Zeinab, a 73-year-old Syrian Kurd, had lived in her home in Afrin in northwestern Syria for 13 years. She was alone. Her husband had recently passed away and she has no children.
But then, in 2018, Turkish forces entered her city in their military invasion of northern Syria. Unlike other residents who fled to nearby Shahba Canton, Zeinab was determined to stay — that is, until the Turkish forces physically forced her out.
Sinam Sherkany, the US representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, recalled how one day men from a Syrian Turkish-backed militia came, kicked Zeinab out, and didn’t allow her to take any clothes. “They are threatening Afrin residents with torture. Fearful for their lives, they are being forced to leave,” she told The Defense Post.
Zeinab, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, continues to live in Afrin, moving between the houses of various nephews. She has asked the people currently living in her home — Syrian militia backed by Turkey — if she can return, but they won’t let her.
The story of Zeinab is one that is all too familiar in Syria’s war-torn north. Throughout the Turkish-occupied territories, a cycle of violence and abuse has become common as Turkish-backed opposition groups are turning to criminal activities to exploit citizens, particularly Syrian Kurds and Yazidis.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch
Nearly four years have passed since Turkey launched its “Operation Olive Branch” military invasion of Afrin. Initiated in January 2018, Turkey declared it was “neutralizing the terrorists belonging to the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG as well as the Islamic State in the Afrin region in order to ensure security and stability in our borders and the region.”
By March 2018, Afrin was under Turkish control. Ankara’s stated “security and stability” has come only to Arab and Turkmen settlers in Afrin, not to its Kurdish majority population.
Afrin’s Syrian Kurds, like Zeinab, face arbitrary detentions, torture, sexual violations, property theft, extrajudicial killing, and gender-based violence. Theirs is a story that remains largely untold.
Distortion of the Truth
Several international news outlets, most notably The New York Times and Spanish newspaper El Mundo, have distorted this grim reality and are accused of “whitewashing Turkey’s military occupation of Afrin and their ethnic cleansing of the residing Kurdish people.”
In February 2021, The New York Times described that while Turkey was widely criticized when it sent forces into Syria, its soldiers now “stand between millions of Syrians and potential slaughter at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.”
Rojava Information Center, a news agency in northeastern Syria, disputed the report, stating that Afrin “is plagued by the kidnapping of Yazidi and Kurdish women and girls, over 150 to date, as well as other violent crimes, many of which are perpetuated by Turkey’s proxy militias,” citing figures from the 2020 Missing Afrin Women Report.
Meaghan Bodette, the founder of the Missing Afrin Women Project, told The Defense Post that Afrin is now among the worst places in Syria for women’s rights and political representation.
Since Turkey’s occupation, women have been almost entirely forced out of the public sphere, particularly the indigenous Kurdish and Yazidi women, said Bodette.
“They have been ethnically cleansed by Turkey and Turkey’s proxy forces. There is no longer a presence of women in governance or public life, which is a large contrast to what we see under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” she said.
Desperate and terrified, thousands are fleeing every day with no place to stay, little food, water and medical care. pic.twitter.com/SVU7B6pGBG
— ICRC Syria (@ICRC_sy) March 19, 2018
Another side of the story is being told outside of Afrin, in the predominantly Arab parts of northern Syria also under Turkish occupation. In towns like Jarablus or Azaz, many Arab and Turkmen inhabitants are pleased with the Turkish presence.
“If journalists only talk to these people, they easily become a loudspeaker for Turkish propaganda,” said Thomas Schminger, a political scientist and author of Rojava: Revolution, War, and the Future of Syria’s Kurds.
If one wants to travel to Afrin, the only possibility is embedded with the Turkish forces, he explained to The Defense Post. “Journalists visiting Afrin cannot talk to Kurdish victims of the occupation without a ‘translator,’ and they certainly can’t speak with the internally displaced persons who fled the Turkish occupation.”
