Abductions and murders: the realities of Turkish occupied Afrin in 2020
Illustration: Noemi Gottmann

A new report has revealed the recent extent of brute force inflicted on residents in Kurdish majority Afrin, Northwest Syria (Rojava). But where does this fit into Turkey’s international relations?

Kongra Star, an on-the-ground women’s rights organisation in Rojava, Syria, have released statistics by Human Rights Organization Afrin exposing the number of kidnappings and killings in the region currently under Turkish control.

Given that at least 58 abductions and 17 murders have been documented in August 2020 alone, this review is most likely the closest form of a human rights report the area will receive under occupation.

Afrin has been under siege by Turkish forces and its Islamist allies, Syrian National Army (SNA), since January 2018; just seven years after the start of the Syrian Civil War. The annexation of the region began under ‘Operation Olive Branch‘, in which the invasion was carried out through claims of so-called Kurdish terrorist presence in the district posing a threat to Turkey. Consequently, there have been several reports of ethnic cleansing, including threats of decapitation if Kurdish inhabitants refused to convert to an extremist form of Islam, as well as forced changes to the Kurdish-majority demographic.

So, as annexations go, international presence in Afrin has been limited and larger human rights organisations have been shut out, ultimately preventing a verification of numbers like those published by Kongra Star.

The result: international inaction. Any acknowledgement of violence in Afrin has gone untouched. The Americans proved as much in the latest Operation Inherent Resolve report to the US Congress, by merely stating its concern for “reports of human rights abuses in Afrin, including … kidnapping for ransom of Yezidi and Kurdish women” but concluded that “as we do not have a presence on the ground, we are not in the position to confirm these reports but many appear to be credible.”

With Human Rights Organization Afrin collecting numbers on human rights abuses since the start of the invasion, it is clear that abductions and murders are a momentous part of Turkey’s governing of Northern Syria. A total of 565 murders and 6,000 abductions since 2018, including both women and children, highlights an extraordinary use of brutality towards Kurds. But what place does this have in Turkish foreign policy?

From figures provided by Human Rights Organization Afrin

Words such as “our civilization is one of conquest” and “we are determined to do whatever is necessary politically, economically or militarily” are those that could naturally be associated with 19th century expansions of empires. Yet, spoken on August 26, 2020 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is clear that Turkey will adopt any means possible to achieve their aims- violence included.

The actions of Turkish forces in Afrin are only a small part of the bigger picture that is Turkey’s growing intervention in the Middle East. To thoroughly explain this, a term increasingly fostered in commentary on the topic, and is certainly worth exploring, is that of ‘neo-Ottomanism’; first developed by David Barchard. Turkey’s re-emerging expansionist strategies go way beyond Syria, as their presence in Libya is ever-growing.

In deploying troops to support the Government of National Accord in Libya’s current civil war, Erdogan’s involvement in the North African country has been widely accepted as more than a response to cries for help. By signing a maritime agreement with Libya, Erdogan has essentially expanded his country’s claim to the Mediterranean sea, providing Turkey with a larger section just as surrounding countries’ interest in gas deposits in the area increase.

Therefore, as Turkey continues to broaden its influence and territory as part of its neo-Ottoman era, so does its solution to the Kurdish problem. Recent reports by the Afrin Activists Network reveal that women and girls have been trafficked from Afrin to Libya by Turkey’s allies, SNA, where they have been claimed to endure “sexual slavery, subjected to mass rape and forced abortion”. And so, any gains in Turkey’s international relations is an immediate loss in the Kurdish fight against oppression.

With August in Afrin seeing 58 abductions and 17 murders, and the international community continuing to turn a blind eye to the region, only time will tell what Autumn has in store for Rojava’s Kurds under Turkish annexation.