Five Years of Hell & Evil: Turkish Occupied Afrin
By Dr. Thoreau Redcrow
Afrin (Efrîn) was 96% Kurdish on the first day of 2018. Today, the Kurdish population is less than 30%. Such a dramatic shift does not happen by accident, it occurred because of Turkey’s systematic and diabolical ethnic cleansing.
Turkish occupied Afrin has become a demented laboratory for Ankara’s social engineering and cultural imperialism, where they are committing a demographic, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural genocide. Anything that in any way resembles Kurdish life is immediately eradicated, whether it is a living Kurd or merely a historic landmark proving the Kurds once lived there. From thousands of kidnapped bodies to hundreds of thousands of uprooted olive trees, the Turkish state is fanatically obsessed with stripping the land and suffocating every trace of Kurdish existence from this area of Western Kurdistan—while literally and metaphorically raping everything that Kurds hold dear about Afrin.
Fittingly, in their quest to Turkify the city, Turkey has renamed Afrin’s central Azadi Square (‘Freedom’ in Kurdish) to Atatürk Square, which actually perfectly matches the situation where all liberty has been replaced with a genocidal sadism that the architect of the Dersim Genocide would instantly recognize.
A quick look at some of the stochastic numbers from five years of Turkey’s hellish occupation help tell a piece of the story. 458,000 – the number of settlers from other parts of Syria that Turkey has brought into Afrin to steal the homes of expelled Kurds. 311,800 – the number of fruit and olive trees that have been uprooted, with many taken to Turkey. 300,000 – the number of Kurds that have had to flee Afrin from Turkish state terrorism, with many living in tents as refugees in the Shahba region. 120,000 – the number of olive trees that have been cut down and sold as firewood. 20,000 – the number of olive trees that have been burned. 8,334 – the number of people who have been kidnapped on the streets, with most of them then tortured and held for ransom. 770 – the number of production and manufacturing facilities that have been stripped down and stolen, before being resold to Turkey. 690 – the number of civilians murdered in cold blood, for the crime of being Kurdish. 150 – the number of women that have been documented from the Missing Afrin Women Project, as Turkey’s jihadi mercenaries rapaciously prey on women with impunity. 120 – the number of Kurdish schools that have been converted into military facilities, including torture dungeons. 108 – the number of olive oil factories that have been disassembled and taken into Turkey. 68 – the number of ancient archaeological sites and mounds that have been desecrated and dug up, to sell off to museums. 30 – the % of Afrin which is now Turkmen (up from less than 1%), following Turkish resettlement plans to de-Kurdify the region.
And now that we have passed the five-year anniversary of Turkey’s sadistic occupation of Afrin in Rojava (March 18, 2018), it is helpful to look back at how this terrifying reality came to be. Not only is the state of Turkey illegally establishing their own terrorist vilayets throughout northern Syria, which feature every human rights abuse the mind can conjure up, but they are doing so as a NATO member and with the acquiescence of Western states who claim to be fighting a “war on terror” against the very thing which Turkey represents. And since it is in the Kurdish city of Afrin where Turkey’s sociopathic barbarism and pathological hatred of Kurds is most on display, this open-air crime scene is a helpful case study. As if you want to diagnose an illness, you must first understand its symptoms.
Why Turkey Invaded Afrin
The city and lush mountainous area around Afrin have been a Kurdish cultural hub for more than a millennia. Over the centuries, Afrin developed as the center of a distinctive Sufi “Kurdish Islam”, which was less conservative, and more secularly tolerant than surrounding regions. In fact, Afrin has always had the fewest mosques of any place in Syria and its inhabitants were typically not strict adherents to religious conventions. Consequently, vibrant Yazidi, Alevi, and Christian communities historically thrived there as well. This embedded culture of accepting diversity was rooted all the way into the present, when Afrin became a welcoming haven for refugees fleeing the violence throughout Syria’s Civil War.
In the spring of 2012, the Syrian Government pulled out of Afrin, which laid the foundation for what would later become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to take over in January of 2014. From 2014, until Turkey’s military invasion in January of 2018, Afrin blossomed into a flourishing and peaceful Canton of around 700,000 people. Because of the lack of sectarian tensions and area’s reputation for being accepting of cultural and religious differences, refugees and IDPs of all ethnicities within Syria escaped to Afrin.
