This my second update on events in Afrin and beyond.
After I wrote my first update (below) on Friday, March 16, it became apparent that the hoped-for last minute intervention by our government and/or the UN was not going to happen. The world stood by and did nothing as our worst fears unfolded. Afrin city was surrounded, and most of the surrounding territory was overrun by Turkish Jihadi ground troops killing, looting, and driving out civilians. On Sunday, March 18, Turkey took control of Afrin city, but it was largely empty. The defenders had made a strategic decision to evacuate as many civilians as possible and to have YPG soldiers retreat to wage a guerrilla war against the occupiers. There was no surrender. This all happened very quickly after Afrin's only remaining hospital was destroyed by Turkish bombs on March 16. (That is, the only functioning hospital in the region, not just the city.) There were dozens of bombing runs happening in and around the city, killing and severely wounding hundreds, if not thousands. Victims bled out on hospital floors as doctors were forced into triage, caring only for those most likely to survive. The city already had no water, electricity, food or medical supplies, and life there had become impossible. Turkey denies that all of this happened, but the photo, video, and testimonial evidence is overwhelming.
President Tayyip Erdogan said from the very beginning of this war that he intended to remove Afrin’s population of almost one million (half refugees from other parts of Syria and half its pre civil war population—predominantly Kurds, with significant Yazidi, Christian, and other minority group residents). Its new “rightful” residents were to be Syrian refugees who had been living in refugee camps in Turkey: people who had never previously set foot in Afrin unless they passed through on their way to Turkey.
Erdogan's stated plans have happened on an industrial scale. Based on UN estimates only 50,000 people remain in Afrin city, which had held approximately 350,000 pre-war, plus tens of thousands of refugees from other parts of Afrin who fled from the Turks. Only around 100,000 people (50% children) remain in rural areas that held around 400-500,00 people. If UN estimates are correct, only 150,000 out of almost one million pre-war inhabitants remain. Even as the bombs fell, Turkey was busing people in to live in the homes “cleansed” of their true owners. The scale and ruthlessness of this ethnic cleansing is almost impossible to believe. There was no international intervention as one country blatantly invaded another and cleansed an area of almost all of its population, in a period of only two months, due to vastly superior military hardware and larger armed forces.
When it became clear that resistance was impossible, terrified people ran for their lives often with only the clothes on their backs. On March 16 and 17, as many as 500,000 civilians fled from Afrin. Even in Syria, with 12 million internal IDPs or external refugees, this is a huge number of new IDP’s in only a few days. Turkey bombed civilian vehicle convoys that stretched many kilometers long. Refugees then fled on foot over high mountain terrain in groups that also stretched for many kilometers. And they walked out, some heads held high, some laughing as they held their children’s hands as if they were on some pleasant family excursion. There were wounded and old people using walkers, mothers carrying babies in their arms. Videos and photos show most walkers wearing only light weight clothes without even a jacket, handbag or backpack. More recent ones show people in transport vehicles wearing winter jackets in the rain. Those without such clothes will be exposed to freezing temperatures, and many have no shelter at all and are sleeping on the side of roads. As later became clear, Turkish ground troops robbed or forced people to abandon vehicles, money, wallets, cell phones, and anything of value. These events barely made a ripple in the weekend news cycle.
It is unclear where all the refugees are. There are UN reports that 120,000 are in a few Shiite majority villages and towns in Northern Aleppo (and other reports that Turkey and the Assad regime made an agreement that Turkey would not bomb these areas.) Some found shelter in Aleppo. Tens of thousands wait to enter regime held areas. Some 25,000 (estimate) are in the Kobani region. The Turks are shelling the areas where they were sheltering, and they have had to flee again.
There is an acute need for immediate humanitarian aid for people inside and outside Afrin. But Erdogan has barred access to Afrin to UNICEF. The UN says looting, destruction of properties, and the civilian exodus continues. Erdogan claims to be providing Turkish humanitarian aid, but as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said “the credibility of the Turkish Red Crescent working in Afrin with the Kurdish population is close to zero.”
Throughout the Turkish invasion, there were reports that its Jihadi ground troops were executing civilians, stealing even their goats and chickens, their vehicles, and looting their homes. They stole everything they could lay their hands on in Afrin city as well. Videos they publish show a remarkable number of farm tractors being used as vehicles. In one video, they are shown killing a fleeing farmer in order to steal his tractor. They have stolen people’s homes and lands, farm animals, etc. Turkey promises to withdraw from Afrin when it finishes its “Olive Branch” mission. But the people it forced to leave will never be allowed to return home without vast international pressure that was absent before and during this invasion.
