By Meghan Bodette

In January 2018, Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebel groups began their assault on Afrin Canton in Northwest Syria, a peaceful, historically Kurdish region about the size of the state of Rhode Island. Prior to the Syrian conflict, Afrin was home to about 30% of the country’s entire Kurdish population. In November 2017, two months before the invasion began, the United Nations estimated Afrin City’s population at about 323,000 people.

On March 18, 2018, after two months of fighting, Turkish and Turkish-backed Olive Branch forces took control of Afrin City and declared victory. At that point, the UN estimated that over 200,000 people had already left, with many fleeing by foot under threat of airstrikes and shelling. Tens of thousands fled after that point.

While persecuting the region’s historic inhabitants, the Turkish government has also moved Arab Syrian refugees from other parts of the country into Afrin — many of whom had previously been living in Turkey. Turkish sources suggest that this number is between 200,000 and 350,000.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Kurds today constitute just 20% of Afrin’s population — whereas they once made up over 90% of the population. The region has a higher percentage of pre-conflict population that has not returned to their homes of anywhere in Turkish-occupied Northwest Syria, with no spontaneous returns reported in early 2019.

This development was decried by Kurds across Northeast Syria and around the world as a crime against humanity and part of a long pattern of Turkish oppression of their people. The US Defense Department even found that, by creating instability and forcing the Syrian Democratic Forces to divert efforts from the fight against ISIS to defend their land, it allowed ISIS and al-Qaida space to regroup. Despite this, there has been little discussion in policy circles about exactly what Operation Olive Branch was and what it means about the future of the Turkish role in Syria. As plans of a potential Turkish “safe zone” are discussed, it is essential to base this debate on the facts of what happened the last time Turkey was allowed to intervene.

To do this with any degree of honesty, we have to establish one central fact: the invasion and occupation of Afrin was, first and foremost, an act of planned ethnic cleansing against the region’s Kurdish population. The UN, in its investigation into war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, has defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” and as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” When the situation in Afrin is examined closely, it is clear that it meets the UN’s standard of ethnic cleansing.

Official Intent

Major demographic change has undoubtedly occurred in Afrin as a direct result of Operation Olive Branch. But was this purposeful? Statements made by Turkish officials during and after the operation prove that it was. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed on January 21, 2018 that Afrin’s population was 55% Arab, 35% Kurdish, and 6-7% Turkmen — a massive distortion of the region’s real demographics.  He followed this by claiming that “the main objective is to hand Afrin over to its true owners. What is our goal? Do we have 3.5 million Syrian refugees living on our lands? Yes, we do. Our target is to repatriate these Syrian brothers and sisters as soon as possible.”

In February 2018, Turkish First Lady Emine Erdoğan said that “When security and stability is ensured in the region with Operation Olive Branch, new flows will be stopped and [Syrians] who are already here [in Turkey] are expected to be able to go back to their country…After Operation Olive Branch, nearly 500,000 people are expected to return to Afrin.”

In April 2018, Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union (EU) asked EU officials for 3 million euros to fund the relocation of 350,000 Syrian refugees to occupied Afrin. The EU denied the request.

In January 2019, one year after the operation began, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that “within the framework of the model we have developed in this region, administrative units composed of the opposition and the local elements oversee the flow of daily life and ensure security there, which enabled nearly 200,000 Syrians to return home from Turkey last year. This is the number with regard to Jarabulus, with nearly as many people having returned to Afrin.”

AKP Istanbul mayoral candidate and former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım boasted about the forced transfer of Syrian refugees to occupied Afrin in a televised debate with CHP Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, claiming that “after the Afrin campaign, 500 thousand [Syrians] returned, and more will return when [east of the] Euphrates is cleaned.”

These statements prove that there was a clear plan, promoted and supported by the most senior Turkish officials, to displace Afrin’s indigenous Kurdish population and replace them with predominantly Arab refugees from other parts of Syria currently living in Turkey — even though Syria is not considered a safe country for refugees to return to. Forced demographic change in Afrin was not a decision made by individual military personnel participating in the operation, but rather a matter of policy.

