US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller sparked outrage this week by flatly denying that Turkey intended to engage in demographic change in Afrin, the Syrian Kurdish region invaded and occupied by the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxy militias in 2018.
His comments are an insult to the many thousands of Afrini Kurds living in IDP camps and ad-hoc settlements throughout northern Syria – many of whom I met and interviewed, including while collecting testimony over the abuse and targeting of Kurds in the Turkish zone of control to contribute to the United Nations Independent Inquiry on Syria.
Our team of researchers from the Rojava Information Centre spoke to civilians previously kidnapped, tortured and racially abused by Turkish-controlled militias, as well as those whose relatives had lost their lives. These deeply disturbing conversations illustrated a fact also borne out by repeated United Nations reports covering rights violations in the Turkish-occupied regions – that Turkey has driven out indigenous minorities to replace them with Sunni Arab and Turkmen militiamen and their families.
In January 2018 and October 2019, Turkey undertook two invasions of the Kurdish-led autonomous regions of north and east Syria. Its jets and tanks killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish, Yazidi and Christian civilians, as well as some Arabs, in what can only be described as a deliberate policy of forcible demographic change.
Turkish-backed militias have tortured, abused and killed Kurds, often on the basis of their ethnicityOne 18 year-old ethnic Kurd we spoke to was beaten with a hose, burned with cigarettes, and denied access to food and water after attempting to cross Turkish-occupied Afrin in pursuit of work. He told RIC: “When we got to the [prison], they gathered around me and beat me with the butts of their weapons. They chained me and hung me from the ceiling. Or they made me lie down on the ground, with my feet up, and beat my feet with a hose, hundreds of times. They beat your feet until you lay like a dead body on the floor.”
This is just one testimony among many. Via a Turkey’s invasion of Afrin reduced the Kurdish population there from 96% to just 25%, according to data collected by the Human Rights Organisation – Afrin. Per a 2020 UN report, Syrian National Army (SNA) factions controlled by Turkey have committed war crimes across Afrin and other Turkish-occupied regions, constituting “myriad violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by SNA fighters, using language comparing their “enemies” to “infidels”, “atheists” & “pigs” when referring to civilians, detainees & property…“, the displacement of the entire Yazidi population in Sere Kaniye and large swathes of the Kurdish population, the expropriation and looting of schools, businesses, bakeries, olive groves, vehicles, agricultural tools, “the war crime of murder and repeatedly the war crime of pillaging… hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture.”
It’s impossible to reconcile such clear language on the fate of ‘large swathes of the Kurdish population’, which has been echoed in previous statements by US officials, with Miller’s breezy dismissal. These violations “may entail criminal responsibility for Turkish commanders who knew or should have known about these crimes,” the UN report concludes. For the well-documented abuses against Kurds and other minorities which have driven so many from their homes do not occur in random isolation. This climate of fear, abduction and arrests also suits Turkey’s geopolitical agenda.
While the majority of Kurds have been forced to flee Afrin, Turkey’s actions are not solely based on a chauvinistic, nationalistic opposition to the Kurds. Some, principally elderly, indigent or collaborationist Kurds are able to remain in the region – harassment, beatings and looting notwithstanding. But Turkey has totally politically cleansed the region, replacing the Kurdish-led civil administration which guaranteed Syria’s highest standards of rights and rule of law with the aforementioned patchwork of warring militias. Anyone with any links to this administration – regardless of their ethnicity – is at risk of their life if they remain in Afrin.
Rather, as displaced Afrini economist Cheleng Omar told me, “throughout Turkish-occupied regions, not only in Afrin, Turkey is attempting to create a ‘Turkmen belt’ – a policy Turkey has been implementing in the occupied regions for over five years.” The instillation of Sunni Arab and Turkmen militias is intended to insulate Turkey against the Syrian regime, expand Turkish power south of its border, and prevent any furthering of community-led governance based on self-determination and fundamental rights, a political model anathema to the centralised authorities in Ankara.
Miller might have gone on from identifying the admitted burden imposed on Turkey by the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in that country, to talk about the need for reconstruction, improved security, and an enduring political settlement in North and East Syria and throughout the country, enabling some of those millions to begin willingly and voluntarily returning home – in line, it should be noted, with proposals put forward by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. This much would have been palatable.
But his brusque, one-word denial speaks to a de facto acceptance of the violence and demographic engineering which have indeed marked Turkey’s intervention in Afrin. By refusing to call demographic change what it is, he can leave no doubt in the minds of the US’ nominal Kurdish allies – the US has no serious interest in promoting democracy, stability, or fundamental rights in Syria or throughout the region.