Mohammed Jassem speaks in a video uploaded Oct. 6, 2017. (YOUTUBE)
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters of the Sultan Murad Turkoman brigade are pictured during a military show in the Afrin region in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria's northern Aleppo province on Nov. 17, 2020. - BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images
During 17 days of captivity, Leila Mohammed Ahmed witnessed, helplessly, 10 young women take their own lives after being raped by members of the Sultan Murad Brigade, a Sunni rebel faction which operates under the banner of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). The 63-year-old Kurdish woman from Afrin, the majority Kurdish enclave in northern Syria that has been occupied by Turkish-backed forces since January 2018, relayed to Al-Monitor the suffering of her fellow detainees in a telephone interview. “Some used belts to hang themselves, some pens or other sharp objects which they jabbed in their throats. Then there were the poor girls who just banged their heads against the wall until they collapsed,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed’s story is not uncommon. Across Turkish-occupied territories, a pattern of violence and criminality has been established. Turkish-backed opposition groups that once were dedicated to political causes are accused by residents of becoming criminal syndicates that kidnap for money and exploit citizens’ resources for their own gain.
“There were around 150 of us. We were given a potato with half a loaf of Syrian bread twice a day, and beaten every night from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Each night the men would take away a few of the girls to defile them, saying, ‘We are taking you to the doctor.’ It was like a tradition,” Ahmed said of the detention facility in the SNA-occupied northern town of al-Rai, her voice swinging between grief and rage.
Ahmed was arrested because of her links to the Kurdish-led administration that formerly governed Afrin, a hilly, verdant region carpeted with olive groves and ancient ruins, before the Turkish army and its SNA allies captured Afrin in a bloody, two-month military campaign.
With the bulk of its Kurdish population forcibly displaced and reduced to minority status, Afrin stands as a grim testament to the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition’s shift from revolutionary zeal to unfettered greed and criminality — a laboratory for Turkey’s experiments in demographic engineering and cultural imperialism, underpinned by a determination to prevent Syria’s Kurds from establishing self-rule.
Turkey’s preening authority was on full display this week as the country’s hawkish interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, went to Afrin on the occasion of the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice holiday, or Eid al-Adha.
Photos of the tour posted on his Twitter feed showed Soylu at the Turkish special forces command center. Giant Turkish flags festooned the building and portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Ataturk hung on the wall.
Turkey’s “Peace Spring” invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in northeast Syria in October 2019 was greenlit by the Donald Trump administration and prompted a global outcry. SNA-affiliated brigades engaged in a litany of abuses, most memorably perhaps, the summary execution of Kurdish woman politician Hevrin Khalaf. She was pulled out of her car, shot dead, then beaten to pulp by members of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, a brigade under the SNA’s banner. Trump was denounced by politicians of both US parties as having betrayed America’s Kurdish allies who had heroically helped to defeat the Islamic State, and was pressured to rescind his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria.
No such uproar was heard when Turkey invaded Afrin on the grounds that the Kurdish administration running it was under the influence of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant group that is waging an armed campaign against Turkey. The United States has argued that Afrin was outside its control, rendering America powerless to act. Russia, which holds sway over the northwest, may have let Turkey invade Afrin in order to punish the Kurds over their refusal to sever ties with the United States and submit to the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Bassam al-Ahmed, a Syrian human rights activist and founder of Syrians for Truth and Justice, a nonprofit research outfit that is recording abuses by all parties in Syria’s decade-long conflict, told Al-Monitor, “Almost all the world was against Peace Spring. But with Afrin there was a huge silence. What is going on now in Afrin is a deep ethnic cleansing from which Turkey and the brigades profit financially as well.”
Leila Mohammed Ahmed is lucky. She was freed by Sultan Murad because “I was too old” and taken back to Afrin. Her home in the village of Matina is now occupied by a Syrian Arab with two wives and 10 children; they were bused in from the Syrian city of Homs as part of Turkey’s alleged drive to ethnically cleanse Afrin of its Kurdish population. A maze of stubs is all that remains of the 150 olive trees owned by her family. She has been living in regime-held Aleppo since 2019, having bribed her way out of Afrin for $350, a hefty sum in today’s pauperized Syria.
