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Three years after ‘Olive Branch’: A militarized Afrin and continued violations against its residents

Three years since Turkish-backed Syrian opposition factions took over the Afrin region, its original residents—especially the Kurds—have grown accustomed “to injustice.”

27 January 2021

AMMAN — Three years since Turkish-backed Syrian opposition factions took over the Afrin region, its original residents—especially the Kurds—have grown accustomed “to injustice.” Today, “we have gotten used to harvesting our land and giving a share to the factions, and not leaving our homes after eight o’clock at night,” Ali al-Afrini (a pseudonym) told Syria Direct. “However much we talk, words are useless. The moment you face a problem, you’ll be accused of being with the [Democratic Union] Party and dragged off to some unknown location.” 

Between January 20 and March 8, 2018, Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups working under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army launched Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which resulted in the former’s control of the Afrin region on the border with Turkey northwest of Aleppo city. 

Afrin today “is like a cake cut into pieces,” according to Ahmad al-Salman (a pseudonym), a displaced person from eastern Ghouta now living in Afrin, “Each faction controls its piece, whether by renting the houses and shops or by capitalizing on agricultural land left by its original owners.” 

The factions are also taking over the administration of “public utilities in their sectors, including the public parks,” al-Salman told Syria Direct. “Imagine, a public park is controlled by a military faction whose members rule it to the extent of setting up a kiosk [buffet] for snacks that works for the faction.”

The factions’ interference in life in Afrin not only impacts individual civilians but also affects the work of the Turkish-supported local councils tasked with providing services to the city’s residents. “Military presence in the cities would affect the work of the civil institutions working in the area, and that is what is happening in Afrin,” Muhammad al-Sheikh Rashid, the deputy head of the local council in Afrin, told Syria Direct. “The council is affected by the imposed security situation,” he added. 

The bombings pretext

Barely a month has gone by in the Olive Branch areas without an explosion or infighting between the factions located in the region. Early this year, for instance, a civilian was killed and others injured in a car bombing in the Jenderes area of the Afrin countryside. The United Nations’ human rights office has verified that between January and September 2020, “at least 116 civilians were killed” in the Turkish areas of influence in northern Syria, Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, “and some 463 injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive remnants of war (ERW).”

Jenderes also saw infighting in December between members of the Nour e-Din al-Zanki Movement—which is affiliated with the National Army in Afrin—and displaced eastern Ghouta fighters. The infighting took place against the backdrop of al-Zanki arresting a displaced person following a dispute over a house the latter lived in but belonged to a family displaced from Jenderes.

The factions continue to demand “protection money from civilians and pressure tenants to vacate houses in their areas of influence,” according to Sameer Hassan (a pseudonym), a displaced person from eastern Ghouta. Hassan rented a house from its owner but had to pay the rent to “the Eastern Army faction, which later pressured me to leave the house even though the lease had not expired,” he told Syria Direct

A specialized committee, called the “Redress Grievances Committee,” consisting of representatives of several National Army military factions, has been formed to follow up on civilian complaints in the Olive Branch areas. In a span of ten days last October, the committee received around 300 complaints. Nevertheless, “the Grievance Response Committee, as well as the civil police in Afrin, have not yet helped prevent abuses, especially since civilians fear the factions’ authority over these two parties,” Hassan said.

“Our role is very limited compared to the military factions’ roles in Afrin,” a member of the civil police told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. “It is limited to solving problems among civilians,” while “if the military police [concerned with monitoring factions’ violations] were to arrest a member of a faction, it could confront the military police with weapons to release the individual,” the source added. 

In addition to violations against Afrin residents’ property, 231 cases of detention, forced disappearance or arrest in the Olive Branch areas were documented by the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization in the last two months of 2020 alone. The detentions, according to the human rights organization, included “four minors, 22 women, and 205 men.” 

Although Hassan al-Dughaim, the head of the National Army’s Department of Moral Guidance, stressed the lack of “any interest for any military power in taking the cities and towns as headquarters,” he justified the situation in Afrin and other National Army-controlled areas by the activity of “organizations with ideologies of sustained conflict” that make it “impossible to rely upon a civil police apparatus alone in a comprehensive confrontation with [such] organizations that use bombing and assassination networks.” 

“Not everything the National Army does is a satisfactory solution,” Al-Dughaim told Syria Direct, “it is a challenge that must be faced.” At the same time, he stressed that “the National Army, within the limits of its capacities, tries to hold perpetrators accountable and give redress.” 

