In early 2018, Turkey launched a military offensive on Afrin in northern Syria, code-named Operation Olive Branch. Homes were seized, residents fled and Turkish flags were raised throughout the city. Following the conquest of Afrin, what does the future hold for the Kurdish people who hailed from this region of Syria?
Thomas Schmidinger, author of the award winning history of the region, Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds, considers the end of Afrin as we know it.
Four months after the conquest of Afrin by the Turkish army and their Islamist Syrian allies, the international community appears to have forgotten about the Kurds residing in this region of Syria. While the world appears to have accepted the occupation of Afrin, new conditions are emerging on the ground.
Following the conquest, Islamist militias have enforced Sharia law on Kurdish locals. There are reports of forced conversions of Yazidis and kidnappings of Yazidi women and girls. Kurdish properties are looted and Kurdish refugees who fled the Turkish army are refused their right to return. Instead, their homes are given to Arab and Turkmen settlers, many of whom are refugees from other parts of Syria or from the Turkmen city of Tal Afar in Iraq – where Sunni Turkmens cooperating with ISIS were attacked by the Turkish army before the city was conquered by the Iraqi army and their Shiite militia allies.
Although it contravenes international law, demographic engineering is a centuries long tradition in Ottoman politics. Its continuation is enabled by Syrian officials who are happy to see Turkey eradicate their Sunni-Islamist opponents from the central regions of Syria, in particular in eastern Ghouta and the other western suburbs of Damascus. It doesn´t take long to connect the dots and see that the exchange of eastern Ghouta for Afrin was part of the Russian-Turkish deal that allowed Turkey to act in northern Syria without opposition from Russia who had previously held Afrin in their zone of influence.
The Syrian regime’s policy of property confiscation has been replicated by Turkey and their Islamist allies in Afrin. Victims of the Syrian regime became a tool for Turkish ambitions in northern Syria, many of whom were victims of Assad, became perpetrators of similar violence towards the Kurdish civilians. Thus, creating another ethicized conflict that will have to be solved whenever a peace process in Syria occurs.
One of the many tragedies of the conflict in Afrin is the impact on religious minorities in the area. Afrin was predominantly Kurdish, its’ population consists of over 95% Kurds, however about 10,000 to 15,000 of these Kurds were Yazidis and the other 10,000, based in the city of Mabeta, were Alevi Kurds. In addition to these traditional minorities there were also Armenian Christians and newly converted Christians, all of whom were free to practice their religion within Afrin’s secular system until Turkey conquered the region in early 2018. Since then most of the Christians fled, hid or attempted to disguise themselves as Muslims.
While many of the Alevis and Yazidis fled, the destiny of those that stayed behind seems to be different from the one feared in the heat of the conflict. Whilst some Alevi places of worship have been destroyed, provided they maintain a low-profile existence it seems that the remaining community can survive. Although Alevis are seen as heretics by Islamist fighters, they are not necessarily viewed as enemies of Islam. Alevis share the tradition of Taqiya with other heterodox Shiite groups, therefore, in times of repression it is permissible to hide their religious identity and pretend to be ‘normal’ Sunni Muslims. In spite of great pressure, it is likely that some presence of Alevism will survive in Mabeta.
The situation for the Yazidis of Afrin is much worse. The Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking people belonging to a monotheistic religion Yazidism, which combines aspects of several monotheistic religions including, Islam, Christianity and early Iranian religions. Previously, Afrin hosted the largest Yazidi minority in Syria and following the migration of the Yazidis from Turkey in the 1980s it became the largest Yazidi region outside Iraq.
Although Turkey only allows embedded journalists to enter Afrin, the reports we receive from these villages are grim. There are several cases of abductions of women and girls, desecrations of Yazidi cemeteries and hostage-taking for ransom. Islamist militias propagate the false myth of Yazidis being ‘devil worshippers’ and attempts to implement forced conversions are rife. In the predominantly Yazidi village of Basufanê a pro-Turkish Islamist militia confiscated the home of an elderly Yazidi and converted it into a mosque.
Although all these actions do not appear to be an attempt to systematically eradicate the community, in contrast to the attacks carried out by so called ‘Islamic State’ in Sinjar in 2014, the final result could be even more devastating. The Turkish occupation of Afrin is most likely the end of the largest Yazidi community in Syria. Aside from the Sunni Kurds who would like to return to Afrin, but are hindered by the Turkish occupation force, it seems that most of the Yazidis do not even want to try to return. Relatives of internally displaced Yazidis say that their relatives want to flee to Germany, where the largest Yazidi community outside of Iraq already lives. With the refugees from Syria and Iraq, the Yazidi community of Germany grew from about 80,000 to more than 150,000. Germany is now the new centre of Yazidism and the religion, for centuries locally rooted in Kurdistan, has now become a diasporic religion.
One of the biggest problems facing internally displaced Yazidis is that their routes to Europe are blocked by Turkey. The strict refugee policies of the European Union and their coordination with Turkey, make it extremely difficult to reach Europe. Many Yazidis are from poor rural communities, so stripped from their homes and without financial backing it is practically impossible for them to meet the rates people smugglers set to get refugees and asylum seekers into Germany.
Forced demographic changes in Afrin are in constant dialogue with the policies of war in other parts of Syria. The Russian-Turkish agreement on Syria included the right to attack smaller opposition areas in central and southern Syria. The Kurdish society of Afrin is now subject to heavy-handed ‘Arabization’ policies that uses Arabs who are originally from eastern Ghouta and other former opposition-held areas. With the conquest of the remaining opposition strongholds in southern Syria, including the town of Daraa, a new populace works its way towards Afrin. Daraa was the site of the first protests against the Syrian regime in 2011, and with no signs of international involvement to help the civilians in the remaining opposition parts of southern Syria, it is likely that much more Arab Syrians could be transported to Afrin in the coming weeks.
Thomas Schmidinger is a Political Scientist and Cultural Anthropologist based at the University of Vienna. He is Secretary General of the Austrian Association for Kurdish studies. He is the author of Rojava (Pluto, 2018), which received the Mezlum Bagok award. He has written extensively on Kurdistan, Sudan, Kosovo, jihadism, migration and Muslim communities in Europe.
Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds by Thomas Schmidinger is available to buy from Pluto Press