Turkey’s occupation of Kurdish Afrin targets women, minorities

Turkey, a NATO member, is accused of systematic human rights abuses throughout areas it runs in northern Syria; it ironically condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians while doing worse to Kurds.

Turkish soldiers deployed last month in the center of Afrin, a Syrian town bordering on Turkey (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkish soldiers deployed last month in the center of Afrin, a Syrian town bordering on Turkey
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Shocking scenes similar to ISIS crimes against women were found in the Kurdish area of Afrin in Syria last week. Video captured the moment that women were liberated after being held in a secret prison by a Turkish-backed Syrian group in Afrin. The area has been occupied by Turkey since Ankara’s invasion in January 2018. Turkish-backed Syrian extremist groups have committed widespread human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing, attacks on the Yazidi minority, and now the kidnapping of women and children. 
Turkey, a NATO member, has been accused of systematic human rights abuses throughout areas it runs in northern Syria. It has backed groups labelled “undisciplined” and “jihadi mercenaries” by a US official, which have committed ethnic cleansing in Afrin and also areas near Tel Abyad, which Turkey invaded in October 2019.
More than 300,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been displaced in ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Turkey has systematically re-settled mostly Arab refugees in Kurdish homes, hoping to stoke tensions between Kurds and Arabs while encouraging the rebel groups it backs to embrace extremist religious ideology that labels Kurds “atheists” and “infidels.”
This is the same language and methodology that ISIS used in its campaign in 2014. Tens of thousands of ISIS members came to Syria through Turkey and many hundreds of them then fled back to Turkey when the US-led coalition and partner forces defeated ISIS in 2019. The jihadist group's leader was found by the US to be hiding within a few kilometers of Turkey in Idlib which Ankara controls. 

REPORTS THAT Kurdish and minority Yazidi women are being targeted by Turkish-backed groups in Afrin, conjure up recent memories of the ISIS ideology of kidnapping and enslaving minority women. ISIS enslaved thousands of Yazidi women in 2014 in Sinjar and systematically sold them to be raped, creating a new slave trade. Some 3,000 of them are still missing, kidnapped in Sinjar by ISIS. Some of them were trafficked to Turkey and even to Idlib.
The Kurdish-led autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria has called for an international investigation into the kidnapping of women in Afrin, according to an article by Wladimir van Wilgenburg at Kurdistan 24. According to the television news channel, at least eight women were found in the headquarters of a Turkish-backed militia last week in Afrin.
The militia had taken over the former security office of the Kurdish group that ran the city in northern Syria before 2018. This is symbolic because it shows that these groups have the imprimatur of the state and the government’s support to administer the region on its behalf during the occupation.
According to the reports, the group that held the women illegally in its secret prison is called the Hamas division. Kurds have called on the UN and the international community to investigate the crimes. “Women have fallen victim to various human rights violations, including rape and forced marriages,” the article notes. Other reports assert that the Kurdish population of Afrin, once 90%, has fallen to some 30%. Hundreds of women have been reportedly kidnapped, which appears to be a systematic campaign to kidnap and disappear Kurdish and minority women.

TURKEY'S ROLE in northeast Syria has now been compared to creating a new Gaza. Ironically, Turkey condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians while doing worse crimes to Kurds in northern Syria. European countries are currently debating how to look at Turkey’s role: whether to support its occupation or to critique it. Turkey has threatened to use Syrian refugees as a weapon against Europe if they don’t remain quiet. 
The abuses of the Hamza unit in Afrin were only revealed because it clashed with other groups including Jaish al-Isla and Ahrar al-Sham. Turkish-backed groups have supported settlers from other parts of Syria taking the homes of Kurds, part of Ankara’s goal to settle more religiously extreme and loyal groups it has armed and remove minorities from Syria.
So far, the UN and other groups devoted to human rights have not documented the recent allegations of systematic kidnapping of women and use of secret prisons to hold them, or what crimes may have been committed against them. One list shows numerous girls in the age range of 13-16, some 20 of whom were kidnapped since January. This list includes women from neighboring areas of Syria, including some kidnapped in Idlib, which Turkey also controls. For instance Manar al-Mahbash, a 14-year-old girl, was reportedly kidnapped on May 10 by Turkish-backed militants.
The end result of kidnapping women is to create a kind of Islamist far-right state similar to ISIS where women cannot walk alone or leave their homes without fear of assault and kidnapping. In addition, the slow ethnic-cleansing of remaining minorities, through harassment and attacks and kidnappings, is part of a larger pattern in the Middle East where far-right Islamist groups have targeted minorities by bombings and intimidation.

DETAILS OF the women saved last week include one woman reportedly named Arin Hassan, a Yazidi who was kidnapped from the village of Kimar by the Hamza Division and held at the “black site” or secret prison. Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for her work fighting against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, has spoken out about the crimes in Afrin. She was once kidnapped and held by ISIS prior to becoming an activist. “Turkish-backed militias are silently carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Yazidis in Afrin,” she wrote on May 29.
The harrowing video showing women being rescued from the secret prison in Afrin is the tip of the iceberg of the destruction wrought on the once peaceful area of Syria. Turkish-backed groups and the Syrian regime’s allies, such as Hezbollah, have competed to destroy the war-torn country in recent years, while Kurdish groups sought to protect their communities in Afrin and eastern Syria. The Kurds received backing from the US-led coalition up until October last year when their communities were handed over to Russia and the Syrian regime as the US retreated and the Syrian Democratic Forces were forced to agree to a deal.
It appears the ethnic-cleansing in Afrin will continue until there are few minorities left. Shrines of the Yazidi faith have also been destroyed and desecrated, similar to how ISIS destroyed them in Iraq. The targeting of women will also continue, because there are no strong groups to prevent it or any authorities that enforce the protection of women’s rights in Turkish areas of control. Protests in Afrin on May 29 sought to ask the Turkish authorities to rein in the militias they back, but Ankara has no desire to antagonize its allies on the ground.
Harassment and sexual assault on women as a weapon of war is the central human rights violations that the Nobel Prize sought to highlight in 2018. Two years later, little has been done to reinforce that message, as women continue to be disappeared into secret prisons and “black sites” in Afrin.