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‘Turkey free to act as it pleases without attracting criticism or condemnation’

Feb 13,2019 - Last updated at Feb 13,2019

A year ago, Turkish tanks rolled into the Syrian Kurdish-majority district of Afrin; the US-sponsored Kurdish militia which protected the area was expelled and half the population was driven out or fled. Both the US and Russia abandoned the Kurdish fighters belonging to the People's Protection Units (YPG), which still holds a wide sweep of territory on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

Ankara executed a well-prepared plan for Afrin. The UN estimates that during the Turkish offensive, ironically named "Olive Branch", half of Afrin's 320,000 mainly Kurdish inhabitants were driven from the district. Amnesty International reported in mid-2018 that residents suffered "widespread human rights violations, mostly at the hands of Syrian armed groups equipped and armed by Turkey". Amnesty's concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. There has been scant reporting from Afrin, as Turkey has not permitted foreign journalists and human rights activists to enter the district. The international community has done nothing to halt abuses and looting which continue. Perhaps even more than Israel, Turkey is free to act as it pleases without attracting criticism or condemnation.

Encouraged by US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from the YPG-held area east of the Euphrates River, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly declared his intention of routing the YPG, which he brands as an offshoot of the Turkish Workers' Party (PKK) that has been fighting Ankara for 30 years. The Trump administration has said that it seeks to create a "buffer" force of European and Arab troops to separate Turkish and Kurdish forces before the US pullout is complete but so far, no one has signed up. Unless Ankara is told, "No more Afrins," several million Kurds, Armenians and Arabs living in the border area could become refugees in Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, which are already overburdened with displaced Syrians.

Ankara has deployed mainly fundamentalist surrogate fighters in the Afrin district, established a loyal administration, occupied homes of refugees, robbed families who stayed, seized vats of olive oil, collected taxes and tariffs, kidnapped and ransomed civilians and settled fundamentalist fighters and families from Eastern Ghouta and other areas in Kurdish homes.  According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the aim is to make life impossible for local residents so that they depart, and even pay to leave their homes, businesses and farms.

The observatory reports that 75 per cent of the olive plantations, with 18 million trees, have been seized by militia factions which have shared them out and leased them to dealers and workers. Coinciding with the January 20th anniversary of Turkey's launch of its "Olive Branch" operation, there were reports in Western media about exploitation of Afrin's olive harvest, which used to provide a livelihood to farmers in the district.

When questioned last November in the Turkish parliament about the olive harvest and oil production, Turkish agriculture minister Bekir Pakdemirli confirmed the confiscation of Afrin's olives and oil. "We, as the government, do not want revenues to fall into the PKK's hands. This is very clear. In other words, we want the revenues from Afrin, in one way or another, to come into our hands. This is a region [under] our hegemony." The policy violates international humanitarian law, which bans seizure of private property during occupation.

Turkish agricultural credit cooperatives transport Afrin's oil and olives to Turkey, process and dispose of them. Turkey has opened a border crossing also called "Olive Branch" to handle Afrin's agricultural produce.

Abdullah, a Kurd from Afrin who works in Damascus, said the pillage is ongoing. Barrels of his oil pressed last month were stolen by armed fighters from his relatives caring for his trees. Before Turkey's occupation, Abdullah would travel to Afrin to join the harvest. He no longer dares. His wife and children fled to Aleppo last February.

Exiled Afrin council deputy head Saleh Ibo was cited by the Netherlands-based Kurdish news agency as saying olive oil looted during 2018 produced $80 million in revenue, of which $22 million financed Turkey's surrogate militias.

Swiss Conservative Party lawmaker Bernhard Guhl told his country’s parliament, "In Turkish-occupied Afrin, the olive groves are being pillaged by both Turkish forces and the militias they support. The olives they steal have been sold to Spain, and the sale will continue. I believe that it is very important that the country or countries concerned launch a criminal investigation to determine whether companies are trading stolen olives or olive oil." The allegation was made on the basis of official Turkish documents obtained by the Spanish online newspaper El Publico.

The professional journal, Olive Oil Times, which carried a detailed article on the issue, reported, “Turkish Olive and Olive Oil Producers Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment” and said "... no criminal investigation [has] been launched by Spanish or European authorities."  Turkey is the third largest exporter to the EU after Tunisia and Morocco.

In the Al Bab, Jarablus, Azaz triangle of territory captured in 2016 by Turkish forces and allied militiamen from Daesh, Ankara has repaired war-damaged infrastructure, built schools and hospitals and even opened a university in Al Bab, which teaches in Turkish, English and Arabic. Roads, electricity grids and communication networks link these towns to Turkey, which is gradually annexing them.

Combining Afrin and the triangle, Turkey holds 4,000 square kilometres of northern Syria. As Erdogan sees himself and his regime as the heir of the Ottoman Empire that once ruled this region, there is little doubt that he seeks to extend Ankara's rule to northern Syria. He quickly began to settle in the triangle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

Ankara is determined to exclude the YPG and the Kurds from the territories it holds and to present itself as the protector of the anti-Syrian government opposition in order to secure a seat at the table where the future of Syria will be decided. To prevent Erdogan from fulfilling his imperial ambition, Damascus must urgently reach a deal with the YPG for the return to the government of the territory it controls, 25 per cent of Syria, and urge the Syrian army to deploy as soon as possible along the Syria-Turkish border.

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