This does not mean, however, that lower-level participants did not share the goal of targeting specific ethnic groups in Afrin for displacement. Members of so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias who participated in Operation Olive Branch repeatedly threatened Kurds and Yazidis solely on the basis of identity. A group of FSA militiamen participating in the operation published a video threatening to behead any “infidel Kurds” they found in Afrin. A leader of the 23rd Division, a Turkey-backed militia that participated in the operation, called for all Kurdish men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50 to be “persecuted” and “displaced.” Yazidis have been forced to convert to Islam and harassed for not knowing Islamic practices. Former members of ISIS — a group known to have committed massacres against religious minorities — were recruited for the operation.

Attacks on specific manifestations of Kurdish and non-Muslim culture, history, and traditions also show clear intent to eradicate these groups. Many of Afrin’s Yezidi and Alevi religious sites have been attacked, looted, and desecrated by Olive Branch forces. The Kurdish language has been removed from street signs and replaced with Turkish. And Newroz — the Kurdish new year celebration — was banned by authorities. Women are forced to comply with Islamic dress codes regardless of religion, and children’s educational programs promote Turkish and Islamic history rather than local history. This proves that occupying forces are attempting to force Afrin residents who were not displaced to assimilate, thereby destroying centuries-old cultures and traditions in the process. 

How is ethnic cleansing carried out?

According to the U.N., the forced removal of an ethnic group described above can be carried out by means of “murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem, among others.” Many of these tactics were used repeatedly in Afrin to render the area uninhabitable for its Kurdish population. 

Murder, Torture, Arbitrary Arrest and Detention, and Extrajudicial Executions

Throughout the invasion and occupation of Afrin, Kurds have been singled out for arrests, disappearances, and even murder at the hands of Turkey-backed FSA militias. Many Kurds are targeted on the pretext of having ties to, or sympathy for, the former administration. A UN report found in February 2019 that “numerous cases involving arbitrary arrests and detentions by armed group members included credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, often targeting individuals of Kurdish origin” and that “individuals accused of being supportive of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) or YPG were detained by members of unidentified armed groups.” The same report noted that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that armed group members in Afrin committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and pillage.”

Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, told Voice of America in June 2019 that “behaviors such as [kidnapping for] ransom and indefinite detentions and the fear of just being out and about living your life in Afrin is very real for all residents.” In August 2018, Amnesty International claimed that civilians in Afrin were regularly “detained, tortured or forcibly disappeared by Syrian armed groups, who continue to wreak havoc on civilians, unchecked by Turkish forces.”

While it is impossible to verify specific numbers of such incidents, as foreign journalists and human rights organizations are not allowed into Afrin without Turkish approval, numbers from different local sources suggest an astonishing rate of arbitrary arrests and kidnappings.  The UN claimed that these abductions were “most common violations perpetrated in Afrin.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 5,000 people have been detained since Operation Olive Branch began, a rate of about ten arrests per day. Of these, the whereabouts of 1,000 victims are still unknown.

In November 2018, ANF News reported that about 2,500 civilians had been arrested in Afrin since Operation Olive Branch began. Taking January 20, 2018 as the first day of Operation Olive Branch, this means there has been a rate of approximately eight arrests per day. 

In January 2019, one year after Operation Olive Branch began, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that about 2,600 civilians had been arrested, and that more than 1,000 were still in detention. This amounts to a rate of about seven arrests per day. 

The Center for Documenting Violations in Northern Syria reported that, between February 2018 and April 2019, there were 4,996 arrests of civilians. This amounts to rate of approximately 11 arrests per day. 

A Kurdish refugee from Afrin, who was arrested while attempting to return to the region in June 2018 and freed after his family paid a ransom, said in an interview that he witnessed around 10 arrests per day. This is well within the range of the cumulative numbers provided by other sources.

