Turkey’s war on Afrin: Operation Olive Branch explained

Afrin Canton was the westernmost canton of Rojava and North and East Syria, home to 200,000 ethnic Kurds[1]. Though the population was overwhelmingly Kurdish, it was home to diverse religious groups including Yazidis, Alawites and Christians alongside Sunni Muslims.

Prior to the Turkish invasion it had been one of the most peaceful and secure parts of Syria, virtually never seeing combat during the civil war bar occasional skirmishes between YPG/YPJ and jihadi forces on its borders[2]. As a result, Afrin offered peaceful sanctuary to over 300,000 internally displaced people from elsewhere in Syria[3].

On 20 January 2018, Turkey launched air strikes on 100 locations in Afrin, as the onset of an invasion they dubbed ‘Operation Olive Branch.’[4]

The stated reason for the invasion was to secure the Turkish border against cross-border attacks from Afrin. But a BBC investigation found the Turkish government had grossly inflated the figures cited to justify the invasion, claiming a figure of 700 cross-border incidents originating from Afrin alone when in reality Turkey only experienced 26 cross-border attacks from the whole of Syria combined.[5]

The Turkish Airforce ‘indiscriminately shelled civilians’[6] as well as YPG/YPJ positions, while a ground assault was carried out by factions and militias organised under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed National Army.

By 15 March, Turkish-backed militias had encircled Afrin city and placed it under artillery bombardment. A Turkish airstrike struck the city’s only functioning hospital, killing 16 civilians

Civilians fled and the SDF retreated, and by 18 March Turkey was in de facto occupation of Afrin. Between 400 and 500 civilians died in the invasion, overwhelmingly as a result of Turkish bombing.[8] Other civilians were summarily executed in the field.[9]

The Human Rights Watch found Turkey’s air strikes on and around civilian targets could stand in violation of international law, and also noted that Turkish border guards indiscriminately shot at civilian refugees attempting to flee the conflict[10].

Turkish-backed militias have begun to impose sharia law, kidnap, murder and torture civilians, and commit human rights violations possibly amounting to war crimes, per Amnesty International[11].

You can read our report on the alleged war crimes committed by these groups, and their open affiliation with extremist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham ( al-Qaeda in Syria), here.

Within Turkey, over 800 social media users[12] and nearly 100 politicians and journalists have been detained for criticizing the operation.[13]

As a result of Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, 300,000 people have been displaced[14]. Since the occupation, Turkey has also transferred thousands of jihadist fighters and their families – particularly members of infamous faction Jaysh al-Islam (The Army of Islam) – into Afrin from rebel-held areas elsewhere in Syria[15].

Prior to its occupation, Afrin was part of the democratic system of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and enjoyed a relatively high level of stability, economic prosperity and gender equality. Since the area has been taken over by Turkish backed forces – many of which subscribe to jihadist ideology – the people of the region are experiencing forced displacement, demographic engineering, human rights violations and widespread violence.

See our report here for a full picture of the social, economic, legal and infrastructural impact of Turkey’s invasion and occupation, and how the forcible demographic change being carried out in Afrin constitutes a blueprint for Turkey’s intentions regarding the rest of North and East Syria.

[1]              Syrian Census, http://www.cbssyr.sy/General%20census/census%202004/pop-man.pdf

[2]              See eg. Dr Thomas Schmidinger, https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/community/2016/02/24/afrin-and-the-race-for-the-azaz-corridor

[3]          International Middle East Peace Research Center: http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/video/ad12b384-8c46-4c4e-8de2-d7e2a555ffca

[4]              Voice of America, https://www.voanews.com/a/syria-afrin-turkey-airstrikes/4216688.html

[5]              BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-43262839

[6]              Amnesty International, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43228472

[7]              Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=86860

[8]              Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=107310

[9]              Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85463

[10]           Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/23/syria-civilian-deaths-turkish-attacks-may-be-unlawful

[11]           Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/08/syria-turkey-must-stop-serious-violations-by-allied-groups-and-its-own-forces-in-afrin/

[12]           Turkish Interior Ministry, https://turkeypurge.com/845-people-detained-turkey-opposing-afrin-operation-far-data

[13]           Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-security/turkey-detains-91-including-politicians-journalists-over-syria-comments-idUSKBN1FC0WQ

[14]           Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=102951

[15]           Reuters, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-ghouta-negotiati/rebel-fighters-to-leave-syrias-douma-after-weeks-long-military-campaign-idUKKBN1HF0AJ