Destroying Afrin: The Historical Roots of Turkey’s Occupation

By Lazghine Ya’qoube

On March 18, 2018, the Erdoğan regime in Turkey announced that the Turkish Armed Forces and their affiliated ‘Syrian National Amy’ (SNA) jihadist factions had fully occupied the Kurdish region of Afrin (Efrîn) after 58 days of encirclement and unrelenting attack from artillery and the air. Both being devastating military means of war that Afrin’s defenders – the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) – did not possess.

Two months earlier, on January 19, Turkey announced their “Operation Olive Branch”, preposterously claiming the illegal invasion was in fact mounted under the right to self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The following day, (January 20), Turkish armed forces mounted their second invasion – of what would become three thus far (2016, 2018, 2019) – into Rojava (north Syria). Initially, the campaign was spearheaded with an aerial campaign and shelling. Then on January 21, Turkish armed forces and 25,000 mostly-jihadist Arab and Turkmen fighters of the SNA advanced on Kurdish areas. For their part, although they did not control the area themselves, Assad’s regime still deemed the operation was an act of “aggression” and “encroachment” against its territorial integrity.

Two years earlier in August 2016, Turkey had already carried out their “Operation Euphrates Shield” in the area of Jarabulus (Girgamêş) in far east Aleppo, under the false pretext that they were moving ISIS militants away from their border. However, the real reason was to keep the Kobanê Canton and Efrîn cantons from eventually linking up as the YPG/YPJ defeated ISIS, with the latter serving as a Turkish proxy force against the Kurds, before being replaced with SNA mercenaries who were less controversial for Turkey’s international image.

Analytically, the question that has posed itself ever since is: Was the occupation of Afrin by Turkish forces based on a perceived “security” necessity against rising Kurdish aspirations in the region (e.g., Western Kurdistan), or was it part of a historical long-term claim to the region, that stretches beyond the current Syrian crisis and the presence of Kurdish forces? Based on historical evidence, this article seeks to show why Afrin among many other Kurdish areas in Rojava are coveted by Turkey both presently and historically.

Afrin and Ankara’s National Pact

Linguistically, the largely hilly Kurdish region is historically known as Kurd Dagh (Kurd Mountain), which helps identify its ancient inhabitants. And while the foundation of the city of Afrin dates to the early 1920s when Syria was under the French Mandate, the story of its almost 336 ancient villages reveal the deep rootedness of its Kurdish origin, with archaeological remnants going back to the fall of the Medes.

Being a natural extension to Alexandretta, the area has always been a corridor and a competing battleground between the East and the West, best immortalized for the Battle of Issus fought on November 5, 333 BC between Alexander the Great and Darius.

In retrospect, two Ottoman Empire battles helped set the stage for Ottoman aspirations in north Syria. These were the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, and the Battle of Marj Dabiq in north Aleppo in August 1516. In the aftermath, what would later be north Syria (and Rojava) fell to the occupation of the Ottoman Empire, which would last another 402 years.

The First World War (1914-1918) then resulted in the dismemberment of the vast and decrepit Ottoman Empire. When the Palestine front was pierced by the Allies (British), Turkish forces and their German allies retreated northward forming a line of resistance in north Aleppo, where the Ottomans under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (who was not yet named Atatürk) inflicted a last defeat on the advancing British forces in the vicinity of the village of Haritan in north Aleppo. Yet, by October 28, the Allies took Muslimiye, at the junction of the Baghdad railroad and Syrian railroad, a few miles north of Aleppo without firing a shot. By the end of October, the trudging Turks had started serious negotiations with the British to end the war.

The Ottoman delegation to the negotiation talks consisted of Lieutenant-Colonel Ali Sadullah Bey (Chief of Staff of the 8th Army), Rashad Hikmat Bey, (Secretary General at the Foreign Affairs Ministry), and Rauf Hussein Bey (Minister for Marine Affairs and head of the delegation), while the British were represented via Admiral of the Fleet Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe.

The Armistice of Mudros was signed onboard the ship Agamemnon, which was decked in the harbor of Mudros on the Island of Lemnos late on the night of October 30, 1918, bringing hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Forces to an end.

