Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad: 4 years of rights violations

Introduction and methodology

Satellite images, photos, and testimonies gathered by the Monitoring and Documentation Department of North Press Agency show that civilian properties in Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tel Abyad have been looted, seized, set on fire, and destroyed since Oct. 9, 2019, when Turkish forces invaded the two cities, along with their affiliated opposition factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA). These actions have resulted in the forced displacement of over 300,000 people, the killing and injuring of dozens of civilians, and the loss of homes, lands and properties for hundreds of thousands of original inhabitants in both regions. They are now scattered in camps, schools, villages, and cities in northeastern Syria, in the areas held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The military operation has resulted in the destruction and seizure of properties, forced displacement, and the settlement of people from outside the region, in order to bring about demographic change. Instead of facilitating the return of forcibly displaced residents to their areas, SNA factions have violated, arrested, and tortured the returning residents. These acts represent clear racial discrimination, constituting a grave violation of international humanitarian law, and a crime against humanity under international criminal law. Turkey is also implementing a Turkification policy, which is done by marginalizing the region’s original customs and traditions.

In the preparation of this report, the Monitoring and Documentation Department of North Press conducted interviews with 21 individuals over a period of two months, from August 1 to October 1. The interviews were conducted either in person or online and involved IDPs from Sere kaniye and Tel Abyad, whose properties were seized. In addition, interviews were conducted with individuals who were detained and subjected to torture when they attempted to return and check on their properties. The report also includes interviews with activists and human rights defenders from the two cities, in addition to testimonies from the past four years that have already been published on the agency’s website. It is worth noting that the report does not include all 42 testimonies collected from the residents of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad.

The names mentioned in the report are pseudonyms, used to protect individuals from any retaliatory actions that may target them or their properties.

Properties seizure and vandalism

After taking control of Sere Kaniye, SNA factions started seizing residents’ homes, shops, and farmlands and divided them among themselves. They demolished and burned a number of these properties, and looted vital facilities such as schools, health centers, wheat silos, and others. The factions also transformed several schools into military posts, police stations, and prisons. In addition, they forced many residents to relinquish their properties. These practices constitute a clear and blatant violation of economic, social, and cultural rights and rise to the level of crimes against humanity due to their widespread nature.

‘We left everything behind, to save our lives’

“The Turkish-backed SNA factions burned my house along with everything in it after they entered Sere Kaniye. I saw pictures showing how my lifelong home turned into ashes,” said Fatima Muhammad, a 70-year-old woman who lost her eyesight due to continuous weeping for her home. She now lives alone in tragic conditions in the Newroz camp in northeastern Syria.

She added, “I would never have left my house. My sons forced me to do so fearing for my life.”

Omar Issa, a 60-year-old IDP from Tel Abyad who resides in Tel al-Samen camp in Raqqa, said, “I owned 40 irrigated hectares land and a house. We came to this camp and found ourselves living in tragic conditions. We couldn’t stay there [in Tel Abyad], nor could we return. We see the remaining people stuck there living in darkness.”

It is a different story for Salah Ibrahim, a 40-year-old IDP from Sere Kaniye who now resides in the city of Qamishli. He attempted to return to his hometown to check on his properties and was arrested and tortured. He said, “After the situation calmed down and the shelling stopped in the city, I wanted to check on my properties and bring the goods in my shop to Qamishli so that I could support my family. Instead, I was arrested and tortured for a week without any charges being brought against me. I was released after my family paid a ransom of $5,000 to the [SNA faction of] Mutasim Brigade.”

Samer Musa, 70, a Christian who used to live in al-Mahatta neighborhood in Sere Kaniye, said that he had owned a shop in the industrial area with goods and car parts worth of $7,000 inside, adding that they had been which were looted by SNA factions in 2019. “The merchandise stolen from my shop in Sere Kaniye was everything I had.” The seventy-year-old man now lives with his family in Qamishli city and has entrusted his properties in Sere Kaniye to one of his relatives.

Similarly, Amal al-Sayed, from the city of Sere Kaniye, said that her family owned farmlands of almost 400 hectares, supported by sulfur water wells distributed in three sites: the villages of Tel Manda, Abdul Salamah, and Nofaliyah. Furthermore, they owned four villas with their furniture. “The armed factions left us with nothing. They seized everything, including houses, lands, and agricultural machinery, as well as tons of barley and olives that were prepared for sale. They even took my brother’s poultry shed.”

