Turkish airstrikes and continued attacks by Turkish-backed extremist groups in northern Syria have left civilians feeling helpless and abandoned by the international community. Shelling was reported this week in areas near Tel Rifaat, in villages called Ain Daqnah and Maraanaz, which are a dozen kilometers north of Aleppo.
The area has many displaced people, including Kurdish and Yazidi minorities, who fled Afrin when Turkey invaded northern Syria in January 2018. Around 160,000 Kurds and minorities were ethnically cleansed by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups in Afrin and many fled to areas near Aleppo. Turkish-backed extremists often shell the displaced people to terrorize them, taking out their aggression on the helpless locals because Turkey has signed a deal with Russia and has ordered the extremists it backs not to fight the Syrian regime. Ankara’s agenda in northern Syria is only to fight Kurds, and it has launched several operations against Kurdish groups, claiming there are “terrorists” among them. There is no evidence that people living in areas being shelled have carried out any attacks against Turkey.
On February 12, Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said that “thousands of Yazidi IDPs who fled Afrin and now reside near Aleppo are currently under airstrikes by Turkey. We call on the United States Government to pressure Turkey to cease all such operations against this vulnerable community in Syria and Iraq.” Turkish airstrikes and raids have also targeted Yazidi areas in Sinjar in Iraq. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government agency with a mandate to make recommendations to the President, Congress and the Secretary of State. Maenza has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the plight of religious minorities in Syria and other areas around the region and the world.
North Press Agency in Syria initially reported the bombardment near Tel Rifaat on February 7. It appears to have continued over the last several days. To understand what is happening in Tel Rifaat is to see it as a microcosm of the complexities of the Syrian civil war. Kurdish groups in Afrin were mostly left in peace during the war as Syrian rebels fought the Syrian regime. However, over time, the fragmented rebels became co-opted by religious extremists, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey sought to co-opt the rebels once again into its own armed proxies, leading first with Faylaq Sham and other groups and then creating an umbrella group called the Syrian National Army. It wanted the rebels to fight the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US was backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, which included YPG elements. In 2016, Turkey invaded an area near Manbij, using its Syrian rebel groups, who it urged to fight the Kurds. In 2018, angered by Washington’s support of the SDF, who defeated ISIS in Raqqa, Turkey decided to invade Afrin. Later it also invaded Tel Abyad, sending Syrian rebel groups to kill unarmed civilians such as Hevrin Khalaf. In Afrin, Turkish-backed groups have kidnapped dozens of women and targeted Kurds and minorities. The kidnapped women are kept in secret prisons and many report abuses.
Tel Rifaat became a kind of orphan of the Afrin conflict, cut off from the SDF and nominally under the Syrian regime. Russia and Turkey brokered a deal in 2018, in neighboring Idlib and create a buffer zone. Russia had agreed to Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, hoping to leverage it to sell Turkey more S-400s. Russia’s goal was to give Turkey part of Syria in exchange for Turkey not mobilizing Syrians against the regime, but instead Russia, Turkey and Iran could cooperate against the US in eastern Syria. The US inadvertently aided this Turkish policy during the Trump administration, but US commanders were able to prevent a total US withdrawal. Meanwhile Kurds who had fled to Tel Rifaat had to continue to live under Turkish bombardment. Since Turkey couldn’t shell US forces and had been frustrated in attempts to threaten Greece, and agreed to a deal with Russia over Libya and Azerbaijan, all that was left for Turkey to do to distract Syrian rebels it was supporting was get them to fight in Tel Rifaat.
Turkey uses these bombardments like a pressure release valve, every month or two it encourages Turkish-backed Syrians to threaten Tel Rifaat or Ayn Issa near Tel Tamr, while Turkey launched airstrikes, drone strikes or operations in Syria and Iraq. Turkey then claims it is “neutralizing terrorists” in Syria, even though it is mostly shelling civilians.
According to locals, the shelling is just the latest targeting of civilians. On January 23, a local said that two children and two adults were killed by artillery fire. They call this a massacre. “They are targeting all civilians displaced from Afrin,” said one local. Maenza tweeted a comment by Mustafa Nabu, a Yazidi leader, who said that “we are being bombed on a daily basis by the Turkish state, our children hear everyday the sounds of shelling around us.”
The lack of international coverage makes people feel they have been forgotten. That a member of NATO is backing extremists who target displaced people and also carries out airstrikes amidst a civilian population is shocking, they say. With a new US administration in Washington that is focused on human rights and has pressured Saudi Arabia to end offensive operations in Yemen, it is possible that Ankara may be pressured to stop the airstrikes, which so far have had impunity.