In the past week alone, local sources reported several arbitrary detentions across the region. At least 5 Kurdish civilians were kidnapped in Mabata, including a member of ENKS and two Kurdish supporters of the occupying administration. There were mass arrests in Bilbile, with several victims named by a local monitor, and one young Kurdish man was arrested in Afrin City. Two civilians were arrested in Jinderes, one of whom was reported to have two young children. That Kurdish civilians with ties to pro-Turkish groups have been targeted shows that occupying forces are targeting Kurds based on their ethnicity— not simply political opponents.

Extrajudicial killings are more difficult to quantify, though locals have reported many disturbing incidents. The Center for Documenting Violations in Northeast Syria found that a total of 717 civilians were killed between February 2018 and April 2019. Militias often demand ransoms higher than an average Syrian’s yearly salary, and these militias execute their captives if their captives’ families cannot pay that ransom. In a particularly egregious recent example, three members of a Kurdish family — including a disabled child — were killed after their relatives were unable to pay a $10,000 ransom. A video surfaced showing one of the adult victims with signs of severe torture before his death.

Deliberate Military Attacks or Threats of Attacks on Civilians and Civilian Areas

Operation Olive Branch was characterized by the targeting of civilian settlements and civilian economic infrastructure. Airstrikes targeted multiple schools, a dam and water treatment plant, farms, houses and other residential buildings, a market, and a hospital, and fleeing civilians still faced shelling and attacks from militia members. 

Both Human Rights Watch and the UN alleged that Turkish forces had not followed the laws of war prohibiting the targeting of civilians.

The city of Afrin, Syria, before its occupation by Turkey.
The city of Afrin, Syria, before its occupation by Turkey.

Destruction of Property and Robbery of Personal Property

Looting of civilian property began as soon as occupying forces assumed control of Afrin. There are photographs documenting militia members stealing vehicles, farm animals, food, and household items as they entered the city. One rebel group issued a document claiming that property stolen from Kurds was to be considered legitimate spoils of war, and Human Rights Watch found that former Afrin residents had not been compensated for the theft of their property as international law requires. Rebel groups have also been seen marking the homes of Kurds in order to steal their property.

According to one local official, almost 60% of Afrin’s economic infrastructure was either stolen or destroyed by occupying forces without compensation. A primarily agricultural region, Afrin was famous prior to the invasion for its 14 million olive trees. Occupying forces have cut or burnt down many olive groves — some of which had been cultivated by the same families for many years — and have assumed control of others, charging remaining farmers to access their land and selling olive oil produced in Afrin as their own.

Attacks on Hospitals and Medical Personnel

Turkish forces bombed the headquarters of Heyva Sor, the only humanitarian aid organization operating in Afrin during the invasion, in February 2018. On March 16, 2018, two days before Afrin fell, Turkey bombed the only functioning hospital in Afrin City, killing at least nine people, injuring others, and leaving hundreds of injured civilians trapped in the area without medical treatment.  

Future Implications

These details paint a disturbing picture of the conditions that forced Afrin’s Kurdish population to flee — and make it clear what would happen were Turkey allowed to attack Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) held territory again. Proponents of any Turkish intervention in Syria must be asked how the intervention they envision would differ from the “Afrin model” of forced demographic change and rampant crimes against civilians. Those who cannot do this are advocating for no more than the repeat of an atrocity. As pro-intervention politicians who represent no substantial Syrian Kurdish constituency try to whitewash these crimes, it is important that they be extensively questioned.

The silence around these crimes also suggests the need for a stronger international response to what has already taken place. If we fully accept that Operation Olive Branch resulted in ethnic cleansing, we cannot see it as an expression of legitimate security interests or a simple part of war. The international community should support the SDF’s call to ensure that all occupying forces leave Afrin, and that all displaced civilians are given the opportunity to return to their homes and be compensated for losses as international law requires. A full investigation of the true extent of crimes committed should also take place — and should allow impartial international observers to document the treatment of Kurdish civilians during the invasion and occupation.