Expanding Syria Sanctions: The Case Against Abu Amsha
SJAC has consistently called on international policymakers to pursue targeted sanctions as a means of curtailing specific actors involved in the Syrian conflict. In an effort to continue targeting human rights violators, SJAC’s investigation team has delved deeper into specific patterns of violations in order to identify specific sources of criminality. One such pattern has emerged pertaining to violations committed in Afrin by Turkish-backed armed groups, specifically those committed by the Suleiman Shah Brigade in Sheikh Al-Hadid. The systematic nature of these violations warranted a closer look at the trail of criminality left behind by the brigade’s leader, Mohammad Al-Jassim, also known as Abu Amsha. Described as a “criminal and tyrant,” human rights observers have documented how Abu Amsha and his brigade are responsible for forcibly displacing Kurdish residents of Afrin, including by seizing their private property.
An open-source investigation conducted by SJAC’s investigative team has revealed the degree to which these practices have allowed Abu Amsha to pursue economic endeavors that generate revenue upwards of $30 million USD per year. SJAC is now calling on the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control to sanction Abu Amsha because of his role in ordering and overseeing human rights violations.
Funding the Operations
A major pillar of Abu Amsha’s wealth generation is trading pillaged olive oil. To capitalize on the bountiful olive trees in the area, Abu Amsha collects around $8 royalties per tree from landowners not affiliated with the SDF, in addition to taking 15% of their harvest. Individuals allegedly affiliated with the SDF are required to turn over all of their harvest to the brigade. In one area, a $250 royalty has been exacted per olive oil press from press owners, while in other areas, upwards of one-half of profits were taken from press owners. These fees finance the operations of the Suleiman Shah Brigade and personally enrich Abu Amsha and his followers. The brigade collected $15 million in fines during the first three years of its control over the area. As such, Afrin’s olives are both an incentive and reward for the dispossession of the area’s Kurdish residents.
The trade in pillaged olive oil links Abu Amsha and his brigade to institutions in Turkey by selling the olives to the Turkish Agricultural Credit Cooperative (ACC) via Syrian intermediaries, like Jobri Food. The ACC refines the oil and then sells it to Turkish exporters. The oil is exported worldwide under false labels that claim the product was made in Turkey. This is in addition to the royalties that Turkish officials levy on Syrian exporters trying to sell their product to Turkey, offering below-market prices for the product in coordination with the ACC. One exporter, Ali Gureli, admitted to the operation, noting that “we wouldn’t be able to export at this level without Afrin olives…” and that “Afrin’s olive oil has become Turkish produce.”
Extortion is also foundational to how Abu Amsha and his militia have accrued significant wealth. The brigade regularly conducts kidnappings and demands ransom payments between $1,000 - $25,000 from family members who are threatened if they do not comply. It also demands money for people’s homes. After forcibly acquiring them, the brigade compels owners to pay fees ranging from $3,000 - $10,000 to get their property back. These actions disproportionately target the area’s Kurdish population.
Abu Amsha’s abuses have been known for years, and yet efforts to hold him accountable have been futile so far. Residents of Sheikh Al-Hadid have filed nearly 60 lawsuits against him for a variety of alleged crimes, including rape, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, blackmail, extortion, and property seizure.
Additionally, a three-person committee associated with the Syrian Islamic Council claimed to have investigated violations by Abu Amsha and several of the brigade’s commanders. It should be noted that Abu Amsha was allegedly involved in the committee’s selection. The committee ultimately called for Abu Amsha’s dismissal and exiled him from the Olive Branch area in northern Aleppo for two hijra years. However, Abu Amsha has since attended several SNA events, a likely biproduct of Turkish pressure on his behalf.
Sanctioning Abu Amsha
Sanctioning Abu Amsha is a viable option for accountability given the absence of other effective remedies. International sanctions would be meaningful precisely because he has leveraged wealth acquired from pillage and extortion in Syria to invest in assets outside the country. Abu Amsha owns several businesses in Turkey as a result of his exploits in Syria, including restaurants, car dealerships, shipping companies, gold shops, and apartment buildings. He is also said to hold $65 million in Turkish banks which could be a leverage point should those accounts engage with international financial transactions connected to the US.
Although sanctions are not the definitive answer to the question of accountability for crimes committed in Syria, they are an effective tool for targeting specific perpetrators and curtailing ongoing violations. Therefore, identifying individuals who have capitalized on the plight of Syrians for their own financial gain, like Abu Amsha, must be a priority for OFAC—the U.S. office charged with tracking and seeking enforcement of U.S. economic sanctions—and the international community at large, despite the political intricacies of US-Turkish relations.
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