The woman, who currently resides in a European country, stated, “They displaced us from our homes, scattered us, and seized our properties which are worth billions of Syrian pounds. I pray that God does not bless them with it.”

The situation is not different for Roj Ahmad, a resident of Sere Kaniye who also lives in a European country. “From the first day, we left our house and everything behind to save our lives. We were informed by our neighbors who stayed there that armed factions took over our house and destroyed all the furniture in it, and siezed several shops that we owned.”

Sawsan Salem, a resident of Sere Kaniye, said, “A member of [SNA’s] Ahrar al-Sharqiya seized our house and moved his family into it. As far as we know, they sold many of our belongings and furniture. We don’t know the status of our personal belongings and identity documents that were left there.”

The violations of SNA factions went further than seizing and looting properties, and terrorizing the population to prevent their return to their hometowns. With the support of Turkey, these factions sought to change the features of both cities in terms of culture, society, civil affairs, politics, and economics.

Strange flags flutter in our home

“The city’s features have changed. Strangers roam in every corner of our city without accountability,” Mustafa Waleed, a 40-year-old resident of Sere Kaniye, stated in his testimony to North Press in 2020.

The 40-year-old man said then that he chose to stay in his city to preserve his home and belongings, unaware of the extent of the violations he would later witness. “The city has become a Turkish province, with all institutions displaying pictures of Kemal Ataturk [the founder of the Turkish Republic] and Turkish flags. The Turkish language is taught in schools before Arabic, while the Kurdish language is completely banned.”

Images published by Turkish media platforms and SNA factions depict a transformation in the city, reflecting a significant Turkish influence. This can be observed through the presence of bilingual Arabic and Turkish signs as well as pictures featuring both the current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Ataturk, displayed within institutions.

Waleed further stated, “The looting has not stopped inside and outside the city, but extended to include livestock, circuit breakers and anything they can catch.”

Moreover, he mentioned that “the charge for arresting any person is ready to anyone who opposes or stands in their way, which is dealing with the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF].”

Muhammad Hajou, a member of the AANES-affiliated Sere Kaniye Displaced People Committee, said, “Turkish-backed factions have committed criminal acts against the people of the Sere Kaniye, aiming to sever the region’s ties and bring about demographic change. After emptying the region from its original inhabitants, the factions’ members and their families settled in. More than 70 percent of the population of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad were forcibly displaced, and their properties were looted and seized.”

Shahin Esmat, a lawyer from Sere Kaniye, stated, “They launched an aggression on Sere Kaniye and used internationally banned weapons such as phosphorus. They committed all kinds of heinous violations and crimes which are punishable under international law and the Rome Statute. They continue to commit these crimes in front of the international community, which has not taken any action so far.”

The lawyer highlighted that the SNA factions operate under the directives of Turkish authorities, functioning as mere tools to execute Turkey’s agenda of demographic change. He urged the international community to ensure a safe return for the residents and put an end to Turkey’s and the factions’ control over the occupied areas. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of holding the perpetrators accountable for their continuous violations since assuming control over the region under the pretext of establishing security and peace, which have unfortunately been absent from the region since then.

Evidence of transforming villages and towns

The demographic change and violations committed by Turkey and its affiliated SNA factions appear in satellite images of five sites that were significantly changed, either in order to transform them into vital bases for the Turkish forces or military sites for SNA factions.

  • Turkish authorities transformed the village of al-Dawoudiyeh (also known as Malla Selman) into a military base after bulldozing a number of houses and trees.

A satellite image for the al-Dawoudiyeh village near the city of Sere Kaniye before bulldozing houses in 2019.

A satellite image for the al-Dawoudiyeh village after bulldozing houses and turning them into military posts.

  • The village of Sharakrak near the city of Tel Abyad. Turkish forces bulldozed many houses in the village after taking control of it.

A satellite image for the village of Sharakrak before bulldozing houses in 2019.

A satellite image for Sharakrak after bulldozing houses in 2019.

  • The village of Bab al-Faraj: Turkish authorities transformed the village of Bab al-Faraj near the city of Sere Kaniye into a military base.

A satellite image for the village of Bab al-Faraj before transforming it into a military base in 2019.

