A newly released report by Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a Strasbourg-based watchdog organisation, provides fresh insights into the killing of four related Kurds in the Jindires (Cindirês) district of Afrin (Efrîn), northwestern Syria, on Newroz Day. The report sheds light on the alleged involvement of a Turkish-backed faction of the Syrian National Army (SNA), Jaysh al-Sharqiya, and highlights the discriminatory practices faced by Kurds in the Turkish-occupied Afrin region.
On the evening of 20 March, three Jaysh al-Sharqiya militants opened fire on a Kurdish family in Jindires. The attack was carried out because the family had lit a small fire to celebrate the Kurdish New Year, Newroz. The gunfire resulted in the death of four family members and caused injuries to others.
According to the STJ report, witness accounts indicate that the crime was a deliberate act carried out by a specific group within Jaysh al-Sharqiya. A source from the Sharia council of Ahrar al-Shariqya, a related militia within the SNA, claims that the targeted attack against Kurds was motivated by the presence of a significant number of Islamic State (ISIS) commanders and militants within Jaysh al-Sharqiya. Although the perpetrators acted independently, the group’s leadership had allegedly sanctioned the attack on the Kurdish celebration.
Following the crime, the family members of the victims took their bodies to a Turkish military hospital in the city. However, instead of placing the bodies in the morgue, the hospital authorities left them on the street. Subsequently, the family travelled to Idlib, where they met with the leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group, formerly al-Nusra Front, which is in control of Idlib.
According to the report, the intervention of HTS proved instrumental in bringing attention to the massacre. A quoted source states, “More frankly, the massacre would have been treated as an ordinary incident without extensive media coverage if not for HTS’ intervention.”
In response to the incident, HTS took control of the military police headquarters in Jindires the following day at the request of the victims’ families and their supporters. A military police officer recalls that HTS ordered them to evacuate the station promptly, leaving behind their weapons and retaining only their uniforms. The officer further explains that they remained outside the station until the early evening when they were informed that the issue had been resolved and they could return.
The SNA later announced the arrest of three suspects but refused to acknowledge the victims’ ethnicity, instead portraying the crime as a quarrel.
According to one source, HTS vacated the police headquarters upon the request of Turkish intelligence. The source claims that a high-ranking Turkish intelligence officer assigned to Syria and Iraq asked HTS to evacuate the station and leave the Jindires case to the police, assuring them that Turkish intelligence would oversee the continuation of the investigation.
The STJ report also highlights the widespread anti-Kurdish discrimination prevailing in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Once predominantly Kurdish, the region has experienced cultural erasure, Arab repopulation schemes, and targeted harassment, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.
While HTS, along with its predecessor al-Nusra Front, has previously targeted minorities, including Kurds, the report suggests that HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani has utilised Kurdish grievances in Afrin, such as the Newroz Day murders, to bolster its image and present himself as a champion of minority rights.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on 20 January 2018 together with factions known as the Syrian National Army, aiming to take control of the Afrin region, which until then had been a relatively peaceful area where the civilians affected by the Syrian war had found refuge.
On 18 March 2018, Turkish forces drove the Kurdish-led autonomous administration out of Afrin, leaving groups of their allies in control.
Turkey’s Afrin offensive displaced nearly 300,000 Kurdish inhabitants who since then have been taking refuge in the countryside north of Aleppo, locally known as the Shahba region.
After Turkish forces took control of the region, Turkey implemented a resettlement policy and settlers who are mostly families of Arab and Syrian Turkmen militias moved into the empty homes that belonged to displaced locals.
According to the STJ, the Turkish operation critically transformed Afrin’s demographics through “a policy of Turkification”.