Around this time five years ago, the Turkish government announced the end of Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin district of northwest Syria. The operation resulted in Turkey and its local allies taking control of the area, and the Syrian Democratic Forces being forced out after intense battles that led to the displacement of over half of the Afrin population. More than 90% of those displaced were Kurds.
The Turkish-backed factions gained control over the region and established a direct military and security presence. Local governance bodies were established and linked administratively to the Turkish border provinces rather than the Syrian Interim Government, which is supported by Ankara. Over the following months, displaced persons arrived in the north from many Syrian regions that the Assad regime had regained control over. The controlling factions imposed royalties on every economic activity, in addition to the royalties imposed on the passage of commercial convoys through border points and points of contact. By 2020, two years after Turkey took control of Afrin, the Special Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which is part of the United Nations Human Rights Council, stated that the violations committed in Afrin may amount to war crimes.
The violations in question included the confiscation of property, destruction of agricultural land, killings under torture, and arbitrary detention. As a result of the factions cutting down trees for wood trafficking, large areas of Afrin, once known for its lush greenery, turned into barren wasteland. Moreover, several clashes between the same factions brought to light the existence of secret prisons where the most egregious violations, including rape and torture, were committed.
The events that took place in Afrin five years ago have deep local roots on the one hand, and a significance that goes far beyond Syria, on the other. In the years since, Afrin has become a prominent symbol of Syria’s shattered civic identity. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been displaced from their homes, villages, and lands as a result, and thousands more have paid with their lives and freedoms.
The region spanning Afrin, Jandiris, Maabatli, and Sheikh al-Hadid was a hotbed of conflict during the final phase of the Syrian war. Local armed groups, aligned with foreign interests, sought to erase the Kurdish presence from the region, symbolically and materially, causing great suffering for those caught on the wrong side of the lines of international power.
Turkey’s occupation of Afrin was based on a similar strategy to its Operation Euphrates Shield, which brought areas between the Euphrates River and the Azaz region under its control in 2016 and 2017. The Turkish military was joined by a mix of opposition fighters from northern Aleppo, following IS’s attacks on the area, as well as Syrian Turkmen militias, cobbled up from smaller groups in the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama, and mercenaries fighting for pay. This motley alliance later became known as the “National Army” and was joined by additional factions seeking refuge in the north after losing control of areas in Deir ez-Zor, Rif Dimashq, and Damascus.
Despite the rare combination of different regional affiliations coming together in one Syrian military entity, the result was the broadest “anti-national” formation in Syria. These groups, especially those in the highest echelons, were readily available as lethal weapons in the hands of those who paid them. They embodied everything that was anti-Syrian at its core and were perhaps its worst manifestation: They got involved in the drug trade from the beginning, engaged in human trafficking, smuggling, assassination, and paid killing, and committed all imaginable violations against laws, property, and basic human rights. All of these atrocities were manifested in the occupation of Afrin and the subsequent sharing of fiefdoms among the leaders of those organizations.
During the occupation of Afrin, it became clear the extent to which Kurds were seen as unnecessary and superfluous by nationalist and fascist groups. These groups will go to great lengths to erase or diminish the Kurdish presence in the region. As a result of the occupation, around 300,000 Kurds were displaced from Afrin, and many others lost their homes, properties, and lives simply because they were Kurdish.
The occupying factions converted government and private buildings into detention centers, where they held thousands of civilians, including women and children, under the pretext of their affiliation with the People’s Defense Units (YPG). In many cases, the factions’ true goal was to demand ransom, and in other cases, detainees were subjected to brutal torture methods, such as beatings, burning, electrocution, and rape. Several human rights organizations, including Syrians for Truth and Justice, have documented cases of detainees committing suicide due to their treatment at the hands of these factions.
Over the past five years, the streets of Afrin have been devoid of the joyful celebrations of Nowruz. Those who remained and were able to celebrate had to seek refuge in distant farms, while the occupation-affiliated local council issued a public decision to prohibit the celebration. Although the factions later tried to permit Nowruz celebrations, reports from the press and human rights organizations revealed that young men were arrested on charges of participating in past ceremonies. Meanwhile, the names of shops in Afrin have been changed, and displaced persons from other regions have been resettled in Kurdish towns and cities.
This is a clear case of genocide that should not be taken lightly.
In Afrin, we can also witness the repercussions of international agreements that overlook the well-being and daily struggles of ordinary people. Moscow and Washington divided their influence in Syria along the Euphrates River, providing a gap for Turkey to conduct its military operations. Unfortunately, the people of Afrin ended up on the wrong side of the lines drawn by global powers in the 21st century.
In a mere five years, a fracture has emerged in Syria that is unlikely to mend even after a hundred years.