On Sunday, Turkish forces in the northern Syrian district of Afrin imposed a curfew after heavy fighting reportedly killed 25 people.
Clashes broke out involving heavy machine guns, and a day of battles erupted between the Turkish military and a group of former Syrian rebels accused of “plundering and robbing people” in the region. Videos showed the heavy clashes and gunfire throughout the day and night.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 25 were killed in clashes. Around 200 Syrian rebel fighters fought with the Turkish army and other pro-Ankara militias. The fighters were accused of having become an “outlaw gang” that was disobeying Turkey’s authority. Afrin, a mostly Kurdish region in northwestern Syria, was taken over by Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies in January. Turkey claimed that Afrin was a threat to its security because it was controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara accuses of being the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The region was largely peaceful during the seven years of the Syrian civil war. The clashes on November 18 are considered the worst since Turkey and its allies moved into Afrin.
There have been tensions in Afrin over the last 11 months as Kurds accuse some of the Syrian rebels and their allies of stealing their property, invading their homes and abusing locals. They also accuse the different rebel factions of fighting with one another, and videos from Afrin have shown low level clashes in recent months. The European Court of Human Rights recently refused to hear complaints from local residents seeking redress for houses that were damaged during the Turkish offensive in January. The European Union told the Syrian Kurdish locals to turn to Turkish courts first.
Turkey has increased its role in Afrin in recent months, opening a post office on November 13, and sending Turkish text books to Afrin for local students on November 15. Turkey’s agriculture minister also said that Turkey is taking revenues from olive production in Afrin. “This is a region in our hegemony,” the minister said over the weekend. The opposition People’s Democratic Party claimed Turkey “Islamist rebel allies” had confiscated 70 tons of olives, according to a report at Kurdistan24.
A new police force affiliated with the Turkish Police Special Operations Department is also operating in Afrin, according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency. A report last week showed Turkish police in camouflage in Afrin with Turkish flags preparing to deploy. It was “comprised of 12 teams from Ankara, Hatay and Gaziantep provinces” in Turkey.
The Kurdish channel Rudaw said that the clashes in Afrin on Sunday left 11 dead and 27 wounded. It said the battles took place between Turkish forces and the Al-Sharqiya Martyrs, a Syrian rebel group. “The group, which is part of the Ahrar Sharqiya brigade, is led by Abu Khula and consists of around 200 fighters.”
Now it appears Turkey is cracking down on the plethora of armed groups that arrived in Afrin to support the Turkish offensive in the spring of 2018. Some of these groups pulled down monuments and celebrated with gunfire in the air when they took over the city.
Since then, locals have said that some armed groups abused them, even abducting women, threatening religious minorities and stealing. According to Huseyin Bozan, a director of the Turkmen Agency, Turkey has decided to go after these illegal activities. The curfew was the first step and the gun battles appear to be the second phase. Casualties were reported on both sides, although Turkish media have not reported on any dead among the Turkish army. In light of the report about the deployment of Turkish special police, the crackdown on lawless armed groups should be seen as an attempt to increase control of the province.