The Afrin region, in the far north-west of Syria, was one of the 3 original Kurdish cantons of Rojava. Rojava alludes to the Kurdish-majority populated areas in Syria, comprising the western part of Kurdistan. In 2012, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) withdrew from Afrin and the People’s and Women’s Protection Units, known as the YPG/YPJ, took over the military control of the region, allowing the building of political and civil institutions of society on the foundation of social and democratic values to begin. This was interrupted on January 20th, 2018, the Turkish army launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’, invading the canton of Afrin in coordination with its newly created Syrian National Army (SNA).
For the fifth anniversary of the Turkish invasion, in this explainer we want to focus on four aspects of the current situation of the Afrin region: SNA crimes, administration and living conditions, forced demographic change, and new role of HTS (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant militant group in Idlib).
Village of Qastal Khodarya in Bulbul sub-district
Following the 2016-2017 ‘Euphrates Shield’ invasion, the Syrian National Army was formed under Turkish patronage. The SNA unites several militias that were fighting under the Syrian Opposition flag, which mostly have an Islamist agenda. The SNA is technically subordinate to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), made up of a standard council of ministers and responsible for developing its own political and civil institutions in the territories it controls, but the SNA has become a proxy of the Turkey agenda for Syria.
According to the Afrin Human Rights Organization and local media, since the start of the Turkish occupation 8,696 people have been arrested/kidnapped, and the fate of more than a third of them is still unknown. More than 663 civilians were killed, including 498 cases due to the bombing operations of the Turkish forces and the SNA factions, while 696 others were injured in the bombing, including 303 children and 213 women. Moreover, 90 people were tortured to death in the SNA’s prisons.
The SNA is unceasing in its criminal activity in the Afrin region, generally connected to economical reasons and including extortion of business owners, kidnapping and ransom demands, stealing of crops and plundering archeological sites, unlawful confiscation of land or houses, cutting-down of olive trees, and drug production and trafficking. For example, the SNA has plundered and destroyed 59 archaeological sites and cut down around 350,000 olive trees within the last 5 years. Other than this, other crimes are more related to establishing and exploiting power. For example, sexual violence including rape, kidnapping of women with subsequent forced marriage, torture, and more or less arbitrary arrests. Today, the region has turned into a patchwork of fiefdoms, relying on exploitation and intimidation of the local population.
In addition, there has been infighting between SNA factions since the beginning of the occupation. The infighting is mostly over the possibility of extracting money from the occupied regions. For the control of trade, the access to streets, especially border posts, offers the possibility to participate in Syria’s exports and imports, which is mostly drug trade for export. The control over routes through the countryside is a source of income as well as the possibility of levying ‘taxes’ on others who wish to use the routes.
ISIS in SNA-controlled areas
Afrin, like the other occupied regions, has been a refuge for ISIS leaders, members, and former members after the defeat of the Caliphate in March 2019. Many of them are now members, some even officers, of SNA militias. Syrians for Truth and Justice released a report in 2021 showing 27 former ISIS members not only in the ranks of the SNA, but in the (also Turkish-backed) Military Police too. RIC was able to confirm 80 former ISIS members among the SNA ranks. SDF spokesperson Aram Hanna said that captured ISIS operatives admitted to “[using] the occupied areas to pass explosives”. Hanna added: “The occupied areas have become a suitable environment for the activity of mercenaries and terrorists to operate without accountability.” ISIS women smuggled out of Al-Hol camp are being settled in the occupied areas as well.
Administration and living conditions
Although the SNA is allowed by Turkey to extract money in different ways, as described above, Turkey has a close grip on the provision of basic services at all levels, “including education, health, telecommunications, electricity, and water.” Before 2018, agriculture, with a focus on olives, was the main source of income for the people of Afrin. Due to the SNA burning trees, and charging fees to harvest them, agriculture as a source of income has decreased drastically. Still, 70% of the region’s population earn their income in the agriculture sector. Small businesses and aid, savings, and remittances from family members living in the West have become the most important methods of sustenance.
After the occupation, local councils and bodies were formed by Turkey. These do not accurately represent the population structure. For example, in 2018 only 7 out of 107 individuals on the Afrin city council were women. Furthermore, according to the Afrin Human Rights Organisation, some Kurds are in those councils, but have no influence over the decisions since the councils are directly subordinate to the Turkish province Hatay and receive orders from there. Theoretically, the councils answer to the SIG, which is under Turkish control as well. Either way, they are loyal directly to Turkey. More in general, elections only take place with Turkish supervision and approval, with many of the ‘elected’ people living in Turkey and crossing the border only for office hours. Salaries and budgets are directly provided by neighboring Turkish provinces.
