46 were wounded, 34 of whom were civilians and 12 fighters.
These areas also witnessed seven attacks and shootings, which concentrated in Al-Bab and Souran in northern and eastern Aleppo countryside, in which three people were killed: a fighter of the al-Hamza Division, a police man and his child, in addition to the injury of seven others, including two civilians.
Moreover, two bodies were found, the first belonged to a woman killed in the Souran area, north of Aleppo, and the other belonged to a displaced little girl from Tel Rifa’at, was found in Sajo camp near the border with Turkey in northern Aleppo countryside, in unknown circumstances.
On February 4, SOHR source reported that the body of a young man was found with gunshot wounds in the head on a street near the market of Azaz city, while a paper note left next to the body read “to everyone tempted to messes with the liberated areas and risks the lives of innocent civilians through bombings, assassinations and spying for the terrorists of ISIS, PKK and the criminal regime…this terrorist carried out several terrorist operations and bombings in the liberated areas…Saraya Al-Majd.”
According to local sources, the body belonged to one of the perpetrators of explosions in areas under the control of Turkish-backed factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and he had been executed earlier and his body was dumped in the street.
SOHR activists confirmed that a beheaded body of a man was found in the “8th of March” street in Al-Bab city, which is under the control of Turkish forces and the factions of “Euphrates Shield” operations room in the eastern countryside of Aleppo. It is worth noting that he body was found with hands shackled while a paper note was placed on it read “This is the fate of every criminal shedding blood in the liberated areas. This man dealt with terrorist cells and carried out explosions in the liberated areas targeting civilians…Al-Tha’r Batalions”.
Arbitrary arrests and routine vandalism of cultural heritage
As repression is escalating in Turkish-controlled areas in Aleppo countryside, especially in Afrin, Turkish-backed factions have stepped up their daily violations against the region’s people who refused to flee their areas. The Syrian Observatory documented in February the arrest and kidnapping of over 43 civilians, including nine women by the Turkish-backed factions in Afrin city, Jendires, Ma’batli, Sharran, Shirawa, Al-Basuta in Afrin countryside. 11 of the arrested were released, while the fate of the other 32 remained unknown.
Local sources had informed SOHR that the Turkish-backed military police in Afrin canton released a young man, after he was found guiltless after nearly 24 hours of detention.
According to the sources, Turkish-backed factions were suspicious of the young man, who is from Deir Ezzor province, and he was arrested and taken to the military police station where he was brutally beaten. The Syrian Observatory has obtained several pictures showing the brutal torture the young man was subjected to, while these pictures have ignited widespread popular discontent against the practices and violations by the Turkish-backed military police and factions.
In February, the Syrian Observatory monitored a number of violations against civilians and the Syrian cultural heritage, some of which can be summarised as follows:
A commander of the Turkish-backed “Military police” seized over 50 houses belonging to displaced civilians from Afrin in the north-western countryside of Aleppo. According to SOHR sources the commander have turned many of these houses into military headquarters, while the other houses were rented for his own favour. It is worth noting that the seized houses are located in several neighbourhoods in Afrin city.
On the other hand, a member of “Jaysh Al-Sharqiyyah” sold a house of a Kurdish civilian in Al-Ashrafiyyah neighbourhood in Afrin city at an estimated 1,700 USD, after he seized it earlier.
Moreover, members of Al-Qal’a checkpoint of the police of Azaz in northern Aleppo countryside attacked a bus carrying male and female university students from the city of Marea. The checkpoint members insulted and assaulted two students for unknown reasons to date.
Turkish-backed factions continue excavating and searching for artifacts and antiques in several areas in the villages and towns of Afrin, north-west of Aleppo. Armed men of the “Samarkand Brigade” bulldozed three archaeological hills in the village of Hajj Hassano, which belongs to Jandires district in Afrin countryside, north-west of Aleppo, in search of artifacts.
Meanwhile, military groups of the Turkish-backed factions returned to excavation work in the surrounding areas of the “Roman amphitheatre” near Nebi Huri fortress in Sharran district in Afrin countryside, north-west Aleppo.
According to SOHR sources, Turkish-backed militiamen used heavy diggers and earth-moving machineries for digging and excavating the surrounding areas of the “Roman amphitheatre”, searching for antiques and artefacts. It is worth noting that such operations are carried out in full view of the Turkish forces.
