One year on, Turkey’s annexation of Kurdish land in northern Syria has created a safe haven for tens of thousands of defeated rebels and their families, replacing about half the local population.
Many of Afrin’s former residents live in the squalid Shahba camp near Aleppo, their houses commandeered by newcomers bussed in from Eastern Ghouta and other former opposition strongholds.
Those who have clung on to their properties say they must contend with unrelenting threats of abduction and extortion, and are forbidden from selling their olive crop in Syria.
Afrin this season shipped its most famed product, olive oil from its vast orchards, to Turkey, whose authorities insist they must prevent the profits from falling into the hands of the ousted Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK.
Schools now enforce gender segregation, Turkish flags fly over public buildings and portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang in shops.
“I now wear the hijab (veil), but I do it without conviction. Every day I go out of the house, I feel like I have a noose around my neck,” one resident told Asia Times. She gave only the pseudonym Lorain out of fear of reprisal by the armed faction now in control of her neighborhood.
She is employed, but says the employment options for Kurds are limited and jobs are mainly reserved for Arabs from Ghouta, Homs, Deir Ezzor and other regions where the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quashed.
Lorain hopes to find asylum abroad before her child hits school-age, noting that the original residents were now vastly outnumbered in the classroom by children who belong to people she refers to as “settlers.”
“Even in the schools there are many problems between the girls of the local residents and the settlers. For example, they say: ‘You Kurds are infidels. You wear jeans, you don’t veil. You don’t fear God.’ Recently there was even a case of a teacher beating one of the girls,” she said.
“Our girls are afraid of them because even the little girls are dressed in full niqab,” Lorain added, referring to a black garment showing only the eyes and which is encouraged by austere interpretations of Islam.
Afrin now runs on Turkish time, health services are provided by the Turkish Ministry of Health and Syrian opposition activists say work is in progress to connect the area to Turkey’s power grid. Sporadic car bomb attacks are the only reminder of the Kurdish forces expelled from the area.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch started in early 2018, the product of a years-long reversal of its support for the anti-Assad rebellion. The aim was to roll back the Kurdish YPG, the sister group of the PKK, groups Turkey considers as the same terrorist organization.
The Kurdish Marxists had seized an opportunity while Syria was at war to establish a string of cantons along the border with Turkey. Afrin, declared a canton in 2014, served for years as a safe zone between Assad’s forces and the rebels, hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians.
But events outside Afrin would determine its fate. The United States’ decision to back the Kurdish guerrillas in its battle against the Islamic State from September 2014 was met with horror in Ankara.
As was the shock success of a pro-Kurdish political party in Turkish elections the following June. Within weeks Erdogan announced peace with the PKK was impossible and relaunched air strikes against the group’s bases.
Defeating the Kurdish autonomy project was now Turkey’s top priority, and in December 2016 Erdogan agreed to a radically new diplomatic track with Moscow and Tehran – the key backers of Assad – to hammer out spheres of influence and wind down the war.
Ankara tacitly accepted the regime in Damascus would stay. In return, Turkey gained a free hand to squash the Kurdish bid for self-rule.
‘No need for PKK’
One year ago, Russian troops evacuated their military base in Afrin, clearing the path for Turkish artillery to pound the YPG out of its westernmost stronghold. Washington was quick to wash its hands of the events taking place in Afrin, saying its support for the Kurds was limited to those fighting in the east.
Even as the US-backed Kurdish forces closed in on the Islamic State’s last enclave in recent weeks and days, Ankara hinted at new operations to come.
“Our plans, preparations and logistics are completed … Operations in Manbij, Syria and east of the Euphrates will start when the right time comes,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in February.
Akar vowed Turkey would never allow a “terrorist state or terror corridor” along its southern border.
“Following the defeat of Daesh (ISIS), there is no need for the presence of the PKK’s Syrian offshoot the YPG in the region,” Mesut Emre Karakose, Vice-President of the Ankara-based Sahipkiran Center for Strategic Research, told Asia Times.
Turkey was also committed to preventing a new influx of migrants. After Turkish troops and their Arab allies seized control of Afrin in March 2018, the city and surrounding villages were quickly repurposed as a refuge for rebels and dissidents and their families from the Damascus suburbs, bussed in after their defeat by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“Turkey wanted to stop a possible new immigration wave … Euphrates Shield Region is an important host in this sense,” said Karakose.
Afrin residents say they initially were reassured by Turkish guarantees that civilians would be free to return. When the operations concluded, however, they say they were told to wait.
