ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – On Sunday, a three-day international forum on “Ethnic cleansing and demographic change in Afrin,” organized by the Rojava Centre for Strategic Studies (NRLS) in Amude, launched to discuss the situation in the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwestern Syria which is now under Turkish control.
Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups captured the region of Afrin on March 18 in a campaign that lasted over two months. During the operation, hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands more displaced.
Experts have subsequently warned ethnic cleansing is now being carried out by Turkish-supported armed groups in Afrin.
Witnesses of the Turkish attack on Afrin spoke at the conference, bringing officials attending the conference to tears.
“I was in my home when [Turkey] launched an attack on Afrin with airplanes and tanks,” one civilian attendee recounted. “I was hit, and my leg was injured. My wife and son were hit,” he continued. “They used these heavy weapons to attack all civilians.”
“The Turkish state is displacing Kurds and replacing them with Arab families. They want to change the demography of Afrin,” the Kurdish man argued. “They want to erase the identity of Kurdish people, and they are enforcing their culture, prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language and replacing it with Arabic.”
In addition to those restrictions, civilians are reportedly forced to pay bribes and additional taxes, the witness who fled Afrin and now lives in Qamishli added.
The demographic changes in the Kurdish canton are a threat to the identity of Afrin, denounced Aldar Xelil, the Diplomatic Relations spokesperson for the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM).
“They are raising the Turkish flag and implementing the Turkish language in schools, and even changing the borders.”
“They change the names of villages and areas and destroyed the statue of Kawa, one of the historical [Kurdish] symbols. They do in Afrin as they have in other areas [under Turkish control], in Azaz and Jarabulus. They raise the photo of Erdogan and use Turkish liras,” Xelil explained.
Thomas Schmidinger, an Austrian expert on Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), underlined that Turkey is carrying out “serious crimes against humanity” and “committing war crimes.”
“They try to change the demography of Afrin,” he said, echoing the fears of residents and displaced Kurds.
Schmidinger noted that minority groups are especially vulnerable in Afrin due to the presence of Islamists. Afrin, in the past, was known for its religious diversity. “There was even conversion from Islam to Christianity in the past,” he asserted, noting that the situation is vastly different now, with “maybe 10,000 Yezidis (Ezidis)” having fled Afrin.
Schmidinger said the international community should ensure independent journalists can visit Afrin since “Turkey blocks access to the region.
“There are no independent researchers of human rights organizations going to Afrin.”
He also argued the Kurds should look for alternatives in trying to “completely liberate Afrin.” Until now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been the ones to carry out attacks on Islamist groups in Afrin.
“Although I respect the resistance, at this moment it seems unrealistic to win against a NATO-army. They should consider taking the issue of Afrin to the international court,” the Austrian analyst concluded.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who worked in the US Defense Department during the Iraq war, pointed to the fact that the US military decided not to destroy statues of Saddam Hussein during the war as it is forbidden under international law.
“They are cultural artifacts that cannot be destroyed,” he said. “What Turks have done [in Afrin] is an absolute violation of international law.”
David L. Phillips, who directs the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University and is a former senior adviser to the US Department of State, said it was “no mystery what happened in Afrin.”
“We know it was a genocide, a systematic crime against humanity,” he affirmed. “We shouldn’t allow silence to exist around the crimes against humanity that have been committed.”
Phillips called on Syrian Kurds to set up their own ‘truth commission’ to “document the facts, collect videos, and other photographic images,” so that “memory can be established what happened in Afrin.”
“We know that that certain elements of the Geneva Convention were violated,” he said. “We also know that the Turkish state targeted historical sacred places and targeted journalists and medical workers.”
“This is part of a systemic effort to Turkify and Arabize certain villages. Yezidi people were forcefully Islamized and forced to go to mosques,” he stated, calling on a more official response by the international community.
Editing by Nadia Riva