The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Afrin | Three years of Turkish occupation: Daily violations…theft of antiquities…money-laundering and demographic change…while the international community turns a blind eye

It was really painful for the people of Afrin to renounce their land after being invaded by Turkish-backed factions and the Turkish army.

March 18, 2018, was a dark day for the people of Afrin as their region became a hotbed for Ankara-backed groups and the Turkish army, which sought to force people to leave their areas, control their lands and bring about demographic change.

The Turkish invasion of the Afrin region in northern Syria has forced hundreds of thousands of its people, more than 310,000, 56% of the population to flee their areas and escape the oppression of Turkish-backed armed groups, leaving behind their belongings and properties.

The people of Afrin, those who refused to leave their areas and chose to stay, have been subjected to all forms of violations, including arbitrary arrests, kidnappings for ransom, the seizure of agricultural crops, homes, shops and cars, and the kidnapping of women. These violations are committed with Turkish consent, which are mainly aimed at forcing the remaining residents of the region to leave their areas in order to complete the demographic change in the area.

Afrin is known for its vast natural resources, particularly agriculture which is the main source of income for most of its people. The agriculture comes first for the local population and contributes to local production of 70% of the region’s total revenues, according to the United Nations. Afrin areas are divided into arable land which are fully invested, and non-arable areas, including forests, housing communities and economic facilities, which benefit Turkish-backed factions.

It is also characterize by its fruitful trees such as almonds, quince, figs, apricots, pomegranates, apples, pistachios and olives. In addition, it is a tourist destination by its mountainous nature, and a popular destination for the people of northern Syria before 2011, particularly the residents of Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Afrin is also characterized by its archaeological sites dating back to different eras, most notably the city of “Nabi Hori” and is about 23 km away from the city of Afrin, and includes “Sama’an Castle” located south of the city, 20 kilometres south of the city in the south-east side, which includes the church of Mar Simeon, which is one of the largest churches in the world, in addition to the areas of Jabal Sheikh Barakat and Jabal Barsaya, and the ancient city of Ain Dara, which consists of monuments and a temple containing various statues.

All these characteristics of the city of Afrin are reasons why Turkish forces and proxy factions took control of the city under the pretext of “fighting terrorism.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has been monitoring and tracking, since the first day of the Turkish military operation with the factions of “Olive Branch”, the violations committed by these forces against the people of the region through news and daily reports about the human tragedy against the people of Afrin and their properties.

Since January 20, 2018, SOHR has documented the deaths of 612 Kurdish civilians in Afrin, including 89 children and 78 women, who were killed in IED and car-bomb explosions, under torture by the factions of operation “Olive Branch”, in Turkish air and ground bombardment and by executions in the Afrin area.

Since the Turkish control of Afrin to March 17, 2021, SOHR has documented the kidnapping and arrest of more than 6,850 Kurdish civilians, 1,100 of whom are still detained, while the rest have been released after paying ransoms imposed by members of the so-called operation “Olive Branch.”

According to SOHR statistics, more than 4,070 families from other Syrian provinces have been resettled in Afrin, after they have been also displaced from various provinces, as part of the demographic change by the Turkish government, following the Russian-Turkish agreements that led to the handover of Afrin to the Turks in return for the regime’s control over eastern Ghouta.

Reliable sources had informed SOHR that military groups of the Turkish-backed factions returned excavation work in the surrounding areas of the “Roman amphitheatre” near Nebi Huri fortress in Sharran district in Afrin countryside, north-west Aleppo.

According to SOHR sources, Turkish-backed militiamen used heavy diggers and earth-moving machineries for digging and excavating the surrounding areas of the “Roman amphitheatre”, searching for antiques and artefacts. It is worth noting that such operations are carried out in full view of the Turkish forces.

The area of Nebi Huri has experienced repeated excavation work by all Turkish-backed factions, searching for buried artifacts and antiquities.

Turkey and its proxy factions in Afrin are seeking to obliterate the Kurdish character of the region, which has sparked popular anger the people, most of whom have been displaced.

Many SOHR reports spoke of kidnapping of women, rapes, killings and abuses, as well as the widespread thefts of private and public properties and the imposition of levies. In addition to setting fire on agricultural land and cutting off water supply to the people of the area, to force people to leave their areas and resettle other displaced people in the area.

As ISIS did in the Palmyra area, the historical treasure of Syria, where monuments have been looted and vandalised, Ankara-backed factions in Afrin have committed the same violations with the aim of obliterating the identity, symbols and historical features of the area, which are tourist destinations.

