Last week, Turkish President Erdogan announced the start of Operation Peace Spring, a joint operation in predominantly Kurdish northeast Syria between Turkish armed forced and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. Almost immediately, Turkey began bombing border towns in northeast Syria. Videos of Turkish-backed FSA fighters slaughtering unarmed civilians surfaced soon after.

Former FSA member Ziad Ibrahim* knew that the latest Turkish incursion into Syria would bring about the same brutality that Turkish and FSA forces unleashed on the people of Afrin in 2018 during Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch…because he was there to see it. The atrocities he witnessed his fellow soldiers committing against the people of Afrin led him to quit the FSA.

Rural Afrin, February 2016, Lindsey Snell

Haunted by what he witnessed during Operation Olive Branch, Ibrahim decided to go back to Afrin as a civilian, where he talked to some of the local residents and heard their accounts of the torment they suffered at the hands of Turkey and their FSA proxies.

Children in rural Afrin, February 2016, Lindsey Snell

In January 2018, Turkish president Erdogan declared the start of Operation Olive Branch, a military offensive the Turkish government claimed was to rid the northern Syrian town of Afrin of terrorists. Turkey claimed the targets included both ISIS and the YPG/YPJ, the Kurdish, formerly US-backed armed forces which Turkey considers an offshoot of the PKK, a designated terrorist organization in many countries. The offensive began with an estimated 6,000 Turkish soldiers and 10,000 soldiers from various Free Syrian Army factions backed by Turkey.

YPJ forces in Afrin, February 2016, Lindsey Snell

Ziad Ibrahim* was a fighter in one of the Free Syrian Army factions called to battle. He had mixed feelings about going to Afrin from his village in the Aleppo countryside. “In a way, it didn’t matter to me. It was an income. But it also meant that we weren’t fighting the [Assad] regime. We weren’t fighting for our revolution any more,” he said.

I spent several weeks in Afrin in early 2016. The difference between it and neighboring Syrian cities held by increasingly Islamist FSA groups was staggering. There was gender equality. Women moved around the city freely, worked, and held public office. There was a sense of peace and order.

With the 2018 invasion of Afrin by the Turkey-backed FSA factions, many of whom brought an extremist brand of Islam at odds with the local population, this tranquility would be stripped away. Accusations of looting, murder, and other atrocities committed by the combatants were widely reported. Some of the FSA fighters uploaded videos of themselves calling the local Kurdish population “infidels,” and threatening to behead them.

Ziad Ibrahim confirmed these reports. “I was there, and I saw what we did,” he said. “They were stealing homes and cars, and worse. And for this reason, I quit fighting. I knew I was only Turkey’s mercenary at this point, and what we were doing was wrong.” Less than a month after he’d entered Afrin, Ibrahim left the FSA and returned to his home village.

Turkish and Free Syrian Army flags in an Afrin square, October 2019, Ziad Ibrahim

While the serious combat phase of Operation Olive Branch ended in March 2018, Turkish-backed troops remain in Afrin. Turkish flags and pictures of Erdogan are visible throughout the city, as are signs in the Turkish language. The local women who were able to work and move freely before the Turkish occupation were forced to stop. They are harassed if they don’t put on a black burka and a niqab (a full facial veil) before going outside.

Women in niqabs walk down an Afrin street, October 2019, Ziad Ibrahim

When Turkish President Erdogan announced the start of Operation Peace Spring last week and began bombing border towns in northeast Syria, Ibrahim knew that this incursion into north Syria would result in the same brutality that Turkish and FSA forces unleashed on Afrin’s predominantly Kurdish population in 2018.

Haunted by what he witnessed in Afrin, Ibrahim decided to go back as a civilian to talk to some of the local residents about the torment they suffered. The identities of the local residents, as well as Ibrahim’s, have been concealed. Minor details which could potentially be used to identify the victims have been altered. “Turkish intelligence has people living among the civilians who are informants,” Ibrahim explained, “and they would arrest or kill me if they knew I had done this.”

According to the Syria Observatory for Human Rights, Operation Olive Branch led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of local residents, the kidnapping and imprisonment of thousands, and the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

These are personal accounts from Afrin residents of a few such horrors.

The Farmer’s Son

In a rural village near Afrin, Ibrahim met a farmer in his late fifties. He said that currently, his family is experiencing a shortage of food. Much of his farmland was taken by the FSA factions in his village, and there’s no other work available to him. “For a while, we would get aid that came to the area from organizations. But the FSA takes everything now. We get scraps.”

Ibrahim asked the farmer if any of his children had been killed during the battles between Turkish-backed FSA forces and the YPG when the former invaded the city. “No, not then,” he said. “But I lost my teenage son after.” Shortly after taking control of Afrin in 2018, two of the Turkish-backed FSA factions, Ahrar al-Sharqiya and Hamza Division, began to fight over territory—namely, which homes each could loot and occupy. As the dispute escalated, the two factions engaged in a firefight.

