David Adesnik / Aykan Erdemir
The U.S. Treasury Department designated Syrian militant group Ahrar al-Sharqiya last week, targeting a Turkish proxy for the first time since the war in Syria began. This designation reflects a new readiness to address human rights violations by Ankara’s proxies as well continuing concern over Ankara’s open sympathy for religious extremists and permissive stance toward terror finance on Turkish soil.
The designation of Ahrar al-Sharqiya marks the sixth time in under three years that Treasury has targeted jihadists based in or otherwise linked to Turkey. On the same day, the department also imposed sanctions on Hasan al-Shaban, whom Treasury identified as a “Turkey-based al-Qa’ida financial facilitator.” Previous U.S. sanctions have targeted illicit financial networks linked to the Islamic State (IS), Hamas, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Egyptian group Harakat Sawa’d Misr.
Treasury’s Office of Inspector General reported in January that IS often relies on “logistical hubs in Turkey” to transfer funds internationally, especially between Iraq and Syria. According to the inspector general, IS has “as much as $100 million available in cash reserves dispersed across the region.”
For a decade, Ankara’s Islamist government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned a blind eye to various jihadist groups’ exploitation of Turkey’s porous border with Syria. Turkey is also the main sponsor of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which encompasses a wide array of armed groups, including numerous jihadists, opposed to the Damascus regime. Ahrar al-Sharqiya is also known as Brigade 123 of the SNA.
Founded in 2016, Ahrar al-Sharqiya apparently drew many of its members from the Islamist militant group Ahrar al-Sham. According to Treasury, Ahrar al-Sharqiya has also integrated members of IS, although the former has publicly expressed hostility toward the latter.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya has drawn attention since 2019 because of its role in high-profile atrocities. These include the murder of Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf during Ankara’s cross-border military operation in October 2019, which targeted Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners in the anti-IS coalition. A BBC investigation indicates that Ahrar al-Sharqiya forces captured Khalaf alive, then subjected her to beatings and torture before executing her.
According to Treasury, “Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture, and seizures of private property.” The group also “constructed and controls a large prison complex outside of Aleppo where hundreds have been executed since 2018.” Other SNA brigades have committed similar abuses. Last year, the UN commission on human rights in Syria reported that SNA units “coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention.”
This designation of a Turkish proxy reflects the Biden administration’s firmer stance toward Ankara’s misconduct in Syria. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reports that “fierce resistance from officials in the Trump administration” delayed Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s designation until after former President Donald Trump left office in January. The State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report released last month also indicated a greater readiness to confront Erdogan over human rights. The report called out Ankara for providing “tangible support” to the SNA’s Sultan Murad Division (Division 24), implicated in the unlawful recruitment of child soldiers. Turkey is the only NATO member the State Department has ever listed pursuant to the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008.
While the scale of the Syrian regime’s atrocities far exceeds those of other combatants, armed opposition groups have committed a substantial number of war crimes over an extended period. Accordingly, the United States should consider also imposing sanctions on the Sultan Murad Division as well as on the Hamza Brigade (Division 22 of the SNA) and the Suleiman Shah Brigade (Division 14, Brigade 142), which the United Nations has identified as perpetrators of war crimes. Given the SNA’s reliance on Turkish support, Treasury should also assess whether ultimate responsibility for such abuses lies in Ankara.
David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Aykan on Twitter @adesnik and @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.