“About a week ago a friend of mine who was being held in al-Rai came back and told me there is a large number of women and girls still in the jail,” she said.
Her account is consistent with the panoply of abuses documented in Afrin and other territories occupied by Turkish-backed SNA brigades, including rape, kidnappings, ethnic cleansing and recruiting child soldiers for Turkey’s forays in Libya and Azerbaijan.
The violations these brigades engage in — from looting, to imposing “taxes” on original Kurdish inhabitants or recent Arab arrivals in the Turkish-occupied zones — are increasingly linked by a common motive: profit. Brigade commanders use the money garnered from these illicit activities to invest in property and other lucrative projects in both Turkey and rebel-held northwest Syria.
In a March report, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic said, “After the capture of Afrin, declared in 2018 … a security vacuum emerged, creating a permissive environment for fighters to engage in abduction, hostage taking and extortion.” The report noted that similar patterns, “albeit to a lesser extent,” were observed in and around the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad following Operation Peace Spring, “mostly affecting returnees of Kurdish origin, including women.”
“While detained, Kurdish (and on occasion, Yazidi) women were also raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence, including degrading and humiliating acts, threats of rape, performance of ‘virginity tests,’ or the dissemination of photographs or video material showing the female detainee being abused,” the report added.
Meghan Bodette, a Washington-based researcher and founder of “The Missing Afrin Women Project,” says she has documented 135 cases of women who are still missing out of 228 cases in total of reported kidnappings. She said 91 women are reported to have been released, while two were reportedly killed in custody. “From speaking to survivors directly and reading other testimonies, I assess that the real number of kidnappings and disappearances is likely higher than we know, due to the difficulties and dangers of reporting these abuses and Turkey’s refusal to allow independent media and human rights organizations access to the area,” Bodette told Al-Monitor.
On the rare occasion that Turkey did allow an international media outlet into Afrin, the result was an embarrassing whitewash. In its Feb. 16 piece, The New York Times said, “Turkey has become the only international force on the ground protecting some five million displaced and vulnerable civilians. Today, the Turkish soldiers are all that stand between them and potential slaughter at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and those of his Russian allies.”
There was no mention of atrocities committed by Turkey’s rebel proteges. The Syrian Kurds were aghast.
Sinam Mohammed, the Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, a political body overseeing the US-protected Kurdish administration in northeast Syria, said, “I was deeply upset that The New York Times was giving a very beautiful image about the people in Afrin who are committing crimes there. It was fake news showing that everything is good.”
Mohammed told Al-Monitor, “I know what is going on there. Daily they are committing abuses. Raping girls. Torturing men to death. Changing the demography.” Mohammed’s family home in Afrin has been usurped, her husband’s factories stripped of their machines and left to rot. “I and many members of the Kurdish community wrote to The New York Times. They never answered,” Mohamed said.
The UN and various rights groups say the abuses committed by the SNA-affiliated factions amount to war crimes. Yet, according to more than a dozen Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian Arab sources interviewed by Al-Monitor, the pillage and plunder persists, with several warlords getting fatter on the profits by the day. Turkish individuals with ties to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) allegedly share in the spoils.
Bassam Ahmed of Syrians for Truth and Justice said, “If they didn’t know they are protected by Turkey they would never be able to do these things. Most of the top brigade commanders have Turkish nationality.”
Turkey denies the allegations. However, in a rare move, a military court of Syria's opposition so-called interim government sentenced a member of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah over the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, according to the UN.
It’s not just Kurds who are being targeted — Syrian Arabs brought into Afrin from East Ghouta after it fell to regime control are subjected to some of the same abuses. A resident who arrived in Afrin in the spring of 2018 paints a grim picture of the once-tranquil city. He told Al-Monitor, “I was renting a house from a Kurdish person, but the brigade in control of the area kicked me out, as well as the house owner, and confiscated the house under the pretext that the house owner was in the PKK.” The offending brigade was Ahrar al-Sharqiyah. “This happened to dozens of families from East Ghouta, who were kicked out of their homes by Ahrar al-Sharqiyah,” he said.
