“I say to you all that I did not feel my release for a single moment… because I left from a small jail to a large jail which is the homeland… Our homeland is a jail now.”
These words were contained in a Facebook post shared a week and a half ago by Dr. Riyadh Manla Muhammed, following his release after 30 months in captivity. Dr. Riyadh Manla is a native of Juwayq, a town just 7.5km northwest of downtown Afrin city, as well as a local business owner and a graduate and former lecturer in Business Administration at the University of Aleppo. Like many Afrinis residing in Aleppo city, he returned to Afrin during the conflict where he began teaching at Afrin University in 2015.
On September 23rd, 2018 Dr. Riyadh Manla was arrested outside his house in western Afrin city by a group of militants from Turkish-backed opposition faction Furqat al-Hamzah. Members of his family were also arrested, while many of his properties, including the al-Azhar private school he had founded and Çîya Hawar, a restaurant in the nearby village of Kafr Shil with a spectacular view of Afrin city, were seized by the group as well. For over two years Dr. Riyadh’s whereabouts remained unknown to his family and the public. In this time, his brother met with representatives of armed factions, the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated Local Police and Military Police – even a Turkish governor – all denying possessing knowledge of where Dr. Riyadh was being detained.
Dr. Riyadh’s release came 11 days before the third anniversary of Afrin city’s fall to Turkey and its proxy forces as a conclusion of ‘Operation Olive Branch.’ On March 18th, 2018, over a hundred thousand of the region’s native population fled by car and by foot over Jebel Laylun, the rocky outcrop in Afrin’s southeast, turning back to take one last look out over the green Cuma plain the city sits within, before facing their new reality in the refugee camps of al-Shahba’ and elsewhere. The three years that have passed since that day have only vindicated the fears that motivated this exodus.
These years have witnessed Afrin transition from a region where inhabitants of neighboring regions would seek refuge from the war raging around them to one defined chaos, criminality, and ethnic cleansing. The system of governance which has been in place since 2018 is polycratic: run from above by the Hatay Governor’s office, on paper by the Local Councils and police departments nominally affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government, and on the ground by the dozens of militias that make up the Turkish-backed ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA). These militias are mostly run by individual warlords, rich from the rent they receive through their affiliation with the Turkish state and from their parasitic relationship with local society and economy, and are in constant, often violent competition with one another over the small fiefdoms they’ve established. Overseeing this convoluted, nonsensical ‘governance’ web are revolving deployments of Turkey’s Jandarma as well as shadowy MIT operatives facilitating the proxy relations while carrying out the state’s international war on the Kurdish movement.
Within this context a litany of continuous crimes and abuses have been perpetrated against Afrin’s indigenous inhabitants and the region at large. Kidnappings and disappearances, such as the aforementioned case of Dr. Riyadh Manla occur almost daily, with even members of the Turkish-supported Local Councils have been targeted. Some victims are held for ransom, others disappeared within the opaque and ad hoc prison system of the fractured Syrian opposition. Since 2018, an unknown number of detainees have been transferred across the border to be tried on charges of terrorism and ‘disrupting the unity and integrity of the Turkish state,’ in trials based on dubious standing in international law. Testimony from locals lucky enough to have gained their freedom speak to common practices of torture and incidents of rape within opposition prisons. Statements collected for a recent UN report told of Turkish officials being present as such abuses were occurring. Thousands of native inhabitants have fallen victim to such kidnappings and detentions since March 19th, 2018. According to a January 2021 report published by Syrians for Truth & Justice, 877 people were arrested and disappeared in Afrin over 2020 alone.
2018’s Operation Olive Branch has proven to be quite lucrative for the SNA factions involved. Since the fall of Afrin these armed groups have seized the properties of both those that fled in March 2018 as well as of individuals they kidnap. This is not just limited to homes within towns and villages, but large swathes of agricultural land, as well as industrial properties. In a region renowned for its millions of olive trees, plantations and facilities related to oil and soap production became an obvious target. SNA militias have gotten their fingers in each phase of production involved in the making of Afrin’s prized and beloved olive oil, from seizing and renting out cultivated land, demanding percentages of crop yield, and the taking over of oil presses. Much of the final product is then transported to Turkey, in coordination with the Turkish Agricultural Credit*, where it is exported to abroad in the Middle East, Europe, and even North America.
