The Turkish government entered Afrin city this week, the main population center of the eponymous Syrian Kurdish province, fueling fears of artificially imposed “demographic change” meant to displace local Kurds and replace them with Arabs and Turkmen.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, a military invasion of Afrin with the goal of eliminating the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), in January. The YPG is one of the United States’s most reliable allies in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). As a result of the operation – and the Trump administration’s refusal to intervene in the YPG’s favor – the Kurds have turned away from the fight against ISIS and accepted aid from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to deflect the Turkish attack.
The Turkish government considers the YPG a terrorist group, indistinguishable from the U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The YPG is part of a larger umbrella group known as the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), which also includes Arab Muslims and Christians.
The SDF’s foreign relations chief told Reuters Tuesday that Turkish forces are displacing Kurds with the goal of “demographic change” in Afrin.
“They bring in some civilians, who are affiliated to them, and place them in those villages. They rush in this regard so that they make demographic change a reality,” Aldar Khalil said. “There is a fact: Afrin people will not abandon even if a day is left … the resistance will continue until it is liberated.”
Rudaw, a Kurdish outlet, also quotes Shahoz Hassan, co-president of the Executive Body of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), as making the same allegation.
“The Turkish government is settling Turkmen and Arab families in the villages of Afrin that it occupied after forcing out its people and is distributing the belongings of the people of Afrin to the new settlers,” he reportedly said.
The Turkish government appears to have moved on from attacking the villages, however, and begun a campaign against Afrin city. Kurdistan 24, another regional outlet, reported Thursday that at least 12 civilians had died in Turkish airstrikes overnight, according to local hospital officials. It noted that the number of dead is likely significantly higher, citing the NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which put the number at 44.
Speaking to the outlet, the hospital officials also said they were “having difficulty treating the high capacity of wounded civilians since dozens of casualties arrive every hour as a result of the heavy bombardment on the city.”
Ankara announced it had officially entered Afrin city on Monday, triggering international alarm at the possibility of a massacre in such a populated urban area. By Tuesday, local Kurds were accusing the Turkish military of engaging in “the genocidal removal of our people,” Rudaw reported:
Now multiple sources from #Afrin report airstrikes on the city center where nearly a million people live @UNReliefChief @UNHumanRights @KvanOosterom @nikkihaley @EmmanuelMacron pic.twitter.com/57v18KHqxL
— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) March 14, 2018
The Rudaw report cited the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which warned that “tens of thousands” of displaced people fled to Afrin city while Turkey invaded the countryside and now find itself trapped in the city siege. The U.N. also warned in a report for this week that the Turkish attack has left residents without power and water, threatening the lives of those who have special medical needs and all who cannot access drinking water.
The lack of clean drinking water also creates the threat of a communicable disease spreading and killing the civilians, as many have relied on unclean water sources to survive.
Pro-Turkey sources have justified the assault by claiming that the YPG has trapped civilians in Afrin city. Yeni Safak, a newspaper that is favorable to the Turkish government, published a story Wednesday alleging that the YPG dug trenches around the city to trap civilians in. The newspaper relied on a video published by the state-run Anadolu Agency claiming to show bulldozers digging trenches to make its claim.
“The civilians tried to stop terrorists from digging trenches, with some of them even climb[ing] on bulldozer’s shovel,” Yeni Safak claims.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly claimed that his government is not targeting civilians in its invasion of Syria. On Thursday, Erdogan insisted that Turkey “will not get out of there until our work is done” and assured that soldiers are taking “the utmost care” not to hurt civilians.