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Syria's Afrin: a plundered settlement one year on

One year on, Turkey's annexation of Kurdish land in northern Syria has created a safe haven for tens of thousands of defeated rebels and their families, replacing about half the local population.

Many of Afrin's former residents live in the squalid Shahba camp near Aleppo, their houses commandeered by newcomers bussed in from Eastern Ghouta and other former opposition strongholds.

Those who have clung on to their properties say they must contend with unrelenting threa

Those who have clung on to their properties say they must contend with unrelenting threats of abduction and extortion, and are forbidden from selling their olive crop in Syria.

Afrin this season shipped its most famed product, olive oil from its vast orchards, to Turkey, whose authorities insist they must prevent the profits from falling into the hands of the ousted Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK.

Schools now enforce gender segregation, Turkish flags fly over public buildings and portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hang in shops.

"I now wear the hijab (veil), but I do it without conviction. Every day I go out of the house, I feel like I have a noose around my neck," one resident told Asia Times. She gave only the pseudonym Lorain out of fear of reprisal by the armed faction now in control of her neighborhood.

She is employed, but says the employment options for Kurds are limited and jobs are mainly reserved for Arabs from Ghouta, Homs, Deir Ezzor and other regions where the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quashed.

Lorain hopes to find asylum abroad before her child hits school-age, noting that the original residents were now vastly outnumbered in the classroom by children who belong to people she refers to as "settlers."

"Even in the schools there are many problems between the girls of the local residents and the settlers. For example, they say: 'You Kurds are infidels. You wear jeans, you don't veil. You don't fear God.' Recently there was even a case of a teacher beating one of the girls," she said.

"Our girls are afraid of them because even the little girls are dressed in full niqab," Lorain added, referring to a black garment showing only the eyes and which is encouraged by austere interpretations of Islam.

Afrin now runs on Turkish time, health services are provided by the Turkish Ministry of Health and Syrian opposition activists say work is in progress to connect the area to Turkey's power grid. Sporadic car bomb attacks are the only reminder of the Kurdish forces expelled from the area.

Olive branch

Turkey's Operation Olive Branch started in early 2018, the product of a years-long reversal of its support for the anti-Assad rebellion. The aim was to roll back the Kurdish YPG, the sister group of the PKK, groups Turkey considers as the same terrorist organization.

The Kurdish Marxists had seized an opportunity while Syria was at war to establish a string of cantons along the border with Turkey. Afrin, declared a canton in 2014, served for years as a safe zone between Assad's forces and the rebels, hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians.

But events outside Afrin would determine its fate. The United States' decision to back the Kurdish guerrillas in its battle against the Islamic State from September 2014 was met with horror in Ankara.

As was the shock success of a pro-Kurdish political party in Turkish elections the following June. Within weeks Erdogan announced peace with the PKK was impossible and relaunched air strikes against the group's bases.

Defeating the Kurdish autonomy project was now Turkey's top priority, and in December 2016 Erdogan agreed to a radically new diplomatic track with Moscow and Tehran - the key backers of Assad - to hammer out spheres of influence and wind down the war.

Ankara tacitly accepted the regime in Damascus would stay. In return, Turkey gained a free hand to squash the Kurdish bid for self-rule.

'No need for PKK'

One year ago, Russian troops evacuated their military base in Afrin, clearing the path for Turkish artillery to pound the YPG out of its westernmost stronghold. Washington was quick to wash its hands of the events taking place in Afrin, saying its support for the Kurds was limited to those fighting in the east.

Even as the US-backed Kurdish forces closed in on the Islamic State's last enclave in recent weeks and days, Ankara hinted at new operations to come.

"Our plans, preparations and logistics are completed Operations in Manbij, Syria and east of the Euphrates will start when the right time comes," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in February.

Akar vowed Turkey would never allow a "terrorist state or terror corridor" along its southern border.

[Source: By Alison Tahmizian Meuse, Beirut, Asia Times, Bankok, 21Mar19]

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small logoThis document has been published on 01Apr19 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.