Turkey’s actions in Syria’s Afrin amount to ethnic cleansing - Kurdish analysts

Turkey’s invasion of the northwest Syrian district of Afrin two years ago led to widespread ethnic cleansing of its Kurdish inhabitants and their replacement by Syrian Arabs displaced from fighting elsewhere in the country, Kurdish analysts said.

Turkish troops, backed by mostly Syrian Arab Islamist militias, seized the town of Afrin on March 18, 2018, after a two-month campaign carried out to combat what Turkey said was the threat posed to its territory by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group that had controlled the district since Syrian government forces withdrew in 2012.

The Turkish operation displaced some 180,000 Kurds, fundamentally upending the region’s long-established demographics. Before the invasion, Afrin was home to Syrians of all backgrounds. Afterwards, Turkey’s proxies fast-tracked the resettlement of displaced Syrian Arabs in vacated Kurdish homes.

“The case of Afrin can be described as the most recent example of an ethnic cleansing that our modern times have witnessed,” said Washington-based Kurdish affairs analyst Ceng Sagnic.

Before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Afrin was estimated to have a population of 400,000, but that increased significantly when between 200,000 and 300,000 displaced Syrians sought sanctuary in the region. Syrian Kurdish officials said Afrin’s population was 85 percent Kurdish before the invasion, but said two years later, the Kurdish population had been reduced to 20 percent.

The invasion and occupation of Afrin destroyed what was hitherto one of the safest and most diverse regions of Syria, said Mohammed A. Salih, a doctoral student and graduate associate at Perry World House of the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Affairs Institute.

Minorities in Afrin before Turkey’s invasion included Christians, and even a small number of Yezidis. Now those communities have largely vanished and most Yezidis from Afrin are displaced and living in camps in neighbouring Tel Rifaat, fearful of what will happen to them at the hands of Turkey’s proxies if they try to return to their villages. There have also been reports of abductions of Afrin Yezidis and the desecration of their shrines by Turkey’s militia proxies. 

“That such a project of colonial occupation and ethnic cleansing could happen in the 21st century is difficult to grasp,” Salih said.

On the eve of the invasion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Afrin was 55 percent Arab, 35 percent Kurdish and the rest mostly Turkmen, figures hotly disputed by Syrian Kurdish officials. The president repeatedly declared his intention of handing Afrin back to what he called its real owners.

“By real owners, he specifically means the Arabs, as if the Kurds, who had lived in the region for over a millennium, are some sort of aliens who have come from another planet,” said Namo Abdulla, Washington bureau chief for the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw.

Erdoğan, he said, never minced words “when talking about his ethnic cleansing intentions in Syria … In Afrin, which had no Turkish residents, Turkey has replaced the Kurdish-language road signs, names of hospitals and schools, with Turkish and Arabic names.”

But while the invasion had caused big changes to Afrin’s demography “nobody knows the extent of it with much specificity”, said Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst.

Turkey and its proxies deny any deliberate ethnic cleansing or intention to expel the Kurdish population, but say the displacement was a by-product of the fighting.

“But in preventing the return of the displaced, and moving in Arabs displaced from other areas of Syria, it comes to the same thing,” Orton said. 

The Turkish government says the YPG is part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984, but nevertheless Ankara provided scant evidence to back up its claim that the YPG had used Afrin as a launchpad for more than 700 attacks on Turkey in a year. 

The demographic re-engineering of Afrin nevertheless helps Turkey control the area, Orton said.

“The changed demographics give the PKK/YPG a smaller support base for its insurgency to challenge the Turkish presence,” he said. 

The Afrin Liberation Forces (HRE), founded immediately after the district’s capture, has launched a string of hit-and-run attacks on Turkish and allied Syrian forces in Afrin and elsewhere in Aleppo province. 

International reaction to the Afrin operation and the ensuing abuses was muted, especially compared with the outcry over Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria in October 2019. 

Salih said that was due to Europe’s unwillingness to challenge Turkey, over fears that Erdoğan would again send hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees towards European countries, and because Russia had sold out Afrin to Erdoğan so Syrian government forces could recapture other territories from Syrian rebels.

“So, all in all, this has worked well for Erdoğan and to the great detriment of hundreds of thousands of Kurds who have lost their lives and livelihoods overnight,” he said.

Also, while the United States backed the YPG in northeast Syria against Islamic State, it never coordinated or worked with the Afrin-based YPG. 

Sagnic predicted that if Russia does not choose to put an end to Turkey’s presence in Afrin, it could become like northern Cyprus, where Turkish troops have been stationed since their 1974 invasion.

The Syrian Kurds are not capable of recapturing Afrin on their own, but Russia could exert great pressure on Turkey to eventually leave the region and permit President Bashar Assad’s forces to return. Under such a scenario, Afrin is highly unlikely to revert to Kurdish self-rule, and would rather come under the centralised control of Damascus. 

While this is still an undesirable outcome for them, Salih believes most Kurds would prefer that over Turkish occupation.

“Assad’s regime has been oppressive to the Kurds, but between an oppressive regime and one bent on ethnically cleansing them, Kurds would certainly prefer the former,” Salih said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.