Kurdish governing authorities in Afrin, northeast Syria, condemned the Turkish government on Wednesday for enabling jihadist groups they say are responsible for killing over 40 people in a bomb blast in the city the day before.
The Kurdish news outlet Rudaw also reported on Turkey-allied jihadist organizations desecrating Yazidi shrines in the area. While most Yazidis originate in northern Iraq, the Islamic State invasion of their territory in 2014 forced survivors elsewhere, many to Kurdish-held areas in Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) make up much of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of anti-jihadist forces in Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan. Afrin is located in Rojava and has been under the invasion of Turkish forces and auxiliary groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) since the 2018 military attack President Recep Tayyip Erdogan named “Operation Olive Branch.” It is currently occupied by Turkey.
While not formally allied with the YPG, the dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad also opposes any Turkish presence in Syria. Erdogan asserted in 2016 that the only reason he would ever send troops across the Syrian border would be to “end the rule of the tyrant Assad.” Both leaders have called each other “terrorists.”
Afrin has been largely occupied by Turkey-allied forces since Operation Olive Branch. After months of a stagnant situation in the area, complicated by concerns of a regional outbreak of Chinese coronavirus, a fuel tanker exploded in the center of the city on Tuesday. The truck, Rudaw reported, was “laced with explosives” and killed 42. The blast injured at least another 50 people, the outlet cited Kurdish sources as saying. The explosion occurred in one of the busiest times of the day in the city; there did not appear to be any social distancing protocols in place.
Rudaw quoted several Kurdish officials who said the dead were civilians in the area, many to visit a crowded market. As the area is largely Kurdish in population, most can be considered Kurds, but many remains are unidentifiable and authorities have not offered the identities of any of the victims.
Kurdish officials in Afrin blame Turkish-affiliated militant groups, though they have not named any in particular. The Turkish government blames the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey considers the YPG and the PKK indistinguishable, although the former is a U.S. ally that played a pivotal role in fighting the Islamic State and the PKK is a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization.
No group has taken responsibility for the attack.
“What happened in Afrin yesterday was a condemned terrorist act which claimed the lives of innocent people. This criminal act is the outcome of destructive policy pursued by the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries in the city of peace and olives,” the commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The SDF, in an official statement separate from Abdi’s, accused Turkey of having “opened the door wide to terrorist forces to reorganize their ranks and carry out cowardly acts under Turkish protection.”
Neither, however, named any group in particular or the Turkish government itself for the attack.
Turkish officials also condemned the bombing but blamed Kurdish groups for it.
“I condemn the heinous terrorist attack on this holy day of Ramadan. I wish Allah’s mercy upon the martyrs and a quick recovery for those wounded,” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said in a Twitter statement, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “Innocent civilians’ and children’s blood are on the hands of those who support and remain silent in the face of actions of this terrorist organization.”
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu explicitly blamed the attack on “the heinous terrorist organization PKK/YPG.”
“Wishing Allah’s mercy upon the deceased. Those who support the terrorists and trying to take it off the terror list are also responsible for this cowardly attack,” Çavuşoğlu added.
The outlet Kurdistan24, which focuses largely on Iraqi Kurdistan, quoted sources in the area saying they, too, believe that Turkish-backed forces organized the bombing. While stating they had evidence suggesting this, Kurdistan24 did not specify what it was. The “activists” told the outlet that the goal of the bombing was to threaten Kurds into leaving the city “as part of a greater anti-Kurdish program of ethnic cleansing.”
One resident told Rudaw that the explosion was one of three occurring in the city in April, the others of a much smaller scale.
Rudaw also noted that Yazidis in Afrin have reported the destruction of their religious sites in the city, blaming jihadist groups.
“Cemeteries, religious shrines, and Yezidi cemeteries in Afrin have been destroyed, stolen and looted by armed groups, according to local activists,” Rudaw reported, noting that, since the Turkish invasion, the Yazidi population of Afrin has dropped from 35,000 to about 3,000 – an over 90 percent drop in population.
Complaints of Arab jihadist groups allied with Turkey engaging in ethnic cleansing against Kurds, Christians, and other minorities in the area have persisted since Operation Olive Branch launched in 2018.
“Time and time again the indigenous people of Syria are suffering, but this time is at the hands of members of the Turkish military who have been incubating ISIS terrorists,” Khalid Haider, a U.S.-based Yazidi (or Yezidi) activist, told Breitbart News in March 2018. “ISIS militants and their leaders are embedded with the Turkish military, and they are annihilating religious minorities. The world needs to wake up and stop this from happening.”
Haider said the jihadists singled out religious minorities by quizzing them on Islamic practices and killing those who answered incorrectly, resulting in particular harm to Christians and Yazidis. Most Kurds are also Sunni Muslims, however, and are signed out for their ethnicity.
That summer, reports grew of jihadist militias under the auspices of the Turkish government seizing Kurdish businesses and residences in Afrin, forcing the Kurds to relocate and repopulating the area with Arabs and Turks. Some of those captured were reportedly tortured despite being civilians.
The jihadists also desecrated the remains of those they killed. In one particularly harrowing video surfacing in October 2019, jihadists allegedly working alongside “Operation Olive Branch” appeared desecrating the body of a woman SDF fighter killed in battle, shouting “Allahu akbar!” and referring to the woman as a “prostitute.”