Located in the northwest corner of Syria, the Turkish-controlled Afrin area is largely off limits to foreign journalists.
Turkish forces occupied Afrin in late 2018, in an operation dubbed Olive Branch, destroying the Kurdish authority which had previously ruled there.
Since that time, Afrin has been ruled by a coalition of Syrian Arab Sunni Islamist groups, with the Turkish authorities as the real power behind them. Significant Turkish investment in the infrastructure of the area, along with the frozen diplomacy of the Syrian conflict, suggests that the current situation will last for some time.
Evidence is emerging to suggest that very grave violations of human rights are taking place in the Afrin area, on a systematic basis. The situation remains largely ignored by both the global media and Western governments.
According to Jiger Hussein, a refugee from Afrin who now coordinates an investigation team looking into cases of kidnapping and abduction in northern Syria, “We have strong evidence indicating the involvement of the Turkish authorities and their client extremist militias in the international crime which is taking place in Turkish-occupied Afrin – including rape, trafficking, and torture to death.”
Operation Olive Branch began on January 20, 2018, and concluded on March 18, 2018, with the defeat of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) at the hands of the Turkish military and its Syrian Arab Islamist auxiliaries.
The immediate result of the Turkish takeover was the expulsion or flight of around 200,000 Kurds from the area, reducing the Kurdish population from an estimated 350,000 to around 150,000 today.
The vast scale of population displacement as a result of the Syrian civil war (around 13.5 million Syrians from a prewar population of 22 million have left their homes in the last decade) has served to obscure the significance of this act of sectarian cleansing. It differs from other acts of forced movement of population from Syria in that it was directed not by a pariah regime under Western sanctions, still less by an unaffiliated militia. Rather, this large-scale forced movement of a population was conducted by a NATO member state and US ally.
Following the expulsion of more than 50% of the Kurdish population of Afrin, Turkey undertook the resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Arab refugees from the Ghouta area (close to Damascus), Deir al-Zor and from the Aleppo Governorate. Around 100,00 people have established homes in the area since the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch.
Conditions of life for the remaining Kurdish and Yazidi population in Afrin under the rule of Turkey and its Islamist auxiliaries in the Syrian National Army remain precarious in the extreme.
A recent report by ACAPS (Assessment Capacities Project), an independent NGO, noted: “The Kurdish population... face constant harassment by local militia groups, putting them at risk of losing their livelihoods and access to food and shelter.... The Kurdish population of Afrin is at risk of personal threats, extortion, detention and abduction from local SNA factions present in the district.... Kurdish residents in Afrin are particularly vulnerable to problems related to shelter. Kurdish residents have experienced repeated and systemic looting of their property. Those who fled their homes in 2018 are reported to have had their homes occupied by fighters and their families and by displaced people from Syrian-government-held areas.”
The US State Department “2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Syria” confirmed that “The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention.”
The ACAPS report notes in particular confiscation of agricultural lands. The nonlocal origins of SNA fighters has resulted in widespread cases of serious misuse of resources. For example, according to a Voice of America report, no less than eight million of Afrin’s 26 million olive trees have been cut down by SNA fighters, in order to provide firewood or for trading purposes. Afrin was an area traditionally strongly associated with olive farming.
It is important to underline here that the SNA – “Syrian National Army” – despite its name, is not an independent Syrian military formation. Rather, this 70,000-strong force represents the remnants of the Sunni Arab insurgency in northern Syria, today organized, armed, financed and directly controlled by the Turkish authorities.
The widespread and apparently systematic targeting of Kurdish and Yazidi women is a particular feature of the activity of the Turkish backed Islamist militias.
According to the State Department Country Report, “The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO [Turkish-supported organization] kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.”
Noting “multiple firsthand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention” by Turkish-supported militias in the area, the State Department report named the “Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police” organizations as cited by human rights organizations for involvement in the kidnappings.
“Victims of abductions by TSOs [Turkish-supported armed opposition groups] were often of Kurdish or Yazidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin,” the report continued.
The UN Commission of Inquiry reported the transfer of persons held by the SNA factions to official Turkish custody, “indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.”
The Turkish government denied these reports.
An NGO specifically created to document the situation facing women in Afrin noted the kidnapping of 88 women by Turkish-supported armed groups in the course of 2020. As of January 2021, according to the organization’s website (missingafrinwomen.org), the whereabouts of 51 of these women remains unknown.
The organization notes that 14 of the cases involve direct allegations of torture, and three involve direct allegations of sexual violence carried out by militiamen in the employ of Turkey. Two of the alleged victims remain missing. The Hamza Division and the Sultan Murad Division are the organizations alleged to have been involved in these three cases.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Turkey to investigate these allegations. No investigation is known to be currently under way.
Syria has been witness over the last decade to some of the most heinous violations of human rights seen in recent history. The ethnic cleansing of Afrin, and the current and ongoing systematic harassment of the remaining Kurdish and Yazidi population, including the deliberate targeting of women, stand among the darkest chapters in this woeful story.