Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has sparked a renewed humanitarian crisis in northeast Syria and has the potential to reshape the region. There have already been reports of serious violations; an estimated 160,000 people have been displaced, and Turkish-backed forces have targeted convoys of civilians and journalists, and reportedly used white phosphorus against Kurds. Concerns for the safety of civilians in this new offensive are partially rooted in Turkey’s disturbing history of serious violations in its previous operations, particularly against Kurdish populations. An assessment on the situation in Turkish occupied areas in northwest Syria suggests that if Turkey does not change its modus operandi, it is likely to commit these same violations in the northeast.
Before Operation Peace Spring, two separate operations—Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018— gave Turkey control over a swath of land in northern Aleppo from Jarabulus to Afrin. In both operations, Turkey relied on a loosely consolidated patchwork of Free Syrian Army factions under its command. But it has failed, or willfully neglected, to establish stability and rule of law through its Syrian proxies. Instead, a chaotic reality has emerged. Extortions, corruption, and kidnappings are rampant, while ethnic tensions fume amidst accusations of oppression against Kurds and forced displacement.
When Turkish-backed troops stormed the city of Afrin after a month-long siege in March 2018, they pillaged shops and homes in shocking scenes of anarchy. Turkish authorities quickly blamed the looting on a limited number of individuals acting outside the chain of command, but images that emerged showed what appeared to be entire neighborhoods sacked as fighters eagerly, and at times gleefully, piled furniture, food, livestock and anything else of value onto pickup trucks. The scope of looting was later substantiated in an Amnesty International report. Despite promises by Turkish authorities to investigate cases of looting, compensation to victims never transpired on a meaningful scale. The episode effectively destroyed the reputation of Turkish-backed forces for locals, revealed the lack of discipline among the militias, and led the way for the disintegration of the rule of law in the city.
Breakdown of Government
More than three years after Turkey first entered Syria, its vision for governance in the region remains unclear as it has allowed lawlessness to thrive. Turkish-backed local councils have replaced those that previously operated under the Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG. While membership in the councils consists of local residents, it is commonly understood that they must remain in line with Turkish authorities, who ultimately have the final say. Meanwhile, the autonomy and authority of local councils and courts are also undermined by the impunity of local militia groups.
Turkey’s failure to establish capable local police forces has been one major factor in the absence of the rule of law. In the aftermath of both operations, rebel groups quickly carved out their spheres of control. Looting, extortion, arbitrary detention, and kidnappings became commonplace; as was property seizures by rebel factions. While Turkey has subsequently worked to transfer security to military and civilian police forces, such efforts have failed to override the influence of the militias. For example, the military police in Afrin attempted in vain to end illegal logging of olive trees by local factions, who also impose exorbitant taxes on the olive harvests from farmers. At present, many militias continue to operate with impunity while criminal activities remain unchecked. In one incident in May, a 10-year old child with Down syndrome was killed alongside his father and grandfather after their families failed to pay a $10,000 ransom to the rebel group which kidnapped them.
Suppression of Kurdish Culture
As the same time, Turkey’s takeover of Kurdish-majority towns in northwest Syria via its Arab FSA-affiliates have driven ethnic tensions to dangerous levels. During Operation Olive Branch, Kurdish residents were accused of being supporters and sympathizers of the YPG, and many were arrested for any association with the Kurdish group, including those that had simply worked as civil servants under the previous YPG administration. The Dean of the Faculty of Kurdish Literature at Afrin University, for example, was arrested despite claiming that he had no political affiliation. After Turkish-backed forces took control of Afrin, there were widespread accusations from Afrin’s Kurdish residents that Kurds were disproportionately targeted by the rebels in the lootings, and that some Kurdish residents were specifically prevented by Turkish-backed militias from returning to their homes after the fighting.
Turkey and its FSA forces have also carried out a number of acts that targeted Kurdish culture. In an affront to local Kurds, they tore down a statue of Kaveh the Blacksmith, a hero of Kurdish mythology, in the center of Afrin. As Turkey and its forces consolidated control over the region, expressions of Kurdish culture and language were replaced with Turkish ones. The signs of schools and administrative buildings that had previously been in Kurdish are now in Turkish, though Arabic signs remained. Turkish language classes replaced Kurdish in school curriculums. Celebrations of Nowruz – an ethnic New Year’s celebration – were banned. In the city center, the Kawa al-Haddad roundabout has been renamed the ‘Olive Branch’ roundabout. Another square in the city is now called ‘Recep Tayyip Erdogan Square’.
Forced Demographic Change and Property Expropriation
Critics have also accused the Turkish government of attempts to dilute the Kurdish population through its operations in northern Aleppo, which resulted in major demographic changes. Around 137,000 people were displaced during Operation Olive Branch, leaving thousands of homes and shops vacant. The operation in Afrin overlapped with the Syrian government’s capture of eastern Ghouta, which forced more than 65,000 people to evacuate to the last opposition-held territories in Aleppo and Idlib. Many of those that ended up in Afrin took over the empty homes of the predominately Kurdish owners who had fled. In some accounts, rebel groups have supported the redistribution of properties to Arab families, or have taken properties for themselves to lease. Families who sought to take back their properties have limited avenues for recourse, and appear to be at the mercy of the groups in charge.
Long Term Implications
The violations outlined here will have long-term implications for local communities, far beyond the scope of the initial operations. As a primary matter, Turkey must follow the principles of proportionality and distinction, adhere to international humanitarian law, and respect the rights of Kurdish populations. SJAC calls on the international community to ensure that the same violations carried out during and after Turkey’s previous operations will not be repeated again in northeast Syria. SJAC will continue to document these and other human rights violations committed by Turkey, and all other actors, in Operation Peace Spring.