A report published Thursday alleges that Turkey-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are seizing, looting, and destroying property in the predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin, further fueling fears that Ankara is quietly forcing a demographic change along its border with Syria.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that FSA fighters are forcibly occupying or destroying the property of Kurds forced to flee when Turkey invaded Afrin this year, explaining,
Turkey-backed armed groups in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have seized, looted, and destroyed the property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The anti-government armed groups have installed fighters and their families in residents’ homes and destroyed and looted civilian properties without compensating the owners.
Residents are accusing the occupying FSA fighters of moving Arabs from other parts of Syria into some of the homes abandoned by the fleeing Kurds, estimated to number 137,000 by the United Nations.
Under the laws of war, pillaging, or forcibly taking private property for personal use is prohibited and can constitute a war crime even in the context of fighting in an area. Combatants are not allowed to seize property for personal use, including to house their own families. The laws of war also prohibit destruction of property not justified by military necessity.
With the help of Syrian opposition fighters including the FSA and allegedly some jihadis, Turkey launched an offensive in January to wrest control of areas along its border with Syria from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls swathes of northern Syria.
The U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered allies of the terrorist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) by Ankara, were unable to keep Afrin from falling to Turkey in March.
America’s support for the YPG’s efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has infuriated Ankara and driven a wedge between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. The United States chose to stay out of the Afrin operations, declaring that its alliance with Turkey is “paramount.”
In recent days, the U.S. reached an agreement with Turkey that requires the withdrawal of YPG troops from northern Syria’s Manbij, essentially giving Ankara another victory over the Kurds while praising them for their support against ISIS.
Early this month, the Guardian noted:
The campaign to oust Kurdish militias [from Syria] has raised allegations that Ankara is quietly orchestrating a demographic shift, changing the balance of Afrin’s population from predominantly Kurdish to majority Arab, and – more importantly to Turkish leaders – changing the composition of its 500-mile border with Syria…Ankara denies it is attempting to choreograph a demographic shift in Afrin, insisting it aimed only to drive out the PKK, not unaffiliated Kurdish locals.
Even before Turkey pushed the YPG out of Afrin, Kurds and other ethnoreligious minorities in Afrin, including Christians and Yazidis, warned of impending war crimes such as ethnic cleansing that could ultimately evolve to genocide at the hands of Turkey and its allies.
Turkey and the FSA groups in Afrin should compensate displaced residents whose property they have seized, destroyed, or looted, and should not permanently deprive residents of their property. They have a duty to ensure that the property rights of the owners are protected and that they are able to return to their place of habitual residence in dignity and safety.
Although the FSA issued a statement in early March inviting victims to file claims for their looted property, “residents said they had not been compensated,” HRW notes.
Salah Mohammed, identified as an Afrin exile, told the Guardian, “Lands are being confiscated, farms, wheat, furniture, nothing is ours anymore; it’s us versus their guns. It’s difficult to come back, you have to prove the property is yours and get evidence and other nearly impossible papers to reclaim it.”
“There is definitely a demographic change, a lot of Kurds have been forcibly displaced on the count that they’re with the PKK when in fact they weren’t. There are barely any Kurds left in Afrin, no one is helping us go back,” Mohammed added.