Occupation of Afrin city by SNA militiamen, March 18th 2018
Finally, for the judiciary system, ‘security services’ are provided partly by the Turkish-controlled military police and partly by the SNA. These are the same militias that are responsible for the vast majority of the plethora of different crimes and violations that have affected the civilians in the Afrin region since 2018. On top of that, local administrations are regularly observed turning a blind eye to the SNA’s crimes, as is the case with the factitious “Restitution of Rights and Grievances” committees, and even legitimizing some of the SNA extortions by official communications, as has happened with levies and confiscations.
Forced demographic change
Before the war, Afrin was home to a population that was 80-90% Kurdish. Ibrahim Sheikho, spokesperson for the Afrin Human Rights organization, told RIC that as of 2022 only about 25% of Afrin’s population was Kurdish. He added: “Turkey intended to change the demographics. Therefore, they gave a kind of freedom to the factions until they established the military and civil police after 2019. The armed factions of the National Army looted and stole everything.”
The demographic engineering in Afrin consists of settlement of non-Kurdish people, expulsion of the former population, and the active impediment of the return of displaced people. Notwithstanding Turkey’s official aim in North East Syria, i.e. to create a “security buffer” and a “humanitarian zone” for IDPs from Syria, the reality is different.
As for the settlements, following Turkish announcements more than 22 settlements have been built in occupied Afrin Canton with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkish, Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Palestinian religious and charity organizations since 2018. Since the settlers are originally from other parts of Syria, they have significantly changed the demography of the region. Critically, the newly built houses and settlements in the occupied areas are partly the bounty of the mostly Arab and Turkmen militia fighters, a report from the NGO Syrians for Justice and Truth stresses. Reportedly only 25% of the individuals benefiting from these settlements are civilians. The projects are framed as humanitarian, but are in fact part of Turkey’s aim to dismantle the Kurdish majority in the region.
Following this agenda, the Ankara-aligned press writes about stability and security in occupied Afrin but, on the ground, Turkish Intelligence collaborates with the local municipalities to get updated lists of the returning people, often imprisoning them upon their arrival on fabricated charges of “collaboration with the previous Autonomous Administration”. The crimes described above affect all ethnicities and religions, but certain groups are targeted more than others. The indigenous Kurdish and Yazidi populations are being systematically forced out. There is a ban on the Kurdish language. The houses left by people displaced by the Turkish invasion or directly, and constantly, by the SNA afterwards, are being sold to non-indigenous displaced families. At the moment in which the legitimate owner returns, the other family, who paid for the house, would have to leave again. Finally, journalists are only allowed to visit the region accompanied by Turkish officials.
HTS in Afrin – The latest shift in power
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the dominant faction in Idlib, a western Syrian territory that still remains outside Syrian government control. HTS, a Sunni Islamist group dominated by the former al-Nusra Front, is operated as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. HTS describes itself as a military force, but also a Salafist-jihadist project, that retains tight control on civil society through its ‘Salvation Government’ and system of Sharia courts.
HTS parade in Idlib, August 2021
Its creation in January 2017 coincided with a shift in the strategy of its founding groups: the ties with ISIS and al-Qaeda were cut (allegedly the global quest for a Sunni caliphate as well), and the interests turned local, towards the establishment in the Idlib region of a Sharia-based statelet. The claim actually translated into the beginning of an internal purge that allowed it to become the sole force governing the region, and into an opaque set of relationships, mainly economical and military, with Turkey. As for the civil population involved, signs of an authoritarian character of the administration also began to surface. Today, the internal unity reached in the last five years stands strikingly in contrast with the situation in the neighboring Turkish-occupied regions.
In Afrin, for example, the SNA factions have proven completely unable and unwilling to build a unified army or structure. The resulting structural weakness due to the continuous infighting and the economical richness of the region attracted HTS’ interests. In spring 2022, it started to increase its influence on the region, e.g. through ties with SNA factions like the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division and Ahrar al-Sham. In June 2022, its first incursion into Afrin territory occurred, sparking from SNA-infighting. HTS took sides against the power bloc led by al-Jabha al-Shamiya.
In October 2022, the same dynamics repeated, with the difference that this time HTS managed to take control of the city of Afrin and to expel al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and its allied factions, from the whole Afrin region. The cease-fire that was, with Turkish auspice, agreed upon, claimed among other points the complete removal of all factions from civilian places, limiting them to military contexts. This has not happened. Rather, villages and cities faced only a change in the ruling factions, with the reality of everyday human rights violations remaining unaltered (RIC’s 2022 Q3/Q4 Occupation Report will explain). Furthermore, HTS maintained its physical presence in the region.
Today, the role that HTS will play in the future of the Afrin region is unclear. It’s worth noting that since Turkey is in de facto control of the Afrin region, all HTS operations there would have not happened without tacit Turkish approval. It should therefore be interpreted in the long-term according to Turkey’s interests, for example the ongoing Ankara-Damascus rapprochement, and the American influence in Syria. One thing is certain though, that the list of militias active in the Afrin region needs to be extended by one somber name more: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.