On October 9, the Turkish military and its allies of the rebel Syrian National Army launched Operation Peace Spring, a military offensive aimed at driving Kurdish forces out of northeast Syria. In the days following the offensive, several videos of extrajudicial killings carried out by members of the Syrian National Army appeared online. The France 24 Observers team checked these videos, some of which show actions that “may amount to a war crime,” according to the United Nations.

UPDATE: A first version of this article, published October 16, has been changed to remove a sensitive video showing a possible execution. We have replaced this video with screenshots of the same video, in accordance with the France Médias Monde code of ethics.

WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES

The first video was shared on the messaging platform Telegram by Jarabulus News on October 12 at 10:35am. Jarabulus News shares information about the Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which is part of the Syrian National Army (SNA). The SNA is the new name for the Free Syrian Army, the group that rose up against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. Since 2017, it has been officially supported by Turkey, and Turkish forces take part in its military operations in northern Syria.

The video shows armed men with three prisoners sitting on the ground. One of the prisoners wears a military uniform, while the other two are in civilian attire. They are next to the M4 road, which runs between Aleppo and Al-Hasakah, in northern Syria.


A second video was shared on the same Telegram channel later that afternoon. Posted at 4:17pm, it shows the man in uniform from the first video in the same location (on the left in the collage below).

Then, it shows yet another prisoner in civilian attire, who has his hands tied, being shot several times. The gunman shouts, "Here are the Party [editor's note: referring either to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)] pigs, here are the prisoners, kill them", before shooting the prisoner. Based on the footage, it is not possible to determine whether or not the prisoner was already dead prior to the shooting.

Screenshots of the video posted on Telegram, 4:17pm October 12, 2019. The video itself is too graphic for us to publish.
 
The armed men in this video are from one of the brigades that make up Ahrar al-Sharqiya.

In a photo shared online, which shows two of the three prisoners who appear in the first video, you can see Abou Hatim Shaqra, one of the leaders of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, standing in the middle. According to the independent Syrian media outlet Euphrates Post, Hatim Shaqra committed numerous war crimes at the start of the Syrian revolution, between 2012 and 2013.
 
Centre: Abou Hatim Shaqra, Ahrar al-Sharqiya leader.
 

“Those who resisted were neutralised”

The France 24 Observers team interviewed Al Hareth Rabbah, a Syrian photographer who said he was travelling with Ahrar al-Sharqiya and witnessed the executions shown in these two videos. He actually filmed some of the second video, at the request of one of the fighters.

“Take my phone and film me shooting him with this sniper rifle!” the fighter says in the video.

According to Rabbah, the executions took place early in the morning on October 12 along the M4 road, between the towns of Suluk and Tal Tamer.
 
I’m working as a photographer for this faction at the moment. They had set up a roadblock on the M4. They ordered cars to stop and took some of the drivers as prisoners. However, some of the drivers didn’t want to give themselves up and resisted. Some of them opened fire. Others ran over our men. So the fighters neutralised them. Personally, I wasn’t carrying a weapon. You can see in the video that I just have a mobile phone and a camera.

In the following video, Rabbah says, “Today, Brigade 123 of the Free Syrian Army [editor’s note: the Syrian National Army] is taking control of the road between Aleppo and Al-Hasakah, and by doing so is cutting the supply lines of the [Kurdistan Workers’] Party.”


Leading Kurdish activist and politician killed

On the same day the man in civilian clothing was executed, eight other people appear to have been killed by Ahrar al-Sharqiya, according to specialist news outlet Defense Post.

Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, was among the victims. She was head of the centre-left Future Syria Party. According to the party’s coordinator for Europe, she was coming home from an assembly in Al Hasakah, accompanied by her driver and one of her assistants, both of home were also killed. According to several Kurdish sources, they were ambushed.

An autopsy released by the regional Kurdish authority notes that Khalaf was beaten before dying from a cerebral haemorrhage caused by gunshot wounds to the head.

The photographer Al Hareth Rabbah explained the incident as follows:
 
When they were ordered to stop at the roadblock, the armoured car carrying Hevrin Khalaf didn’t comply, and kept its doors shut. It was because of that that all these passengers were killed, also on October 12, in the early morning.

A third video published on Telegram by Jarabulus News, at 5:34pm on October 12, shows a number of Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters around Hevrin Khalaf’s car which is peppered with bullet holes. Someone in civilian clothes is on the ground, apparently dead.


Later in the day, Kurdish journalist Ali Rizgar Dicle went to the place where these different acts of violence were committed. He filmed Khalaf’s bullet-riddled car, but did not find any corpses. In his video, you can see black patches on the ground, similar to those in the video posted on Telegram at 4:17pm, the one with the execution.

Rizgar Dicle explains, “We are in the village of Tirwazî, today is October 12, it’s around 4pm. After the invasion and the Turkish state incursion into the north of Syria, the Turkish state and its jihadists who had sleeper cells near here entered the village.”
 
Photos of the same car, published by another Kurdish journalist.

Using Rizgar Dicle’s report, the France 24 Observers team was able to find the exact location where each of these videos were shot, between Suluk and Tal Tamer, as Al Hareth Rabbah suggested.

 
The Syrian National Army’s response

The day before the violence, on October 11, the Syrian National Army had publicly told its fighters to “treat prisoners and civilian Arabs and Kurds well.”

On October 12, it launched a committee tasked with ensuring prisoners and civilians are respected. That day, the Jarabulus News Telegram channel also asked fighters “not to publish any video filmed during the battles because it distorts our reputation.”

On October 16, Ahrar al-Sharqiya published a video showing the two men in civilian clothes seen in the first video, to show they were still alive. No information was given about the man killed in the second video.

 
The United Nations warns of “war crime”

The UN has said that the actions revealed by the footage “may amount to a war crime.” According to the Geneva Conventions, of which Turkey is a signatory, prisoners of war “must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited.”
 
Other images show a fighter with his foot on a corpse

In addition to the videos filmed on October 12, there has been further evidence of Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s questionable activities as part of Operation Peace Spring.

One video shows two dead men on the ground, surrounded by blood. They are in civilian clothes, but one is wearing a military vest. A group of men in fatigues stand over them. One of them appears to take a wristwatch off one of the corpses. A man can be heard declaring that he is a member of the “Badr Martyrs’ Battalion”, and that he is with Ahrar al-Sharqiya.
 
Screenshots of the video.
 
The Badr Martyrs’ Battalion has fought with the Free Syrian Army, now the Syrian National Army, since 2012, and according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it has a history of torturing Kurdish civilians.

The person filming announces that the Badr Martyrs’ Battalion has taken the region of Suluk and killed four Kurdish fighters.

The video was published on October 2013 on the Jarabulus News Telegram channel, accompanied with five photos showing the same scene. In two of them, it is possible to identify the badges worn by a fighter that puts his foot on a corpse. On the left is the insignia of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, and on the right, the Syrian opposition flag, as it appears in the logo of the Syrian National Army.

According to VDC-NSY, a Syrian organisation that documents human rights violations, this incident happened in Suluk, around 20 kilometres southeast of Tal Abyad, on October 12, but we were not able to independently verify this information.
 
 
According to the VDC-NSY, a Syrian organisation that documents human rights violations, this incident happened in Suluk, around 20 kilometres southeast of Tal Abyad, on October 12, but we were not able to independently verify this information.
 

Article by Fatma Ben Hamad.