Unfortunately, the harmonious social fabric that was being constructed in Afrin was seen as an existential threat by the Turkish regime of Tayyip Erdoğan across the border, for two reasons. For starters, it showed that the Kurdish-led Democratic Confederalist experiment taking place throughout Rojava / northern Syria was a viable model for the entire Middle East region. And, secondly, this progressive-minded philosophy was a direct rebuke of the ultra-conservative and nationalist AKP & MHP alliance of Erdogan’s coalition, which was centered around Turkish ethnic chauvinism against Kurds and a fascistic re-interpretation of Salafi Islam, that was embodied by groups such as ISIS and other radical jihadist proxies—who by 2018 were the only allies Turkey had left in Syria.
As a result, Erdoğan decided that he would use the Turkish military alongside a coalition of Islamist jihadists to invade, encircle, destroy, ethnically cleanse, and occupy the Canton of Afrin in January of 2018—with the goal of establishing a semi-annexed Turkified quasi-colony, with outside settlers who were indebted and thus loyal to his regime.
How Turkey Invaded Afrin
The Turkish invasion was cynically carried out under the pretext of protecting its national security from the local forces in Afrin. However, the Turkish Government never provided evidence about the existence of any threats to its national security from Afrin, as none had occurred. Nevertheless, because Ankara was averse to risking the lives of their own soldiers, they contracted out Afrin’s invasion to a coalition of radical Islamist groups numbering upwards of 25,000 – that were trained, armed, and paid by Turkey. These groups included various jihadist militants such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Legion, and ex-ISIS fighters—as was reported by The Independent. Behind them were around 6,400 soldiers of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and members of the neo-fascist Grey Wolves from Turkey, who relied mostly on artillery shelling, a relentless bombing campaign from Turkish jets—since Afrin had no anti-aircraft defenses—and heavy armor salvoes, since Afrin’s defenders also lacked tanks.
Turkey’s illegal military invasion of Afrin—which was absurdly named “Operation Olive Branch”—officially began on January 20, 2018, and was a flagrant violation of international law, i.e. attacking the territory of a sovereign state without the authorization of the official authorities. To achieve victory, Turkey’s military deliberately targeted densely populated cities and towns, killing around 500 innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly in the first weeks. Turkey also indiscriminately shot refugees fleeing from conflict areas and used chemical gas to attack Kurdish resistance fighters. In doing so, Turkey and its affiliated Islamist extremist groups breached the Geneva Conventions and committed a litany of war crimes—as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The ideological motivations of Turkey’s invading force was soon evidently clear, as the jihadists who comprised the vast majority of ground troops viewed the Kurdish population of Afrin as “atheists” deserving of death. This was portrayed in a series of videos where the Turkish proxies threatened to cut off the heads of Kurds who they described as “infidels”; or another where several international Islamists sung praises of previous battles where they had fought, including Tora Bora (the former headquarters of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan), Grozny in Chechnya, and Dagestan in Russia. This aforementioned video was concluded by them declaring “And now Afrin is calling to us”.
Then as the fighting began, several videos soon emerged showing Turkish-backed militants mutilating and posing for selfies with the bodies of Kurdish YPJ women fighters, with one in particular portraying a young woman codenamed Barin Kobani, who had her breasts cut off – followed by chants of “God is great”. With such heinous beliefs as their driving force and coupled with overwhelming military superiority, Turkey’s military would encircle and fully occupy Afrin after sixty-three days of bombardment.
During those attacks a number of credible observers would warn of Turkey’s abuses, such as The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who cautioned, “In the city of Afrin, which was captured by Turkish forces yesterday, scores of civilians have been killed and injured due to airstrikes, ground-based strikes, and explosive hazards, and thousands have been displaced.” This matched the diagnosis of Human Rights Watch (HRW), which criticized Turkey for having, “failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties” during the offensive, with HRW’s deputy Middle East director Lama Fakih opining how, “It appears that vulnerable civilians are facing displacement and death because of the way Turkey’s latest offensive is being conducted.”
What Turkey has Wrought Upon Afrin
Turkey’s occupation of Afrin and its surrounding 282 towns and villages officially began on March 25, 2018, and the brutal policies and actions of their subjugation in the five years since have turned this once thriving oasis of ethnic and religious solidarity, into a dystopian nightmare where over 300,000 Kurds have been displaced.
The oppression was foreshadowed from the moment the city fell under Turkish control, as the first action of the invading Islamist forces was to destroy Afrin’s statue of the mythical Kurdish figure Kawa the Blacksmith, which is central to the Kurd’s Newroz (New Year) festival, and according to legend symbolizes the struggle for freedom against tyranny. Fittingly, from that day forward, Erdoğan’s regime, the Turkish Army, and their allied militant proxies have carried out a systematic campaign of unrelenting state terrorism.
