Several times in recent months the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has said it will shift its focus from the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) to the liberation of Turkish-occupied Afrin in Syria’s northwest.
On March 28, SDF commander Ferhat Abdil Sahin, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Mazlum Kobane, announced the group is “preparing and making arrangements in order to liberate Afrin
“Because this is a military matter, everyone should know that when the time is suitable the liberation phase will begin,” he said.
In February, the SDF also announced “the liberation of Afrin and the return of its original inhabitants to their homes” is a post-ISIS priority
for the group.
Turkey invaded Afrin in early 2018 and garrisoned it with its Syrian militiamen proxies. According to UN reports, these militias have persecuted Afrin’s Kurdish inhabitants. More than 100,000 Kurdish civilians were displaced by Turkey’s incursion, many of whom are living in squalid conditions
in displaced person camps in neighbouring Shahba canton. Many are afraid to return home
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which originally controlled Afrin, is also using Shahba to wage an insurgency against Afrin’s occupiers.
The Turkish-backed occupiers of Afrin have resettled thousands of Syrian Arabs from elsewhere in the country in a clear bid to permanently dilute its Kurdish-majority demographic.
Mutlu Civiroglu, a Syrian and Kurdish affairs analyst, said there is a strong desire among Kurds to see Afrin retaken.
“People of Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] generally, and people of Afrin especially, are strongly pushing the SDF leadership to liberate their region from Turkish control,” he told Rudaw.
A significant number of senior SDF leaders come from Afrin where they “have lost family members and homes as a result of Turkey’s invasion,” Civiroglu said.
“There is an enormous desire among Kurds to get back what they lost.”
Civiroglu also noted that Afrin is Syria’s predominant Kurdish region demographically. This was also true historically when it was referred to by terms such as ‘the area of Kurdish mountains’.
“It’s an important area strategically given its proximity to both the Mediterranean Sea and Aleppo,” he said. “Afrin has very fertile ground, an industrialized centre, and a well-educated population.”
“It’s very important for the Kurds for these reasons. That’s why there is a strong desire among Kurds to kick Turkey out.”
There are several obstacles, however. Civiroglu says Afrin’s liberation will depend heavily on what regional and international powers do next.
Although the Kurds held out for 58 days against the Turkish invasion – which Ankara initially boasted would take little more than a week to complete – the conquest of Afrin was more-or-less inevitable given the Turkish military’s technological edge over the Kurds, particularly its large and powerful air force, which the Kurds had no real capability to counter.
Furthermore, Russia’s decision to green-light the Turkish invasion after the YPG refused to hand over the territory to the Syrian regime left Afrin’s airspace wide open for Turkish jets throughout most of the campaign.
“What happens in Afrin depends on what Russia is going to do next since Turkey’s actions in Syria are determined by Russian approval,” Civiroglu said. “So long as there are no major disagreements between Turkey and Russia in the future, the Afrin situation is unlikely to change.”
Although the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad often issues statements condemning the Turkish presence, Damascus does not have the power to challenge Turkey and Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow claims to stand in defence of Syria’s territorial integrity, but has protested little over Turkey’s occupation of both Afrin and the nearby Jarablus/Al-Bab area.
Kobane, in an interview for Al-Monitor
, charged that “Russia played an adverse role in Afrin” by opening the airspace to Turkey and withdrawing its military police on the eve of the invasion.
“This led to a breach of confidence with the Kurdish people,” he said. “Russia needs to redress its mistake in Afrin if the wounds are to be healed.”
Despite these obstacles, Civiroglu is certain “no Kurd will ever accept the fact that part of their ancestral homeland has been taken from them”.
Furthermore, Kurds in Syria are deeply disturbed by how badly the occupation has affected Afrin, which he notes was hitherto “one of the most stable parts of Syria” throughout the county’s long civil war.
“Afrin was home for thousands of displaced persons from Aleppo, Idlib and Homs,” he said. “Gender equality was observed, with many senior positions held by women. Kurdish Alevis, Christians and Yazidis lived in harmony with Kurdish Muslims. There were also several Arab villages.”
“Now, we see women are removed from social and political life, forced to cover-up. ISIS-like groups are in control of the city, people are kidnapped and tortured for ransom, their properties stolen. This is horrifying.”
“What happened in Afrin has worried Kurds and minorities alike in other parts of SDF-controlled areas in Syria who fear they will suffer a similar fate if Turkey launches any future operations.”