Tales of Torture
In April 2021, journalists from the Rojava Information Center traveled to Shahba Canton to investigate the human rights violations in Afrin and the state of internally-displaced persons camps.
There they interviewed Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Kurd from the village of Til Rindê in Afrin. After the Turkish invasion, his family fled to Shahba, but as time passed, their economic situation worsened. His mother urged him to go to find work in Turkey. He had to cross illegally from Shahba back to Afrin to do so. After one month of being in Afrin, he was arrested.
“They dragged me from the car by the feet, for about 500 meters, to … a center of the military police,” he said. “The mercenaries were from al-Jabhat al-Shamiya and linked to the military police. They gathered around me and beat me with the butts of their guns and began to torture me.”
Mahmoud was chained, hung from the ceiling, and made to lie down on the ground with his feet facing up as his soles were beaten with a hose.
“The same torture they were subjecting us to was also employed on women,” he said, recounting how in his cell were also ISIS soldiers, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Kurds, a German, and a French woman as well as regime soldiers.
“For example, there was a girl, 16 years old, from Maraskê village in Afrin, Shera district. Ten men raped her in front of the other inmates and beat her while they did it in front of us. The first time they took her, it was under the order of a Turkish officer. After the inmates revolted, she was let go.”
Mahmoud was in prison for nine months. His parents were made to pay $4,000 to get him released. A smuggler helped him get back to Shahba.
Kurdish Culture Being Erased
Turkey has been expanding its influence in northern Syria for several years. Its presence is not just political or military. Numerous sources report how it now has a monopoly over the region’s culture, economy, and even education, causing many to view such actions as an attempt to “Turkify” northern Syria.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that his country has no intention of occupying Syria, Turkification is especially acute in Afrin, said Sherkany from the Syrian Democratic Council.
“There are now mandatory Turkish language lessons in schools and its implementation as a language of administration in the region. Our Kurdish culture is under threat of extinction,” she said.
Turkish-backed rebels have changed the names of the streets in Afrin, removing any references to the Kurdish language and culture. Sherkany said that antique ruins in Afrin, Tal Abyad, and Ras al-Ain have been looted and sent to Turkey, notably from the archaeological hill in Afrin.
Plans for a museum in Manbij are underway, but thousands of antiques are still missing. Some, Mr. Khalaf says, have made appearances in Istanbul as part of private collections. To protect their historical heritage, Syria will need help from governments to retrieve these objects. pic.twitter.com/tTwlKBQ6je
— Rojava Information Center (@RojavaIC) August 15, 2021
Furthermore, the natural landscapes of Afrin are being ravaged. Since Operation Olive Branch, around 300,000 forest and olive trees have been cut, while more than 10,000 hectares of arable land have been burned down. Much of the remaining agricultural produce, including its olives, is now sold in Turkey, according to Rojava Information Center.
Calls for International Action
Because Donald Trump gave Turkey the green light to invade Afrin, some say the international community must be held accountable for helping to repair the district from the harm committed.
In March 2018, the European Parliament demanded Turkey leave Afrin and halt the offensive, but to no avail. The UN has also raised concerns over the level of violence in northern Syria. Victims include those perceived to be critical of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, the UN says.
For several years, Sherkany has been calling on the US Congress in Washington DC, where she is based, to send an independent organization to Afrin to investigate the crimes. She receives no response, but it seems that there is now some hope.
The US has taken steps to punish the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army for its crimes in northeastern Syria. At the end of July, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Syrian militant group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, targeting a Turkish proxy for the first time since the war in Syria began.
Also, the US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report put the Turkish government on the list of countries implicated in the use of child soldiers, including a NATO country for the first time.
Turkey, however, has rejected the US report, accusing Washington of “double standards and hypocrisy” with a particular emphasis on America’s support for Syrian Kurdish militants.
For Syrian Kurds such as Zeinab and Mahmoud, life under Turkish occupation continues to disrupt their daily lives, causing continual violence, trauma, and despair. There’s a fear now that soon nothing will be left of the place they once called home.