Last year, reliable SOHR sources confirmed that the Turkish-backed factions allowed excavators in the city to dig for relics and antiques in return for large sums of money. SOHR sources also reported that antiquities and artifacts were stolen from the archaeological site of Nebi Huri known as “Hagioupolis” or “Khoros” which date back  to 280 B.C. (Hellenistic era). Moreover, the excavators used earth-moving machineries and heavy-duty diggers for excavating and advanced technological devices to locate artifacts. The excavators found mosaics smuggled later to Turkey, via dealers, with the help of forces and factions controlling that region.

Furthermore, serious violations have been committed by the Turkish army and their Syrian proxy factions in Afrin, including arrests of the elderly, young men, children and women, including pregnant women. The violations included arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, seizure of property and looting carried out under the supervision and protection of the Turkish forces.

At a time when Amnesty International has accused president Erdogan of committing crimes against humanity in Afrin through his forces stationed there, calling on Ankara to put an end to “grave human rights violations” in Afrin, the former stronghold of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters in northern Syria, accusing Turkey of “turning a blind eye” to these abuses.

In numerous reports, SOHR sources have reported the seizure of schools in Afrin by Turkish-backed factions, which prevented thousands of children from continuing their education. In addition to changing the names of institutes and hospitals with the names of Turkish figures and forcing children to learn Turkish and making it as an official language along with Arabic, as well as the Turkish policy of demographic change in the area.

SOHR sources have reported that mock courts have been conducted, in which they request documents proving the ownership of real estate in the Afrin area and those who cannot prove their ownership, their properties and personal belongings are seized and sold at auction.

The factions turned Afrin city and countryside into fertile ground for money laundering operations, with Turkey’s full consent, as such operations take place in full view of Turkish Walis (governors) officers and commanders present in Afrin. According to SOHR sources, money laundering is facilitated by factions’ commanders who also launder money illegally gained through looting and thefts of properties of Afrin residents, both the residents who stayed in Afrin and those who fled to other areas; not to mention the taking over portions of the salaries of mercenaries who had been sent to Azerbaijan and Libya.

One of the most astonishing examples of money laundering operations is the businesses of the commander of “Suleiman Shah” Division, Mohammed Al-Jasem “Abu Amsha”. Abu Amsha has turned Sheikh Hadid district into a private kingdom, appointed himself as the “Sultan” of hundreds of affiliated members, opened a mall, coffee shop and other businesses with Turkish support and after looting the residents’ properties and deducting 300 to 600 USD from the salary of every affiliated militiaman sent to Libya and Azerbaijan, 1,250 of who have been sent to Libya only.

The most prominent business of Abu Amsha was a hospital which was constructed on a plot of land he had seized in Sheikh Hadid and by looted money. It is worth noting that the head of the Syrian National Coalition Nasr Al-Hariri had laid the first brick of this hospital on February 16, 2021, when a military parade was held, igniting popular anger while social media activists derided these practices and likened them to regime practices and military shows.

A delegation of the “Syrian Opposition Coalition” and the “Syrian Interim Government” has visited the headquarters of the “Sultan Suleiman Shah” Division in Afrin area in north-western Aleppo countryside, as part of the delegation’s tour there yesterday.

Nasr Al-Hariri, the leader of the Coalition, and Salim Idris, the “Minister of Defense” and other figures, met with Mohammed al-Jassim “Abu Amsha”, the leader of the “Suleiman Shah” faction, at a time when Afrin is witnessing daily violations against the remaining of its people who refused to leave their area.

Despite the formation of the so-called “Ombuds Committee” to restore the rights to its people in Afrin, chaired by Nasr Hariri, and its claims that it has restored many rights, daily violations continue. Where “Ombuds Committee” has only confirmed what the Syrian Observatory has repeatedly pointed out regarding violations against Afrin’s indigenous population.

Since April 8, 2019, the Turkish army constructed a concrete wall around the city of Afrin, sparking popular discontent in the region and international condemnation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has always condemned the occupation of Afrin and demanded the removal of Turkish troops and their proxy factions, which claim to protect the region, stressing that the silence regarding the Turkish-backed factions’ violations amounts to a crime against humanity.

SOHR’s positions were also clear regarding the withdrawal of all armed factions and militias from Afrin and other occupied areas to ensure the integrity of Syrian territory violated by the Turks, Iranians, Russians and other foreign powers.

Three years have passed since the Turkish occupation of Afrin and the control of its proxy factions over the entire region, the security situation continues to deteriorate with countless violations by Ankara-backed factions, while the Turkish authorities turn a blind eye to these violations.

Therefore, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls on the international community to save Afrin’s civilians from violations, protect their monuments and the entire region from demographic change operations.