Graduation ceremony of the Syrian National Army’s Suleiman Shah Brigade, July 7, 2021 (Storm News Agency)

The US has sanctioned two Turkish-backed Syrian militias, saying that they are forcibly displacing and oppressing the local Kurdish population in northwest Syria.

The US Treasury said the Suleiman Shah Brigade and Hamza Division 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”.

Turkey and allied militias overran Afrin, one of three Kurdish cantons, in early 2018. Claiming that Syrian Kurdish groups are linked with the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, Ankara launched a cross-border offensive into the other Kurdish cantons — Kobani and Cezire — in north and northeast Syria in October 2019, seizing a strip along the border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has maintained the threat of further operations, demanding the dissolution of an autonomous Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).

Both sanctioned militias fought with the anti-Assad Syrian National Army, formerly known as the Free Syrian Army. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, as well as the US State Department, have documented violations of human rights by the SNA against Kurdish, Yazidi, and other civilians.

In its statement, the Treasury said the Suleiman Shah Brigade had subjected Afrin’s Kurdish population to harassment, abduction, and other abuses to force them to vacate their homes or pay large ransoms for the return of their property and family members.

The Brigade’s leader, Mohammad Hussein al-Jasim, was also cited. The Treasury said his kidnapping plan likely generated tens of millions of dollars per year in ransom payments. He is also accused of raping the wife of a Brigade member.

The Treasury blacklisted Al-Safir Oto, an Istanbul-based car dealership with multiple locations owned by al-Jasim. His younger brother Walid Hussein al-Jasim, a senior member of the Brigade, is sanctioned over accusations of coordinating abductions, muggings, and ransoms.

The Treasury said the Hamza Division and its leader Sayf Boulad Abu Bakr have been involved in abductions, theft of property, and torture. It allegedly oversees detention facilities where victims have been held for ransom and sexually abused by fighters.

The Biden Administration sanctioned another SNA faction, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, and two of its leaders in July 2021. The Treasury pointed to the group’s 2019 roadside execution of female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf and its alleged recruitment of former Islamic State members.