Turkey’s latest military incursion into northern Syria which it says is aimed at reining in Kurdish separatists will speed up the return of Syrian refugees to their homes, Turkish officials say. But Kurds are fearful Ankara plans to use the returnees to displace them and engineer a population shift.
Kurd officials say Ankara wants to re-shape the demographics of the borderlands in a bid to establish a “corridor of stability” populated by fewer Kurds and with Sunni Arab refugees currently in Turkey taking their place.
That would weaken the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara dubs an affiliate of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Kurdish political activists and YPG propagandists have been mounting a Twitter and social media campaign highlighting the danger, claiming "ethnic cleansing" is one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s key war aims in the offensive, which is now in its second week, and named Operation Olive Branch.
Fear of ethnic cleansing
Former U.S. officials have also expressed alarm. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and currently an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says, “What Turkey seeks to do in Afrin is not eradicate terrorism, but rather to engage in ethnic cleansing.”
Former U.S. envoy Alberto Fernandez picked up on remarks made last week by Erdogan in which he talked of settling Syrian refugees in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which is bearing the brunt of Turkey's operation.
In a tweet, Fernandez warned, “If true, this would mean the ethnic cleansing of #Afrin right before our eyes is looming.”
Turkish officials dismiss the claim they intend to reorder ethnic populations in northern Syria. But they say they expect once the Turkish military offensive has secured territory that tens of thousands of Syrian refugees will flood back to their homes, much as thousands did in the wake of the 2016 Turkish incursion northeast of Aleppo.
Turkey is hosting more than three million Syrian war refugees.
Thousands are fleeing Afrin or trying to. U.N. officials say flight is being restricted not only by the hostilities, including continuous shelling, but also by local Kurdish authorities, who closed exit points between the enclave and Syria government-held areas in Aleppo province. Syrian soldiers have also been reported to have sent some refugees back.
Erdogan has prompted the rising alarm about a planned mass population displacement. On January 24 he told a meeting in the presidential complex in Turkey’s capital Ankara that one goal of Operation Olive Branch is to return Afrin to its “rightful owners.”
“First, we will wipe out the terrorists and then make the place livable. For whom? For 3.5 million Syrians who are our guests. We cannot forever house them in tents,” he said. He dismissed the idea that Afrin is a Kurdish enclave. “In Afrin, 55 percent are Arabs, 35 percent are Kurds and the rest are Turkmens.” That may be the case now as the population has been swollen by thousands of refugees, the majority Arabs.
But traditionally Afrin has been seen as Kurdish territory, with a peppering of other minorities, including Turkmens, Alawite Kurds, Yazidi Kurds and with some Armenians and Circassians, say analysts.
Yazidi activists last week urged the United Nations to protect their 21 villages in the Afrin pocket, saying they are at serious risk because of Turkey’s military operation. A Yazidi advocacy group, Yazda, warned they will hold Turkey and Syrian rebel militias fighting alongside the Turks, responsible “if any persecution of cleansing takes place against our people.”
All sides in the vicious Syrian war, with its seemingly endless cycles of sectarian and ethnic revenge, have engaged in war crimes and population displacements. That includes the Kurds, who rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the of forceful displacement and razing Arab villages, prompting fierce Kurdish denials.
But VOA interviewed dozens of Arab residents from a string of traditionally Sunni Arab villages east of Afrin, including Tell Rifaat, who say the YPG blocked them from returning home after the Kurds seized the territory as a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive against the rebels was underway in 2016.
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Population displacements have long been employed by the region’s rulers to shape demographics to suit their purposes. Syrian autocrat Hafez al-Assad shifted populations around for collective punishment as well as for strategic reasons, including moving Arabs into Kurdish territory in northeast Syria. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did the same during his 24-year rule. Historically the Ottomans, along with Russia’s Stalin, have been responsible for some of the biggest forcible ethnic displacements.