The commander of an active armed Syrian rebel group that is reported to be involved in numerous human rights violations and is accused by the United Nations of committing possible war crimes has graduated from a university in Turkey, the Bianet news website reported on Thursday.
Tajammu Ahrar al-Sharqiya (Gathering of Free Men of the East), commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, was founded in 2016 by individuals exiled and displaced mostly from Deir ez-Zor and other eastern provinces by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian government due to fighting that took place there between 2011 and 2014.
Many fighters in Ahrar al-Sharqiya are former al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham members. The Turkish-backed rebel group is accused of integrating many former ISIL members into its ranks.
According to Bianet, Abu Hatem Shaqra, an Ahrar al-Sharqiya commander who is registered at a university in southeastern Turkey under the name of Ahmad Ihsan Fayyad al-Hayes, has recently completed his course of study and attended the school’s graduation ceremony.
Shaqra reportedly graduated from Mardin Artuklu University’s department of political science and international relations.
In photos of the graduation ceremony that took place earlier this week, Shaqra is seen wearing a gown with the name “Ahmed al-Hayes” written in Arabic and holding the flag of the Syrian National Army, formerly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a large group of people during the ceremony.
A Facebook user claiming to be Shaqra’s cousin also shared photos of him from the ceremony.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya is accused of executing a number of people, including Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, and secretary general of the Future Syria political party in October 2019.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights identified these two murders as a “possible war crime,” and the US Treasury sanctioned two leaders of the group, Shaqra and Jassim Al-Hayes (Abu Jaafer Shaqra), under Executive Order 13894 in July 2021.
According to Treasury, Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture and seizure of private property, in addition to incorporating former ISIL members into its ranks.
According to Bianet, research by BBC Arabic titled “The murder of a Syrian pacifist” revealed that there was convincing evidence that Khalaf was killed during “Operation Peace Spring,” launched by the Turkish army on Oct. 9, 2019 to remove the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the northern Syrian region bordering Turkey. However, Ahrar al-Sharqiya denies responsibility for the killing of Khalaf.
On November 23, 2020, Shaqra was observed participating in a meeting of the Turkish-backed National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, commonly known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
In February 2019 Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s Twitter account posted a photograph showing Shaqra receiving an award from the Turkish-backed local security forces in Raco, Afrin province.
Bianet cited a report released in July 2018 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) which said that certain organizations, including members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, have been implicated in the looting of people’s properties.
Amnesty International stated that the organization has been kidnapping people and making arbitrary arrests and looting, according to Bianet.
One of the allegations about Ahrar al-Sharqiya is that the group has constructed a large prison complex outside Aleppo where hundreds of people have been executed since 2018. It is claimed that they target prominent business and opposition figures in Idlib and Aleppo provinces and demand ransoms from their families.