What is ethnic cleansing?
The Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780, which documented atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia, defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
Did Turkey intend to commit ethnic cleansing in Afrin?
Yes. As the operation began, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that “the main objective [of Operation Olive Branch] is to hand Afrin over to its true owners. What is our goal? Do we have 3.5 million Syrian refugees living on our lands? Yes, we do. Our target is to repatriate these Syrian brothers and sisters as soon as possible.” He also claimed, falsely, that the population of Afrin was 55% Arab, 35% Kurdish and 6–7% Turkmen. It is clear from the outset that Turkey intended to change the demographic composition of Afrin by force.
What was the actual demographic composition of Afrin before the invasion?
Afrin, before the Turkish assault, was indisputably a Kurdish-majority region, and had been so for centuries — in fact, it is considered to be Syria’s oldest Kurdish region. It has been described as ‘nearly 100% Kurdish’ and as ‘predominantly Kurdish’, with the lowest possible reputable estimates placing the region’s Kurdish population at 75% — more than double the figure proposed by Erdogan. It was home to approximately 30% of Syria’s pre-war Kurdish population.
Its remaining population was made up of Yezidis, Alevis, and Sunni Arab IDPs from other parts of Syria. Afrin’s Yezidi and Alevi communities have also been targeted for removal by occupying authorities.
What practices that constitute ethnic cleansing were committed in Afrin?
According to the United Nations, ethnic cleansing can be carried out “by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assault, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property.”
Both Turkish and rebel forces have committed nearly all of these atrocities in Afrin. Deliberate military attacks on civilian areas were systemic, with Turkish forces bombing schools, farms, a dam and water treatment plant, and a hospital, among other civilian targets. Just days into the operation, Turkish state media explicitly claimed that civilian objects were being purposefully targeted. Wanton destruction of property has been documented by several international monitors— many of which note that Kurdish homes and businesses were specifically targeted for destruction and appropriation. Torture, arbitrary arrests, and extrajudicial executions have all been documented in Afrin, with many victims being kidnapped and tortured explicitly to extract ransoms from their families. One Kurdish refugee said that, when he was arrested in June of 2018 after attempting to return to his home, ten people were being brought into the local “court” per day. This, if true, would point to an average of 300 arbitrary detentions per month. It is likely that many of the women who have been detained or disappeared have been victims of sexual violence. Turkish forces were revealed to have been operating a human trafficking ring, and local monitors have claimed that rebel fighters frequently assault and harass local women.
As the region’s Kurds were forced out by these methods, tens of thousands of predominantly Arab Syrian refugees were settled in the area. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on February 25th, 2018 that up to 350,000 people could “return” to Afrin when the operation was finished. Local monitors and more recent statements from Turkish officials suggest that the actual figure is between 40,000 and 200,000.
On January 8th, 2019, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin claimed that “within the framework of the model we have developed in this region, administrative units composed of the opposition and the local elements oversee the flow of daily life and ensure security there, which enabled nearly 200,000 Syrians to return home from Turkey last year. This is the number with regard to Jarabulus, with nearly as many people having returned to Afrin.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 40,000 people had been resettled in Afrin. This figure has been cited by the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, in a report entitled Turkish Crimes in Afrin. The Autonomous Administration documented at least 258 families that had been settled in Shiye; 339 families in Mabata; 337 in Shera; 457 in Jinderes; 22 in Rajo; 350 in Bilbile; and 522 in Sherawa. These are mostly the relatives of fighters belonging to rebel groups supported by Turkish forces.
In April of 2018, one month after Turkish forces took full control of Afrin, Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union asked for over $3 billion in aid to assist in resettling Syrian refugees in the region, citing the same target figure of 350,000 so-called returnees. The European Union declined the request.
The estimated population of Afrin in November of 2017, according to the United Nations, was 323,000 people. As of March 18th, 2018, the day on which Turkish forces reached the center of Afrin City, an estimated 100,000 people remained there — suggesting that at that time, over 200,000 people had already been displaced. By January of 2019, one year after the operation began, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that over 300,000 people had been displaced from Afrin.
The Kurdish civilians who remain in Afrin, along with its other minority populations, have been singled out for looting, enforced disappearances, and other violations by occupying Turkish and FSA forces. The United Nations reported that “patterns of house appropriations” took place against Kurdish civilians. Rebel fighters threatened to behead Kurdish ‘infidels’ in widely circulated videos. One militia that participated in the operation said that all Kurdish males in Afrin between the ages of 15 and 50 should be “displaced and persecuted”.
Yezidis, a particularly vulnerable religious minority that faced genocide at the hands of ISIS in Sinjar in 2014, were forced to convert to Islam and harassed by FSA militiamen for not knowing Islamic religious practices. Yezidi religious sites were also destroyed by occupying forces. About 6,000 of the 20,000 Yezidis living in Afrin before the operation began have registered as displaced in Shahba. The whereabouts of the rest of this vulnerable population is unknown.
Property expropriated from Kurdish and Yezidi civilians has been taken over by the families of Arab rebel fighters.
Based on these figures, it is not an exaggeration to say that Operation Olive Branch displaced nearly all of Afrin’s original population, and almost completely replaced that population through forced population transfers. This displacement explicitly targeted Kurds for removal, and the individuals moved to the city were predominantly Arabs. The Kurdish language and Kurdish cultural symbols have also been targeted, and policies of assimilation similar to those that the Turkish state has implemented within its own borders have been imposed on the population that remains.
How can ethnic cleansing be prosecuted?
The United Nations has said that “these practices constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.” This suggests that some form of international legal accountability is possible— a point strengthened by historical precedents.