WASHINGTON – Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse in Syria, the government in Damascus appears to be turning over the Kurdish city of Afrin to the Turkish military and pro-Turkish militias.
Turkey has a long-standing grudge against the Kurds who have long fought for an independent state of their own, including for a large population of Kurds in and around Turkey.
The Turks took control of the city following an air and ground campaign last month, displacing some 137,000 people. The remainder of the population, somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people, according to United Nations estimates, now find themselves trapped in the devastated city, with little food and clean water, no power and sealed off by Syrian military forces as well as Turkish.
In addition, there are reports of looting and property destruction within the city by Turkish allied forces.
“This has the makings of a slaughter,” a Kurdish-American source who has been in touch with family in the city told WND.
Under the laws of war, all parties to the conflict are required to allow civilians to flee ongoing hostilities and to gain access to humanitarian assistance.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis in Afrin, the U.S. military says the Turkish offensive is disrupting the ability to defeat ISIS forces in the area, permitting them to regroup and return.
Colonel Ryan Dillon, the U.S. military spokesman on the ground there said military leaders have noticed a fall in the number of airstrikes against ISIS targets – not because the terrorist group has been eliminated, but because a stall in ground operations caused by the Afrin offensive allowed ISIS fighters the time and space to regroup and dig in.
“While the humanitarian conditions for all civilians who have fled fighting in Afrin are acute, those denied access to government held areas and suffering looting of the property are particularly vulnerable,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish forces and anti-government armed groups should end the rampant looting and destruction of civilian property that is taking place in Afrin, and government soldiers need to stop blocking those trying to flee.”
Turkey began its offensive in January to take control of the Afrin district in Aleppo governorate from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party-led Autonomous Administration. On March 18, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey announced that Turkey and Syrian Turkish-backed non-state armed groups had taken control of the city of Afrin following an air and ground campaign.
On March 29, the United Nations said the needs for the displaced people were “staggering” and emphasized that aid was needed for their basic survival.
A former Afrin city resident who fled to a nearby village said that she and the others there had little food, no electricity, no regular access to water, and no medical care.
“There is no bread,” said “Laila,” whose real name is withheld for her protection. “We are [eating] bulghur, and [using] generators [for electricity]. I am pregnant, and there is no medicine and no hospitals I can go to.”
A doctor told Human Rights Watch that he and his colleagues fled the city for Shaba, an area near Tel Rifaat with barely any medical supplies, forced to leave behind medicine and medical equipment. He said that they set up a field clinic there to treat people who had been displaced, but cannot keep up with the needs.
“In this wilderness, we have no water, no food, no capacity,” he said.
Thousands of people initially tried to reach the city of Aleppo and the towns of Nubul and Zahra, all under government control, three people said. But the people staffing government checkpoints controlling access to Nubul and Aleppo were demanding up to 500,000 SYP (US $1,000) to enter.
“I wasn’t able to enter Nubul,” said a man who fled two days before Turkish forces took control of the city. “At the checkpoint, soldiers asked for 150,000 SYP (US $291) per person at least.”
Those who could not afford to pass returned to villages in the Afrin district, or remained in the countryside in government-controlled areas with almost no access to services.
People who had fled Afrin said armed groups who entered the city with Turkish forces confiscated civilian property, in some cases threatening residents with death or violence.
“I saw them take a car, a tractor with my own eyes,” Laila said. “They said, ‘We just need it for something,’ but we never saw it again … Even my house, it was entirely looted. The furniture, the crystal [was] all broken, money [taken] … There is nothing left.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage and photographs posted online that appeared to show looting of livestock, food, and vehicles by armed men in Afrin, whose uniforms and armbands matched the description by the witnesses.
While Erdoğan said Saturday that 4,000 “terrorists” have been neutralized during what he calls “Operation Olive Branch” in northwestern Syria’s Afrin, he is referring to Kurds who were armed and supported by the U.S. military in the fight against ISIS.
Speaking at the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party’s congress in the southwestern province of Denizli, Erdoğan said: “4,000 terrorists have been neutralized in Afrin as I was recently informed.”
Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply that the terrorists in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.