One year on: Turkish cross-border operation to Syria's Afrin

Turkey on Jan. 20, 2018 declared a military offensive into northern Syria's Afrin, a mainly Kurdish populated canton cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory. After a two-month offensive against Kurdish militia, Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (T-FSA) took control of the enclave’s main town on March 17, 2018.

Today, the Turkish offensive into Afrin what Turkey called "Operation Olive Branch", marks the first anniversary. Turkey is determined to defend its legitimacy for invading Afrin to eliminate People's Protection Units (YPG), what it called "terrorists", and to settle a conflict-free environment for inhabitants. Turkey has argued that the YPG militants in the town pose national security threat to Turkey.

However, human rights organisations repeatedly reported on human rights violations throughout the year.

During the offensive, Turkish officials said they intended to bring the war against the Kurdish militants to Syria’s north-east and Iraq, where the YPG’s mother organisation according to Turkey's claims, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has bases. Turkey does not distinguish between the two groups. It has been fighting the PKK, which seeks self-rule in Turkey, for over three decades.

With the offensive, nearly 200,000 residents had already fled, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based monitoring group says 289 civilians died over the course of Turkey’s offensive, along with more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters and 46 Turkish soldiers.

In the last days of the offensive, Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) bombed a hospital in the Syrian region of Afrin while hundreds wounded were in need of medical care, according to the citizen journalism website Bellingcat. On March 16, Kurdish media, YPG Press Office and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, among others, confirmed that the Turkish airstrike killed over a dozen non-combatants.

The United States and Germany condemned Turkey for adding to Syria’s misery. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed their criticism. “We have not caused a single civilian to bleed from his nose,” he said, according to the Economist.

After the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels took control over the city, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also called Turkey to ensure Turkey-backed Syrian rebels adhere to the international humanitarian law.

"Civilians now living in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups continue to face hardships, which in some instances may amount to violations of international humanitarian law and violations or abuses of international human rights law,” the June 2018 OHCHR report said.

In August 2018, Amnesty International said Turkish forces have been giving Syrian armed groups free rein to commit serious human rights abuses against civilians in Afrin, following an in-depth investigation into life in the city under Turkish military occupation.

Amnesty’s research shows that Afrin residents have been enduring widespread human rights violations, mostly at the hands of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups.

"Violations include arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and confiscation of property and looting to which Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye," the report said.

“We heard appalling stories of people being detained, tortured or forcibly disappeared by Syrian armed groups, who continue to wreak havoc on civilians, unchecked by Turkish forces," Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf said in Aug.1, 2018.

Reporting extensively on the human rights abuses in Afrin, Human Rights Watch documented that Syrian armed groups are looting and destroying civilian property in Afrin and surrounding villages, exacerbating the plight of civilians.

"The civilians are stranded in areas with limited food, clean water, and medical supplies," the HRW said, adding Turkish forces and its rebel allies confiscated civilian property, in some cases threatening residents with death or violence.

According to the United Nations, the fighting displaced at least 137,000 people. About 50,000 to 70,000 people remain in Afrin city.

"From a protection standpoint, the situation in Afrin district remains worrying. Anecdotal information indicates that incidents of looting, confiscation of property and threats of violence against civilians are happening but on a smaller scale than what was initially reported on 18 March," a United Nations report said on March 2018.

In October, SOHR released another report saying violations in Afrin continue and hundreds of the area’s people were still in custody.

"Violations continue in Afrin area without being deterred or suppressed by conscience for authority. The factions of 'Olive Branch' Operation continue to detain hundreds of people from Afrin area, and take them as a commodity to be trafficked with, by arresting them and then communicating with their relatives asking for a ransom in exchange for releasing every kidnapped person of Afrin area," the SOHR report said.

Another report by SOHR on Jan.1 said Turkish-backed rebels continue to rule the city despite all violations and forced mass displacement after "41 weeks in a row", "287 days of violations", and displacement of more than 350,000 inhabitants.

“Today we are in Afrin and tomorrow we will be in Manbij. And the next day we will ensure that terrorists are cleared east of the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border,” Erdoğan said repeatedly following Turkey's Afrin offensive.

The future of Manbij and the cities in the east of Euphrates River became unclear as Turkey woved to expand its military operations. Will they share the same fate as Afrin?