Sinam Sherkany Mohamad is the Co-Chair of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. She is a Kurdish woman from Afrin, Syria.

It has now been four years since Turkish tanks rolled into Afrin, Syria, in January 2018 – their officials brazenly taking advantage of international confusion over the situation in Syria and giving false excuses about protecting Turks from terrorism. Turkish war planes dropped bombs from the sky. Shellings and explosives rained down on the civilian population.

Our Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units, fought bravely to defend the region. But after two months, Afrin fell. The Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian militias stormed into the region and have been wreaking havoc and terrorizing the local population since then.

Afrin was a center of democracy before the Turkish occupation, since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. After the uprising, Afrin had become a place where gender equality, democratic institutions, religious diversity and secularism, art, and culture was flourishing.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was founded in 2015, including Afrin as an important canton. More than 40 percent of official positions of power were being held by women. The Women’s Protection Units – famed for the Kurdish women who battled ISIS – was founded in Afrin. Our renaissance was a boon to the historically-marginalized peoples in Syria, including the Kurds and Yezidis. That’s a big reason that Turkey invaded – they came to halt our progress.

Some in the international community mistakenly assume that if Turkey left Afrin, the region would be back under the control of the Assad government. That is not the case. If Turkey left Afrin, it would be back in the good democratic hands of North and East Syria, not under the authoritarian control of Assad. The region could again be home to an inspiring flourishing of a new type of democratic culture in the Middle East.

More than 200,000 people have been displaced from Afrin since the Turkish military occupation was finalized in March 2018. These displaced persons are predominantly Kurdish, which is intentional ethnic cleansing by Turkey, an extension of Turkey’s war on Kurds. Only about 20 percent of displaced persons have been able to return to their homes. What have they found? All electrical appliances, furniture, home decorations, and anything else of value has been stolen from their home. In many cases, the home itself has been sold to a militia member. In my case, my home in Afrin – my home where I laughed, loved, and lived with my family – was turned into a center for the local militia members to torment and interrogate people.

It is not only our homes that have been stolen. Over 70 percent of agricultural land in the Afrin region has been stolen or appropriated for use by Turkish entities. This includes a massive number of olive groves – the groves for which Afrin is famous – for which the olives are stolen and sold to Turkey to be made into olive oil, falsely labeled as products originating in Turkey.

Women who remain in Afrin are being subjected to a systematic campaign of terror, in order to keep them in the home, fearful, and compliant. Abductions, sexual assault, and killings have been widely reported. No good quantitative data exists for how many women are affected, but in 2021 alone, there were 84 reported cases of women murdered following an abduction and 70 reported cases of sexual assault of women, perpetrated by Turkish-backed militias occupying Afrin.

Syrian schoolchildren are being subjected not only to Turkification, like learning Turkish language and history instead of their own, but also enforcing Islamic practices such as gender segregation in schools. Young children are now being segregated in their classrooms, whereas before the occupation, boys and girls were in the same classrooms and receiving a secular education.

All the markers of a foreign occupation are there in Afrin. Local residents who remain in Afrin are forced to carry Turkish identification and use the Turkish lira. People who criticize the occupiers, who are accused of being related to the AANES or SDF, or who are just inconvenient for the occupiers, are often illegally brought out of Syria to face a mock trial in a Turkish courtroom and held in detention in Turkey. 

The Turkish occupation violates humanitarian law, state sovereignty, the UN principles of the use of force. It violates basic dignity and fairness. It violates women, children, and ethnic and religious minorities. And it violates the peace and stability of our region.

For four years, we have been calling upon the international community to act to stop the horrifying occupation of Afrin. Today, the need for the international community to act is more urgent than ever. If we do not act in the near term, we may lose a generation of young people who will grow up believing that Turkey is a legitimate presence in Afrin. Let us be clear. Turkey’s presence in Afrin is illegal, illegitimate, and inexcusable.

Turkey must leave Afrin now, and allow the people to return to their homes. #TurkeyOutOfEfrîn