A Turkish researcher with deep knowledge of the SNA factions, who has traveled to Afrin several times, told Al-Monitor, “Afrin was divided up between the various brigades as spoils of war and they established mutually agreed zones and borders among themselves. They usurp property then sell it back to the original owner. None of it is legal or just,” the researcher said, on condition that he not be identified by name for fear of retribution from Turkish authorities.
The Afrin resident said, “Every neighborhood has its own brigade. The Mahmoudiya neighborhood, for example, contains 10 smaller neighborhoods, and each smaller neighborhood has a brigade in charge. Civilians who have no support from a given brigade, their property is as good as gone.”
He continued, “If you come to Afrin, as soon as you walk around you’ll be sure that only the force of arms rules this area. There’s a terrible phenomenon, the spread of stores that sell weapons. Wherever you walk, you’ll find ‘Hunter’s Gun Store,’ ‘So and So’s Gun Shop.’ It’s a really ugly sight.”
The Turkish researcher contended that the Turkish government is seeking to impose law and order in Afrin. However, the office of governor of Hatay, which administers the occupation of Afrin, securing basic services and overseeing reconstruction, has had little impact. “They seem either unwilling or unable to control the brigades,” he said. “Turkey’s main focus is on its own security,” he added.
This includes staving off sporadic attacks by the Afrin Liberation Forces, a PKK offshoot, which is waging a low-intensity insurgency to drive out Turkish and opposition forces, to little effect. Attacks attributed to this group and its affiliates, including the bombing of a popular market in central Afrin, have claimed civilian as well as soldiers’ lives.
Lay off my stash
On May 21, Turkey’s security seemed to be threatened by the very same SNA-linked factions that rely on its support, when hundreds of their alleged members breached a gap in the concrete border wall separating Turkey from Syria. They poured in from Atmeh, a giant camp for displaced Syrians, and attacked a Turkish border post manned by gendarmerie forces in Hatay’s Reyhanli district. Local villagers cited by the Turkish independent online news outlet, Duvar, said the Syrians set fire to their wheat crops and olive trees. One of the villagers said, “The [gendarmerie] station came under a hail of gunfire. Was it a Molotov cocktail or something else, I don’t know but one of them threw an explosive. Had it not been for the concrete wall all of the soldiers there would have died.” Images of people running, with clouds of smoke and a bright orange flame rising near the gendarmerie watch tower, appeared to corroborate the claims.
The villagers said they did not know what had prompted the attack. However, Umit Ozdag, an independent lawmaker in the Turkish parliament, suggested in a tweet a week later that it was linked to the May 15 seizure at Hatay’s Iskendurun port of more than a ton of Captagon pills, a stimulant drug, with a street value worth $37 million. Turkish police said the pills were destined for the United Arab Emirates and had been concealed in bricks.
Ozdag, a vigorous advocate of expelling Turkey’s estimated 4 million Syrian refugees, tweeted, “The Syrians rose up in Reyhanli. A Turkish border post was raided. The soldiers withdrew to avert a confrontation. Weapons were stolen from the border post. The reason for the eruption of the events was the narcotics operation in Iskenderun. The Syrian mafia is saying, ‘Lay off my property.’ Enough.”
Turkish officials offered no explanation.
Sefik Cirkin, a seasoned nationalist politician from Hatay and a member of the center-right opposition Iyi or “Good” Party, told Al-Monitor, “Regretfully, I can say that this story is true. One hundred percent.” Cirkin declined to elaborate. Ozdag did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.
Numerous other drug seizures were reported this year in Hatay, most recently in July when a cargo vessel carrying 117 kilograms (258 pounds) of cocaine was apprehended off the coast of Iskenderun. In several cases, arrests were made. But the identities and the nationalities of the suspects were not revealed. No arrests have been announced by Turkish authorities in relation to the May 15 seizure.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a doctoral student at Princeton University and a fellow at the Newlines Institute, a think tank in Washington, is counted among the leading experts on the Syrian opposition. Tsurkov told Al-Monitor, “Several Syrian factions in areas under Turkish control are involved in the drug trade.”