According to Nawar Shaban, the Director of the Information and Military Affairs Unit at the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, “the military factions in Afrin find in the continuous bombings a justification for their continued presence.” Consequently, despite ongoing calls for the military factions to evacuate Afrin, “that will not happen,” he told Syria Direct

Absent Turkish role

On January 20, 2018, 72 Turkish warplanes took part in bombing the YPG’s positions in Afrin, heralding the beginning of Operation Olive Branch. Turkish soldiers also took part on the ground alongside members of the National Army. However, since being controlled by the Syrian opposition, the Turkish role in the area has become limited to “the presence of Turkish coordinators and advisors,” a member of the Afrin Local Council told Syria Direct

However, the decline of Turkey’s direct presence does not cancel out that it is “legally, politically, morally and militarily responsible for this region,” according to Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice. Turkey “is responsible for the people in Afrin and their welfare, since it has the final word in these areas.”

“Turkey is the occupying military force, which entails obligations towards the area,” al-Ahmad told Syria Direct. However, Turkey is “trying not to bear the responsibility for what is happening in Afrin by freeing the Syrian factions’ hands, then saying that the violations taking place are between Syrians.”

Nonetheless, although Turkey’s role in the Olive Branch areas is less than what it is in the Euphrates Shield areas of the north Aleppo countryside and the Peace Spring areas in northeast Syria, that does not negate, according to Shaban, “the existence of serious attempts by Turkey to control security in Afrin.” Ankara’s latest efforts, however, “are limited to supporting local security agencies and projects to get a hold of the security situation, without direct participation from the Turks.” Shaban ruled out “any direct intervention in the future” due to “the intensity of terrorist operations against Turkey, which would lead it to safeguard its forces.” 

Afrin’s Kurds between two confrontations

Following the end of Operation Olive Branch, Afrin saw the return of groups of displaced people to the homes they fled to escape the battles. But “Afrin residents stopped returning about two years ago,” according to al-Afrini, due to “the factions’ numerous violations against civilians, especially Kurds, and the Autonomous Administration [of North and East Syria]’s stance against [those wishing to return].” 

Al-Afrini, who is one of the thousands of displaced people who returned to the city days after the military operation ended, ran up against “the Autonomous Administration preventing the return of displaced people to Afrin, and its closure of the roads at the time.” However, he restrains from taking part in any conversation that criticizes the factions in Afrin for fear of being accused of “belonging to the Democratic Union Party,” which Ankara considers an extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group. 

A member of the Association of Independent Syrian Kurds, who spoke to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity, accused the Autonomous Administration of “preventing the people of Afrin in the camps from returning to their homes” and thus “not to limit the issue of Afrin’s displaced people to the violations of the factions there alone.” But “even if the Autonomous Administration allowed a return to Afrin, would their lives be safe in light of the lack of security here?” responded Sherfan Ahmad (a pseudonym), who was displaced from Afrin to Hasakah province. “Didn’t thousands of civilians flee Afrin in fear of the violations?” he added to Syria Direct.

Abdelhakim Bashar, the Vice President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and a member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), declined to comment for this report, saying that “there are efforts to resolve the problems of Afrin through the Coalition and internal dialogue.” 

In January 2020, the Coalition and the KNC agreed in Istanbul to a “humanitarian mechanism” document providing for the opening of safe passages for displaced people to return to the cities of Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province, Tal Abyad in Raqqa province and Afrin in Aleppo province. The aim was to prevent demographic change. But this agreement, according to Faisal Yusuf, a member of the Executive Committee of the KNC and General Coordinator of the Kurdish Reform Movement, “remained unimplemented due to the practices of some of the armed groups that entered those areas with the Turkish military and their non-compliance with the Coalition leadership.” 

“What is happening in Afrin is demographic change, emptying the area of its original residents,” Yusuf told Syria Direct

The population of the Afrin region ranges from 400,000-500,000 people, according to estimates obtained by Syria Direct from the city’s local council. Kurds used to make up the majority of its residents, according to the Human Rights Organization in Afrin, a local organization that operates in the area, but the percentage of Kurds in Afrin now “is no more than 35 percent, compared with 65 percent brought by the Turks from [East] Ghouta, Homs and Idlib.” 

It is perhaps ironic that the displaced people living in Afrin may come to take on “bold stances against the factions and in support of the Kurds, while Kurds stay silent,” Ali al-Afrini said, “since [for Kurds] the harm of talking about the abuses is greater than the benefit.” “Imagine if a Kurd participated in the demonstrations that displaced people in Afrin organize against the factions and local councils, what would happen to him?” Kurdish citizens have adopted the rule: “Shut up, settle for the reality and try to live with it,” al-Afrini said. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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