Afrin “From the Kurdish Protection Units” to “Olive Branch Operation”

This study monitors the demographic, social and geographical status of Afrin, and its role from the spark of the Syrian Revolution until “Olive Branch” military operation.

This study sheds light on:  

  • Afrin and the Syrian Revolution;
  • The Russian military interference in Syria, and the role of “Syrian Democratic Forces” in Afrin;
  • The Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Afrin;
  • The crisis of American-Turkish relationships regarding Afrin;
  • The Russian-Turkish Relationships: From Crisis to Relaxation
  • Olive Branch; a fruit of Russian-Turkish coordination;
  • The Future of Afrin


Afrin occupies a good space in the memories of Syrians away from the images of war and destruction that is currently prevailing in Syria, Afrin stretches into a mountainous landscape since its olive trees-enthroned landscape has made “Its olive oil nearly shines though not touched by fire” as a verse of the Quran says.  Afrin river, which flows through its lands, has made it possess virgin tourists’ attractions like summer resorts and tranquil hiking spots for a lot of Syrian and Non-Syrian tourists. You will hardly find a Syrian who had not experienced the natural delightfulness of “Midanki Waterfalls” and the spectacular “Resorts of Kafar Jannah”, and “Sama’an Castle”, “Prophet Hori Castle” and “Ain Dara”. Those ancient monuments which imply whiffs of glorious history; its mild breezes, and moderate climate, its fertile soil which cherished its various agricultural harvests.           

Afrin is located to the far Northwest of Syria at the Syrian-Turkish borders. To the west of Afrin, lies Iskenderun territory. The railway that connects the city of “Meydan Akbaz” with the Turkish city of “Kilis” marks the borders with Turkey to the North, and it borders Izaz plains to the east; and Samaan mountain to the South. 

Afrin is a district that is administratively attached to Aleppo Governorate. It is 63 KM from Aleppo. It spans an area of 3850 square kilometer, and seven subdistricts area belong to it (Shran, Sheikh Al-Hadid, Jindeiris, Rajo, Bulbul, Al-Markaz and Al-Ma’abalti), in addition to some 360 villages that belong to it.

The population of Afrin is 523258 inhabitants according to 2012 estimates, but this number might have doubled, as the city has received large numbers of internally displaced people IDPs from Aleppo and several Syrian cities and towns, sine it, once upon a time, was safe and far away from Assad’s regime war-planes bombardment and missiles attacks.

The Kurds constitute the biggest majority of the population, that is %95 of the total population, whereas Arabs constitute %5, and there is a very little percent of Armenians; but they are no more than one or two families.

As for ethnicity of Afrin, Sunni Muslims constitute the first ethnic majority, and the Yezidis constitute the second ethnic component, and there are very small numbers of Alawites confined to the Suburb of “Al-Ma’abalti”.      

Afrin and the Syrian Revolution

In March 2011, the Syrian Revolution sparked, and peaceful protests and demonstrations widely surged all over Syrian cities and towns. The rural areas of Aleppo joined demonstrations and protests earlier than the city of Aleppo, because Assad regime’s security grip was very strict on Aleppo City.

As the Revolution was converted into an armed struggle, the rural areas of Aleppo, especially the Western and the northern parts were more fervent for armed resistance. Early 2012, “Tawhid Brigade” was formed in the northern part of Aleppo, which was the biggest military faction opposing Assad’s regime at the time. However, “Al-Tawhid Brigade” shortly took over most of the rural areas of Aleppo, with the help of Turkey, and the big number of fighters who joined it. It was also entrenched by populace incubator in the areas it took over. It could expel Assad’s forces out from most of cities and towns located in the north, east and west of the city of Aleppo; however, Afrin was excluded from “Tawhid” control.  