There have been numerous reports of war crimes and genocide. The Syrian Islamic Council gave the Turkish ground troops a fatwa allowing them to kill SDF troops and do what they wanted to those who resisted or refused to adopt their version of Islam. Reportedly, Christians and Yazidis have been particular targets. I have received reports through a trusted source who spoke to people in hiding in Afrin that Jihadi troops have been told that killing a Christian gives them an automatic admission to heaven with its peculiar female delights. This is a new and particularly frightening concept, not previously promoted even by ISIS. Before the only sure admission ticket was to die in Jihad. Like ISIS, these Jihadi warriors (drawn from various Syrian extremist opposition forces, many formed by Turkey) view Yazidis with particular contempt as infidels. So soldiers have gone door to door, hunting for Christians and Yazidis and shooting them on sight. All 55 Yazidi villages were conquered, and most of their residents fled. Those who remain report that their homes have been marked with special insignia to designate their residents as Yazidis. This terrifies them. There is a heartbreaking video of an old man, a Yazidi, being abused by Turkish troops (self-published). Another Yazidi man reportedly refused to leave his home out of fear after the Turks ordered all civilians in his village to assemble in one place. He was killed on the spot. They are following the ISIS playbook by interrogating and summarily executing those who do not accept their particular understanding of Islam. Erdogan has now succeeded in further radicalizing an already extreme group of some 26,000 fighters (based on Turkey’s own numbers).
Unfortunately, it will be difficult to document the full extent of the genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, deaths and injuries because Turkey is barring access to Afrin. Still, it is not too soon to start discussing charging Erdogan and his generals with war crimes and prepare for prosecutions in the International Criminal Court.
Turkey is now stating that it will continue its campaign of cleansing beginning in Manjib and continuing to Quamishli (the defacto capital of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria). This will involve more ethnic cleansing and fighting with the SDF, which had previously been touted as the US’s partner in the fight against ISIS and terrorism. Turkey is openly challenging the US to a fight. Turkey is also threatening to invade Sinjar, scene of ISIS’s slaughter and imprisonment of its Yazidi population. ISIS has strengthened during the two month war. There are online videos of Chinese Uyghurs dressed in Turkish military garb clamoring to join Erdogan’s forces. Erdogan’s actions have re-energized the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition, and he has now trained what he claims is an army of 26,000 Jihadi warriors to fight, backed with his air and land firepower.
Turkey is rousing its population to a fierce level of anti-American sentiment, hurling insults at our President, jailing anyone who speaks out against the Afrin invasion, and in many other ways signaling that it is no friend of the US or its NATO allies. It is embarking on a relentless campaign against its tiny remaining Christian community, accusing the imprisoned US Pastor Andrew Brunson of complicity in the 2016 coup. At any time convenient to Turkey’s President, its population could be roused to attack US military sites in Turkey.
Turkey can be stopped now only with a clear US diplomatic and military threat of use of force. Tragically, we are right back where we were before the invasion of Afrin with the same options: confront Turkey or risk (or accept) losing the war against ISIS and other extremist groups, abandoning Syria to forces hostile to the US. That will also mean abandoning the nascent non-sectarian democracy in the DFNS, which could still be a model for all of Syria and beyond. SDF forces went beyond the borders of the DFNS at our request to fight ISIS to a finish with the expectation of a long term alliance with our country. It will be a great mistake to signal to Turkey that it can continue its depredations into DFNS territory and threat to take over the Sinjar region in Iraq.
The SDF will have no choice but to abandon the fight against ISIS and “fort up” to defend its own heartland. The US government needs to decide what advantage Turkey offers as a partner under its current leadership. How does siding with Turkey in its campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Syria and its dictatorial and Islamist policies at home advance our national security interests and long term strategy for peace and stability (and democracy and pluralism) in the Middle East?
Whatever decision is made, one million people are homeless, who two months ago lived in the one area in Syria that had not been ravaged by its civil war. They are in desperate need of humanitarian aid and a plan for resettlement or a forced reclamation of their lands and property. The YPG will continue a guerrilla war against Turkey in Afrin. Other military or terrorist actions can be expected by Kurds within Turkey and within other parts of Syria and in Iraq. The war against extremism and against ISIS is weakened in Iraq as well as in Syria.
Some recent articles that document and explain the strategic nature of the decisions facing our country in dealings with Turkey are set out below.
LAUREN B. HOMER
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