WASHINGTON - In late October, Farhan and his two sons finished packing up their olive harvest to transport it to the city center of Afrin in northwestern Syria. But before doing so, they pondered the possibilities waiting for them.
“Would we be able to sell our olives at a good rate? Would the armed groups impose additional taxes on us?” wondered Farhan, who requested his real name not be revealed for safety reasons.
Farhan, 61, is a Kurdish farmer who owns an olive farm nearly 16 kilometers (10 miles) outside of Afrin, a region controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian militias since 2018. The area is known for its high-quality, abundant olive oil.
“We used to make a good living by cultivating olives,” he told VOA via a messaging app. “But in the past two years, it’s been a real challenge to do our businesses without interference from the armed groups.”
In January 2018, Turkey and its Syrian proxies invaded the Kurdish-majority region to dislodge Kurdish fighters affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main element within the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey views the YPG and SDF as extensions of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.
Western governments and international rights groups have accused Turkish-backed militias of war crimes, including looting and stealing civilian properties in Afrin.
Source of revenue
Experts say Afrin’s olive farms have become a main source of revenue for the various armed groups present in the region.
“There are about 18 million olive trees in the Afrin area,” said Khorshid Alika, a Syrian economist who closely follows developments in northern Syria.
“The militias have been imposing high taxes on local Kurdish farmers,” he told VOA. “Most recently, for example, the armed groups in control of Kakhera village (in Afrin) levied 2,000 olive oil barrels as taxes on the village residents.”
Alika said each barrel of olive oil currently is worth about $30 at the local market, a figure confirmed by Farhan, the farmer.
Mohammed Billo, a journalist from Afrin who now lives in northeastern Syria, says militias that control different parts of Afrin have different ways to benefit from the olive oil production.
“In my village, the militias this season seized all the olives belonging to families who have fled their homes and lands following the Turkish invasion,” he said.
“In addition to imposing taxes, the militias also charge farmers at checkpoints for transporting their olive crops,” Billo told VOA.
When Farhan and his sons finally decided to take their harvest to the city, they were stopped at three checkpoints on the road.
“They were manned by different groups, which most of the time they are at odds with each other,” he said, “So this comes at our expense.”
He ended up paying the three checkpoints to have access to the city.
“When we sold the crops, the money was so little that would maybe last for three months only,” Farhan added. “I don’t know how my family will survive for the rest of the year.”
Afrin farmers are allowed to sell their oil crops only to either the militias or representatives of Turkey’s Agricultural Credit Cooperatives, according to economist Alika.
“Turkey and its proxies buy olives from local farmers at half the real price, collect them at an oil extraction plant near Afrin, and then export them to Turkey and ultimately the outside world,” he said.
A source at the Turkish Foreign Ministry told VOA that, “The supply of olive oil produced in the region to the world market via Turkey happens in a safe way. Local people in the region’s factories process olives which they harvest and reexport the produced olive oil to third countries via Turkey. Our country plays only a facilitating role in transit.”
The source added that, “olives and olive oil produced in Afrin reach out to the world market via Turkey, and their domestic sales in Turkey are prohibited. Turkey does not have any economic gain from this activity. All revenues go to local producers in Afrin. With these efforts, Turkey aims to generate income for the locals and keep the local economy alive in the zone of operations cleared from terror in Syria.”
‘Black propaganda’ against Turkey
In November 2019, however, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a parliament session that allegations about stealing Afrin’s olives are “black propaganda” against Turkey.
“The olives in Syria are being reexported via us, and the income from here is being distributed to the landowners. So, there is no theft or anything else. … This olive stealing and other [allegations] are part of this black propaganda,” he said.
A year before Cavusoglu’s comment, Turkey’s minister of agriculture and forestry, Bekir Pakdemirli, told the parliament that 600 tons of olives from Syria’s Afrin had entered the country as of November 2018.
“We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands,” he said. “We want the revenues from Afrin to come to us. This region is under our hegemony.”
Ali Kenanoglu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), says Afrin’s olive oil has been discussed at the Turkish parliament several times.
“When we ask about this issue, they (the ruling AK Party) defend themselves by appealing to nationalist sentiments such as, ‘So what? Instead of falling into the PKK and YPG terrorists, it became for our country’s benefit,’” he said.
“Most of the revenues from these olives are largely transferred to the (Turkish-backed) Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and used in their financing,” Kenanoglu told VOA. “This has turned into a resource to support the FSA rebels in Syria.”