“We had to flee and we barely got out, going on foot day and night,” said Hamdoush, who is 18 years old. I reached him by telephone in Kobani, the Syrian city 125 miles east of Afrin, where he escaped with his mother. Both are recent Christian converts and escaped also with Hamdoush’s sister, who is pregnant, and her husband. Hamdoush’s father—too ill to make the trek—remains in Afrin, where FSA fighters have repeatedly searched the family home.
Hamdoush said he does not expect to be able to return to Afrin again: “We need a miracle.”
Since Turkish and FSA forces completed the invasion in April, they have continued to target Christians, beating them and torturing them overnight, according to those who remain behind. They loot Christian homes, and in some cases have moved Muslim families into homes vacated by Christians and others. Of the estimated 3,000 Christians formerly living in Afrin—about 200 families living in the city and perhaps 100 families in nearby villages—no Christians are left at all, said Church of the Good Shepherd Pastor Valentin Hanan.
Starting in January church leaders in Syria, including Hanan, appealed for help to international aid groups and to the 2,000-strong U.S. Special Forces contingent stationed 70 miles away in Manbij. They condemned “the unjustified Turkish aggression,” protested heavy shelling, and warned of impending ethnic and religious cleansing. But no help materialized to protect Afrin’s civilian population.
Residents say they saw signs of jihadist activity in the villages surrounding Afrin for months, as militants robbed homes and forced Christians out. One jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, boasts on its website of its work in Afrin, saying it has opened offices to recruit local fighters to kill “atheist pigs” and has taken over mosques to promote “the true values of Islam.” Commanders of the group threatened to attack U.S. forces in Syria and have been widely linked to atrocities—including one leader videotaped raping a young girl during a Turkish-led assault on the border city of Jarābulus in 2016.
Said one resident, who is not named for security reasons: “The residents of Afrin have an open culture far from the extremist religion and ideology the Syrian jihadists are seeking to promote.”
‘The Russians could have stopped this tragedy and the Americans as well if they had put real pressure on their NATO ally.’
That’s one reason aid workers and others in the region say more should be done to protect Afrin’s residents. “The Russians could have stopped this tragedy and the Americans as well if they had put real pressure on their NATO ally,” said a European pastor who has worked with the churches in the region and asked not to be identified for security reasons. The Kurdish political and military leaders from Afrin, he pointed out, had made no moves to attack Turkey. Without taking direct U.S. military action, he added, the United States could guarantee Turkey’s security along the Kurdish-controlled border of Syria and prevent Turkey from seizing territory inside Syria.
With Turkey controlling the Afrin region, it looks like Washington has abandoned its strongest ally in Syria. One year ago the Trump administration made a big deal of showing support for the Kurdish and Arab forces that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the YPG. All were part of military action to oust ISIS from key cities in Syria and Iraq. The United States provided the SDF/YPG heavy weapons—including up-armored Humvees, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—and U.S. Central Command posted online photos of the armaments lined up in YPG-controlled areas.
And earlier this year, the Pentagon touted what it called “a unilateral operation” by SDF/YPG forces, who captured in northern Syria Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a member of al-Qaeda and now ISIS. As part of al-Qaeda’s cell in Hamburg, Germany, in 2001, Zammar worked with 9/11 operational leader Mohamed Atta to recruit two of the pilots who crashed planes in the United States that day, plus others.
Now the Kurdish-U.S. alliance appears to be taking a back seat to bolstering NATO ally Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on June 4 with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington. Afterward, the two issued a joint statement that did not mention Afrin. That contradicts what Pompeo told lawmakers in May when he said he hoped to achieve “a resolution” of “Turkish activities in northern Syria in and around Afrin and Manbij” when he met Cavusoglu.
Instead, the Pompeo-Cavusoglu statement said the two sides “endorsed a Road Map” to ensure “security and stability in Manbij,” while underlining “their mutual commitment” to its implementation.
EU leaders, likewise, appear to have stepped back from criticizing Turkey over Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. At a March meeting with Erdogan in Bulgaria, the EU leadership “voiced concern” regarding Turkey’s actions in Syria. But a final press statement from the meeting, issued by European Council President Donald Tusk, reaffirmed Turkey’s right to fight terrorism and mildly expressed concern over Afrin, calling on Turkey “to ensure the protection of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
With more than a quarter-million people newly displaced, both Turkish forces and Syrian government forces continue to block aid reaching the area, report Afrin residents I spoke to and aid workers nearby (see also “Itinerants and pawns”).