Tsurkov noted however that Atmeh is under the control of Hayat Tahrir Sham, the militant group that governs Idlib and is at odds with many of the the SNA factions.
Meet Abu Amsha
Mohammed Jassem is the Afrin-based commander of the SNA-affiliated Sultan Suleiman Shah brigade, named after one of the founders of the Ottoman Empire whose remains are buried in northern Syria. Jassem, or “Abu Amsha” as he is better known, is a prime example for the northwest Syria war profiteering game. The Suleiman Shah brigade, commonly referred to as the “Amshat” after their leader, has been implicated in rights abuses in Afrin, including abductions, ethnic cleansing and forcing olive farmers to pay the brigade a cut of their harvest.
Jassem’s Twitter feed reads like a pledge of fealty to Turkey and its latter-day sultan, Erdogan. There are tributes to assorted Turkish ultra-nationalists, condolences for Turkey’s interior minister over the loss of his mom (who died at age 75 of heart failure in March) and vows to pursue the “dogs” of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are “really PKK.” Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation against Afrin and the ensuing “Peace Spring” operation rest on that logic — that the SDF is “the same” as the PKK.
Parroting Turkey’s talking points on the PKK — and Erdogan’s Islam-tinged nationalist rhetoric — has served as useful cover for Jassem as he expands a mini-fiefdom out of Afrin’s Sheikh Hadeed area, which he took over after helping Turkey wrest control of the enclave.
A Sultan Suleiman Shah militant speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “When the opposition factions took control of Afrin, the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division took over the Sheikh Hadeed area and set up its command center there. The division commander, Abu Amsha, doesn’t take orders from the Syrian National Army or the Ministry of Defense [of the Syrian opposition’s interim government based in Istanbul], he directly coordinates with Turkish intelligence.”
Rights groups assert the factions have aided Turkey’s security apparatus in illegally transferring hundreds of Syrian Arabs and Kurds accused of working for the PKK from Turkish occupied areas to Turkey. Factions routinely wield the threat of rendition to extract large sums, and those who are unable to pay are handed over to Turkey, as previously reported by Al-Monitor.
Jassem’s newfound prosperity comes from multiple sources. Control over checkpoints that charge transit fees for commercial vehicles is one. Olive oil is another. The Sultan Suleiman Shah militant explained, “In the beginning, the Sultan Suleiman Shah faction in Afrin operated like other factions in the region. It cut and sold olive trees, but it recently changed its strategy. The faction members started growing olives on confiscated land from those accused of being loyal to the SDF. They then imposed an income tax of 25% percent to 50% on landowners.” The militant continued, “However, logging has not yet stopped as brigade members cut down trees and sell them to take advantage of their price. The faction’s leadership allows members to individually benefit from a small margin of profit in order to guarantee their loyalty.”
In Turkey, the state Agricultural Credit Cooperative buys the olive oil from the brigades through intermediaries then sells it to Turkish producers who export to Europe and the United States.
The illicit trade has been amply documented.
“Had it not been for the Afrin olives we could not have achieved this level of exports,” Turkish oil exporter Ali Nedim Gureli told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Turkish language service. “In the old days, this product used to come illegally from Afrin and be sold to producers. Now the sales are being done by the state. Now the majority of Afrin’s estimated [annual production of] 30,000 tons of olive oil comes to Turkey. Afrin’s olive oil has become Turkish produce,” he crowed.
Not all Turkish producers are as pleased. According to Cirkin, the nationalist politician, a fair share of Afrin olive oil winds up getting sold locally, well below market prices through elaborate schemes. “I told the [Hatay] governor Afrin olive oil is being smuggled and sold here. I said ‘Do something. Producers are hurt.’ Nothing was done.”
Turkey’s attempts to paint a veneer of legitimacy on the olive oil trade by routing it through the Agricultural Credit Cooperatives leave international jurists unimpressed. “International law provides a number of protections to those living in occupied territory such as those living in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Their real and personal property is protected by the Geneva Conventions,” said Roger Lu Phillips, an international lawyer and legal director for Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre, a Washington based nonprofit documenting war crimes in Syria.