“”The Turkish army forbade anyone to come until after a month and a half. Their explanation was that there were mines in the houses,” said Amina Mesto, an Aleppo University professor turned journalist, now in exile and working to document the situation in her home city.
“Later people were seeing cars coming and going, and we asked them, ‘How come they can enter but we can’t?’”
Residents eventually returned to find Afrin and its surrounding villages had been repopulated in the interim by Arab newcomers from across the country, as well as ethnic Turkmen, with many former residents barred from re-entering.
“If they want to go back, they get stopped by the Free Syrian Army at checkpoints. I have a cousin who’s tried five times and every time he gets turned back. They just tell him to get lost,” said Ferhad Jaffar, an Afrin native now living in exile in Holland.
Afrin, whose population was almost entirely Kurdish, is now roughly half Arab. An adjacent Yazidi village has seen an influx of Islamist fighters and their families, its liquor store converted into a mosque, according to Mesto.
“These are not internally displaced people,” she said angrily. “These are settlers.”
Attempts at redress
Some Afrin residents have petitioned Turkish authorities to restore their properties and curb pervasive looting and weekly kidnappings, whose ransom demands have run from the low thousands to as high as US$40,000.
A local doctor, Adnan Mulla, was able to convince authorities to order a fighter from Homs to leave his house, Mesto recounted. “Finally there was a decision from the local council and the Turkish army ordered the fighter to leave. So what happened? The fighter burned down the house and left,” she said.
Residents initially joined local councils in the hope of having a say, but quickly determined these to be powerless against armed groups operating with the blessing of Ankara. That atmosphere of impunity was underscored when Ahmed Sheikho, a deputy council chief, was killed last June, allegedly tortured to death by the Turkish-backed Suleiman Shah faction.
Some residents have tried to use their status to appeal directly to Turkey-based officials.
Jaffar says his 83-year-old great uncle in Afrin, who holds Turkish citizenship, attempted to register his complaints with the governor of Hatay.
“[He] has Turkish citizenship, and his wife is from Hatay province, so when an official from the governor’s office of Hatay came to visit, he approached him and told him how his car was stolen, a truck was stolen, and so on … Then on his way home he was detained at a checkpoint and held for 20 days.”
Jaffar says his grandfather’s house was meanwhile taken by a fighter from Deir Ezzor. The family convinced the man to leave after three months with a bribe of 150,000 Syrian pounds. Before leaving, Jaffar says the man looted the entire home, only to move into another relative’s house nearby.
“This was the house of a noble. It was 400 years old,” Jaffar said. “They stole everything. Family photos from when my mom was young, when my aunt was young. Our archives. All stolen.”
Not all of the newcomers are comfortable with the idea of squatting.
“After the liberation of Afrin from the [YPG] there were many empty houses,” said Belal Beram, a civil defense worker from the Damascus suburb of Douma who was evacuated from the former rebel enclave last year.
Beram, 26, says he found a house for his wife and children whose owner’s relatives were still in the city.
“Just like I wouldn’t want someone squatting in my house, I chose not to squat in someone else’s house,” he told Asia Times.
Others, he says, pay rent to rebel factions who have commandeered houses allegedly belonging to members of the YPG. The blacklist is wide, however, with former residents alleging that even families whose daughters taught Kurdish classes have been barred at checkpoints from re-entering the city.
Blessings of Ghouta
Perhaps the biggest controversy to emerge from the Afrin annexation is the fate of its olive trees and olive oil production, which locals say can net 70 million euros per season.
Multiple people interviewed who have family members still in Afrin told Asia Times their friends and relatives were largely barred from accessing their lands and selling their olive oil, even to neighboring Aleppo.
Turkish Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli acknowledged last November that 600 tonnes of olives had been brought into Turkey from Syria.
“We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands,” he said. “We want the revenues from Afrin … to come to us. This region is under our hegemony.”
Jaffar, whose family owns a small farm, says those who continue to harvest are forced to give massive cuts to the armed groups that run their area, erasing any profit.
“Now the olive oil from Afrin is very cheap in Turkey. The local council takes what it wants to sell,” he said, adding that the price for olives has been lowered and Afrin farmers are barred from selling their product to Aleppo or other parts of Syria.
At the same time, Turkish olive oil exports have come under deep scrutiny in Europe, with Swiss and Spanish politicians calling for tests and investigations to determine if the oil originates from Afrin.
Sometimes, however, the origin is not hidden. A Syrian company based in Saudi Arabia named its olive oil brand “Blessings of the Ghouta” after the former rebel stronghold, brazenly advertising the source of its olives: Afrin.