How Turkey’s Campaign in Afrin Is Stoking Syrian Hatreds


Turkish-backed Syrian National Army fighters preparing to destroy a statue of Kaveh, a heroic figure in Kurdish mythology, in Afrin, Syria, March 18, 2018. Hasan Kırmızitaş/DHA-Depo Photos via AP

Mohammed is not his real name. He asked me not to share personal details, fearing retaliation from the fighters he passes when he walks around his city. I can say only that Mohammed is a Kurd living in Afrin, a city in northern Syria that was held for more than five years by Kurdish-led forces until it was, about three weeks ago, overrun and occupied by the Turkish army and its proxy forces fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), formerly known as the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

To be a Kurd in Afrin, once a majority Kurdish city, Mohammed says, is now to find oneself a member of a despised group, suspected of disloyalty, and liable to be robbed, beaten, put to flight, or worse. In its seventh year, the Syrian civil war has seen the warring parties and their foreign sponsors foster and exploit ethnic and sectarian divisions in order to realize their strategic ends. The looting and ethnic cleansing of Afrin by Turkish-backed militias is the latest ugly episode of this grim and cynical logic.

Afrin is known for its olive trees. In happier days, a friend sent me a bar of its famous olive oil soap, stamped with calligraphy, that he had bought at a market in northern Iraq. After the Syrian regime withdrew in 2012, Afrin and the surrounding district became one of three cantons governed by the PYD, a Kurdish Marxist-Leninist party whose armed wings, the YPG and the all-female YPJ, became America’s partners in liberating Raqqa from ISIS. Afrin’s population swelled with Kurdish and Arab refugees seeking the relative peace of a region that had never been subjected to aerial bombardment, starvation sieges, or factional internecine warfare.

Mohammed did not support the PYD. An educated man with a deep interest in Kurdish culture, he felt alienated by what he saw as the party’s ideological rigidity, its arrogance, and by the military conscription it imposed, even on minors. While he appreciated the security its forces brought, he worried that their attacks on neighboring Arab villages would one day be dangerously reciprocated. Also troubling to him was the way the PYD idolized Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, the leftist Kurdish group that has waged a thirty-year guerrilla war against the authorities inside Turkey. (The PYD is widely considered to be an affiliate of the PKK in Syria.)

On January 20, Turkey launched an invasion of Afrin, with the ostensible objective of taking out “PKK-PYD-Daesh terrorists”—a conflation of enemies that makes no sense, since thousands of the PYD’s fighters have died over the last five years in a brutal war against Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS). Turkey’s name for its military campaign—Operation Olive Branch—was just as disingenuous.

Over the past six years, the PYD has worked closely with the United States, and occasionally with Russia and the Assad regime, but none of these allies came to its defense when Turkish forces advanced into Afrin. (On April 3, President Trump announced that the US military would immediately withdraw its troops from Syria, then backtracked the next day. Only France has responded to the Turkish aggression by pledging to send troops to reinforce the PYD-held city of Manbij, about seventy miles to the east.) Turkish planes bombed Afrin unmolested by Russian anti-aircraft defenses.

By mid-March, Turkey and the SNA had reached the outskirts of Afrin city. Over megaphones, the PYD called on civilians to evacuate. They promised that the YPG and YPJ would fight the invaders from street to street, but this last stand never was. Instead, the YPG and YPJ melted away, sparing Afrin the enormous numbers of civilian casualties that, in this war, have always resulted from resistance to state forces (although at least 300 Afrin civilians were, all the same, killed over the course of Operation Olive Branch).

That night, Mohammed met three young YPG fighters, nervously searching for a vehicle in which to flee, and led them to a parked car. He stayed up, listening to a ragged concerto of artillery fire and air strikes. The Turkish army would have journalists with them, he reckoned. Because of this, he hoped, they would enter the city peacefully.

I knew Mohammed through his former classmate, Sara, whom I met in 2016 when she was stuck in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos. Sara had taught middle school in Aleppo, and she used to delight in the student field trips she had led to Afrin, her hometown. She flicked through the photographs of those happier times while we sat on the floor of a caravan that she and her husband shared with a large Kurdish family. Lacking a cradle, the mother bounced her new baby on her outstretched legs. “Afrin,” the mom called her child: a tiny girl with glistening eyes, born so far from her namesake.