On the ground, and when the war ended, the Turks held a position at least 25 miles in length bestriding the sharply bending road to Alexandretta at two points 12 miles north-northwest of Haritan, with outposts 4 miles in advance. Westward, that line roughly corresponded – with some variances – to the flow of the Afrin River up to Sveyidiye (Saman Dagh), River Orontes, Reyhanli, and Antioch were lying to the south of the line, where Turkish forces maintained a strong position. While Lake Amiq (ancient Ufrenus) was lying to the north of that line .

In his memoirs Five Years In Turkey, Field Marshal Otto Limon von Sanders, the Commander of the combined elite German-Ottoman “Yildirim Force”, which fought in Syria, discusses the situation on the front in north Aleppo when weapons fell silent at noon on October 31, 1918:

When the news came of the Armistice the front extended from the slopes of the heights rising there, from Marata to Bablit and Halebli, thence crossing railroad and the road, from Tannib to Tatmarash and ‘Ain Daqni, thence across the Aleppo-Killis road to the southeast of Jibrin. Security detachments were deployed from Deir Jamal to the village of Ziyaret, exactly twenty-five kilometers from northwest of Aleppo.”

However, based on the vague articles of the armistice, the British obliged the Turks to withdraw further north threatening to resort to arms if the order was not obeyed. Since Mustafa Kemal Pasha refused to comply with orders, he was replaced by Major General Nihad Pasha, Commander of the Second Army.

On November 8, 1918, the British landed troops in Alexandretta. Four days later, (November 12), a conference was held Between Nihad Pasha and Brigadier-General Goland Clarke in Raco, at which the latter demanded Ottoman officers withdraw their forces to the west of the Ceyhan River (ancient Pyramus) by December 1 and north of a line drawn between the village of Islahiye up to Missis on the right bank of River Ceyhan. By December 5, they would withdraw west of the Seyhan River (ancient Sarus) and withdraw west of Pozanti by December 14. As a consequence, the Ottomans had no choice but to begrudgingly accept these terms. However, the Turks have claimed ever since that these areas were usurped and remain ‘Turkish’, despite not being included within the modern Turkish border.

By a maritime Franc-British agreement signed in 1912, the French within 13 days (extending from December 7- 19, 1918), occupied Antioch, Dortyol, Tarsus, Ceyhan, Adana, Bahce, Islahiye, Hassa, Mamure, Osmaniye, Mersin, and Missis. Not only this, in accordance with the Franco-British “Syrian Agreement” dated September 15, 1919, the British ceded Gaziantep, Kilis, Marash, Birecek, and Urfa to French forces.

Thus, the British forces were replaced by an “Army of the Levant” led by General Henri Gouraud. The last of the British soldiers marched out of the country they had conquered and held for nearly a year and a month. Syria was assigned a mandated country under the French for the years to come.

The delineating of the 911 kilometer-long discordant border between Syria and Turkey entailed one of the longest and hardest negotiations of its kind. In 1939, the file of the border with Syria was closed following the annexation by Turkey of Alexandretta, but the Turkish state has always sought to annex areas lying within the so-called Aleppo-Mosul line, which are mostly Kurdish.

The 2011 Syrian Crisis & Rojava

Following long decades of denial and persecution and owing to the security and political vacuum created in the north during the 2011 Syrian Crisis, Kurds saw an opportunity to protect themselves and build their own institutions and foundations in Rojava.

Within the context of the so-called Arab Spring to which Syria had a considerable (bloody) share, Kurdish areas (Rojava) extending from Derik on the Tigris in the far-east up to Afrin in north Aleppo in the west, were largely spared of destruction and hostilities between the warring Syrian regime forces and opposition factions. By July 2012, Jazira, Kobanê, and Afrin were under Kurdish control. In 2014, the Autonomous Administration of Rojava was a de-facto reality on the ground with the three cantons of Jazira, Kobanê, and Afrin.

Prior to the Syrian Crisis in 2011, Afrin was the main economic supplier for the city of Aleppo. However, within the years of the crisis, Afrin became a self-sufficient region and an independent one, economically speaking. Unlike all other Syrian territories, Kurdish areas in general and Afrin in particular remained considerably calm. While Jazira in the east remained subject to intermittent clashes, and Kobanê in the middle repelled the onslaught mounted by fighters of Turkish-backed ISIS. Afrin located in an isolated geographic area, was spared much of the violence from the period extending from 2012, up to early January 2018.