The area of Nebi Huri has experienced repeated excavation work by all Turkish-backed factions, searching for buried artifacts and antiquities.
Factional fights and partnership in cultivation of hashish
“Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas experience ongoing conflicts and infighting among the Turkish-backed factions, as a part of rivalry over civilians’ property and revenue-sharing as well as the personal disputes which may erupt between two militiamen and evolve later to larger armed fights. SOHR monitored in February seven armed fights between factions and armed families, as follows:
– Clashes between two families in al-Jabal camp in Jarabulus city in the north-eastern Aleppo countryside, left one person dead and four others injured.
– Clashes between gunmen from one of the city’s families and civilian police, following the arrest of a family member by the civilian police. According to Syrian Observatory sources, the clashes resulted in the death of a family member and the injuries on both sides, coinciding with lack of movement in the residential neighbourhoods in al-Bab city and the closure of shops for fear of indiscriminate bullets.
– Internal clashes between members of the “Sultan Murad” Division in one of the Division’s camps in the al-Ra’i area bordering Turkey in northern Aleppo, left one member seriously injured.
– Clashes between members of the al-Hamza factio and members of Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya faction at the entrance to the area of Bazza’a in eastern Aleppo countryside, as Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya intercepted car prepared for smuggling belonging to the al-Hamza Division, amid reports of casualties on both sides.
– Fierce clashes with various types of weapons broke out between military groups of the “Jaysh Al-Sharqiya” faction in the Jandires area in Afrin countryside in north-west Aleppo. According to SOHR sources, the clashes started with light weapons and evolved into the use of RPGs, in addition to the use of heavy machine guns in populated neighbourhoods.
– The fiercest fight in February was in Afrin, where SOHR activists documented the death of two members of “Jaysh Al-Islam” and injury of 12 others due to an attack by “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah” on headquarters of “Jaysh Al-Islam” near “Kawa Al-Haddad” roundabout in Afrin city centre in the north-western Aleppo.
According to SOHR sources, the reason behind these clashes is the prosecution of a displaced young man from eastern Ghouta by “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah”, as the young man sought protection in Jaysh Al-Islam’s headquarters in Afrin city. The prosecution evolved to an attack by “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah” on headquarters of “Jaysh Al-Islam” and fierce clashes broke out with light and heavy weapons.
Furthermore, the commander of “Jaysh Islam” gave a speech during the funeral of two members killed in violent clashes with “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya”, threatening “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya” and vowing to avenge his members, and called “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya” “scum.”
For his part, the commander of the “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya” appeared in a video in front of his members, saying that “the main enemy of us is the regime and every rebel fights the regime is a brother to us.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored relative calm in the city of Afrin, following fierce clashes between Jaish al-Islam and the “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah”, where it was agreed to form a committee of three sheikhs to decide on the dispute between two groups of the “National Army.”
The committee called for the arrest of the perpetrators and the leaders of the two headquarters in order to complete the investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable, according to a statement of which SOHR obtained a copy.
In the midst of these conflicts, however, the factions were involved in the cultivation of hashish in Afrin. In February, reliable sources in the Turkish-controlled city of Afrin informed SOHR that several Turkish-backed factions, including Ahrar Al-Sham, Sultan Murad, Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah and Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah, were planting Hashish in Afrin countryside in north-western Aleppo.
According to SOHR sources, the planting of Hashish is taking place in large spaces in Maydan Ikbis, Kharab Saluk and Sawarka all of which are affiliated to Raju district with no body to deter these factions.
Commander “Abu Amsha”: theft of civilian properties and defrauding mercenaries
Turkish-backed factions have committed “grave” violations in Afrin for the past three years, since they have captured the canton during “Olive Branch” operation. Moreover, the factions turned Afrin city and countryside into fertile ground for money laundering operations, with Turkey’s full consent, as such operations take place in full view of Turkish Walis (governors) officers and commanders present in Afrin. According to SOHR sources, money laundering is facilitated by factions’ commanders who also launder money illegally gained through looting and thefts of properties of Afrin residents, both the residents who stayed in Afrin and those who fled to other areas, not to mention cutting portions of the mercenaries’ salaries who had been sent to Azerbaijan and Libya.
