After a bloody, two month cross-border campaign of Turkish forces to dislodge Kurdish YPG “terrorists” from the Syrian city of Afrin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared complete victory on Sunday as Turkish and allied FSA flags have been raised for the first time over Afrin’s city center.
Kurdish YPG forces (or “People’s Protection Units”) were widely reported to have withdrawn before pro-Turkish forces entered the city before dawn on Sunday, allowing invading forces to secure the city while facing no resistance. In a televised speech Erdogan claimed to have “saved” the city through the “heroic” actions of his military while also framing the operation which took place entirely on Syrian soil as humanitarian in nature. He said, “This operation has shown the whole world that Turkey sides with the oppressed,” as reported by Rudaw.
Kurdish authorities of Afrin canton, for the their part, condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to use airspace to dislodge Kurdish protection units. At a Kurdish press conference, an Afrin canton official leveled the charge that “Russia actively participated in opening airspace for Turkey to ‘exterminate our people with all kinds of weapons and sacrificed our people for their interests in Syria, and under international silence, of the coalition, and EU'”. The spokesperson added that, “We decided to remove civilians from the city to avoid a more terrible humanitarian catastrophe.”
Erdogan also appears to have taunted the retreating Kurdish forces, saying that a “large number” of Kurdish fighters had “fled with their tails between their legs,” and added that Turkish special forces have been deployed in the city, with demining operations also underway. “Now the Turkish flag will fly over there! The flag of the Free Syrian Army will fly over there!” said Erdogan.
He gave the address at a ceremony marking the battle to open the Dardanelles during the first world war, and the neo-Ottoman aspirations of which Erdogan has long been accused of peppered the speech throughout, including reference to the Ottoman Turkish defense of Gallipoli during World War I. “We are fighting the same way we did in Canakkale,” he said, using the Turkish name for what was the only major historic Ottoman victory of WWI. “They thought that Turkey is not as strong as it was in Canakkale.”
In spite of Erdogan’s high-minded humanitarian rhetoric which has been consistent throughout Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’, significant evidence has mounted that pro-Turkish forces are actually engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting northern Syria’s large Kurdish population. In the last three days alone, according to numbers published in The Guardian, over 200,000 civilians have fled the Kurdish-majority city with many dozens killed.
— Wladimir (@vvanwilgenburg) March 18, 2018
In all throughout two months of primarily Turkish shelling and aerial bombardment of the Afrin area, there have been close to 300 documented civilian deaths, but the number is likely far higher. Prior to this weekend’s most intense phase of fighting for control of Afrin, the Syrian opposition site Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimated that at least 245 civilians, including 41 children, have been killed, figures which the United Nations called “deeply alarming” – but stopped short of condemning Turkish actions.
During a Sunday press conference, Kurdish spokespersons for Afrin canton called on the UN Security Council to pressure Turkey “to stop cultural and political genocide against our society and to ensure return of ‘our people to their places with international guarantee.” At the close of the fighting, the Kurdish statement indicates that over 500 civilians were killed, with 1030 civilians injured, and 820 Kurdish fighters killed.
This is what Turkey brought to Afrin. pic.twitter.com/YUqV4CQ6jB
— Gissur Simonarson (@GissiSim) March 18, 2018
Over the weekend of intense fighting, Turkish forces struck cars packed with fleeing Kurdish civilians and stood accused of targeting Afrin’s lone functioning hospital, according to the BBC. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also issued reports detailing attacks on civilian homes, buildings, and infrastructure throughout the campaign. And also according to pro-rebel SOHR, over 400 pro-Turkish forces died since January 20.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s president had previously openly voiced a goal of radical demographic shift in northwest Syria based on claimed ethnic statistics as his army invades foreign soil. Syrian Kurdish media has consistently accused Turkey of launching the Operation Olive Branch campaign out of a desire to ethnically cleanse the Turkish border region of its historically Kurdish identity.
Kurdish spokesmen have also charged Turkey with employing current and former ISIS terrorists and other jihadists in order to do the Turkish state’s dirty work.
— Tobias Huch (@TobiasHuch) March 18, 2018
Indeed Erdogan had previously vowed “to give Afrin back to its real owners” while claiming that “55% of Afrin is composed of Arabs with %35 of Kurds coming there later on”. This as invading Turkish-backed militias (FSA) have been filmed shouting chants related to the ethnic cleansing of Kurds, according to Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan, as well a desire to force all the region’s inhabitants to convert to Sunni Islam.
Currently, it appears an initiative to erase all visible monuments of Kurdish presence and history is already underway: pro-Turkish FSA forces have published a photo which shows them tearing down a statue of a blacksmith named Kawa, an important figure in Kurdish legend. According to Reuters, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces condemned the removal of the statue as the “first blatant violation of Kurdish people’s culture and history since the takeover of Afrin.”
Newroz symbol in #Afrin was destroyed by Turkish-backed rebels: Kawa statue (unveiled in March 2017) destroyed just a few days before the Kurdish New Year Celebrations (Newroz) that will take place on 21 March h/t @peshmerge pic.twitter.com/9c96tVuOE0
— Wladimir (@vvanwilgenburg) March 18, 2018
On Sunday afternoon, a Kurdish official told The Washington Post that Syrian Kurds have now entered “a new phase” of guerrilla warfare after Turkish troops secured Afrin. A full Kurdish statement was given at a press conference and reads as follows: “we would like to declare that our war against the Turkish occupation and the Takfiri forces called the Free Army has entered a new stage, the transition from direct confrontation war to hit-and-run tactics.”
Meanwhile, Washington continues to soft pedal the significance of this weekend’s events, saying merely citing “fear the Afrin offensive may divert attention from the anti-IS battle” according to the Post.
The Syrian government has again condemned the Turkish violation of Syrian sovereignty and will continue plead its case before the UN. Some analysts have accused the Kurdish YPG of purposefully allowing pro-Turkish forces to occupy Afrin instead of allowing pro-Syrian government factions to defend the town.