A motorbike passes through an Afrin street in April. Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP.
AMMAN: Darkness has settled over a patch of forest on the outskirts of Aleppo province’s Afrin city when an outburst of gunfire and grenade blasts suddenly sends orange sparks flying into the air.
“For the revenge of Afrin’s martyrs!” a man can be heard yelling in a video of the attack from Monday evening, later shared on social media.
The barrage of fire starts up again, aimed at a cluster of dim lights in the distance allegedly belonging to a base held by Turkish-backed rebel faction al-Jabha a-Shamiya—one of a handful of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that control the northern, majority-Kurdish region after they expelled the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in March.
The fighters responsible for Monday night’s attack were members of the ousted Kurdish group, which still maintains an insurgent presence across Afrin.
According to the YPG, Monday’s assault on al-Jabha a-Shamiya’s base—and two other coordinated attacks in the area that night—resulted in the deaths of at least 15 fighters, including a rebel commander and four Turkish soldiers. Syria Direct could not independently verify the claims.
Monday night’s attacks, the closest yet to Afrin city since its capture by Turkish backed-forced in March, were only the latest in a series of bombings, ambushes and assassinations targeting rebel fighters and civilians in and around Afrin in recent months. In August alone, 18 such “operations” by the YPG killed at least 50 rebels and seven Turkish soldiers, the group claimed.
Residents say that an escalation in violent operations against rebel factions in the northwestern pocket is sparking fear and contributing to a wider sense of insecurity and lawlessness in the region—one of the last in Syria remaining under opposition control, and a refuge for thousands of people displaced from across the country
Rebels: ‘We will strike with an iron fist’
In the immediate wake of the YPG’s operations on Monday, rebels in Afrin say they combed the area, reinforced positions and prepared to implement tighter security measures.
“There is a new security plan that will be be put in effect to address such operations and to control the security situation in the city more generally,” Badr Qusay, spokesperson for the FSA’s Northern Brigade, tells Syria Direct.
“We are taking things more seriously than before,” says a-Jabha a-Shamiya spokesperson Rafat Juneid. “God willing, we will strike with an iron fist.”
An explosion strikes Afrin city in June. Photo courtesy of Afrin Direct.
Juneid confirmed that a number of rebels were killed in an “infiltration” by Kurdish forces on Monday, but did not specify how many rebel fighters died in the attack.
Despite rebel efforts to crack down on security breaches, residents and local officials say that the YPG-claimed attacks have only added to a growing sense of fear in the city, already on edge following a series of deadly explosions in recent weeks.
“The sound of shelling and gunfire creates a state of panic,” says Azad Othman, a member of the Afrin Civil Council. “People were headed toward stability,” he adds, noting that roughly 70,000 to 80,000 Afrin residents have returned to the area since the end of Turkish-backed Operation Olive Branch in March, which displaced more than 100,000 people.
Those returnees join thousands of displaced Syrians from formerly rebel-held areas of the country—including East Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs and northern Homs—who sought safety in Afrin, reportedly one of the most common destinations for the displaced in what remains of rebel-held northern Syria.
Afrin resident Yousef Ali, 35, says there has been an increase in attacks recently and that both the displaced and the city’s original residents fear further operations—as well as the potential for a wider offensive by Kurdish or government forces.
“Most civilians have been staying in their homes recently,” the shop owner tells Syria Direct, describing a city where people are increasingly steering clear of public spaces and markets. “I call it the city of ghosts.”
Ali asked that his real name be withheld in this report, fearing reprisals from local rebel factions.
‘Serious abuses’ by rebels
Although continued violence appears to threaten all of Afrin’s inhabitants, Kurdish residents tell Syria Direct they feel singled out and discriminated against amid an ongoing security crackdown by ruling rebel factions that perceive them to be sympathetic to the YPG’s goals.
“The FSA…considers all of the Kurdish people [in Afrin] to be PKK,” says Kurdish resident Ahmad Mistou, a former commander in al-Jabha a-Shamiya who survived a mysterious assassination attempt by the YPG in June. The PKK refers to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a leftist Kurdish political and paramilitary group that has waged a bloody insurgency in Turkey for decades and has ties to the YPG.
Mistou and a handful of other Kurdish residents say YPG operations are usually followed by reprisals against Afrin’s Kurds, including harassment, looting and arbitrary arrests.
“The FSA is arbitrarily arresting Kurds under the pretense that they’re [members of] YPG cells,” shop owner Ali says.
Residents speaking to Syria Direct describe violations similar to those documented in a recent report by rights watchdog Amnesty International that detailed abuses, including imprisonment and arbitrary detention of ordinary people, at the hands of Turkish-backed rebels in a part of northern province once controlled by majority-Kurdish forces.
“Turkish forces are giving Syrian armed groups free rein to commit serious human rights abuses against civilians,” the report claimed.
Meanwhile, Afrin Council member Othman says his body can do little to reign in rebel influence in the city. “Those bearing weapons are imposing themselves,” he says. “They are putting pressure on the state of the city and the fate of residents, while interfering in [civilian] affairs.”
“We’re in contact with our Turkish brothers,” he adds, “for the sake of concrete steps to calm people and reassure them of a better future.”
Nonetheless, violations at the hands of the rebels are one reason behind a steady stream of Kurdish families exiting the area, Othman says, in what he calls “reverse displacement”—since many of those families were recent returnees following the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch.
According to his council’s documentation offices, between three and four hundred Kurdish families left Afrin in the past month alone, heading in various directions including other areas of the country with significant Kurdish populations like Kobani in eastern Aleppo province and Qamishli in Hasakah province. Some have been smuggled across the northern border with Turkey, he says, or gone as far west as Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But while some Kurdish residents are choosing to leave Afrin, most—including displaced humanitarian worker Ali Abdul Rahman, originally from East Ghouta—are staying put for now.
Although Abdul Rahman says that civilian fears have “intensified” since the YPG’s latest attacks, he adds that Afrin remains a relatively safe option for East Ghoutans like him who were displaced to Syria’s northwest in a series of surrender and evacuation deals earlier this year.
“Despite the problems,” he says, “Afrin is better than East Ghouta—where people were being bombed—and Idlib [province], which is on the brink of a battle.”
“The only real safe place left is Turkey.”
With additional reporting by Sultan a-Shamdin.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.