Kurdish protesters demand Turkish forces return to their side of the border

 The protest camp in Sourkeh. Photo courtesy of the Kurdish Self-Administration.

AMMAN: Residents of a Kurdish town in northwestern Aleppo province near the Turkish border protested for the third straight day on Wednesday, demanding that Ankara halt what they called a months-long military “occupation” of Syrian territory.

The protesters, who have set up a camp in the middle of an orchard just outside the town of Sourkeh, five kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border, say that Turkish forces have carved out their own enclave, and cut down hundreds of olive and fruit trees in the process.

The Kurdish Self-Administration authorities in Afrin canton, where Sourkeh is located, released a statement on social media Wednesday denouncing the latest in a series of Turkish incursions, as an “occupation.” The statement went on to claim the Turkish soldiers cut down 600 olive trees and 300 pomegranate trees.

The Turkish soldiers “have now infiltrated an area of four kilometers in length and 300 to 900 meters in width,” Mahmoud Billou, one of the protestors, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. Syria Direct could not corroborate Billou’s claim.

 The protest camp in Sourkeh. Photo courtesy of the Kurdish Self-Administration.

Sourkeh is a largely agricultural town, with many of its residents depending on the olive harvest for their livelihood. “If the Turkish forces continue, they will tear down thousands of olive trees,” said Billou.

This week’s sit-in is not the first time residents have accused Turkish forces of entering their land. In February 2016, Turkish soldiers entered the countryside surrounding Afrin, the provincial capital 30 kilometers southeast of Sourkeh, and reportedly cut down hundreds of olive and pomegranate trees, local media reported at the time.

Turkish and allied Free Syrian Army forces roughly 50 kilometers east of Sourkeh are currently waging a campaign, which began late August, to seize territory held by the Islamic State and push back Kurdish armed forces.

Sourkeh is part of what the Self-Administration calls Rojava, a de facto autonomous Kurdish federation in northern Syria, officially declared by Kurdish self-governing factions in June 2016. 

Photos of the sit-in portray crowds of protestors marching and standing amid olive groves, waving the red, green and yellow flag of Rojava.

Residents at the protest camp say they are negotiating with Turkish forces in an effort to drive the soldiers back toward the border. Syria Direct reached out to both sides’ negotiators for comment on Wednesday, but did not receive a response.

 “We are demanding the Turkish soldiers go back,” said Billou from the Sourkeh orchard.

“The protest will continue until the Turkish forces return to the border.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.