During this period, and as the Syrian economic capital (Aleppo) was being bombed into rubble, Afrin was flourishing. The stability Afrin enjoyed and the job opportunities it offered made the Kurdish region a destination for thousands of Syrian (mostly Arab) people fleeing the ravaging war between the government and the opposition. When the road between Aleppo and Afrin was cut, the Kurdish Canton superseded the city itself. Predictably, Ankara was not happy with that developing reality beneath its southern border.

In the aftermath of the battle of Kobanê and the formation of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, US troops had no presence in Afrin. While Kurdish forces of the YPG and YPJ protected the area on the ground, the airspace in Afrin was protected by Russia. In fact, except for Manbij, there was no real US presence West of the Euphrates River at all. Based on this, any Turkish cross-border invasion of the Kurdish canton had to receive the Russian okay, which though difficult was to be received.

In the lead-up to the operation, Erdoğan announced on January 13, 2018 “There would be action within a week if the ‘terrorists’ in Afrin do not surrender.” Note, by “terrorists” he of course meant all Kurds. Four days later, Turkey’s National Security Council confirmed “steps would be taken immediately and decisively to eliminate the threats beyond Turkey’s national borders.” Of course, no evidence was ever presented as to why the YPG/YPJ were a “threat”, but one look at Turkish history confirms that the danger was in their very existence. As the last thing a Turkish state wants is Kurds anywhere being armed and able to defend themselves.

Olives of Wrath

On January 19, convoys of the Military Police of the Russian Federation withdrew military assets and personnel from the Kafr Janneh base located between Afrin and Azaz in north Aleppo. Although the presence of the Russian forces in the village had been symbolic, its retreat was perceived as a green light for the operation to start on the following day. Since 2012, the opposition factions operating in Azaz, had sought on many occasions to attack Afrin from the east, but had never been allowed. Suddenly, Turkey seemed to have gained that green light by Russia to proceed.

Initially, Russian authorities sought to assuage people that nothing would fundamentally change on the map, even as they okayed the Turks cross border invasion. The operation was inaugurated with heavy aerial bombardment and targeted by Turkish fighter jets and drone strikes. In the crucible of their blood soaked “Olive Branch”, Turkey employed every highly advanced weapon in their arsenal against Kurdish forces, striking 108 targets on the first day. Meanwhile, the now encircled YPG and YPJ only possessed light weapons and a bravery to resist.

Prior to the operation, Russia claimed if Syrian regime forces were deployed to Afrin the operation could have been averted. However, many observers believe the Russians ceded Afrin to Turkey in order to improve geopolitical relations with Turkey and distance the latter from the US and NATO. Although the Americans had no presence in the Afrin Canton, it is believed that “Olive Branch” was also a blow to the influence of Uncle Sam West of the Euphrates, as ultimately, they also received some of the blame for allowing their NATO ally Turkey to carry out such unprovoked atrocities on a formerly peaceful city.

Russia also failed in an additional political calculation, where they believed that a Turkish invasion would compel the Kurds to join forces with Assad’s regime and end their tactical alliance with the US east of the Euphrates. However, on both of these cases, the opposite occurred following the invasion of Afrin, as now Kurdish forces were even more reliant on the US and no longer trusted Russia to be a guarantor. Of course, the US would also harm their own credibility the following year, when President Trump greenlighted the 3rd Turkish invasion of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî, creating a situation now where the Kurds are not sure they can fully trust either nation to keep their promises.

But back to Afrin. At the start of hostilities, the gruesome murder and mutilation of the YPJ fighter Barin Kobane was an omen of what was to follow. It soon became very clear that Turkey’s tactics to take over the Canton would be a combination of mass bombardment, sowing fear amongst civilians, and deploying former ISIS militants as ‘SNA’ to terrorize Kurdish villagers into fleeing their homes, so they could be seized by new Arab settlers brought in from elsewhere in Syria.

At the start of the operation rural Kurds had no choice but to head to the city of Afrin. Soon, the city became swelled with thousands of people. At this point, the Russian forces told the Kurdish authorities that if people wanted to leave the city they could secure them a safe passage from Turkish and SNA fire. However, the offer had a 48 hour expiration date and would no longer be good after that.

By mid-March Afrin was fully encircled and YPG / YPJ were forced to leave the Kurdish canton they had protected and built into a thriving city since 2012. Predictably, a mass exodus took place from Turkey’s new bearded and looting criminal occupants, who began raiding shops and even videoed themselves shooting a random Kurdish farmer on his tractor.

