Thousands of Syrian refugees are unable to return to their homes following the Turkish invasion of northwest Syria.
On March 29, Kurdish news service Rudaw reported, “Thousands of displaced Syrians…are unable to return to areas in Afrin now under the control of Turkey.”
That report went on to say that following Turkey’s capture of the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin, Turkish-aligned troops were using checkpoints to prevent displaced persons from returning to their homes in the Afrin area. Entire families were being forced back into primitive camps in the northern Aleppo countryside.
“The UN estimates 50,000 Syrians are displaced in Tal Rifaat and 183,500 in total,” according to Rudaw.
Turkey’s controversial military operation has been described by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a pre-emptive action to destroy Kurdish “terrorists” in Afrin, and to prevent elements of the YPK militia — a militia Turkey equates with the PKK, a group the U.S. State Department designated a terrorist organization in October 1997 — from crossing the border into Turkey.
But other observers, including many international experts, have described the Turkish attacks as ruthless aggression, an assault on minorities including Yazidis and Christians, and a premeditated ethnic cleansing of Kurds.
Turkey, a NATO-member nation, has fought its battle against the Kurds alongside the Free Syrian Army, an organization allegedly including radical jihadists from ISIS and al-Qaida. It claims the fighting has “neutralized” 3,755 terrorists.
Christians and Yazidis were also targeted during the fighting. Some witnesses inside Afrin report that jihadis went door to door, demanding that residents declare their religious affiliation. Those who were not Muslim were brutalized or murdered.
In February, Newsmax cautioned that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had declared “jihad” on ethno-religious minorities in Afrin, mirroring actions taking by ISIS in the region.
In a March 12 statement, UN Goodwill Ambassador Nadia Murad, a Yazidi, described the situation: “I received information that the area of Afrin inhabited by Kurds, Yazidis and Christians is under siege from all sides. There is only one road through which people can leave the city. 200 civilians have been killed, including 3 Yazidi children.
“Shrines and religious sites have been destroyed or forcibly converted into mosques. People’s homes are being looted, and minorities are being shamed by extremist militias….Turkey’s actions against Christians and Yazidis amount to war crimes….This situation foreshadows ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide.”
In March, the Independent reported: “Syrian Arab militiamen leading the Turkish attack on Afrin in northern Syria are threatening to massacre its Kurdish population unless they convert to the variant of Islam espoused by Isis and al-Qaeda. In the past such demands have preceded the mass killings of sectarian and ethnic minorities in both Syria and Iraq.”
During Turkey’s assault on Afrin, I heard frequently from two friends, Charmaine Hedding of Shai Fund and Lauren Homer, an international attorney, who were in close touch with Christian groups on the ground there.
Both reported the distress of exhausted doctors, nurses, and clergy, who were pleading for emergency medical and humanitarian assistance. Their despair was palpable, and no help ever arrived.
Finally, on March 18, The New York Times reported that Afrin had fallen to the Turks, stating: “The Syrian rebel forces, which have served as advance troops for the Turkish operation, seemed to have entered the city without a fight, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, withdrew to the surrounding hills. But residents described chaos as fleeing civilians were trapped by artillery and by Turkish airstrikes.”
American soldiers remember with respect and gratitude the courageous Kurdish Peshmerga warriors who fought alongside them and proved themselves trustworthy allies in the battle against ISIS.
According to eye-witnesses, those same Kurds, along with other minorities, were targeted by Turkey’s Islamist forces in Afrin.
America’s military, meanwhile, with some 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, seems to have turned a blind eye to Turkey’s offensive.
It is true that the U.S. has sought to avoid engagement with any armed groups, apart from ISIS, involved in Syria’s highly combustible and complicated civil war.
Even at that, however, the situation is increasingly explosive.
Newsweek reported: “Defense Secretary James Mattis revealed Tuesday that U.S. forces nearly bombed Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian President Assad in the past week. But a call by Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Russia's top military leader, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, via a deconfliction hotline, defused the situation….”
In the meantime, as the war grinds on, worrisome questions persist:
Who will ultimately control Syria, and what will that mean for the region?
What, precisely, is American policy in Syria — present and future?
And once the worst of the fighting is over, who — if anyone — will provide protection for Syria’s beleaguered minorities?
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning writer, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, and Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert. to read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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