The inhabitants of Afrin were not less oppressed or mistreated by the acts perpetrated by Assad’s totalitarian regime than other people throughout the Syrian cities and towns. They underwent a (compound) oppression and mistreatment, since the Kurds were already deprived from their national rights in Syria as well. They were also deprived – as Syrians – from their rights of both citizenship and decent living; however, their anti-Assad activities were as eminent as those of their neighbors for many reasons that can be mainly enlisted as follows:   

  1. The Kurd’s public opinion, particularly in Afrin, was under the impact of the Kurdish political parties, and these parties did not use to have a unified vision toward the Syrian Revolution. Some of them were absolutely fervent for the Syrian Revolution because those parties believed that the solution of the Kurdish question must have been a part of the Syrian national solution through the fall of Assad’s totalitarian regime and the establishment of democratic state where rights of both humans and the society altogether would be taken fully respected.

Anyway, some other parties remained neutral towards what was going on in Syria as they did not trust the Arabic component. They were unable to differentiate between the regime that used to violate the rights of the Syrians and the Arab race the regime descends from. That vision was solidified by the emergence of extreme Islamic parties that penetrated the revolutionary activities and deviated the route of the revolution.   

Some other parties expressed conservations about the Syrian Revolution adopting a pragmatic approach that was interpreted as the concept of taking opportunities, exploiting of both contradictions and shifting of attitudes due to both current situation and alternation of power balances. And “Democratic Union Party” known as (PYD), which represents the Syrian branch of the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” known as (PKK) was one of the entities that adopted that approach.   

  • Undoubtedly, the “Democratic Union Party” was the most powerful and prominent party in the city of Afrin, so that it could impede any popular revolutionary movement unless that movement had been planned by it and the goals of the movement had been defined according to DUP’s vision.   
  • Anyway, insurgents against the approach of the “Democratic Union Party” were fervently advocating the Syrian Revolution, and they turned to armed struggle and resistance. They also formed some entities and factions outside the city of Afrin like Komlah Brigade, the Kurdish Military Council, Yusuf Al-Azma Brigade and Brigade of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubid, but the military activity of these movements outside the city of Afrin made the “Democratic Union Party” the most powerful one compared to other impaired Kurdish parties inside the city of Afrin.

Early 2012, a state of military retrograde was clear on the power of Assad’s regime, to an extent its power declined from %90 of the rural areas of Aleppo which made its forces semi-seized in Afrin. As a result, those forces were obliged to withdraw from Afrin, and the city was handed over to “Democratic Union Party” on July 19th 2012. The party sought to form a commission for governing the city. The party called it (Supreme Kurdish Commission). This commission comprised many Kurdish parties that were unified under the name (Kurdish National Council), in addition to “Democratic Union Party” which had the strongest dominion in the city of Afrin.       

2015, a New turning point of Revolution’s route

We can say that September 30th 2015 was a crucial turning point of the route of the conflict in Syria. On that day, Putin Government realized that Assad’s Regime was no longer able to continue and remain consistent in confronting armed resistance opposing the regime despite support offered by Iran and its militias to Assad’s forces on both political and field levels.   

In addition to United Nations resolutions that were issued by the Security Council, especially “Geneva I Resolution”, which figured out a political solution for the crisis, with which Russia and Assad’s regime were dissatisfied. As a result, Russian decision regarding a crucial military solution was made, that was manifested in comprehensive air raids and missile attacks that excepted no spot of Syria geography wherever anti-Assad’s entities were located. The feverish Russian air attacks targeted the entire Syria under the motto of combating the terrorism of Daesh and Al-Nusra Front, but these two extremist factions were neither hindered nor targeted by the Russian bombardment as much as the factions of the “Free Syrian Army” were. This was related to Moscow’s clear intention to eradicate all sorts of resistance against Assad’s regime.          

Between September 2015 and December 2016; i.e.15 months of a Russian horrible bombardment on Aleppo and its rural areas, Hama, Idleb and the rural areas of Damascus, Daesh organization was excepted from the Russian airstrikes and long-range missiles bombardment and raids. Instead, Daesh was left to sustain the regime by depleting and exhausting the factions of the “Free Syrian Army”. Within that period, Russians helped Assad’s regime regain control over many cities and towns that had long ago slipped out of its control in 2012. The unpreceded brutal war waged by Russia on Aleppo late in 2016, managed to drive both rebels and inhabitants out of eastern Aleppo which was obviously the most outstanding turning point of armed conflict in Syria.    

