Turkish imperialism in Afrin

January 20 was the first anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, the northwest Syrian enclave that had been under the control of Syrian Kurdish militias from the People’s Protection Units (YPG). 

Discussion of Afrin is off limits in Turkey, where only acclaim of the conquest is permitted. It is likely no coincidence that, days before the operation’s anniversary, prosecutors prepared an indictment against Necla Demir and her news site Gazete Karınca for reporting the realities of Afrin. The regime is warning others not to broach the subject. 

In fact, there is little need for such a warning, since in Turkey the operation is a source of pride for people of all sides, with the exception of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The triumphal legends of the “New Turkey” are being written on Syrian land!

Despite, Afrin is under strict lockdown, and no one can enter besides military officers, Turkish civil servants and the regime media. There are no independent sources on what took place during the Turkish attack, and what has happened since March, when Turkey invaded the city thanks to military support from Russia. What information we have comes to us second-hand.

This is the case with two reports by intergovernmental institutions scrutinising claims of crimes against civilians and human rights infractions. The first was prepared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last June. Another report by the same body presented to the Human Rights Council under “situations that require the Council’s attention” was published in September. Naturally, U.N.’s rapporteurs were not permitted to carry out fieldwork, but in any case, by cross referencing their data they have presented the most objective analyses possible.

Both reports say it is beyond doubt the invading force has violated the rights of the civilian population of Afrin, both during the military operation and after it.

Besides these two U.N. reports we have news items that come in dribs and drabs from Turkish official sources, describing the new life brought to the area with administrative and humanitarian projects – irregular reports describing the new branch of the Turkish Post Office or Turkish state-run Ziraat Bank that have opened, the blankets or food distributed to residents, or the officials appointed to the district. 

The second U.N. report contains a self-congratulatory statement submitted at the rapporteurs’ request by the Turkish regime on its projects in Afrin. Item 17 reads: 

“Seven Local Councils composed of representatives of the local people are now in place. As an example, the Local Council in Afrin city, presided by a Kurdish representative, is composed of eleven Kurds, eight Arabs and one Turkmen, demonstrating the demographic nature of the region.”

Yet the fact that independent journalists and observers have been prohibited by Ankara from entering Afrin despite their claims is enough to raise suspicions on the scale and nature of the invasion. If everything is so good there, why not let the world in to see?

The answer is that the entire situation in Afrin is appalling! The 1907 Hague Convention respecting Laws and Customs of War on Land, which is still in effect, states that an invading state is obliged to ensure public order and protect the lives of civilians in the territory it invades. These are also the limits set on the invading state, meaning it cannot use sovereign powers. Not only has Ankara failed to protect the civilians of Afrin, it has also allowed its Syrian auxiliary jihadist groups to brutalise them without challenge. And, of course, Ankara is acting as a sovereign in the territory it has invaded.

Likewise, the concept of self-defence used by Turkey as a legal justification for its invasion can only cover a specified period of time.

Even if none of the world’s countries were convinced by the stories of security threats spun by Turkey to justify the invasion, they nevertheless turned a blind eye to it for a number of reasons. Some countries may have calculated that Turkey would get bogged down in a conflict in Afrin. 

In any case, since the military operation launched in Syria was based on the concept of self-defence enshrined in article 51 of the U.N. Charter, it was not supposed to exceed a set limit. Yet a year has passed and the occupation appears to be open-ended. Looking at the situation in Afrin, the fact that Ankara is seeking to replicate the occupation in other parts of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) is doubly shameful. 

However, Ankara continues to pursue countless activities in Afrin and other occupied Syrian cities which show it is there to stay.

On a civil level, Turkey is exercising sovereign powers in Syria by appointing district governors belonging to the Turkish civil administration. By setting up hospitals, post offices, schools, police stations and banks, it is establishing a separate system in parallel with the existing Syrian administration. Thus, last October, when clocks went backward one hour across Syria, the time in Afrin stayed the same, leaving the area one hour ahead of the rest of the country but in line with Turkish time.

As for commerce, Afrin’s world-famous olives, the area’s most important source of income, have been taken over by jihadists and are being sold to world markets through Turkey.

On a human level, a continuous stream of Arab jihadists and their families is being settled in Afrin, a practice that amounts to demographic engineering. Afrin locals fleeing for their lives to other areas have seen their properties stolen.

On a religious level, the Sunni interpretation of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is imposed on Afrin citizens. On a linguistic level, schoolchildren are being forced to learn Turkish. At the same time, the antique heritage of the local region, which is of significance to the entire world, is being destroyed, as we saw when the 3,000-year-old Ain Dara Temple was reduced to rubble in a Turkish airstrike.

So, Ankara is enforcing a Turkification process on the predominantly Kurdish area of Afrin, and what it is unable to convert it is simply destroying.


Soldiers from Iran, Lebanon, Russia and the United States are currently deployed in Syria, besides the significant numbers of Chechen and Uighur jihadists. None of these forces have flown their flags and attempted to govern their areas of deployment. The only foreign force to do so is Turkey. Moreover, it is doing so proudly, with the temerity to behave as though its mission is to bring civilisation to “backwards” Kurds and Arabs. Scholarly speaking this policy is called “imperialism.”

When one people – directly or indirectly, but always by force – imposes political, economic, commercial, linguistic or religious dominance over another, as Ankara has done in Syria, this precisely fits the definition of imperialism.

Acting through allied jihadist Arab and some local Kurdish groups is another practice typical of imperialism.

People in Turkey never accept their own country’s actions as imperialism, and in fact the political concept has been cunningly distorted as a source of everlasting victimhood. The historical argument stretching back to the collapse of the Ottoman empire is ever-ready as a justification for this stance. 

Kurdish politicians have discussed Turkish imperialism for decades, but their arguments were circumvented by the widely accepted official story of “Kurdish-Turkish brotherhood”. Now, though, Turkey’s ongoing occupation of Kurdish-majority territories in Syria, and its desire to extend its activities to further regions, have debunked that myth and made clear its imperialist intentions.

Despite this, the anniversary of the Afrin operation has been and gone, and except for the HDP and a few dissenting voices, a crushing majority in Turkey continue to take pride in the operation. At best they ignore the shameful acts it entailed. 

Even those who position themselves as Erdoğan’s opposition would have appreciated the commander-in-chief’s words just as his followers did on the day of the anniversary: “The struggle that took place in Afrin will have an everlasting place in our memories.”

جنكيز أكتار