“Most importantly,” Phillips added, “It is contrary to international law for an occupying power to requisition foodstuffs, particularly where the civilian population is suffering from food shortages.”
Furthermore, the occupying power, Turkey, must ensure that fair value is paid for any requisitioned goods. “If Turkey is taking olive trees and olive oil from local farmers without fair compensation, it has violated the laws of occupation, even if it has done so through the cover of armed militias under its control.”
Jassem has invested some of his gains in businesses in Turkey, according to the sources who briefed Al-Monitor on the subject.
These are said to include several restaurants and car dealerships. Al-Monitor’s correspondent rang El Safir Oto, a car dealership Jassem is said to own in the border city of Gaziantep, and asked, “Is this the car dealership that belongs to Abu Amsha?” A man responded in thickly accented Turkish, “Yes, it is. Who are you?”
Jassem “is number one in terms of business in the area,” said Ahmed Ramadan, the editor-in-chief of the Euphrates Post, a Syrian opposition outlet based in Istanbul. Ramadan, who has investigated the factions’ commercial activities, told Al-Monitor, “The entire world knows they steal, they’re war profiteers, crisis profiteers. They are no longer ashamed.”
The pro-opposition StepNews agency alleged in a May 17 article that Turkish security officials had raided the homes of several individuals from the Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigade, including Jassem’s brother, in separate operations in Gaziantep, Reyhanli and Osmaniye. StepNews claimed the raids were connected to the May 15 Captagon drug bust. ASO, a news agency affiliated with the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria, echoed the claim.
Tsurkov said her own findings match the claims as well. “My research into the illicit activities of the factions, it appears that the Amshat are the most heavily involved in the drug trade.”
Tsurkov continued, “According to my sources inside the Amshat, the drug trading effort is led by Sayf Jassem, the brother of Abu Amsha and the fighters and commanders in his personal entourage.”
“Most of the drugs are smuggled from regime areas by the Syrian Army’s 4th division, which is the regime apparatus leading the drug manufacture and drug-running inside Syria and cross border. The drugs are smuggled from Nubul and Zahraa, Shia towns under Hezbollah control in Aleppo into Afrin by the Amshat,” Tskurkov said.
“Abu Amsha instituted a total ban on smuggling drugs into Turkey,” Tsurkov added. But this does not preclude using Iskenderun for transit purposes.
Jassem’s alleged involvement in the narcotics trade aside, internal resentment over his behavior has been brewing for some time.
In 2018, Isra Khalil, the wife of a fighter with the SNA’s Sultan Murad brigade, alleged in a video recording that Jassem had raped her numerous times, including at gunpoint. “Abu Amsha raped me,” she said. “Afterward he stood in the doorway, as he was leaving. He took me out of the room and said, ‘If you say that I came to you, I’ll kill your husband your brother-in-law.’ I told him, ‘For God’s sake, mister, I haven’t done anything, OK? God will keep private what he keeps private, I’ve never done anything to you.’” Khalil added, “It’s not just me he raped. A number of women. A lot of women have been scandalized by him.” Khalil described several other incidents in detail.
A week later Khalil posted another video claiming “a bad person” had offered to pay her “whatever amount of money you want, I’ll give it to you if you record this video about Abu Amsha.” A credible opposition source told al-Monitor that Khalil had been strong-armed into recanting her previous accusations.
Ahmed Rahhal, a general who defected from the Syrian army to join the revolution, and is a vocal critic of the factions' corruption and abuse, said Khalil's subsequent denial "didn't sit right with me."
"When I followed up with people I trust, inside Syria, they said Abu Amsha simply paid bribes, four cars, one for the judge, one to the police official, and two to others, and the issue was resolved. And the girl recorded the second video against her will. By force. I wrote about it. That rape is wrong," Rahhal added.