In the context of 2015 spillovers, and particularly in October, “Syrian Democratic Forces” were formed and they were backed up by the United State of America. The purpose of these forces was to establish a military entity comprising several ethnic groups that are tended to fight Daesh Organization which had been subjugating Manbij, Jarablus, Al-Bab to the east of Euphrates river; Al-Raqqa and areas in Deir Azur governorate to the east of Euphrates. However, these forces were undoubtedly under the practical leadership of the “Democratic Union Party” (PYD).     

Anyway, crystallization of prioritized interests of each party to the conflict clearly revealed the principle of sharing dominance that relied on the control of territories then negotiating the opponent to make the rival give up. This principle solidified the roles of two key players; Moscow and Washington, and two regional players; Iran and Turkey who stood behind respectively.    

  1. The Russian priority has been dependent on military alternatives as a part of the political process. To Russia, military process was deemed as the preliminary step which would give a push to any political solution, therefore Russia worked hard to squash armed opposition, and to enable the regime to regain as many Syrian cities and towns as possible. The Russian strategy has been accordant with the Iranian vision, which deemed the Russian strategy as the only possible means for protection of Assad’s Regime.    
  2. The United States of America vision was not very different from the one that had been defined by Obama since 2013; i.e. when Washington was persuaded with dispossession of Assad’ regime chemical weapons in exchange for Washington disinclination to launch a mass military strike against Damascus as result of chemical attack perpetrated by Assad’s regime on “Eastern Ghouta” in August of 2013. The bargain that was concluded between Moscow and Washington was known as “Chemical Deal”.   

Return of Turkish-Kurdish conflict

After Daesh had been expelled out from the city of “Kubani” in 2015 winter, from Manbij in July 2016, and from Al-Raqqa in 2017, “Syrian Democratic Forces” took over wide areas of the Syrian territories, stretching from Manbij located to the west of the Euphrates to the city of “Al-Hasaka” to the northeast. That stretch awakened an old Turkish concern: the probability of establishment of a Kurdish entity near its border with Syria,   

Establishing such a Kurdish entity had been deemed as an immediate threat to the Turkish national security. Ankara fear was solidified by the Kurdish desire manifested in the embodiment of the project of (Rojer Ava) territory located to the west of Kurdistan, which comprises three of provinces or “cantons”: Al-Jazeera, Kubani and Afrin. Ankara fear was also solidified by an obvious Kurdish desire to combine these three cantons in order to establish their alleged state. According to “Democratic Union Party” (PYD), Manbij should belong to Afrin through control over Izaz, Jarablus, and Al-Bab advancing on territories and areas towards Afrin.  

However, the Turkish fear was soon embodied by launching a military operation known as “Euphrates Shield” in alliance with the “Free Syrian Army” forces that were based in both the west and north rural areas of Aleppo.  

The military operation resulted in the expel of Daesh out from Jarablus and Izaz, and Turkey distorted the Kurdish dream of attaching the town of “Koubani” to Afrin 

Crisis of American-Turkish relationships

The American military support offered to the “Kurdish People Protection Forces” that has been growing dramatically, undoubtedly aroused deep resentment of Ankara, that made the Turkish politicians reconsider the relationships between Turkey and The United States of America on the one hand, and Natto Pact on the other hand. The Turkish resentment was accelerated, since Washington did not abide with its commitments in which it had promised to withdraw the “Kurdish People Protection Forces” from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates. The promise was declared by “Joe Biden”, Vice President of the United States of America during a visit to Ankara in August 2016.        

The accelerated tension between Ankara and America obviously motivated Ankara to reconsider its attitude toward the Syrian crisis, taking into account the search for new relationships that would help it achieve its prior objectives represented by driving away the threat of the Syrian (PYD) which has been allying with “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (PKK).     