One of the most astonishing examples of money laundering operations is the businesses of the commander of “Suleiman Shah” Division, Mohammed Al-Jasem “Abu Amsha”.
Abu Amsha has turned Sheikh Hadid district into a private kingdom, appointed himself as the “Sultan” of hundreds of affiliated members, opened a mall, coffee shop and other businesses with Turkish support and after looting the residents’ properties and deducting 300 to 600 USD from the salary of every affiliated militiaman sent to Libya and Azerbaijan, where 1,250 members have been sent by Abu Amsha to Libya only.
The most prominent business of Abu Amsha was a hospital, which was constructed on a plot of land he had seized in Sheikh Hadid by looted money. It is worth noting that the head of the Syrian National Coalition Nasr Al-Hariri laid the first brick of this hospital on February 16, 2021, when a military parade was held, igniting popular anger while social media activists derided these practices and likened them to regime practices and military shows.
On the other hand, a delegation of the “Syrian Opposition Coalition” and the “Syrian Interim Government” visited the headquarters of the “Sultan Suleiman Shah” Division in Afrin area in north-western Aleppo countryside, as part of the delegation’s tour there in the middle of the month.
Nasr Al-Hariri, the leader of the Coalition, and Salim Idris, the “Minister of Defense” and other figures, met with Mohammed al-Jassim “Abu Amsha”, the leader of the “Suleiman Shah” faction, at a time when Afrin is witnessing daily violations against the remaining of its people who refused to leave their area.
Despite the formation of the so-called “Ombuds Committee” to restore the rights to its people in Afrin, chaired by Nasr Hariri, and its claims that it has restored many rights, daily violations continue. Where “Ombuds Committee” has only confirmed what the Syrian Observatory has repeatedly pointed out regarding violations against Afrin’s indigenous population.
Separate incidents in “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas
The Aleppo countryside is witnessing continuous skirmishes between Turkish forces and proxy factions on the one hand, and Kurdish forces, the forces of the Manbij Military Council and the Al-Bab Military Council on the other, including exchange of shelling and clashes, concentrated in the eastern, northern and north-eastern rural areas of Aleppo.
In February, the Syrian Observatory documented the death of a child and the injury of nine civilians, including a child and three women, as a result of an artillery shelling carried out by the Manbij Military Council forces at Russian orders on the Turkish-held town of Al-Bab in eastern Aleppo countryside.
Furthermore, a young man was killed and others were injured in a bombardment by the forces of the Bab Military Council on the village of Um Adassa and Sukkaria, while nine civilians, including children, were injured by rocket fire by Kurdish forces on the city of Afrin.
SOHR sources monitored hectic commercial movement between areas under the control of “Manbij Military Council” and areas controlled by Turkish-backed factions in north-east Aleppo countryside, despite the renewed military operations and skirmishes between both sides.
According to SOHR sources, columns of trucks carrying fuel, oil in particular, wheat and barley enter areas under the control of Turkish-backed factions on a daily basis, via Um Jeloud crossing between Jarabulus and Manbij. Meanwhile, food and building materials, including steel and cement enter areas under the control of SDF and “Manbij Military Council” via the same crossing.
SOHR sources also reported that the prices of spelt and barley rose in SDF-held areas, as large amounts are taken to Turkish controlled areas. It is worth noting that a kilo of barley is now sold for 750 SYL, while a kilo of spelt has reached 1,100 SYL.
SOHR activists reported that rescue teams found the remains of 19 unidentified bodies in Tariq Al-Sadd on the outskirts of Al-Bab city in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, as part of the mass grave found in last February. The bodies were delivered to Al-Bab hospital.
In the presence of the assistant of the Turkish governor of Gaziantep and some of the city’s civil society actors in al-Bab city in eastern Aleppo countryside, the Syrian Observatory monitored the ground breaking for the construction of a sharia school under the name of “Martyr Demiral School for Islamic Sciences”, named after Turkish officer who was killed while dismantling an IED in the city on February 4.
The series of violations in “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” areas seem to be unstoppable as long as Turkish forces and their proxies keep breaching all international laws and charters, and with no body being able to put an end to these “grave” violations, despite SOHR repeated warnings about the dreadful humanitarian situation in the region.