For some Syrian Kurds, the Turkish military near Afrin is an existential threat – but many Syrian Arabs see it as their only chance to return home
Syria: In Afrin offensive, some see Turkey as liberator
Tens of thousands have fled the Turkish military’s offensive near the northern Syrian city of Afrin in recent weeks. But just as many people, if not more, see “Operation Olive Branch” as their only hope of returning to their homes anytime soon.
Turkey’s goal is to crush the People’s Protection Units (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish militia with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency against the Turkish government since the 1980s.
Turkey considers both groups terrorist organisations. But to many Syrian Kurds, the PYD is a protector of Kurdish rights and autonomy in Syria, whose Baathist regime has discriminated against Kurds for decades.
As the PYD has taken over large parts of northern Syria, it has been accused of forcing out Arab families.
Radwan Hilal is from Tal Rifaat, to the east of Afrin. He stayed in the city after rebels captured it from the Syrian government in 2012, but left in 2016 when it was taken over by the PYD.
“After the expulsion of the [PYD], my family, my relatives and more than 40,000 people from Tal Rifaat will return home after two years of displacement,” said Mr Hilal, a 31-year-old doctor, who now lives in a refugee camp near the southern Turkish city of Killis.
As the Turkish operation near Afrin has progressed, ethnic divisions have come more sharply into view.
Though it initially began supporting rebel groups in Syria with the goal of overthrowing President Bashar Al Assad, Turkey has more recently found its Syrian proxies willing participants in the battle against the PYD, sometimes for personal reasons.
Turkish-backed Syrian Arab militias have been filmed threatening to take revenge against Kurdish towns for the removal of Arabs by the PYD in other parts of Syria. Both sides stand accused of war crimes.
Residents from the area around Tal Rifaat pointed to Turkey’s 2017 “Euphrates Shield” operation as a success.
During that campaign, Turkey’s military also supported Syrian Arab militias in clearing YPG fighters from the Syrian side of its border north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, leaving behind a zone managed by rebels stretching from the city of Azaz just north of Aleppo to Jarabulus farther east. That operation also cut Afrin off from larger parts of PYD-controlled territory.
“In the event of the liberation of my region, many like me will return to live and settle in addition to the displaced from other areas that may settle in my area,” said Ismail Aliwi, a doctor from Deir Jamal, another village near Tal Rifaat. “The camps are full of displaced people from the occupied Arab territories.”
“I saw several villages with Kurdish residents who did not leave their homes,” said Mahmoud Al Khatib, a 30-year-old engineer from Sheikh Issa, a village near Tal Rifaat, who is now living in Turkey.
“The PKK and PYD displaced more than 150,000 Arabs from the villages they occupied. They also looted and stole homes, imposing taxes and restrictions on the population to force them to leave, and thus changing the demography of the land.”
On Monday, however, it was reported that the PYD had handed control of Tal Rifaat to the Syrian government’s forces, leaving it unclear what Mr Hilal, who is also opposed to the Syrian government’s rule, might do.
Forced displacement of Kurds and Arabs has a history in Syria dating back to the 1970s, when the government created an “Arab Belt”, along a stretch of the Syrian-Turkish east of the Euphrates River, by displacing Kurdish families and moving Arab ones into the area.
“All are changing the demography of the region. Turkey and the regime, and the PKK has already done so,” said Shamseddine Hamo, a Kurdish politician from Afrin, who now lives in Turkey due to his own opposition to the YPG.
Mr Hamo said he believed Turkey intended to at least reduce the Kurdish population of Afrin, though he offered a considerably different figure than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertion that the region was “55 per cent” Arab and “35 per cent” Kurdish. However, despite Mr Erdogan's claims, Afrin is mostly Kurdish.
“In the case of Afrin, there is a quest to deport the Kurds and other components to replace them,” Mr Hamo said. “Although the real percentage of the Kurds are 95 per cent.”
Regardless, Mr Hamo said, conflating all Kurds with the YPG is a mistake.
“As if those villages belong to the YPG, and not to their people,” he said.
*Additional reporting by Ahmed Barakat