Nearly 200,000 people headed towards Shahba in north Aleppo as the first stage of that forced march  (later exoduses would raise that to over 400,000). The exodus from Afrin was the largest humanitarian transfer in the Syrian Crisis. Eyewitness accounts reveal people walked 17 hours to reach safety from Turkey’s bombs. During the fleeing, many people, especially the elderly, lost their lives on the road. They had to be left by their families, as there was no time for a proper burial, with Turkish-backed blood-lusting jihadis in hot pursuit. The newly dead were usually put aside on the road, with nothing but a blanket as their coffin.

Those who decided to remain at home were subjected to systematic persecution and oppression. Murder, abduction at random, forced disappearances, rapes, and enforced religious conversion all became the norm. The best homes were converted into jihadi torture dungeons, while the best factories were looted and carried off to Turkey to repay their sponsors. The vacuum created in the aftermath of the operation was also filled by Arab and Turkmen settlers, who are largely from inland and east Syria, many of which were religiously driven or held grudges against the indigenous Kurdish population.

Soon, the absurdly branded “Olive Branch” had resulted in the displacement of most of Afrin’s original Kurdish people. While a vast majority have since been living in a number of camps in the Shahba Region in north Aleppo, many others have been living in Tabqa, Manbij, Qamişlo, and Hesîçe. Large numbers have also left Syria altogether, either to Southern Kurdistan (in north Iraq) or to Europe. With no precise figures available, it is estimated that only 25 % of the indigenous Kurdish population remain in the Afrin region. Completing the demographic change that Erdoğan sought and putting up a large roadblock to any idea of a future Western Kurdistan, that could eventually link up with Greater Kurdistan (which is what Turkey always feared).

In Afrin, the razing of the statue of the Kurdish cultural legendary figure Kawa the Blacksmith on the very first day the city was occupied appalled Kurds worldwide, and acted as a somber warning to any who sought to remain at home. Turkish air raids soon targeted the archeological site of the Iron-Age Ain Dara Temple south of Afrin, showing that even ancient landmarks would not be safe. The ones they could not excavate and sell to museums in Turkey, would be blown up, so no ancient history of Kurdish inhabitation would remain. In December 2021, people then awoke to find no trace of the colossal lion statue. The area was controlled at the time by al-Hamzat Division a notorious criminal faction of the ‘SNA’. The stealing of the lion is a cultural obliteration in a bid to re-write the history of the region.

While archeologists say the Temple has similarities with Solomon’s Temple, the colossal statue of the basalt lion dates back to 1300 B.C. and was accidently discovered in 1955. Of note, the lion bears a striking resemblance to other lions discovered in Til Xelef in Serê Kaniyê by the German archeologist Max Von Oppenheim in the 1910s. It seemed that antique treasures which had survived thousands of years under many rulers, could not even survive a few months under Turkish occupation. Soon, other ancient untouched hills waiting excavation were desecrated and bulldozed, as jihadi factions looked for any scraps they could sell to museum dealers in Turkey.

People living in the Shahba Region, report that a propaganda campaign soon began by the Turkish state in occupied areas to claim those regions were actually Turkish a hundred years ago. As part of this shameless rewriting of history, Turkish authorities coincidentally announced early in July 2018 that they had discovered Ataturk’s House in the district of Raco. The house which is located in the Raco village of Haji Khalil was used as a temporary military headquarters by Mustafa Kemal during the battle of Qatmeh late in October 1918. The house, which was built around 1890, was owned by the family of Hanif Agha, a notable Kurd, that Turkish media reported was pro-Ottoman. The house is now said to be made into a propaganda museum.

Consequently, the occupation of Afrin resulted in the collapse of one of the most important and deeply rooted and diverse Kurdish cultural strongholds in Syria. Thousands of olive trees and others (both fruitful and forestry) have been cut down by factional groups to either create space for settlements, or to be sold for firewood. You also have countless videos of them uprooting full olive trees to then bring to Turkey, literally carting off the Kurds rooted history to the region. In a new encroachment against nature, Arab settlers in the area are now also raising large flocks of camels, that could threaten vegetation in a largely mountainous area.