As I previously noted in my speech from September 2019 before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Afrin’s Kurdish population are suffering social oppression, economic robbery, and cultural annihilation.
Socially, the Kurds of Afrin are suffering arbitrary arrest, assaults, torture, rapes, human trafficking, sexual enslavement, assassinations, enforced disappearances at checkpoints, late-night abductions by criminal gangs, burning down of their villages, and neighborhood demolition to build walls around the city.
Economically, the Kurds of Afrin are suffering looting of stores, seizure of homes, stealing of cars, pillaging of livestock, confiscation of land, forced sharia taxes, extortion of businesses, over 5,000 kidnappings for ransom, deliberate arson of over 11,000 hectares of forest, and the systematic theft of Afrin’s olive oil industry – which is then illegally sold in Europe.
Culturally, the Kurds of Afrin are suffering demographic ethnic cleansing, Turkification of the education system and street names, destruction of Kurdish cultural monuments, vandalism of tombs, pillaging of grave sites, desecration of Alevi and Yazidi holy shrines, cutting down of sacred ribbon trees, and the archaeological excavation and smuggling of over 16,000 historical artifacts – which are then illegally sold to museums in Turkey.
On other occasions, Afrin’s residents are threatened by gangs of “brokers” into obligatory land sales at set prices, which are supervised by MIT Turkish intelligence with the goal of transferring legal ownership to new settlers. Meanwhile, the largest and most luxurious homes are often commandeered by mercenaries under the pretext of turning them into military headquarters or torture chambers, as SDC US representative Sinam Sherkany has spoken about with regards to her own family home, writing:
“My village home, for which my son had carefully picked out each stone for the masonry, was confiscated and turned into an interrogation center. Some of my former neighbors in the area have told me, ‘We all know if we are being brought to your house, we will be tortured.’ My family oasis, the rooms where I made so many happy memories, have now been turned into a place of cruelty and agony where they are sadistically tormenting my own Kurdish people.”
Moreover, a 2019 report to the High Commissioner’s Office of the United Nations Human Rights Council noted how, “The victims of abductions by armed groups and/or criminal gangs were often of Kurdish origin, as well as civilians perceived as being prosperous, including doctors, businesspersons and merchants”, while also noting how, “young men arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with Kurdish structures were forced to pay a fine of $400 in order to be released.”
A year later, a September 2020 report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was submitted to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The Commission documented some of the war crimes committed in Turkish occupied Afrin. For instance, it states that Turkey’s ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) fighters: “coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention.” The report also notes how “the property of Kurdish owners was looted and appropriated by Syrian National Army members in a coordinated manner”, and discusses a specific incident where one Kurdish family’s home was stolen by the Hamza Brigade, and turned into an institute for Qur’anic studies run by a Turkish NGO – with its official opening inaugurated by Turkey’s governor of Şanlıurfa.
Preying on the Vulnerable
But perhaps the most horrifying details in the report are the cases of abuse towards women and children. In that regard, the report describes a specific case where two (presumably Kurdish) prisoners are kidnapped by the SNA and then beaten while being forced to watch the SNA gangrape a minor. As for other children, the report also describes the case of a boy who was held for almost nine months by the SNA, and while in Afrin central prison he was blindfolded, handcuffed, hung from a ceiling, and repeatedly beaten with plastic tubes – while Turkish-speaking officials dressed in military fatigues were present.
The motivations for all these actions are: terrorizing Kurdish residents to incentivize them to leave in order to accelerate resettlement plans, accruing financial gain to pay off Turkey’s many radical Islamist militias who are motivated by state-sanctioned “jihad”, and obliterating Kurdish cultural identity and archaeological multi-ethnicity to enable a Turkification strategy for a de-facto annexation of Afrin.
With regards to resettlement and population transfers, from the start of Afrin’s occupation the Turkish Army and its allied militants began emptying all Kurdish villages with the goal of bringing in loyal Arab outsiders from other parts of Syria. At least half of these mercenary families numbering over 40,000 were brought to Afrin from eastern Ghouta, eastern Qalamoun, and southern Damascus, and have connections to jihadist factions such as the Al Rahman Legion and the Army of Islam. In other instances, families from Idlib, belonging to the al-Nusra Front and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have been resettled in Afrin, while families from other Turkish occupied Syrian cities such as Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarablus were given abandoned villages that persecuted Yazidis were forced to flee from. In many of these instances, markings were painted on the outside of stolen homes, which was reminiscent of what ISIS did to the Christians of Raqqa and Mosul.
