The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Turkish occupation of Afrin five years on | Nearly 7,900 kidnappings and arbitrary arrests and over 3,300 other violations by Turkish forces and their proxy factions

Systematic demographic change of Afrin canton and blatant violations by Turkish-backed factions

Today, March 18, Syrians mark the fifth anniversary of the occupation of Afrin city and affiliated districts, (aka “Afrin canton”) in the north-western countryside of Aleppo by Turkish forces and their proxy factions and mercenaries. These forces launched a large-scale military operation they called “Olive Branch” on January 2018 and imposed full control of the canton on March 18, 2018.


For five years, the indigenous inhabitants of the Syrian canton, which has become more akin to a Turkish district where the Turkish flag is raised on institutions and residents are forced to learn the Turkish language, have experienced extreme injustice which mainly manifested in forcing them to giver up their properties for Turkish-backed factions at a time when Ankara has managed to impose their rules in schools and courthouses as a part of an evil scheme to occupy the canton.


In five years, Turkey has managed to obliterate the identity of the predominantly-Kurdish enclave under a retaliatory plan against a peaceful minority who has experienced unprecedented intimidation and physical and psychological torture. Moreover, Ankara has turned a blind eye to the blatant violations committed in Afrin by its proxy factions which have also intentionally depleted the canton’s resources, forcing most of the indigenous inhabitants to leave.


Despite the frequent warnings against the gravity of the current situation in Afrin, Turkish forces and their proxies have been proceeding with their reprehensible practices, violating all human rights and international conventions, amid suspicious inaction by the international community.


Since the occupation of Afrin canton, Turkish forces and their proxy factions have saved no efforts to force indigenous inhabitants to leave their land and resettling displaced people from other areas throughout Syria, mostly families of Turkish-backed militiamen.


As a human rights organisation defending the rights of all Syrians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has been monitoring and tracking all violations committed in Afrin since the first day of “Olive Branch” operation.



Figures and details


The Turkish invasion, fierce military operations and heinous crimes by the factions have forced over 310,000 civilians, equivalent to 56% of the indigenous residents, to flee from their land and homes. Accordingly, residents lost their properties which have been taken over by Turkish-backed factions. While the situation of those residents who have chosen to stay in their areas over displacement has not been better, as they have endured absolute repression and blatant human rights violations, including kidnappings and arbitrary arrests with the aim of collecting ransoms, along with ongoing and daily incidents of seizure of harvest, houses, shops and cars. Through all of these violations, Turkish-backed factions are attempting to force the remaining residents out from Afrin as a part of Turkey’s plan of systematic demographic change.


Since January 20, 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has documented the death of 668 Kurdish civilians in Afrin, including 97 children and 88 women in explosions of IEDs and car bombs, airstrikes and ground bombardment by Turkish forces and executions, while some died under torture in prisons run by Turkish-backed factions.


Also, SOHR has documented, since the beginning of Turkish occupation of Afrin until the evening of March 17, 2023, the kidnapping and arrest of over 7,898 Kurdish civilians from Afrin, 1,082 of whom remained imprisoned, while the rest have been released, after most of them paid large ransoms which factions of the Turkish-backed “National Army” required.


According to SOHR statistics, hundreds of thousands of families from different Syrian provinces were settled in Afrin, after having been forced to displace from their land, as a part of Turkey’s plan to change the demography of Afrin. Under Russian-Turkish agreements, Afrin was handed over to the Turks in return for allowing the Syrian regime to capture eastern Ghouta. The Syrian Observatory has been all along warning against the Turkish plan of systematic demographic change in Afrin since the first day of the Turkish occupation, where over half of the population of Afrin canton has been forced to displace from their homes, while thousands of families from other provinces have been settled in the canton instead; all of this has taken place in full view of the international community which seemed to be indifferent and kept silent.



Heinous crimes and blatant violations


In five years of the Turkish occupation of Afrin, SOHR has documented over 3,336 different violations added to those kidnappings and arbitrary arrests. Here are further details of these violations:


  • 1,189 incidents of seizure of houses, shops and farmlands by members and commanders of Turkish-backed factions in Afrin city and affiliated districts. The seized properties belonged to people who have been forced to displace from Afrin canton due to the “Olive Branch” operation and others of those who have chosen to stay in their areas over displacement.