Additionally, historical sites and religious (Yazidi, Alawite and Sufi) sites and monuments have been desecrated or razed. The Imam al-Khateeb Quranic religious school has been built on the rubble of the Yazidi Union in the city of Afrin. To complete the Turkification process, Turkish names are given to public squares and facilities. Turkish is being made a compulsory and a basic subject in areas under the control of Turkish forces and the affiliated factions of the opposition. Showing the degradation of the area, even entire bridges are not safe, as factions have dismantled and sold the bars and rails from the Her De Re Bridge (of the historical Berlin-Baghdad Railway) spanning the two tunnels of Raco above the Hasharje Valley in northwest Afrin. Truly, anything of value that can be looted from Afrin has been, as perhaps Turkey knows that one day they may be forced to end their illegal occupation.

Brutality for a Legacy

The unmarked border, water issues, and the Kurdish question have always remained shaky issues between Turkey and Syria – a successor state to the defunct Ottoman Empire. The occupation of Afrin in 2018 – less than a century after the signing of the Armistice of Mudros, is not a coincidence. It represents a Turkish collective memory of the Ottoman Empire which collapsed in 1918.

In his national liberation speech made on December 28, 1919, Mustafa Kemal said: “Our national borders pass through Antioch and span east-ward, containing Mosul, Sulaimaniye, and Kirkuk.” According to Turkey’s National Pact: “those parts of the Empire in which Turks and Kurds were in a majority formed a whole which should not be divided.”

However, later, nationalist Turks made the reclamation of the border line set in Mudros – enshrined afterwards in the “Misak-ı Millî” – the driving force in the war of liberation. In January 1920, Nationalists won most of the seats. The reclamation appeal was made by the “Last Term” of the “First Ottoman Parliament” in the session held on January 28, 1920, laying inviolable and inalienable claim to former regions of the Ottoman Empire – mostly Kurdish – which were not occupied when the armistice was signed. The French ceded large territories to the Turkish Republic including Alexandretta. But Ataturk died before Alexandretta being finally annexed.

However, Turkey under Ismet Inonu headed westward. The position undertaken by the Arabs in the First World War against the Ottoman Empire made relations with Turkey uneasy for decades. However, in the 1950s and pushed by the West (notably the US), Turkey showed a desire to invade Syria, but that did not take place.

In July 1992, and in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Turkish President Turgut Ozal told Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that Turkey floated the idea of annexing the Kurdistan Region (Hewlêr, Silêmanî, Dihok, Kerkûk and part of Nineveh). Ozal had suggested federalism and confederalism options.

In the fifth volume of his published memoirs titled “Barzani and the Kurdish Freedom Movement”, Barzani reveals he was “puzzled” by Ozal’s frankness and decided to raise the matter with the Americans. Both Barzani and Talabani decided to discuss the offer with the Americans rather than immediately rejecting or accepting it. When asked about their stance on the Turkish offer, the Americans said, “This is a great subject which needs a to be researched in detail. We will respond later.” However, they “didn’t respond and we didn’t ask again,” Barzani recalls.

In April 1993, Ozal died mysteriously, but the idea he once floated still survives. While his successor, Suleyman Demirel, echoed Ozal’s articulations, it is the neo-Ottoman Erdoğan who first invoked – and still works for – the completion of the Misak-ı Millî in recent years.

In October of 2016, two months after their first “Euphrates Shield” invasion, Erdoğan said:

“Should we fully comprehend the National Pact, we can realize what responsibility we have in Syria and Iraq. On the contrary, if we don’t know the National Pact, we cannot understand what responsibility we have in Iraq or Syria. We will be both at the table and in the field. We are currently holding all the diplomatic negotiations on one hand, and making our preparations for the field, on the other.”

Understandably, Erdoğan’s words were the echoes of Atatürk’s – 98 years ago – who said, “It is the nation’s iron fist that writes the Nation’s Oath which is the main principle of our independence to the annals of history.” As the Kurds of Afrin have found out over the last five years, that “iron fist” is a brutal one, consisting of theft, rape, torture, pain, death, and displacement.


  • Lazghine Ya’qoube

    Lazghine Ya’qoube is a Rojava-based translator, author, and researcher on the modern history of Mesopotamia with a special focus on Kurdish, Yazidi and Assyrian affairs around World War I. He has written extensively on topics related to the current Syrian Crises.

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