Turkey Continues the ISIS Legacy
Illustrating the depth of Turkey’s state-sanctioned “jihad”, at the onset of Afrin’s assault, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (aka Diyanet) called all mosques in Turkey to read The Quran’s chapter 48 on conquest (Al-Fath) and asked that all Muslims pray for invading Turkish soldiers. Fatwas were then issued by the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council supporting various war crimes, such as one in February of 2018, defending the looting of private property as “jihad for the sake of Allah” and merely the “spoils of war”; and ones in May and June of 2018, which describe the mostly-Kurdish PYD as “spiteful”, “secular”, “corrupt”, and “deviant”—thereby justifying a range of mistreatment and theft in relation to them. In one case, a Syrian Arab settler brought to Afrin even complained of the lawless chaos being created, remarking:
“If you come to Afrin, as soon as you walk around you’ll be sure that only the force of arms rules this area. There’s a terrible phenomenon, the spread of stores that sell weapons. Wherever you walk, you’ll find ‘Hunter’s Gun Store,’ ‘So and So’s Gun Shop.’ It’s a really ugly sight.”
Turkey’s Diyanet is also overseeing a coordinated effort to impose Sharia law and strict Islamic dress (veil) on women, similar to what ISIS did, while destroying ancient religious Alevi and Yazidi shrines and replacing them with private mosques—as the first step to forced conversions. At one point it became so egregious that a retired Turkish General himself spoke out, decrying afterwards how, “It is as if we are preparing the region for militant jihadists [like ISIS], and my colleagues who served in the area suffer from the moral humiliation of the way the operation evolved.”
With regards to Yazidis—who Turkish-backed ISIS already tried to eradicate through genocide—their shrines named after Barsa Khatum, Jil Khaneh, King Adi, and Qara Jerneh, plus Sheikhs Hamid, Gahrib, Barakat, and Manan, have all been destroyed under Turkey’s occupation; while the Yazidi villages of Qastel Jindo, Alqino, Bafalon, Sinka, Qatma, Basoufan, Ghazawiyeh, Iska, Arsh Qibar, Ishkan Sharqi, Shih Al Dir, and Ain Dara have been completely uprooted and emptied.
As for Alevis, the shrines at Yagmur Dada, Ali Dada and Aslan Dada in the Bulbul district were looted and destroyed. In both cases of Yazidis and Alevis, gravesites were vandalized and demolished, because authorities said they violated a new law requiring a lower height, which mimics the legal justifications that ISIS used against idolatry as well. The discrimination and desecration has even extended to the sacred perennial trees in many villages that Alevis tie little ribbons to and make wishes, which Turkey’s Islamists have cut down as a result.
Turkey’s desecration extends to the archaeological realm as well, which began during the invasion when Turkish airstrikes destroyed many ancient buildings including the Julianus Church—which is one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries in the world, the famous Iron-Age Ain Dara Temple, the Syriac Maronite tomb of Saint Maron, and site of Brad (which were UNESCO World Heritage Sites). Less notable Roman-Era Byzantine monasteries and cemeteries were also destroyed, ostensibly because they pre-dated Islam to the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
This practice coincides with how Turkey has pillaged through 35 historical mounds in various parts of Afrin including Ereb Shexo, El-Didriye, Zivinge, Ibedan, Sewan, Qurbe, Ster, En Hecere, Kefer Rume, Cumke, Sindiyange, Durumiye and Meydanke. In these situations the grave areas are bulldozed and exhumed in search of gold and precious objects. Politically, Turkey also destroyed the shrine dedicated to the Kurdish revolutionary and writer Mehmet Nuri Dersimi (1893-1973) alongside his wife Farida, showing the ethnic connection to such symbolic defilements.
Turkification for Annexation
Lastly, with regards to Ankara’s Turkification strategy, the claim of them liberating “Syrian” territory was called into question from the first moment of conquest in Afrin, when the Turkish military raised the Turkish flag over government buildings and not the flag of their so-called ‘Syrian National Army’. The Turkish state then began forcing schoolchildren to carry the Turkish flag in propaganda videos, while praising pictures of Erdoğan. Moreover, the mandated Turkish textbooks now glorify Ottoman Empire history and Pan Turkic nationalism, while Afrin’s schools are forced to observe Turkey’s official holidays. Which helps explain why 95% of all school children in Afrin were Kurdish before the occupation, and that number has now dropped to 30%.
