Sunday 9 October marked the third anniversary of Operation Peace Spring, Turkey’s 2019 cross-border incursion into northeast Syria. With the operation, Turkey occupied the cities of Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Tell Abyad (Girê Spî), and caused disastrous humanitarian consequences. According to the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), the occupied territory is 130 km long and 25 km deep, and over 200,000 people were displaced due to the conflict.
Despite the fact that the conflict officially ended with the signing of two ceasefire agreements, one on 17 October and another on 22 October 2019, Turkish attacks continued and all of northeast Syria is still reeling from the lasting effects of the invasion. Some of these lasting effects include displacement, damaged humanitarian infrastructure, demographic change within the occupied territories, and looting and targeting of civilians trying to return to their homes. On the anniversary of Turkey’s brutal attacks, it is important not to forget and to reflect on all the lives that have been affected.
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) in a report released on 8 October detailed the accounts of seven desperate displaced civilians who attempted to return to their homes in the occupied territories, and the reality which awaited them there. That grim reality included vandalism such as Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions spray painting their faction names across people’s homes to claim them as their own.
One of the interviews in the report was with a man named Baz Hassan, a resident of Serê Kaniyê until he and his family fled to Qamishlo during Peace Spring. When Hassan heard from locals who had remained in the city that it was possible for people to return and claim their homes, he went back to Serê Kaniyê with hope, now under control of Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
Hassan’s request to claim his house was formally approved, but at the time his house held fighters of the Mu’tasim division who refused to leave until he gave them half a million Syrian pounds. Hassan paid them.
“On the same day, only a few hours after I got back to my house … I was arrested right from the house by three fighters from the al-Mu’tasim Division … They asked me to give them my ID. When I gave it to them, they spit on the ID and threw it in my face. One of them said: “You are a Kurd, a pig. You were born in Amuda, so what brought you here?”
After this Hassan was arrested three more times, and was beaten and tortured to the point of losing consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he was told by one of the members of al-Mu’tasim:
“Escape, save your life. We will not leave you alive if you stay.”
Tragically this story is not unique. There are many people just like Hassan, and the situation of those who have stayed or returned to Serê Kaniyê or Tell Abyad are not much better than his.
Tell Abyad, known in Kurdish as Girê Spî or ‘White Hill’ has been occupied by SNA factions since the incursion. There have been many reports of war crimes and rights violations in cities that SNA has occupied, including Tell Abyad.
WAR CRIMES IN OCCUPIED REGIONS
The United Nations Syrian Commission of Inquiry also released a report in 2020, pointing to the war crimes in all the regions of northeast Syria that Turkey and its factions have occupied. These crimes include sexual violence, arbitrary detention, torture and abductions.
“Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn [Serêkaniyê] regions have faced acts of intimidation by Syrian National Army brigade members, engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes,” the commission said in the report. “Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of ‘female honour’.”
OPPOSITION TO OCCUPATION FORCES
These criminal acts have continued in these regions since they were occupied. But there are efforts to oppose them. For example, on 8 October the Serê Kaniyê committee announced a new campaign called “Safe Return is a Legitimate Right.”
The committee met on 8 October to discuss Turkey’s violations and the factions Ankara backs. The RIC said the following in a tweet:
“The Committee’s media coordinator, Dalu Muhammad Ali, said that the Committee soon plans to visit the Autonomous Administration, the UN, NGOs & the coalition.”
While it is encouraging to see efforts being made to help those who were displaced by Operation Peace Spring, it will take much more to right the wrongs which have been perpetrated against the people of northeast Syria. The international community cannot continue to ignore the violations and violence of the Turkish state, and we cannot rest until everyone is able to safely return to their homes.
*Robin Fleming is an American researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre, and focuses on North and East Syria.