Turkish-backed Syrian proxy fighters loot businesses in Afrin, March 24, 2020. File photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Since the Turkish invasion of January 2018, the Kurdish population of Afrin, northwest Syria, has fallen by more than 60 percent, according to a local rights group. Thousands of indigenous Kurds were forced to flee the area when Turkish forces and their Syrian militia proxies launched Operation Olive Branch on January 20, 2018. By the time Ankara had seized control of Afrin city from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 24, tens of thousands of Kurds had fled, many of them to Kurdish-controlled areas in northeast Syria. Families displaced by regime offensives to the south were resettled in their place. “According to the latest statistics that we received, the size of the indigenous population of Kurds in the Afrin region reached 34.8 percent in January, while they previously made up 97 percent of the population,” the Afrin-based Human Rights Organization said in a report Sunday. “The number of arrivals from various other regions makes up 65.2 percent of the population.” The organization, which is run by local activists, failed to elaborate on the ethnicity of the settlers, but said they are from Idlib, Ghouta, Homs, and Deir ez-Zor – Arab majority areas. It estimates Afrin is now home to 298,700 Kurds and 458,000 people displaced from elsewhere in Syria, while Afrin city is home to 53,300 Kurds and 110,000 people displaced from elsewhere in Syria. International aid organizations were barred from entered Afrin following the offensive, making data difficult to verify. The Human Rights Organization did not explain its methodology. According to UN estimates, upwards of 150,000 Kurds have been displaced, most of them displaced to Shahba camp in Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo. Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch with the stated aim of pushing the YPG back from its southern border. Ankara believes the YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group which has fought a decades-long war with the Turkish state for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds. The YPG, which makes up the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), denies any organic ties with the PKK. Monitors accused Turkey’s Syrian militia proxies of committing abuses against Afrin civilians, especially Kurds, during and after the offensive. Photographs quickly emerged of militiamen looting Kurdish homes and businesses and pulling down a statue of Kawa the Blacksmith – a core figure in Kurdish national culture. Observers accused the militias of ethnic cleansing after homes were commandeered by fighters, residents intimidated or kidnapped for ransom, and displaced families blocked from returning. Judicial structures in occupied Afrin are managed by Turkish-backed armed groups. “Security chaos still prevails in the Afrin region, as a result of the spread of armed elements under the Syrian National Army in a chaotic manner, carrying weapons without distinguishing them from thieves and bandits,” the Afrin-based Human Rights Organization said. Turkey and its Syrian proxies launched another offensive against Kurdish forces in October 2019, this time in the northeast, after US troops withdrew from the Syria-Turkey border region. UN observers accused these Turkish proxies of potential war crimes and allowing an Islamic State (ISIS) revival in areas liberated by the Kurdish-led SDF. The Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has demanded Turkey withdraw from its territory. Earlier this year, Syrian troops and other regime loyalists clashed with Turkish soldiers in Idlib, where Ankara has established military observation posts and supports the armed opposition. A ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow and Ankara appeared to halt the regime offensive to retake the province. Efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak also seem to have reigned in the fighting.
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