The Biden administration has imposed human rights sanctions on the Hamza Division, a formerly U.S.-backed rebel group in Syria that now fights against Kurds alongside the Turkish army. The sanctions, announced last week, also apply to the Suleiman Shah Brigade, a Turkish-backed militia whose leader has ties to CIA-backed rebels.
The two militias are accused of crimes including pillage, rape, kidnapping, and torture in Afrin, a Kurdish-majority district of Syria.
The Syrian Interim Government, which represents the two militias, said in a statement that the sanctions were “a result of deliberate defamation campaigns…based on reports issued by non-neutral organizations.” It claimed to be investigating any allegations of abuse internally. Militia members reportedly held a rally in Afrin and shouted, “may America fall and may Biden fall!”
In the space of a decade, Washington has gone from training the Hamza Division to blacklisting it. The sanctions are also part of a mixed message to U.S. ally Turkey. Less than a month ago, the U.S. State Department had denied that Turkey was committing ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds. Now the Biden administration is targeting the Hamza Division and the Suleiman Shah Brigade, both of which have a close relationship to the Turkish intelligence services.
The United States first levied sanctions against one Turkish backed militia in 2021. However, those sanctions targeted Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a group that had never received U.S. support and had a notoriously bad relationship with American troops. The Hamza Division and Suleiman Shah Brigade, on the other hand, have a long history of cooperation with Washington.
The U.S. military had once provided training and $8.8 million in cash to the Hamza Division, as part of an effort to enlist Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State. Hamza Division leader Sayf Abu Bakr and Suleiman Shah Brigade founder Mohammad Abu Amsha had both moved through the ranks of rebel groups that received American weapons through a parallel CIA program to undermine the Syrian government.
U.S. support for the Syrian uprising dried up during the Trump administration. In the years since, some rebels have gone from trusted U.S. partners to “thugs, bandits and pirates” in the eyes of U.S. officials.
In early 2018, the Turkish military recruited several Syrian rebel groups to participate in the invasion of Afrin, a Kurdish-majority district of Syria. Turkey launched a second invasion of Syria in October 2019, using the same Syrian militias to once again take territory from Kurdish-led rebels.
The Trump administration had publicly shrugged its shoulders at Turkey’s 2018 invasion, and initially gave a green light to the 2019 invasion. After members of Congress accused the Trump administration of “betraying” the Kurds — who had also received U.S. military support — the White House helped negotiate a ceasefire.
The Turkish military stayed in the areas it had conquered. So did the Hamza Division, the Suleiman Shah Brigade, and Ahrar al-Sharqiya, who have all earned a reputation for brutality against Kurdish civilians. These militias reportedly extort civilians, pillage property, kidnap women, and commit sexual abuses. Abu Amsha, leader of the Suleiman Shah Brigade, is accused of raping one of his subordinates’ wives.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the purpose of the occupation clear. At the outset of the 2018 invasion, he declared that Kurds are an alien presence in Afrin, which must be given back to its “rightful owners.” Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2019, he held up a map of Syria and laid out a plan to resettle 1 to 2 million refugees — mostly non-Kurds — in Kurdish-majority areas.
The Suleiman Shah Brigade has “been directed to forcibly displace Kurdish residents and seize their property, providing vacated homes for Syrians from outside the region who are often related to fighters in the brigade,” according to the Biden administration’s sanctions announcement, which does not specify that the orders came from Turkey or Erdoğan.
“The Afrin region of Syria is largely controlled by a patchwork of armed groups, many of which use violence to control the movement of goods and people in their respective territories,” the announcement said. “These armed groups have exacerbated the suffering caused by years of civil war in northern Syria and hindered the region’s recovery by engaging in serious human rights abuses against vulnerable populations.”
Some of the most infamous abuses have been revealed due to conflict between the militias. In May 2020, a standoff between rival militias led to the discovery of a secret Hamza Division prison for kidnapped women. In March 2023, militiamen gunned down a Kurdish family at a Nowruz picnic, and rival rebels threatened to take over Afrin unless justice was served.
Despite the infighting among Turkey’s collaborators, the Turkish military continues to play a “hands-on role” in Afrin in order to “maintain Turkish dominance,” according to a 2023 paper by researcher Alexander McKeever. Eyewitnesses even told a UN commission that Turkish officers were in the room while Syrian militia members tortured their prisoners.
The militias have also expanded their activities worldwide under Turkish patronage. Syrian fighters have served as mercenaries in Karabakh and Libya, flown to the battlefield on Turkish planes. The Hamza Division and Sultan Murad Division, another formerly CIA-backed unit, both allegedly recruited child soldiers to fight in those conflicts.
The U.S. State Department publicly rebuked Turkey in 2021 for the child soldier recruitment. A few weeks later, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against Ahrar al-Sharqiya for abuses against Kurdish civilians.
This time around, the Biden administration is not pointing the finger at the Turkish government. U.S.-Turkish relations have warmed in recent months, as the West courts Turkey’s support against Russia. The White House is also looking to sell F-16 fighter jets to the Turkish military.
Several weeks ago, a journalist asked State Department spokesman Matthew Miller whether Turkey was trying to “change the demographic [balance] in Afrin.” Miller denied that any ethnic cleansing was in process, and instead praised Turkey for its generosity to refugees.
“Let me again thank [Turkey] and its host communities for generously supporting nearly 3.7 million refugees, 3.3 million of whom are Syrians who have sought refuge from a brutal conflict,” Miller said. “We believe the rights of all Syrians should be respected, including the housing, land, and property rights of those remaining in Syria and those who have been displaced. We encourage all parties to act in a manner that promotes peaceful coexistence and the respect of human rights.”