The title “Operation Olive Branch” is an ironic one when considering the actions of Turkish Military Forces in Northern Syria. While the rest of the world remains focused upon the interactions between Russia and the U.S. over the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, another complicated chapter in the history of the Syrian Civil War has continued to unfold in the Syrian region known as Afrin.

Previously regarded as a Kurdish enclave and as a safe haven from the war for a diverse group of people (including Sunnis, Shiites, and Turkmen), the northern district of Afrin was occupied by Turkish forces as of March 18th. The occupation comes after a several-month long military conflict known as “Operation Olive Branch” that saw the invasion of Afrin as a measure of self-defense by the Turkish government against terrorist threats on the Turkish border. While the military campaign is technically allowed under international law, the operation remains controversial for several reasons.

Primarily, the Turkish government has remained adamant that the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Unit (YPG) is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group regarded as a terrorist threat to Turkish authorities. This allegation has been the central justification for the invasion of Turkish forces into Afrin. Yet, the U.S., France, and YPG have concretely denied any links between the PKK and the Kurdish-led YPG. Nonetheless, Turkish forces, under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army, began their incursion into Afrin on January 20th.

Over the course of the following months, Turkish forces encircled the region, restricting civilians from fleeing or receiving aid. The ensuing violence has been described as an alleged form of ethnic cleansing against the Kurdish population of Afrin, involving hundreds of civilian deaths, the displacement of over 130,000 people, and the destruction of numerous local villages and towns. By March 18th, Turkey announced that they had successfully seized control of the region,

symbolically tearing down the statue of Kaveh the Blacksmith, a mythical figure and hero within Kurdish culture who represented the strength of popular uprising against despotic rule.

Under Turkish occupation, local leaders within Afrin have been given permission to convene a local council with the aim of returning essential services to those still remaining in the region. Yet, the district still remains a place of heightened ethnic tension, with the threat of further violent military action against the local population still present. With Turkish President Erdogan having announced the neutralization of 4,000 “terrorists”, a rough achievement of Operation Olive Branches’ original goals, what still remains uncertain is how long Turkish forces will occupy the region.

As Erdogan commented earlier this month,“We will give Afrin back to its inhabitants when the time comes, but we will determine the time”.

By Isabel Jess

Photograph: Rudaw