In early 2018, the Turkish military invaded Afrin. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came to the defense of the people there in a fierce and bloody struggle, but the region fell to the advanced weaponry and air power of the Turkish military on March 18, 2018. The Turkish government now occupies the region, flying the Turkish flag and changing signs and placenames to the Turkish language, forcing schoolchildren to learn Turkish, and pasting Turkish President Erdogan’s picture in public places – patrolled by Turkish-backed militias calling themselves the “Syrian National Army.”
More than 300,000 people have fled the region of Afrin, Syria, since March 2018. Most are living as internally-displaced persons (IDPs) elsewhere in Syria. About 20 percent have been able to return to check on their homes. They have found that the homes have been looted of electronics, furniture, decorations, and anything of value. In many cases, the homes have been sold or otherwise appropriated by the occupying militia members.
Ethnic cleansing was the goal of the Turkish invasion,. Turkey has waged a long-term war against ethnic Kurds, and the invasion of Afrin was part of that campaign. Prior to the invasion, the inhabitants of the region identifying as Kurdish was over 95 percent. Today, that number is less than 20 percent, according to the Human Rights Organization of Afrin. The Kurds who remain are subject to harassment and brutality at the hands of the Turkish authorities and the Turkish-backed militia members.
One of the untold stories of Afrin is the resettlements efforts, led by the Turkish overseers and Turkish-backed militias. There have been about 400,000 people resettled into Afrin in the past four years who are not the original inhabitants. Many of these are the families of the militias who are patrolling the region, but they also include other people that Turkey didn’t want. It includes migrants from other parts of Syria who fled from Assad-government-controlled areas, such as Ghouta. It also includes 500 families of Palestinian origin who had been living in Syria.
The theft of anything of value continues in Afrin. More than 50 separate militias are operating in Afrin. Their income over the past four years has come from the theft and reselling of goods from abandoned stores, anything of value they can find in homes, the agricultural goods they can appropriate, the equipment from factories and places of business, and the abduction and ransom of the people themselves. Lately, a militia group was also found to be producing and selling the narcotic captagon in order to pay its members and fund its operations.
The assorted Turkish-backed militias who occupy Afrin call themselves the “Syrian National Army” (SNA). These militias are often ragtag groups of men whose ideologies are linked closely to Islamic extremism. Many of them have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic supremacists who strategize for the overthrow of the West and the installation of an Islamic global system. These militia members are supplied with weapons and funding by the Turkish government.
Women are subjected to kidnappings, false imprisonment, ransoms, killings, sexual assault and violence, and other violations on an ongoing basis in Afrin. These assaults on women are perpetrated by members of Turkish-backed militias as a weapon of war. They not only intimidate women into more traditional roles inside the home and help the militias ensure compliance among the people they occupy, the ransoms act as a money-making scheme for the militias. It is difficult to get authoritative data on how many due to the stigma of gender-related violence, cultural approaches to gender, intimidation for those who speak out, and other limitations. However, according to the Human Rights Organization of Afrin, there were 84 reported cases of women murdered following an abduction and 70 reported cases of sexual assault of women.
Many of the 300,000 people are currently living in Shehba Camp, a camp for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria. These IDPs are predominantly Kurdish. Residents and Syrian humanitarian workers are occasionally able to discreetly travel back and forth from their homes in Afrin to the camp.
Although the members of the Turkish-backed militias are predominantly from other areas of Syria, official Turkish government control of the region is unquestionable. 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. Schoolchildren are now forced to learn the Turkish language, and are taught in classrooms that are segregated by gender.
Afrin’s ancient historical sites have been ransacked, destroyed, or fabricated by Turkey. The 3,000-year-old site of Ain Dara, known for its giant basalt lion statues and one-of-a-kind religious carvings, was bombed to rubble by Turkish war planes. The ancient Kurdish site Nebi Hori, a place of ritual for Kurds up to the present day, was carelessly dug up and destroyed with bulldozers by the Turkish occupiers, reconstructed, and fabricated to emphasize Turkish Ottoman features. In the four years of the Turkish occupation, the Directorate of Antiquities of Afrin has documented the destruction of 59 archeological sites, mounds, or ancient structures. The organization has additionally documented 28 religious shrines that were either either significantly vandalized or destroyed.
More than 70 percent of farms, agricultural products, and crops have been diverted to serve Turkish objectives. Afrin is famous for its high-quality olives, historic olive groves, and olive oil industry. The Turkish occupation has seen a chaotic occupier policy including militia members burning the olive groves to deprive the region of sustenance, cutting down the trees and selling the firewood to fund the militia, and finally forcing farmers to forfeit their olive harvest to the militias or sell at a reduced rate. The olives and olive oil from occupied Afrin have often been illegally brought to Turkey and packaged as if they were a Turkish product. Almost one-third of the designated agricultural land in Afrin, including 12,000 olive trees, have been burned down by occupying forces.
Why aren’t there more news media reports about the situation in Afrin? Turkey does not allow reporters into the Afrin region, unless they are strictly managed and do not stray from their official Turkish handlers. Turkey has a low rank on press freedom by the World Press Freedom Index and has been called the “world’s biggest jailer of journalists” by Reporters Without Borders. There have been very few eyewitness reports from major publications from Afrin since early 2018, and those that have emerged are from reporters who are censored or controlled by Turkey. Anyone taking photos or appearing to report from Afrin is subject to harassment, jailing, or intimidation by the Turkish officials or Turkish-backed militias.