By Saya Muhammad
QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – The Turkish-occupied city of Afrin in northwestern Syria was known for its amazing green nature and fruitful trees, especially olive lands that used to be the center of the residents’ livelihood before occupation.
In the past and before the Syrian war, Kurds of Afrin used to consume half of the production of their olive lands while the remainder quantities were exported to either other Syrian governorates or abroad, which secured them a source for living.
Since 2018, when Turkey and its affiliated opposition factions, aka as the Syrian National Army (SNA), launched “Olive Branch” military operation and invaded Afrin, the production has witnessed a notable decline upon committing violations against the environment by the factions, resulting in a deep crisis.
The SNA factions deforest vast areas, uproot fruitful trees to be sold as firewood, impose royalties, especially on the production of olive, the most popular in Afrin, and make funds of exporting oil to Turkey.
Local environmental activists accuse the Turkish-backed armed factions and Turkish authorities of involvement in “crimes against nature.”
Olive harvest starts from Oct. 15 until the end of the year, where mills are busy extracting oil, but this process has been restricted for six years due to practices of the SNA.
Ibrahim Sheikho, spokesperson of Human Rights Organization-Afrin, a local NGO, told North Press that since September the SNA militants have begun looting and robbing olive.
Sheikho said that a video footage filmed on Sep. 13 in Bafloun, a Yazidi village east of Afrin affiliated to Sharran district, showed “settlers affiliated with the SNA robbing olive crop of Ahmad Jawish, a Yazidi villager.”
He added that the settlers not only seized the harvest, but also broke branches of the trees and threw them on the ground.
Violations under Turkish protection
The human rights activist, based in Shahba region in the northern countryside of Aleppo, noted that since the SNA factions and Turkey have taken over, violations against environment have mounted.
The Monitoring and Documentation Department of North Press recorded the logging of 10,059 trees, 3,664 of which were olive, since early this year.
Hamza Division logged 2,632 trees, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah faction logged 680 trees, Sham Legion logged 554, Sultan Murad 272, and the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat) 253, according to the department.
Turkey grants the SNA leaders and militants facilitations, allowing them to impose royalties on owners of lands, olive production, olive mills, and also on trucks loading the production, as well as lands of the original inhabitants who were forced to flee their region during and after the military operation.
Sheikho estimated the amount of imposed royalties at about 2,5 Turkish lira ($0.87) in some areas, in other parts mounted to $1, and in Bulbul district in the north of Afrin that is run by the Sultan Murad faction, reached $8 for each tree.
He cited sources from the opposition as saying that the Interim Government, SNA’s political wing, is also involved in committing the violations by taking shares of the looted olive production and royalties.
In Sheikh Hadid (Shiye) district that falls under the control of the Hamza Division, and in a number of villages in Mabata district royalties are estimated at $7 for each tree, they also impose a royalty of between $20 and $40 for each tree of the IDPs’ lands who gave the power of attorney to relatives in the region, according to Sheikho.
Speaking of alleges of protecting trees, he added that the factions also force residents to pay a fee of between 1 and 2 TL ($0.070) for protection, and this gives the SNA militants a free hand to control lands.
The factions assign two militants for each mill tasked with collecting fees range between 10 and 50 percent of the production and the extracted oil. Additionally, the factions are responsible for determining the mills for oil extraction.
Royalties for supporting Gaza
Under false pretexts, the factions go ahead committing many violations against the original Kurd inhabitants, who refused to flee their lands.
Claiming to support Gaza, checkpoints of the SNA deploy on roads have not spared the chance of demanding royalties and fees between 5 and 10 TL from residents and trucks loading olive, especially in the districts of Bulbul and Mabata.
The activist said that militants of the SNA brutally assaulted the old man Othman Hanan, a doctor from the village of Ba’dinli, residing in the village of Avraz (Abraz), upon his rejection to pay the fee.
He told North Press that the SNA factions are worse than Israel when it comes to committing such violations against the Kurds.
Stolen oil heads to Turkey
After the end of harvest time, stolen olive oil tins are shipped to Turkey to be bottled in companies there and be sold at high prices in European markets as Turkish produced oil.
For this purpose, Turkey and the affiliated factions opened the Hamam crossing with the Hatay in 2019 to facilitate stealing and shipping of the “Afrini olive oil” to Turkey, according to Sheikho.
He noted, “Between 2018 and 2019, Turkish authorities, through the minister of agriculture, announced seizing 70,000 tons of oil, claiming the quantity was granted as a support for them after liberating Afrin from Kurdish groups.”
The Turkish authorities also exported the stolen oil to Spain as a Turkish production to improve economy.
The process of transporting oil of the Kurds is conducted through a number of traders in the “Olive Branch” agriculture room in Afrin, a facility founded following the occupation of Afrin, with Tamer Kredi on the top.
Sheikho stressed, “Kredi Company, owned by Tamer Kredi, monopolizes and collects the olive oil production in the region to be sent to Turkey as a Turkish production.”
Turkey does the same like government
Restrictions committed by Turkey and the SNA of preventing the exportation of the olive oil to other Syrian areas are similar to those were once imposed on the Kurds by the Syrian government, Sheikho stressed.
A local source, who preferred to be unnamed, told North Press that under the power of the government pre-2011, all traders in the region used to buy the olive oil in favor of an influential trader called Mahmoud Fakher, a resident of Idlib, who in turn sent the oil to a company in the Syrian city of Tartus to be bottled and exported abroad.
The company in Tartus were run by individuals from the Makhlouf family, relatives of President Bashar al-Assad, the source added.
Prior to the Syrian war, the price of each olive oil tin was 2,000 Syrian pounds (SYP, about $40), when the Kurdish authorities came to run Afrin the price mounted to 20,000, and nowadays, each tin (16 kilos) is sold at about $85 (1,190,000 SYP); but it is so little in light of the robbery and royalties imposed, according to Sheikho.
Olive spaces pre-war
Mamdoh Tobal, an agricultural engineer from Afrin residing in Tabqa, a city in Raqqa Governorate, revealed to North Press that statistics made in 2011 by agriculture department in Afrin indicate that forest spaces were about 18,500 hectares, spaces of cultivated forests were 21,000 hectares, and the spaces cultivated with olive trees reached about 130,000 hectares (about 13 million olive trees).
Tobal added that more than 60 percent of spaces in Afrin were cultivated with olive trees, as residents relied on olive, which is of major agricultural importance, for their living in term of domestic consumption, firewood for winter, fodder for animals, and also for the exportation of the redundant production.