A satellite image near the village of Bab al-Faraj after turning it into a military base in 2019.

  • The village of Jan Tamr: SNA factions, supported by Turkish forces, took control of the once Yazidi-majority village of Jan Tamr. They turned its school into a military post.

A satellite image for Jan Tamr in 2019 before being transformed.

A satellite image for Jan Tamr in 2019 after being transformed.

Is what is happening is some form of apartheid?

Testimonies and satellite images included in the report showcase blatant human rights violations in the cities of Sere Knaiye and Tel Abyad that rise to the level of apartheid. Most of the violations committed in these areas have shown discrimination based on ethnic grounds, as well as persecution of individuals based on their ideological and political beliefs.

According to multiple reports from journalists and human rights organizations, Turkey and its allied SNA factions have been involved in a series of human rights violations, including the seizure of properties belonging to Kurdish residents, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, and the imposition of restrictions on the local population, depriving them of their right to return to their homes. These actions, which also encompass enforced disappearances, torture, and the suppression of political, civil, cultural, and social freedoms, particularly targeting the Kurdish population, meet the criteria for the crime of apartheid under international law. Such actions are considered crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Legal framework

Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” However, dozens of human rights and media reports on property violations in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad have been published without receiving sufficient attention from the international community, which should uphold the customary international humanitarian law, particularly Rule 133 which states that “property rights of displaced persons must be respected.”

Moreover, both Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Rule 52 of the customary international humanitarian law state that in armed conflicts “pillage is prohibited.” Nowadays, IDPs hesitate to return to their homes despite being close due to concerns for their safety, and freedom, if they attempt to reclaim their possessions. Perpetrators can evade punishment with ease in the absence of oversight and accountability, which poses a significant challenge to the ability of international and humanitarian organizations to protect civilians’ rights.

It is the responsibility of the authorities responsible for the displacement of civilians, regardless of who they are, to allow for safe return and create conditions to facilitate this in line with Rule 132 of the customary international humanitarian law which states, “Displaced persons have a right to voluntary return in safety to their homes or places of habitual residence as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist.” However, civilians fleeing from conflicts have been exposed to various forms of human rights violations, including the seizure of their homes, shops, and farmlands. They have been left alone, struggling to find suitable housing or work to provide for their families.

Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulates that states parties must ensure the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State.” Thus, Turkey, for being a state that signed on this agreement, must fulfill its duty in preserving residents’ rights to their properties by bringing perpetrators to justice. However, what we are witnessing is the exact opposite, as Turkey does not lift a finger regarding the ongoing violations against properties of these areas’ residents, particularly Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Rather, in many occasions, it has helped these factions to commit these violations.

According to the international humanitarian law, internally displaced people are “those who have been forced or obliged to leave their homes behind, notably for reasons related to armed conflict or other violence, and who remain within the borders of their country.” IDPs do not receive the same protection as refugees under international law because they have not crossed the borders of their own country. However, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other international governmental and non-governmental organizations can play a better role in assessing the situation of IDPs who have lost their property or fear returning. They are facing difficult living conditions in camps and a lack of adequate housing.

Serious and deliberate violations have affected archaeological and cultural sites, resulting in partial destruction. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict called for the commitment of all parties in international conflicts to protect the cultural heritage of peoples. In its second protocol of 1999, it prohibited “theft, pillage or misappropriation of, or acts of vandalism directed against cultural property protected under the Convention.”


  • International fact-finding committees should be sent to Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad to investigate and document property violations in cooperation with human rights organizations. The controlling factions should be compelled to return properties to their rightful owners.
  • The international community, through UN agencies and under the international criminal law, should hold accountable individuals and leaders of SNA factions involved in human rights violations.
  • The UN’s Economic and Social Council and Human Rights Council should address property violations in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad and pay more attention to this issue. They should pressure the responsible authorities to respect the property rights of IDPs and allow them to safely return to their homes.
  • The international community must issue a resolution from the United Nations General Assembly that condemns what is happening in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad and recognize it as an element of the crime of apartheid. The resolution should also hold perpetrators accountable.
  • The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other international organizations should assess the situation of IDPs and provide the necessary support to them.
  • The Turkish state must take responsibility for preventing property rights violations in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad and exert pressure on SNA factions to halt these acts.