This was followed up by changing the official names of places from Kurdish into Turkish, banning the Kurdish language, issuing Turkish ID and temporary residence cards, using the Turkish lira as the official currency, and appointing a Wali (Custodian) and Qaim Maqam (Governor) in Afrin and linking it to the Turkish province of Antakya. Conspicuously, in 2021 when Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu visited the Turkish Special Forces Command Center in Afrin for Eid al-Adha, behind him hung large portraits of Erdoğan and Atatürk.
All of these point to the unfortunate reality that the Turkish state has no intention of ever leaving Afrin, as they intend to permanently occupy it, similar to how they have Hatay (Liwa Iskenderun) since 1939 and northern Cyprus since 1974. Which is all the more reason why the international community must stand up now and demand that Turkey leave Afrin and all the other areas of Syria and Rojava they have terrorized and seized.
However, in case you do not want to trust my words on the situation, I will close with five observations from both other international observers and the victims on the ground themselves. Because the voices in the latter come from a place of pain and displacement, with their trauma serving as the ultimate bibliographical reference.
International Observers on Afrin
“Turkey is responsible for the actions of the Syrian armed groups it supports, arms and directs. So far, Turkey has given these armed groups free rein to commit serious violations in Afrin and elsewhere. We call on Turkey again to end violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and protect civilians living under their control. Turkey cannot evade responsibility by outsourcing war crimes to armed groups.”
— Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, (October 18, 2019)
“Killings, rapes, kidnaping, extortion, forced conversion, and the destruction of religious sites. Today, it is important that the international community stand up for a free Afrin, and hold Turkey accountable for these crimes.”
— Nadine Maenza, Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
“What is going on now in Afrin is a deep ethnic cleansing from which Turkey and the brigades profit financially as well.”
— Bassam al-Ahmed, founder of Syrians for Truth and Justice
“The Turkish army and their Islamists allies have left a trail of destruction in the region.”
— Kamal Sido, from the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP)
“Also in Afrin, in December 2019, a senior member of another Syrian National Army brigade went from door to door in a large residential building, requesting proof of ownership only from the Kurdish inhabitants. One resident, unable to provide such documentation, was forced to appear at the brigade’s security office, where he was verbally abused and told ‘if it were up to me, I would kill every Kurd from 1 to 80 years old’. He was also threatened with detention. Fearing for his family’s safety, the man fled shortly thereafter.”
— 2020 report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, to the UNHRC
Afrin’s Victims in their Own Words
“I do not feel like I belong, and I am unsure what this homeland signifies to me as it does not respect my language. Curricula are part of the political system, and these curricula do not mention the historical presence of Kurds in Syria, urging people to disassociate themselves from the place and revoke affiliation with it.”
— Kurdish student in Afrin
“We would get one potato and a piece of bread once a day and they told us that was too much for us and that we were whores and ‘hungry Kurds.’”
— Kurdish boy, aged 13, describing the prison conditions
“They kept me like that for an hour or more, and if you’re not answering their questions, they continue torturing you until you’re paralyzed. For almost two weeks I couldn’t eat because my hands were paralyzed.”
— Kurdish man, after 23 days in Turkish custody, on how they tied his hands to his legs and hung him from the ceiling
“Turkish authorities kidnapped one of the authors’ interviewees from her house in Afrin and took her to a Turkish detention center where she recounted her experiences. She described an eleven-year-old girl who tried to strangle herself as she heard her mother’s screams from being tortured in a nearby cell. Other methods of torture that she recounted included ripping skin, breaking teeth, cutting hair, and multiple times a day bringing a knife to peoples’ throats threatening to slaughter them like animals. Detainees were also starved, including the elderly, women, and children.”
— 2021 report for the Yale Journal of International Affairs, entitled ‘Voices from Afrin’
“Some used belts to hang themselves, some pens or other sharp objects which they jabbed in their throats. Then there were the poor girls who just banged their heads against the wall until they collapsed… There were around 150 of us. We were given a potato with half a loaf of Syrian bread twice a day, and beaten every night from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Each night the men would take away a few of the girls to defile them, saying, ‘We are taking you to the doctor.’ It was like a tradition.”
— Leila Mohammed Ahmed, a 63 year-old Kurdish woman from Afrin, who was imprisoned for 17 days and saw 10 young women kill themselves after being raped by Turkey’s Sultan Murad Brigade
The popular apocryphal quote often attributed to Edmand Burke, contends that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Of course, you can still say that you do not care, but now you can never say that you were not told about the hell that Turkish occupied Afrin has become.