Two years ago, during January 2018, Turkey threatened to launch a major operation in northwestern Syria’s Afrin region. Eventually Turkey did launch the operation, leading to tens of thousands fleeing the Kurdish area.
Syrian rebels, some of them linked to religious extremists, vow to defeat the mostly Kurdish fighters who have been working with the US-led coalition against ISIS.
Before January 2018, Afrin was run by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The US, European Union and Turkey view the PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey had warned since 2017 that it would launch a military operation in Afrin. But the YPG didn’t believe it would happen.
In eastern Syria, the YPG was part of a series of groups that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which actively works together with the international coalition against ISIS. And they believed their partnership with the US would mean that Washington would work to broker some kind of compromise in Afrin. They also thought that the Syrian regime and Russia wouldn’t allow Ankara to launch a major offensive into Syria. Ankara was working with Syrian rebel groups and promising that after Afrin millions of Syrian refugees might return to Syria. The YPG and its local councils appeared to believe that the Syrian regime wouldn’t want these Syrian rebel groups gaining a victory. This would soon proof to be false hope.
Turkey outmaneuvered the YPG. It sent a delegation to Russia and got an agreement that Moscow would not interfere. Moscow, a key backer of the Syrian regime, did not prevent Turkey’s air force from pounding the YPG in Afrin. The US also was moot in its criticism. It said that the battle in Afrin would distract from the war on ISIS. But it didn’t work to stop its NATO-ally, Turkey, from attacking Afrin because it sought to portray the YPG in Afrin as separate from the SDF partners in eastern Syria. Turkey’s offensive, backed by Syrian rebels, began on January 20 and lasted for two months.
The SDF and its YPG elements made a difficult choice: to sacrifice Afrin to save the partnership with the US in eastern Syria. The US partnership gave the SDF autonomy at least in eastern Syria; they did not calculate that the US would not help them when Turkish-backed rebels drove into North-East Syria as well.
Salih Muslim, former head of foreign relations for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), admitted himself in an interview published on ANF News on December 31 2018 that YPG and PYD miscalculated the Afrin crisis.
“We cannot say that we have conducted an adequate diplomacy for Afrin,” he said. He indicated that the negotiators were not adequately prepared. The Kurdish leadership in eastern Syria was isolated from talks about the future of Syria. “We talked with the Syrian regime in 2018, but we could not reach a result,” Muslim said as well, admitting their calculative and diplomatical failure.
The YPG was defeated in the battle for Afrin and tens of thousands of Kurds fled Afrin to IDP camps, where most of them are still staying in dire conditions, as SDF cannot provide them other homes. They still want to return but they say their houses have been looted and even their olive orchards plundered. Reports speak of abuses by the Syrian rebel factions in Afrin and infighting among them.
Since Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies captured Afrin city and countryside more than two years ago, Turkish-backed factions have practiced almost all kinds of atrocities, with full Turkish consent, against Afrin’s people who stayed in the area and refused to flee or those who have been displaced, whose properties have been seized and looted. Let’s take a look at the statistics from last month.
According to statistics collected by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish-backed factions kidnapped and arrested nearly 43 civilians from different areas in Afrin city, Jendires, Sharran, Maabatli and other places in the region in March 2020. Some of those arrested or kidnapped people have been released, while most of them are still in the rebel factions’ prisons for various accusations, most prominent of which is “communication with the Kurdish Units”.
In early March, Turkish government gave the rebel factions in the area the green light to sell Kurdish property at nominal prices. According to reliable SOHR sources, Turkish-backed factions of the “Syrian National Army” are selling the houses of displaced Kurds who were forced to flee the Turkish military operations in their areas. A two-storey house is being sold at a price ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.
“The Turkish-backed factions in Afrin city are wreaking havoc in the area, and have recently begun selling or renting houses and shops as if there are their own properties”, SOHR sources added. Meanwhile, “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah” faction imposed new levies after marking and numbering the shops in Maabatli township in Afrin countryside, in order to collect monthly taxes from Kurdish citizens. Other members of the same faction used heavy earth-moving machinery for digging and excavating archeological sites between Shitka and Kakhrah villages in Maabatli township, searching for antiquities.
These violations come as a part of systematic policy that Turkish-backed factions practice against the remaining people in Afrin, especially the Kurds who fear getting out of their houses, particularly in the evening in order not to be kidnapped or arrested under fabricated pretexts.
Syrian Observatory activists say a 14-year old man was found dead with his head separated from the body in Afrin last week. The body was found shackled and dumped near a trash can in Al-Zaydiyah neighborhood in Afrin city.
Another man died just yesterday. SOHR activists have documented the death of a Yazidi civilian in Bab Al-Hawa hospital affected by his injuries, after being shot a few days ago by gunmen of the Turkish-backed Islamic faction of “Al-Sham Corps”. The Turkish-backed gunmen shot the civilian that day while attempting to force him out of his house in Sufan village in Sherawa township in the countryside Afrin city.
Atrocities continue in the Afrin region and human rights are violated there on the daily base. The poor people of Afrin have only two options, stay in a tent camp in SDF-controlled areas in severe poverty, or try and survive the Turkish occupation. Many desperate civilians continue to pray for Bashar al-Assad to return.