QAMISHLI, Syria – Heavy fighting continues in the northwestern Syrian region of Efrin, 39 days after Turkey launched an air and land offensive on the Kurdish enclave. Turkey says the aim of Operation Olive Branch is to return exiled Kurds and Syrian refugees back home to Afrin, but Syrian Kurdish officials, including those critical of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), accuse Turkey of trying to change the region’s demographic makeup.
Syrian Kurdish officials say Turkey is using refugees as a card to convince Europe to accept the legitimacy of its operations and change the demography of Afrin, a majority-Kurdish region.
“The whole issue is this: 55 percent of Afrin is Arab, 35 percent are the Kurds who were later relocated, and about seven percent are Turkmen. [We aim] to give Afrin back to its rightful owners,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on January 21, the day after Olive Branch began.
Moreover, Turkish authorities say they want around 3.5 million Syrian refugees who live in Turkey to return to their homes, but the majority are not from Efrin.
People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesperson Nuri Mahmoud said these statements are proof of Turkish plans to drive out the Kurdish population from Efrin.
“Before the attacks on Afrin there was a statement by the Turkish President saying that he has 3 million Syrian refugees and he will let them return to Afrin,” Mahmoud told The Defense Post. “They will bring them to Syria and replace the Kurds.”
“Until now the people have not left Afrin although they are threatened with genocide as what Turkey did with Armenians,” he added.
“If Erdogan is not against the Kurds, he will not think about changing the region’s demographics. We published a video of people Erdogan brought to Afrin, and they say they want to take over Kurdish lands. They do not call it Syrian land,” he said.
Turkish officials say that the aim of the operation is also to return those Kurds who fled from ‘oppressive’ conditions created by the domination of the PYD and YPG.
“You know the Turkish flag is raised in Azaz and al-Rai. Turkey even changed the name of al-Rai to Cobanbey,” said Sihanok Dibo, another senior PYD official.
“Turkey wants to hold a referendum, give Turkish passports to 2-3 million refugees, and claim they want to join these territories [in northern Syria] to Turkish soil,” he told The Defense Post.
Zerdesht, 27, a Kurd from Efrin who fled to the Netherlands years ago, says the Turkish claims are ridiculous.
“Maybe there are a few hundred that fled from the PYD, but still there are hundreds of thousands living in Afrin,” he told The Defense Post.
“Turkey should first return the thousands of Kurds who were internally displaced in Turkey to their own cities, like in Sur, Cizre and Nusaybin,” he said of Kurds who were driven from their homes in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast after the peace process between the government and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in July 2015.
“Rojava is the only place where you can be safe, but there is still more work to do to achieve political freedom,” Zerdesht added, referring to the de facto autonomous region which is officially called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
PYD critics reject Turkish operation
Even the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), part of the Syrian National Coalition that includes the Free Syrian Army currently attacking Efrin, and which has previously accused the PYD of authoritarian tendencies, rejected the ‘Turkish aggression.’
“It increases day after day the extent of destruction of a number of villages, along with excesses and heinous violations against Kurdish civilians, especially the Yezidis among them, as they have been expelled from their abodes and their possessions have been stolen,” the ENKS said in early February.
Masoud Barzani, a Kurdistan Democratic Party politician and the former president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq who used to be on good terms with Turkey, also condemned the Turkish attacks. In a statement from his office in January, Barzani called for an immediate ceasefire and international support for Efrin.
Abdulbasit Sayda, the former head of the Syrian National Council and a fierce critic of the PYD, left the Syrian opposition due to Turkey’s attacks on Afrin.
“I believe that this subject is used to convince the Turkish public opinion as there are voices calling for a solution to the situation of refugees [inside Turkey]. On the other hand these factions are trying to get rid of criticism,” he told The Defense Post.
Ahmad Sulaiman, a member of the political bureau of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, a PYD rival, also rejects the Turkish government claims.
“There are now a million Kurds in Afrin, and until now they haven’t left, and also a half million Syrians are living in Afrin from Idlib, Aleppo,” he told The Defense Post. “Now Turkey wants to make them all refugees, so they can return refugees? This is a lie.”
“So now they say they want to bring 500,000 Kurds to Afrin, and make 1.5 million people living in Afrin refugees again,” he said.
There are various claims about the number of people living in Efrin canton, but it is currently home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, many who fled other areas of the country during the conflict. According to the United Nations, Efrin district and the Syrian Democratic Forces-held areas of northern rural Aleppo have a population of 323,000 people.
Refugees in Efrin
“Turkey wants to bring Syrian refugees to Afrin from various parts of Syria to change the demographics,” Abdulkarim Omar, head of Foreign Relations for the Jazira canton in Qamishli, told The Defense Post.
He added that Efrin already hosts 200,000 to 300,000 refugees from all parts of Syria, including from cities like Homs, Idlib and Aleppo.
“If they fled to Afrin, why should other people [replace them] there?” Omar said, adding that returning refugees to Syria is “just a pretext for Turkey to attack.”
Aldar Xelil, a high-profile Kurdish leader in northern Syria, told The Defense Post that Turkey aims to convince Europe to support the attack on Efrin by suggesting that it wants to return refugees.
He called on Europe to financially support the Kurds in Syria so they can receive more Syrians displaced by the violence.
“If Erdogan is serious, why does he not set up camps for them? Let him take them to Azaz and Jarabulus, not to Afrin,” he said about the territories in northern Aleppo that Turkey and its rebel allies took from Islamic State in 2016.
The official said Syrian Kurds would welcome refugees returning to northern Syria if the international community provides more support instead of giving the money to Turkey.
“We call on Europe and organizations to help us to receive Syrian refugees in Rojava,” he said. “The Turkish attacks in the so-called Olive Branch are a campaign of genocide, changing the region’s demographics and replacing the indigenous population.”
Turkish officials have denied reports of civilian casualties during the operation.
“To date, no civilians have died or even been hurt in Turkish Armed Forces operations,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told state news agency Anadolu on Thursday.
“All necessary measures have been taken in order to ensure that the civilian population is not harmed,” he said on February 2, adding that Turkey will take the ‘utmost care’ to protect civilians during the operation.
However, Mohammed Kamal, 48, a civilian from Efrin, told The Defense Post that the villages on the border are being destroyed or plundered by Turkish-backed rebels.
“They want to send people from Afrin to East of Euphrates [towards Manbij], and they want to replace them with refugees,” he said.
“The artillery shells are hitting Afrin city center, and in the city of Afrin there are no military forces, only civilians. In the city, in every meter, there are families,” he said, adding that thousands of villagers came to the city after the YPG evacuated the border villages.
“It’s quite clear what Turkey wants,” he concluded. “But until no one is left in Afrin, they will resist.”