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After Afrin: Turkey Repopulates Syria’s Kurdish Afrin with Sunni Arabs 

• By Sirwan Kajjo •  March 18, 2018 

Two months after the start of their cross-border offensive in the Kurdish region of Afrin in northwestern Syria, Turkish military and allied Syrian Islamist rebels captured Afrin’s countryside and took control of much of the city center. Now a fierce urban fighting is expected between them and local Kurdish forces.

The ongoing offensive, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, has two main objectives as Turkish officials have repeatedly stated: first is to dislodge the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the area. The second is to resettle hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey since the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011.

Mihrac Ural

Syrian rebel forces pull down status in Afrin (Screenshot)

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that group that has been engaged in a three-decade-long bloody conflict with Turkish armed forces for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization.

But the U.S. makes a clear distinction between the two Kurdish groups, saying the YPG is the most effective fighting force in its campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants. The U.S. support has allowed the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to claim more than 25% of Syria’s territory, including Raqqa – the former de facto capital of ISIS.

These impressive military gains made by the YPG have infuriated Turkey for a long time. But it was only Washington’s announcement in January for plans to build a 30,000-strong border security force made up largely of YPG fighters that directly triggered Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.

Since the start of the Turkish-led operation, more than 200,000 civilians have fled Afrin, settling in other Kurdish-held areas as well as regime-controlled territory. Given the current circumstances, it’s unlikely that these people would be able to return to their homes anytime soon.

Afrin’s pre-war population was just over 500,0000 people, mostly Kurds with significant Yazidi, Alawite and Christian minorities. That number had almost doubled from 2011 until Turkey’s offensive on January 20, 2018, with many displaced people from Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Homs, escaping violence in their areas and settling in the Kurdish enclave.

Afrin had remained almost untouched during the seven years of war raging elsewhere in Syria, and that was largely because it had been under the control of the YPG since 2012 when Syrian regime troops withdrew from there to focus on fighting rebels in other parts of of the country.

However, the ongoing Turkish assault on the city hasn’t only left hundreds of civilians dead and many more wounded. Turkey also has been trying to make demographic changes in the Kurdish city. Turkish government has reportedly settled several thousand Syrian refugees in border villages that recently have been taken from the YPG. According to local sources, some native residents of more these villages have been forced by the Turkish military and Syrian rebels to evacuate their homes, while others had no option but to flee when the Turkish airstrikes and artillery intensified.

There are around 360 villages that administratively belong to Afrin. More than half of these Kurdish villages have been evicted in the past two months, giving Turkey yet an opportunity to bring in more Arab families from refugee camps just across the border.

While their return to Syria could be seen a positive move, Turkey’s clear intentions of using these refugees would only have inverse consequences. The Syrian refugees that Turkey is intending to settle in Afrin happen to be Sunni Arabs. Afrin is a Kurdish region with almost nonexistent Arab population, and the settlement of these Sunni Arab refugees would only exacerbate the ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds, adding yet another layer to the Syria’s complex conflict.

Turkish efforts to change demographics in northern Syria are nothing new. After it ended its Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS and YPG in March 2017, Turkey forcibly removed hundreds of Kurdish families from their villages in the Shahba region, namely in Jarablus, al-Bab, Tel Aran, Tel Hasil and other areas where Kurds don’t necessarily make up the majority. Some families who resettled in Kobani spoke of actions taken by Turkish-backed rebels in those areas that forced the local Kurds to leave their homes and properties behind and look for safety somewhere else.

Turkey’s plans were to replace residents of the Kurdish villages in the Shahba region with ethnic Turkmen – some of which have been living in Turkey even before the Syrian crisis began.

By doing so, Turkey has dispelled any Syrian Kurdish hope of having a contiguous region along its border.

In Afrin, even if the YPG is permanently ousted from the city, Tukey would be find it challenging to hold on to the city for a long time. Historically and more than any other Kurdish region in Syria, Afrin has despised Turkey for its mistreatment of Kurds at home. In fact, most of Syrian Kurdish fighters in the ranks of PKK originate from Afrin. So in practical terms, Turkey and its Syrian proxies will enjoy zero popularity in the post-YPG Afrin.

For the next phase in Afrin, what is expected is the emergence of a new popular rebellion against Turkey and its Islamist Syrian proxies. The so-called “stability” that Turkey wanted to bring to Afrin would not be achieved in a such volatile region. And that would be costly for Turkey and its allies.

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