The story of Malak Khalil Ibo, an elderly Kurdish woman from Afrin in northwestern Syria, reflects the generational trauma for the inhabitants of the region. Malak was one of more than 100,000 Kurdish people forcibly displaced in the 2018 Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

The systematic violations that displaced Malak and her community, as documented by my organization, Syrians for Truth and Justice, as well as others, follow a history of forced demographic change in northern Syria. They echo the Syrian Baath Party’s “Arab Belt” project in the 1970s, when Arab families displaced from Raqqa by a dam project were resettled in “model villages” built on land seized from the area’s majority-Kurdish population.

After Malak was pushed out of her home, she lived in camps north of Aleppo before returning to her village in 2021. Upon her return, she discovered that militants from one of the Turkish-backed militias operating in the area had settled in her family home. They refused to return her property on the pretext that she was a non-mahram — an unaccompanied woman.

Malak did not accept this. Without access to legal recourse, she resumed taking care of the olive trees that her family had grown on their land. When harvest time came in 2023, the leader of the Islamist Northern Hawk militia – the man who had illegally settled in her home — demanded a large cut of her harvest. Malak refused and, in the growing psychological pressure caused by the situation, she suffered a stroke and died. Her last will was for her coffin to be borne through her house, so that she could finally return to the home that was taken from her. A video in November 2023 shows the coffin being carried up a flight of outside stairs to the balcony of the house.

Human Rights Violations Continue with Impunity

Turkey is one of many foreign powers involved directly in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Ankara’s focus is on northern Syria, just across its border, where the Turkish military has staged multiple incursions since 2016. In operation “Olive Branch” in 2018, the Turkish military and its militia proxy groups seized Afrin in northern Syria, and they continue to hold de facto control.

Ankara alleges that its aim is to secure its border and dislodge fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, the targeting of Kurdish civilians—particularly by displacing them and seizing their homes and property which is frequently redistributed to displaced people from the rest of the country, mostly Arabs—speaks to a broader goal of the  “Arabization” of the region. Turkish President  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan indicated as much ahead of the January 2018 assault on Afrin, announcing that “We will return Afrin to its rightful owners.”

The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed in its September 2023 report (A/HRC/54/58) that violations have continued in northern Syria since Turkey’s invasion. It reported that “many of the victims of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment and torture were Kurdish,” and that Turkish agents were present in several detention centers in northern Syria, indicating that some of these violations may have been perpetrated with the knowledge of the Turkish authorities. This is exemplified by the latest Commission of Inquiry report, A/HRC/55/64,  underlining that “Where Turkish forces fail to intervene to stop such violations when made aware of them, they risk violating their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

Already in 2020, the Commission of Inquiry had confirmed “repeated and systematic patterns of looting and seizure of property” which it said were committed “on a large scale” in the regions of Afrin and Ras al-Ain. Not only that, but fighters from the Syrian National Army (tied to the Syrian opposition coalition) occupied the homes of Kurdish civilians and forced their occupants to flee the region.

The massive 7.8 magnitude that hit Syria and Turkey in February 2023 dramatically increased displacement and property loss in the region. All people in the region were affected, but Kurdish families whose homes had been destroyed faced increased risk of long-term displacement if they vacated their land. There are stories of families who set up tents in the ruins of their homes rather than moving to designated displacement camps that could provide shelter and more security and access to essential services. The families knew that leaving their land would risk losing it to seizure.

Multiple Perpetrators in Syria’s Housing, Land, and Property Violations

Attempts to force demographic change are not limited to any one actor in the Syrian conflict. Following the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s government enacted a set of laws to strengthen his control over specific regions by “systematically dispossessing groups or communities it considers a threat to its authority,” as documented by the Pax peace organization in The Netherlands. Law No. 10 of 2018 has been operationalized as a tool for arbitrarily seizing property, especially for that belonging to internally displaced people and refugees. Syrians for Truth and Justice determined that the law obligates rights holders “to declare property rights and submit supporting documents within a specified period,” a requirement that is not compatible with the reality that millions of displaced Syrian refugees live outside of their homes, without a timeline for when they may return.

Since its control of the Idlib Governorate in 2015, the militant group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front/Al-Qaeda) has assaulted the rights of Christians and Druze indigenous to the region, including by confiscating their property, preventing them from practicing their traditions, and forcing them to convert to Islam. Further, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in the northeast of the country was forced to repeal a law that sparked great controversy within Syrian circles; known as the “Protection and Management of Absentee Property,” the law allowed local authorities to seize the property of absent owners under the pretext of “protecting” it.

Sustainable Peace Depends on Equal Accountability for All Perpetrators

On filing a joint criminal complaint with Syrians for Truth and Justice, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights lawyer Patrick Krocker stated that “the atrocities committed by predominantly Islamist militias against the Kurdish population in northern Syria have so far been a blind spot” for the international justice system.

There have been many human rights investigations aiming to seek accountability for violations committed during the conflict in Syria. Some have successfully brought perpetrators to account, for example with the January 2022 conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer in Germany through universal jurisdiction. However, these investigations and cases have largely been limited to seeking accountability for violations committed by the Syrian regime. Unfortunately, the regime is not the only perpetrator in the Syrian conflict.

It is time to fill this gap and build a comprehensive, even-handed approach to international justice for violations committed in Syria. This would require paying equal heed to the violations against Kurdish victims in Afrin by Turkish-backed militias, in addition to those committed in other regions and by other actors.

Donors must help pursue justice and accountability for Kurdish victims as they do for other Syrian victims. Perpetrators — whatever their geopolitical affiliation — must be held responsible. The compass of justice should not be directed towards one party to the exclusion of all others.

IMAGE: A general view taken on April 26, 2018, shows Syrian walking along a damaged street in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin that Turkish-backed forces captured from Kurdish fighters in the months prior. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the assault on the Afrin region, whose small towns and villages were home to mostly Syrian Kurds. (Photo credit should read SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)