When the battle erupted, the farmer’s 14 year-old son was hit by a stray bullet while he walked outside. He died. Devastated, the farmer said he would tell journalists about the death of his child and send photos of his body. Men from one of the factions immediately arrested him. Before they released him, they told him they would kill him if he told anyone about his son’s death.

The Baker’s Daughter

“The men from one of the [FSA] groups followed my daughter home so they would know where she lived,” a local baker told Ibrahim. “She was 19. She was and is very beautiful.” After stalking the baker’s daughter to her family’s home, a 31-year old fighter from one of the FSA factions occupying Afrin came to the front door.

“He told me he wanted to marry my daughter,” the baker said. “And I said no. I told him my daughter didn’t want to marry him, and that it was my job to look out for her best interests.” The fighter persisted, telling the baker that if he didn’t have his daughter’s hand in marriage in the next few days, he would kill the baker and take his home.

“I still refused, but my wife was very scared for my life, and so, against my wishes, she gave my daughter to the man,” the baker said. An Islamic authority embedded with the fighter’s FSA faction performed a hasty marriage ceremony.

The man didn’t move into the baker’s family home, or take his new, forced wife to a home of their own. He would simply visit the family’s home nightly to rape the baker’s daughter. “Five months later, the man left Afrin to go to A’zaz. He came and said that he and my daughter were divorced, and he drove away,” the baker said. “And we thank God for that.”
Ibrahim said he witnessed around 50 women forced to marry FSA fighters in his short time in Afrin.

The Restauranteur

A 60 year-old father of six in a village near Afrin owned a large restaurant and coffee shop. When the Hamza Division of the FSA came to his village, they took over his restaurant, making the cafeteria portion their faction’s headquarters. The man brought paperwork proving his ownership of the restaurant, and the faction occupying it interrogated him in response.
“They asked where my children were, and I told them they were in [Assad] regime areas,” the man said. “And they arrested me immediately. They told me my children were in the PKK, and that I was a supporter of the regime.” Two of the man’s sons managed to come to Afrin, bringing with them paperwork showing that they were university students. They hoped this would prove they had no ties to the PKK. Fighters from the Hamza Division seemingly accepted their documents and told them to go to their home in Afrin, promising to release their father shortly.

The next day, men from the Hamza Division came to the man’s home and saw that he had two nice cars. “They told my wife they knew the cars belonged to the PKK and that they would take them,” the man said. The man’s wife, enraged, held up a hunting rifle in an attempt to intimidate the FSA soldiers. When she did, one of the soldiers grabbed his gun and shot one of the man’s sons in the leg. When the other son went to try to help him, the soldier shot him in the chest, killing him.

The FSA soldiers then tied the man’s wife to a chair, took all the money and gold they could find in the home, and left with both of the man’s cars. The next day, the FSA released the man. When he heard about what happened to his family, he suffered a major stroke. The left side of his body is paralyzed.

The FSA later occupied his home, where they remain. He now lives in small house with two other families. “I have nothing left to lose in this world,” he told Ibrahim, “but I can only hope it gets better.”

The Factory Owner

“Anyone who had a nice, modern car in Afrin, the factions thought he had money, and accused him of being PKK,” Ibrahim said. “So they would ‘arrest’ him, take the car, and demand money to release him. If they didn’t pay, they would kill them and dump their body on the side of the road. This happened many times.”

One of the victims of the car theft and kidnapping was a local factory owner. “I knew him well; he was my friend,” Ibrahim said. “He was kidnapped by the Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction. They demanded $70,000 for his release, and this money was paid.” After the factory owner was released by the FSA faction, he complained to Turkish officials about what he’d experienced. “The Turks arrested him and accused him of being PKK. This was a year and a half ago. No one has heard from him since.”

The Village Massacre

“Only myself and ten other people know this story,” Ibrahim said. One of the commanders of Ibrahim’s FSA factions was murdered. The perpetrators and circumstances were unknown, and because this particular commander was a favorite of the Turkish commanders on the ground, they ordered the FSA faction to round up the villagers to interrogate them. In the course of the interrogation, fourteen civilian men were brutally tortured and ultimately murdered.
Days after the massacre, it came to light that there was footage of the FSA commander’s murder. The murderer was actually one of his relatives, exacting revenge due to an old vendetta.

The Future

“I thought we were doing the right thing before Afrin,” Ibrahim said. “But it made me realize we were part of the problem. I wish I had never joined the FSA.” He marvelled at the resilience of the Kurds in Afrin. “All of these people have lost so much…as all Syrians have now. But they are still so hopeful. They think soon, things will return to normal. I wish I had that hope, but I don’t. I don’t even see a future.”

Lindsey Snell
Lindsey Snell

Lindsey Snell is a print and video journalist specializing in conflict and humanitarian crises. She has produced documentary-style videos for MSNBC, VICE, Vocativ, ABC News, Ozy, Yahoo News, and Discovery Digital Networks. Her print work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, al Araby and others. One of her pieces, on Aleppo schools hit by airstrikes, won an Edward R. Murrow award in 2016.

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