  • 312 incidents of selling displaced people’s houses which had been seized earlier by Turkish-backed factions by force. The houses were sold at low prices and in US dollar in particular.


  • 523 incidents of imposition of levies on civilians by the factions and local councils in return for allowing them to cultivate their land and harvest crops. The requested levies were shares of the harvest and profits or sums of money paid in US dollar and Turkish lira.


  • 915 incidents of felling fruit-bearing trees by factions of the Turkish-backed “National Army” with the aim of selling them as fire logs, where tens of thousands of fruit-bearing trees have been cut down.


  • 397 incidents in which militiamen of “National Army” factions assaulted civilians for different reasons.



Sabotage of Syria’s historical heritage


In 2022, SOHR documented digging work, excavation and sabotage of archaeological sites and hills on 33 occasions, among hundreds of similar incidents documented in the past five years. Afrin is well-known for its archaeological sites which date back to different eras; the most prominent sites are:


  • The city of Nebi Huri which is located nearly 23 km away from Afrin city.


  • Sam’an fortress which is located 20 km to the south of Afrin city. That site contained Mar Sam’an Church which was the largest church in the world.


  • Jabal Al-Sheik Barakat.


  • Jabal Barsaya.


  • Ain Dara archaeological city which hosts many monuments and a temple contains several statues.


These sites as well as many other archaeological sites around Afrin have been subject to excavation and digging work by Turkish-backed factions in the past years in plain sight of Turkish authorities and intelligence service.


Not only has Afrin been hard hit with blatant violations committed by the occupying power and its proxy Syrian factions, but also these violations were met by inaction and deafening silence by the international community which seems satisfied with ignoring this serious humanitarian cause which has not been handled appropriately, despite the diligent efforts by Syrian human rights organisations, including SOHR, to highlight the plight of the canton’s inhabitants.


In this context, and as a part of the ongoing efforts to change the demography of Afrin city and surrounding villages, SOHR reported on March 29, 2022, that the Kuwaiti association of the “White Hands” announced the start of the second stage of the settlement dubbed “Basma Village”. During the second stage, eight residential blocks with 125 flats planned to be established, as well as starting construction of new six other units.


While in April 2022, Sultan Murad faction accomplished the construction of a residential compound for displaced people from Homs near Kafrum village in Sharan district. The number of houses of the compound approximates 360, with an estimated area of 120 square metres per unit. The compound also includes a school, a mosque and shops.


Ironically, the international community has not lift a finger or interfered to stop this demographic change, acts of sabotage and aggression practiced in Afrin. SOHR would like to point out that Afrin residents have never opposed the resettlement of Syrians in the canton, but they completely reject the systematic sabotage and demographic change in their areas.


With the ongoing violations in Afrin, we, at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), renew our calls for making strict laws putting an end to the systematic practices by all those who are involved in illegal excavation and digging work in the canton’s archaeological sites and hills and trading in treasures buried there, and we call upon all international authorities to provide all possible support to maintain the heritage of the region.


SOHR calls upon the international community to interfere immediately to stop violations committed by Turkish forces and their proxies in Afrin, protect its monuments and identity, put an end to demographic change, intensify its efforts to disclose the fate of the kidnapped and bring back displaced families to their areas, work on controlling the security situation and expelling factions. These objectives could potentially be achieved only when the occupying power leaves the region, a political settlement is reached and international resolutions are implemented.


SOHR confirms that civilians who have chosen to stay in Afrin, of different segments of Syrian society, are subjected to various violations, including forcible displacement, killing, torturing and looting. In addition, they are prevented from practicing their religious rituals and celebrating their annual festivals; let alone other violations and crimes practiced under the policy of Turkification.


We call upon all local and international organisations to cooperate with each other to disclose all serious violations, heinous crimes and reprehensible practices which turned Afrin into a Turkish-speaking “autonomous” district run by laws set by extremist factions.