From heaven to hell: Afrin after three years of occupation (1)

This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two here: https: //

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – While the inferno of the Syrian war raged on after popular protests in 2011 sparked nationwide uprising and countless battles, the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin, in the country’s northwest, largely remained a slice of paradise among the chaos and bloodshed. Tranquil, green, and covered in mountains, springs, and endless rows of olive trees, Syrians from all walks of life fled to the area and were given shelter and a new start at life by the local population there.

Afrin expelled the Syrian regime in 2012, becoming the canton of Afrin in Rojava (what is now referred to as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria). IDPs continued to flock to the region, and life flourished among locals and immigrants alike. For the first time in the Kurdish region’s history, children were learning their own language in school, shopkeepers could proudly hang Kurdish signs above their shops, and the red, green and gold flag that represented Rojava flew where before the Syrian regime’s flag stood as a constant reminder that their country was not made for them.

This tranquility was, sadly, not to last. In January 2018, the Turkish military and their largely jihadist proxies launched a savage blitzkrieg-style war on the small region, and after 57 days of fierce resistance by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), this small piece of heaven was turned into hell.

The Turkish threat looms

Even the very word “Kurd” has become a boogeyman for all of Turkey’s successive regimes. Turkey tracks and attacks Kurds nearly everywhere they reside, whether inside Turkish borders or outside in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Since the early years of the previous century, Kurds have been subjected to a constant assault and relentless persecution by the Turkish state.

The Syrian regime pulled out of the Afrin region in 2012, at a time when many other Kurdish-majority areas were ousting the regime from their own lands. As in the Kobani and Jazira regions, Afrin became a canton of Rojava (northern Syria, also known as Western Kurdistan) and declared autonomy in January 2014. Men and women from all ethnic and religious groups lived and worked together to build a system of self-governance, and despite being cut off from the other two cantons of Rojava, Kobani and Jazira, their experiment was quite successful.

However, Afrin’s autonomy immediately drew the horror and ire of the Turkish state, led by the conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey knew well that Afrin was an island in a sea of its enemies: Turkey across the border to the north, a small regime enclave in the Shia-majority towns of Nubl and Zahra to the southeast, and massive hordes of often radical and jihadist Turkish-backed opposition groups to their south and east.

“Since the beginning of the announcement of the Democratic Autonomous Administration in Afrin in 2014, we wanted to establish good neighborly relations with Turkey…we went to the Syrian-Turkish border with olive branches in hand, but it responded by helping armed groups and imposing a blockade on the region,” Hevi Mustafa, the co-chair of the Democratic Autonomous Administration in Afrin at the time, told North Press. 

At this time, the YPG began to push westwards from their positions near the city of Manbij, which they had recently liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS). The thought of the YPG having control of the region west of the Euphrates River, near the cities of Azaz and Jarabulus which served as transit areas between the Syrian interior and between Syria and Turkey, sent Turkey into a panic. Fearing not only a Kurdish autonomous entity on its border but the possibility of the YPG having a road connecting all three of the cantons under their control, Turkey began a slow, drawn-out cross-border assault on the region.

Turkey oppressed the area using several methods, as documented by researcher and writer Thomas Schmidinger during his visit to Afrin in 2015.

The most obvious assault on Afrin took the form of military action. According to Schmidinger, at the time, Turkey could not unleash a full ground invasion without international backing, and so resorted to shelling dozens of villages along the border with artillery and supporting opposition fighters against the YPG – even facilitating the crossing of opposition fighters from Turkey into Afrin to fight them.

Turkey also tried to cripple Afrin’s economy, attacking farmers working in their lands, building a massive border wall and uprooting old and valuable olive trees in the process, and encouraging the opposition groups they supported in Azaz and Darat Ezza to cut all roads to the small region.   

After years of progress and popular will that seemed to break through constant assault and siege, constant Turkish threats became a reality at 4:00 PM local time, Saturday, January 20, 2018, when the shrieks of dozens of Turkish warplanes echoed against a clear blue sky.

Report by Jiwan Shikaki and Lucas Chapman