Russian-Turkish relationships, from crisis to relaxation?

On November 24th 2015 a Russian Su 23 warplane penetrated the Turkish airspace, and Turkish fighter shot down a Russian warplane. As a result, one Russian pilot was killed and the other one was captured.

In the context of the Russian reaction to the incident, the government of Putin provided a intense air coverage for the “Kurdish People Protection Forces”, and these forces were able to occupy six towns in the northern rural areas of Aleppo: Tel Refa’at, Ain Daqna, Minig. As a result, some 250,000 people of the above-mentioned towns were displaced into open zones and camps. in addition, the operation left dozens of the “Free Syrian Army” fighters dead, whose bullet-riddled corpses were displayed dismembered by the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, locally known as (K.S.D.), to the public throughout the streets of Afrin in a demonstrational way. The Russians deemed the operation as a penalty to Turkey since it had shot down the Russian warplane. It was a penalty Turkey realized its sensitivity well, especially the town of Tel Rifa’at, that is only 40 kilometers from the Turkish borders, belongs to Afrin.  

The visit conducted by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow in August 2016 probably reflected a new vision of the Turkish policy, emphasizing the Turkish desire to diminish traditional relationships with Washington, or at least not to rely mainly on these relationships, or bet on them as traditional as they have been before. The visit reflected Turkey recognition and understanding of the key role of Russia on both military and political levels in regard to the Syrian issue.

Olive Branch; a fruit of Russian-Turkish coordination?

It is important to emphasize that the nine meetings in Astana, which probably led to a triple understanding shared by Russia, Iran and Turkey, were intended to fulfill the interests and cupidity of the countries mentioned-above in Syria as priorities, not as it was alleged to figure out a political solution,   

Accordingly, the priority of Turkey was to sweep off any probable impact of the “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) from the Syrian cities and towns bordering Turkey, so that Turkey decided to advance toward Afrin first, since it, due to principles of power sharing, was under the power of Russia, that no longer found a need to employ the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, locally known as (K.S.D.), as it did before, since its economic and geopolitical interests required a sort of surrender – at least on the short term – to the Turkish desires, and that made it withdraw its forces and military equipment that were located in Afrin two weeks prior to the start of Afrin battle.     

As for the United States of America, which had backed SDFs ever since it was founded in October 2015. It declared a clear-cut attitude in which it informed its Kurdish ally that Afrin was not under the American power from a geographical perspective, and it would not stop any attack against Afrin. Help appeals made by SDFs to Assad’s regime fell on deaf ears, since Assad’s regime imposed a term that Afrin would be under the power of Assad from administrative and military perspectives, but the term had not been approved by SDFs.   

In the meantime, many voices of appeals were made by the Kurdish political entity, requesting the “Kurdish Protection Forces” to withdraw from Afrin, and to hand over the administration of the city to the people of Afrin in order to avoid a battle that would leave so many deaths among civilians in addition to a large-scale displacement. Some appeals were made by several Syrian political forces, which had been very concerned that the battle scenarios would be as grave and brutal as the ones that had occurred in Al-Raqqa and Manbij; that was a theater of a destructive war between Daesh and U.S-led international alliance, but those voices and appeals fell on deaf ears, too. “Kurdish People Protection Forces” were determined to confront the “Turkish Offensive” as they quoted. Anyway, the question that remained unanswered at the time: Who did the “Kurdish Protection Forces” bet on for a battle whose consequences had been known before it started?       

On January 20th 2018, the “Free Syrian Army” forces started to advance toward Afrin in the context of a battle called “Olive Branch” that was backed by Turkish heavy artilleries and warplanes that targeted bases of SDFs on the outskirts, towns and villages of Afrin.   

