Murder in Afrin emblematic of Turkish-backed occupation’s anti-Kurdish nature

Systematic policies aimed at making permanent demographic changes in Afrin take a toll on civilians

The murder of four Kurdish men in the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin region aptly symbolized the brutal anti-Kurdish nature of the ongoing Turkish-backed occupation of that enclave.

On Mar. 20, Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants shot dead four Kurdish men in Afrin's Jindires town as they attempted to light a bonfire to mark Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. Residents from the area protested, demanding that Ahrar al-Sharqiya and all the other Turkish-backed factions vacate their region.

The action from this particular Turkish-backed faction is unsurprising. In October 2019, when Turkey launched a successive invasion of northeast Syria, Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants murdered the female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf on a roadside. In 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the group for that crime and its numerous other documented crimes against innocent noncombatant Kurds.

In January 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to "hand Afrin over to its true owners" and launched the absurdly codenamed Operation Olive Branch, the invasion of that enclave. Pre-invasion Kurdish-administered Afrin had been a relatively stable corner of Syria, even though it bordered Aleppo and Idlib provinces, where some of the most violent clashes of Syria's civil war transpired.

A Kurdish-majority enclave for centuries, Afrin welcomed many non-Kurdish Syrians from across the country seeking sanctuary from the ferocious civil war when it was under the control of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has maintained that the YPG is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and poses a security threat as justification for its cross-border aggression.

However, far from merely removing the YPG from Afrin, Turkey's militia proxies have terrorized the civilian population for half a decade now and plundered the region of its resources.

Afrin fell to the Turkish military and the various Syrian proxy militias fighting under the Syrian National Army (SNA) umbrella on Mar. 18, 2018, after the remaining YPG fighters withdrew to the neighboring Tal Rifaat region. On that Sunday, the SNA rampaged into Afrin city. In a fitting foreshadowing of the anti-Kurdish nature of the ensuing occupation, they intentionally ripped down a statue of Kawa, the Kurdish blacksmith who symbolizes the Newroz festival, in an act of wanton ISIS-style cultural desecration. The militants also looted civilian homes and businesses in broad daylight.

The invasion displaced approximately 130,000 indigenous Kurds. Another 120,000 Kurds would subsequently flee during the occupation from the widespread arbitrary arrests, torture, and property confiscation committed by the SNA with impunity. Turkey would oversee a policy of resettling non-Kurdish Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afrin, often in homes evacuated by Kurds during the invasion or forcibly seized by the occupying militants.

These premeditated actions have fundamentally altered Afrin's hitherto Kurdish-majority demographics. An estimated 80-90% of the enclave's population consisted of Kurds. Today, it's only 25%!

And those remaining Kurds are still being subjected to a litany of abuses, likely aimed at coercing them into leaving their region.

The Mar. 20 murder of those four Kurdish men came two days after the fifth anniversary of Afrin city's fall to these marauding militias and a week after the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released its latest report. That report outlined several cases of abuse by the SNA, including torture at SNA-run facilities in Raju and Ra's al-Ayn and a prison in Hawar Killis village in Aleppo province run by the Sultan Murad Division.

The report also detailed the torture of a Kurdish man by the Hamzah Division and the Ra's al-Ayn military police. They only released him after his family paid off a police commander. Another said he had his toenails pulled out, likely by Sultan Murad Division militants, in the Hawar Killis prison. The man said a Turkish official interrogated him about YPG links as he was hung from a ceiling by his arms and beaten. The official also threatened him with rape and he endured 20 days in solitary confinement without adequate food and water. His family paid thousands of dollars to secure his release. These SNA groups also continue arbitrarily arresting people and holding them until receiving large ransoms from their families.

On Feb. 1, the Human Rights Organization-Afrin and Syrians for Truth and Justice released a paper based on a joint project that gathered 40 testimonies from witnesses of SNA crimes obtained in 2021 and early 2022. The report adds more cases to the litany of systematic crimes conducted by the SNA groups and notes that most of their victims, the majority of whom were Kurds, went on to flee their homeland to IDP camps in Aleppo "for fear of being rearrested, as has happened to survivors who remained in Afrin."

The heinous murder of four Kurds on the eve of their new year is the latest war crime against Afrin's indigenous civilian Kurdish population. And so long as the Turkish-backed SNA occupation continues, so will this wanton state-sponsored terrorism.

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