Rahhal's outspokenness came at a price. In August 2020 he was stripped of his Turkish residency and jailed for 73 days, "without being formally accused of anything. It was incredibly insulting to me." He believes Jassem and his men likely made false statements against him to Turkish authorities claiming that he was an "agent for the UAE, or an agent for Saudi Arabia, or the Kurds." Rahhal says he receives hundreds of threats every day from people affiliated with the brigades, targeting him and his family, and that his life is in danger. He has publicly appealed to Erdogan, Soylu, and Syrian Interim Government leaders for their help.
In April, Orient, another Syrian pro-opposition outlet, relayed accusations made in a video by Turkish-backed SNA fighters that Jassem “stole” the salaries that they were promised for fighting in Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia. “They were promised $2,000 per month but received far less and with delays,” Tsurkov said.
A Turkish whistleblower
Sedat Peker, a convicted Turkish mobster who lives in exile in Dubai, has been implicating current and former Turkish officials with close ties to the Erdogan government in grave crimes, including rape, drug trafficking and ferrying weapons to Syrian jihadis. The stream of tell-all videos are clocking millions of views on YouTube, and for many, ring truer because Peker, by his own admission, participated in some of the crimes. In a recent video, he claimed, “If you want to do business in Syria, you know what you have to do? There is a Mr. Metin Kiratli, let me say the name of his office: The administrative affairs directorate of the [Turkish] presidency. You must go to him but not for small deals, like two trucks worth of stuff. I mean for the big deals.”
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Bashar Jaafari said in a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, “I’d like to express that I confirm, affirm and verify what Mr. Sedat Peker said is completely true.” Kiratli has denied the claims and filed a criminal complaint against Peker.
Whether Peker is telling the truth or not, the commerce he describes appears to be expanding with Ankara’s blessings: A new unofficial border crossing lying between Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad in the Peace Spring zone called Tufaha or “apple,” connecting Turkish backed opposition and SDF territories in northern Raqqa, began operating earlier this year.
Tufaha is run by Ahrar al-Sharqiyah leader Abu Hatem Shaqra, a top figure in the war profiteering racket who has been nicknamed “the Octopus” owing to his deep financial reach. Two other SNA-linked brigades, Jaysh al-Sharqiyah and Squad 20, share control over the Tufaha. Open source intelligence mined by Al-Monitor and observed by the researcher known as @obretix on Twitter showed an oil tanker truck parked at the crossing July 13.
“The crossings between areas of different parties’ control are like treasures for the rebel brigades. Tufaha is going to be a big economic crossing point, the monthly income on it might reach $1 million,” said Ramadan, the newspaper editor.
The Syrian Democratic Council’s Sinam Mohammed insists that United States must designate the SNA brigades that have committed war crimes as terrorists. “It is a necessary step,” she said. “Otherwise they will not stop.”
But Bassam Ahmed of Syrians for Truth and Justice said he believes that this is an unrealistic goal, saying, “The most we can hope for is that some of these warlords be individually sanctioned for their crimes.”
“It’s time the United States act against these groups,” Bassam Ahmed added.
A State Department spokesman speaking on background told Al-Monitor, “The Administration is concerned by continued reports that some elements of the Syrian National Army have violated the law of armed conflict and abused human rights in northern Syria. We continue to urge Turkey to pressure Turkish-supported opposition groups to stop human rights abuses, hold perpetrators accountable, and take steps to prevent any future such abuses.”
The spokesman added, “The United States and Turkey share an interest in sustainably ending the conflict in Syria and we will continue to consult Ankara on Syria policy and seek areas for cooperation. The United States and Turkey have shared interests in countering terrorism, ending the conflict in Syria, and deterring malign influence in the region.”
In July, the United States added Turkey to a list of countries that are implicated in the use of child soldiers over the past year, marking the first time a NATO ally was placed designated as such.
The State Department noted in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons report that Turkey was providing “tangible support” to the Sultan Murad division which deployed child soldiers to Libya as have other parties to the conflict there. The State Department also named the SDF along with other armed groups in Syria which recruit minors for combat. Ankara was furious.
The Turkish foreign ministry said it “completely rejects” the claim and its record is clean.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.