The Turkish forces were advancing in the rural areas of Afrin quickly, and there were big influxes of displaced civilians. However, the advance towards the outskirts of Afrin began to slow down, because of strong fortifications that were prepared by “Kurdish People Protection Forces” in Afrin in five-year time, and the Turkish air attacks were keen on targeting military bases and headquarters belonging to SDFs trying to avoid destruction and random bombardment on the city. Although specific targets were accurately bombarded, some civilians were dead and many other were injured, and huge numbers of people were displaced. Anyway, all sorts of war ongoing in Syria have proven to be immoral.        

As siege of Afrin got stricter, the resistance of SDFs started to get weaker, and these forces were enforced to withdraw from the city, but it was a matter of time. Reasons for that withdrawal can be enlisted as follows:

  1. Withdrawal of the “Democratic Union Party” and other affiliated factions from the city was done due to a Russian-Turkish consensus, and because of an American disregard of the destiny of its Kurdish ally;
  2. Allegations that SDFs would receive supports and aids were untrue, even if they had been supported, they would not have changed power balances due to imbalanced military power of (PYD) to the attacking forces;
  3. It is important to emphasize that not all Kurdish Nationalists in Syria deemed “Democratic Union Party” as their expected representative of their national project, or as a combating force that would achieve their alleged project, since there were many political forces of anti-Assad’s tyranny, and those forces deemed “Democratic Union Party” to be allying with Assad’s Regime. In addition, many exclusive practices and detentions were perpetrated by Democratic Union Party against other parties and forces that were not affiliated to it. These reasons and many other minor ones made SDFs fight under the title of the Kurds, but it was not entrenched by the Kurds popular incubator.  

On March 18th 2018, the liberation of Afrin was declared by the Turkish Government, and SDFs remnants were cleared out of Afrin. Anyway, it is believed that SDFs had withdrawn from Afrin before the liberation of the city was declared by the Turkish Government, and the Turkish Government could declare the liberation of the city earlier. Factions of the “Free Syrian Army” and the Turkish forces were able to enter the city on March 15th 2018, but the Turkish intended to declare the victory at the same date of World War 1 “Can Kale” battle in which the Ottomans were victorious over the French-British Alliance.      

It took 50 days to liberate Afrin, and the Turkish Government emphasized the distinction between the Kurds as honorable people and the “Democratic Union Party” as terrorists through all types of media means as it was quoted by the Turkish side. Turkey always emphasized the rights of Afrin people to administrate their affairs after the withdrawal of the “Democratic Union Party” from Afrin, 

Furthermore, Turkey has been justifying their slow progress in liberating Afrin as a result of the Turkish forces determination not to target civilians as SDFs were entrenched by civilians. They proclaimed that they tended to mitigate damages and risks of war. Despites allegations delivered by the Turkish side, the liberation of Afrin was shortly followed by systematic burglary and plunder processes. Houses were evacuated, and their original owners were expelled out. Properties and farms were taken by force. All these acts and practices were perpetrated by forces and organized gangs allied with Turkey.

Many voices of appeals were raised, denouncing phenomena of stealing houses’ furniture and the assault on properties and ownerships of people. The appeals submitted to the Turkish Government for treating these phenomena, therefore the Turkish Government soon responded, and it assigned committees of military police MP which   spread military checkpoints to pursue thieves, and the Turkish authorities in charge expelled a number of military individuals and officers that had been proven guilty of robbery or other crimes.       

The liberation of Afrin was declared simultaneously with a conference that was held in the city of “Gaziantep”. The conference was attended by some 100 Kurdish personnel from Afrin where both administration and the future of the city were discussed. Anyway, attendants agreed on establishing the Local Council of Afrin to govern the city’s affairs.            

Like many other cities, Afrin “touched by harm” as refigured out in the Quran. It witnessed horrible wars and conflicts, but it certainly was less harmed than other cities and towns in Syria like Al-Raqqa, Manbij and Al-Bab in terms of destruction of infrastructures, and numbers of casualties. A week after the “Democratic Union Party” were swept off the city, crowds of people who wanted to come back to their homeland and rows of vehicles were seen on roads heading to Afrin, and the question here arouses: Will Afrin restore its delightful image as it was within the Syrian memory, and will her olive oil light again?

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