Terra Incognita: An International Investigation for Afrin #OperationOliveBranch
To understand the complex dynamics of what happened in Afrin we have to understand the larger picture of Syria.
In mid-March, after two months of fighting, the Turkish army and Syrian rebel allies captured the center of Afrin city in the mostly Kurdish region of northwestern Syria. Since then there have been widespread claims that the area is being subjected to demographic change, with mostly Syrian Arab refugees fleeing other parts of Syria and being resettled in areas Kurds fled during the fighting. However the complete picture from Afrin, two months after fighting ended, is unclear because international organizations and human rights groups have not carried out their obligations to request access to the area and seek answers.
Turkey launched the operation in Afrin in January claiming that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that had controlled the area since the early days of the Syrian civil war were “terrorists” connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party. But there is more to the story than just a war by NATO ally Turkey against terrorists. In early March VOA reported that “Turkey’s political leadership has been saying that with victory in the operations, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees could be sent to Afrin.” On January 24 the Turkish president hinted at this larger goal, noting “we are not in a position to continue hosting 3.5 million refugees forever” and arguing that “we’ll solve the Afrin incident, we’ll solve Idlib and we would aid our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their country.”
To understand the complex dynamics of what happened in Afrin we have to understand the larger picture of Syria. In eastern Syria the US has partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are an element. In January the US appeared to suggest it would be training an SDF force of tens of thousands. This outraged Ankara which has claimed the US is working with the YPG, which it claims are terrorists. Turkey couldn’t do anything to oppose the US in eastern Syria but in Afrin it had always wanted an excuse to push the YPG out of the Kurdish canton. So the operation against Afrin was a direct result of seeking to send a message to the US in eastern Syria.
Russia appeared to oppose Turkish control of Afrin, but at the same time Russia and the Syrian regime agreed not to oppose the offensive by using their air defense against Turkish jets operating over Afrin. This is because the Syrian regime was laying siege to Syrian rebels near Damascus and wanted a deal to send them north to Idlib and Afrin. So the Kurds in Afrin were a victim of larger deals and agendas between Moscow, Damascus, Washington and Ankara. Even though Washington encouraged Turkey to limit its operations in Afrin, the US and Western governments did nothing to suggest that there should be international monitors or observers on the ground in Afrin to determine what was happening. The same governments that have been quick to send international teams to Gaza, Hebron, or other places, irresponsibly refused to do so in Afrin.
In the initial days after the offensive ended in March the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 250,000 civilians had fled Afrin. The UN’s humanitarian agency said that 167,000 had been displaced from Afrin. Very soon after the offensive ended, other displaced people from Syria were sent to Afrin from areas around Damascus. The Assistance Coordination Unit, a Syrian NGO which focuses on assistance to Syrians, published a report in May by its Information Management Unit detailing forced displacement from the eastern Ghouta region and Qalmun. It showed two maps details thousands of mostly Syrian Arab families bussed from Ghouta to Afrin.
For Kurdish activists this represents demographic change, the purposeful attempt to change Afrin and resettle Arabs in the place of Kurds. A report at Rudaw notes that “130,000 people are being resettled in Afrin by Turkish-Free Syrian Army forces.” The Syrian rebels and Turkey have argued that it’s not demographic change but merely providing a safe haven for people fleeing other parts of Syria. Since the Syrian conflict began more than six million people have become IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Syria and five million refugees abroad. And Afrin is not the only area where there are accusations of demographic change. The same accusation has been made against Assad for resettling Shi’ites where Sunnis once lived and against the SDF in eastern Syria, accusing them of displacing Arabs in areas they liberated from Islamic State.
The larger story is that the international community has failed miserably in Syria. It has done almost nothing to investigate human rights abuses. Just days after Israeli forces killed 60 people in clashes on the Gaza border the UN’s Human Rights Council set up a probe into the killings. The Syrian regime has killed up to a hundred times that number and there is no new human rights probe, let alone 100 human rights probes. There is an old 2011 Independent International Commission of Inquiry set up by the Human Rights Council, but it doesn’t seem to actually do anything substantive.
In Afrin there are numerous accusations since March of abuses of civilians. According to a report by the Democratic Society Movement TEV-DEM in mid-May a woman was raped and tortured in Selure village, another woman in Shiye district was tortured, and in Mabat’s Sitka village two women were abducted. A Yazidi man, a member of a minority group targeted by ISIS in Iraq in 2014, was also found murdered in Afrin.
Human Rights Watch wrote on April 8 that “Turkish-allied groups loot, destroy people’s property” and said civilians who fled were stranded. It also said that deaths of civilians during the Turkish offensive might have been “unlawful.” It documented the deaths of 26 civilians in January 2018. Amnesty International also listed Afrin as one of the many examples of the international community’s failures in a March report. “In Afrin hundreds of Syrian Kurds have been forced to flee attacks by the Turkish government and armed opposition groups bent on capturing the town.”
At a March 2018 meeting of the Human Rights Council Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, said “we remain concerned about the escalation in violence in Afrin.” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in early March that in Afrin the “offensive by Turkey also threatened large numbers of civilians.” Oddly, the Syrian regime, which commits human rights crimes, has spoken out about Afrin to the UN. It claimed on March 13 that the “barbaric Turkish aggression in Afrin led to the displacement of thousands” and “went largely unreported by the Commission of Inquiry.”
Where is the international community to discuss Afrin? As a NATO ally and a democracy, Turkey should be held to the highest standards regarding its conduct in Syria. Yet instead it is feted in meetings in the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May condemned “Kurdish terrorism.” It appears she got her talking points from the most right wing anti-Kurdish racists, as opposed to upholding any values that might be connected to international norms, such as defending civilians and the weak an vulnerable in places like Afrin.
The international community has failed time and again to prevent genocide or do anything about human rights crimes, so not much can be expected from it. But at the very least countries should call for monitors in Afrin and other areas of Syria. Why aren’t there people there to monitor and ensure that ethnic cleansing and demographic change and abuses of civilians are not taking place? Why isn’t there access to teams to ensure freedom of movement and the rights of minorities such as Yazidis?
There is access to Afrin for many other groups. The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) set up 200 tents in the Afrin countryside for displaced people fleeing eastern Ghouta on May 1. If the AFAD can freely move tents into Afrin then international observers could also move there. Two months after fighting ended in March, it is time that human rights groups and international organizations demand access.