Sara’s family stayed behind in Afrin, even after smugglers conveyed Sara to Germany. A few weeks after Operation Olive Branch began, she sent me photos via WhatsApp of her family’s destroyed home. They had fled in the cold rain to sleep in nearby orchards—a few more to add to the wave of 137,070 people who, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have been displaced by the invasion. “The biggest calamity is that no one intervenes,” she told me. “Where is Unicef? Where is the public opinion? We are human beings and must have our human rights.” This has been the most ubiquitous and, apparently, the most futile refrain of the war in Syria.

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On March 18, Turkey took Afrin’s city center. Photos of the events soon flooded social media. Though far from the worst violations of the war, the scenes were emblematically dismal. Fighters from the SNA fired their rifles into the air at Afrin’s main roundabout, snapping selfies with their free hands. They ran off with looted goods, everything from goats to motorcycles and cans of mortadella—their shamelessness endorsed by religious dispensation from the Turkish-based Syrian Islamic Council. They tore down a statue of Kaveh, a legendary slayer of tyrants and the hero of the Kurdish holiday Newrooz, as if he were one of the stone Assads joyfully toppled during the early days of the Syrian revolution. If a government had wanted to stoke new hatred between Kurds and Arabs, it couldn’t have staged a better show.

“They were like hyenas attacking a corpse,” Mohammed told me of the fighters he’d seen breaking into stores that night. “They did not leave a car in Afrin, except the cars of some Arabs who live here, who brought their relatives from the Free Army to protect their property.” Mohammed had to pay several bribes in an effort to save his own car. Echoing a common allegation I could not independently verify, he told me that only Kurdish properties were targeted.

Later that night, Mohammed told me, two SNA fighters grabbed him in the old city center, where the market usually took place, next to the main mosque with its honey-colored dome. “Take this Kurd,” one of them, Abu Ahmed (not his real name), shouted to his friend, and he yanked the terrified Mohammed into their car. The men brought Mohammed to an empty house, where they thrust him into a room filled with men, women, and kids, most of them, like Mohammed, displaced from Afrin’s surrounding villages. Abu Ahmed’s companion pointed his gun at the group. “Are all of you Kurds?” he demanded. Convinced they were about to die, the group began to pray. But the fighters’ motives were more prosaic. They confiscated people’s cellphones, searched the house for valuables, then stole Mohammed’s car—in which, for want of a more secure place, he had hidden nearly three thousand dollars, his entire savings. “They took all I had,” he said.

On his Facebook page, Abu Ahmed revealed the contours of his life. He attended Aleppo University— once known, in the hopeful days of the 2011 protests, as the University of the Revolution—and then joined the armed struggle against the government regime in Aleppo. He became the leader of a group that later folded into the Islamist-dominated rebel group al-Zenki, which developed into one of the strongest components of the Free Syrian Army in the Aleppo area. Syrian rebel groups merge and vanish like the colors in a kaleidoscope. In one of his photos, Abu Ahmed cradled his adorable sons. Another snap contains a hateful sectarian meme. In a third, he stands in front of a Greek monument. It seems that, a few years ago, Abu Ahmed took a rubber raft across the Mediterranean. Clearly, seeking asylum in Europe didn’t work out for him.

Abu Ahmed comes from a village in the Aleppo countryside, some twenty miles south of Afrin, where local rebel fighters kicked out the regime. In retaliation, the regime targeted it with airstrikes throughout the war. The Syrian regime’s brutal bombing campaigns have driven many people in opposition areas to view Turkey as a protector. A few days ago, demonstrators marched in Saraqab, a town in Idlib, calling on Turkey to intervene and stop these massacres from the air. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that men from Abu Ahmed’s village went to fight in Operation Olive Branch. The “Lions,” as this group of fighters dubbed themselves, made a Facebook page on which they posted a video of themselves abusing a POW whom they called a “Kurdish pig.” This earned them many likes from their followers. Five members of Abu Ahmed’s extended family died taking part in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.

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While military occupations vary in type, they share certain approaches in common. There are house raids, like the one that happened to a family Mohammed knew. Illiterate fighters flipped through t