Additionally, Afrin’s cultural heritage has come under attack during these three years of occupation. The region’s Islamic, Ezidi and Alevi shrines have faced a slew of looting, desecration and destruction, obliterating focal points of communal, spiritual activity which serve as physical testaments to Afrin’s unique religious history. Additionally, sites from the region’s ancient past have been systematically excavated by largely unknown perpetrators, with no information as to where artifacts extracted are ending up. Most notably this has occurred at the ancient Greek city of Cyrrhus and Iron age temple mound of ‘Ain Darah, but satellite imagery shows that almost every one of the dozen or so similar mounds on the Afrin river plain have witnessed comparable activity.
Given both the SNA factions’ propensity to arrest their perceived civilian opponents and the Turkish state’s ongoing war against journalism, press freedom is non-existent in post-2018 Afrin. Numerous local journalists, both native and displaced from elsewhere, have been arrested for doing their job in the last three years. Turkey has prevented most international press from accessing the region, though infamously the New York Times Istanbul bureau chief was given a tour of Afrin in February of 2021, resulting in a glowing account of the ‘constructive’ role played by Turkey with no mentioned of the systematic patterns of abuses discussed above. Documenting and reporting on the situation in Afrin remains limited to the tireless and fearless local activist networks, Syrian and Kurdish press and human rights organizations, and independent civilian journalists from abroad.
While the chaotic situation in Afrin today would normally indicate a failure of Turkey in achieving its policy goals, Operation Olive Branch has in fact been a success for the Turkish state. Turkish policy in Syria since 2016 has been guided by two interlinked goals: the destruction of the PYD political project and Kurdish autonomy at large, and the creation of a ‘safe zone’ on the border, serving to contain IDPs from elsewhere in the country seeking to enter Turkey and as a dumping ground for Syrian refugees the Turkish state deports and forcibly repatriates.
Turkey has completely removed the PYD and the AANES from the region for the time being. The fate of Afrin and Turkish-controlled regions of northern Syria at large will be decided within Turkey and Russia’s new continent-spanning transactional relationship. If Turkey is to vacate Afrin at some point in the future, it will be through a Russian-facilitated turn over to the Syrian regime with the PYD held far outside.
Serving to further prevent the reemergence of the AANES or any other autonomous Kurdish political project in Afrin has been the ethnic cleansing and demographic reengineering occurring in the wake of Turkey’s invasion. The March 2018 flight of a hundred thousand Kurds was soon following by multiple waves of tens of thousands of Arab and Turkmen IDPs from elsewhere in Syria. Afrin’s Kurdish identity, dating back at least 800 years and surviving a half century Arabization campaign from the Syrian state, has now been radically altered. Turkish-backed governance and Turkish aid have greatly privileged Turkish and Arabic over the Kurdish language. Anti-Kurdish sectarianism, previously existing within Syria but additionally stoked by Turkey, has made locals’ Kurdish identity and native tongue suspect to the occupying powers.
Dr. Riyadh Manla was not the only detainee recently released. Several others kidnapped in 2018 have be freed in recent weeks as well, including Nadia Suleiman, whose story exemplifies the gendered violence that’s become all too common in Afrin over the past three years. Some have speculated that these releases are linked to the early March visit of SNC president Nasr al-Hariri to the KRI, where he was received by former president Masoud Barzani.
This speculation hinges on some sort of deal being reached between these two entities involving Afrin and the ENKS, their shared partner and the main anti-PYD Kurdish opposition council. Regardless of whether or not these rumors have any basis in reality, the SNC has no power over the SNA factions that control Afrin on the ground and perpetrate the majority of the abuses inflicted on Kurdish civilians. Furthermore, the wounds inflicted on the Kurdish public at large by 2018’s Afrin invasion has been one of the few events that’s proven capable of momentarily bridging the highly polarized divide between ENKS and PYD supporters. The ENKS’s continued affiliation with Turkey and the SNC and any future deals related to such come at a cost to the council’s popular support and legitimacy amongst the Kurdish public.
For three years, the people of Afrin have suffered immensely under Turkish occupation… given Ankara’s ever increasing belligerent imperialism and the current international impunity its awarded justice for Afrin appears to be an ever-distant prospect.
Cover photography by Orhan Qereman