Many who fled the violence January say their homes have been given to Arabs.
When Areen and her clan fled the Turkish assault on Afrin in January, they feared they may never return.
Six months later, the Kurdish family remain in nearby villages with other Afrin locals who left as the conquering Turks and their Arab proxies swept in, exiling nearly all its residents.
Recently, strangers from the opposite end of Syria have moved into Areen’s home and those of her family. The few relatives who have made it back for fleeting visits say the numbers of new arrivals – all Arabs – are rising each week. So too is a resentment towards the newcomers, and a fear that the steady, attritional changes may herald yet another flashpoint in the seven-year conflict.
Unscathed through much of the Syrian war, and a sanctuary for refugees, Afrin has become a focal point of a new and pivotal phase, where the ambitions of regional powers are being laid bare and a coexistence between Arabs and Kurds – delicately poised over decades – is increasingly being threatened.
The small enclave in northwestern Syria directly reflects the competing agendas of four countries, Turkey, Syria, Russia and the US – though none more so than Ankara, whose creeping influence in the war is anchored in Afrin and the fate of its peoples.
Turkey’s newfound stake has given it more control over its nearby border and leverage over its arch foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which had used its presence in Afrin to project its influence northwards.
But the campaign to oust Kurdish militias has raised allegations that Ankara is quietly orchestrating a demographic shift, changing the balance of Afrin’s population from predominantly Kurdish to majority Arab, and – more importantly to Turkish leaders – changing the composition of its 500-mile border with Syria.
Ahead of the January assault, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said: “We will return Afrin to its rightful owners.”
Erdoğan’s comments followed a claim by US officials that it would help transform a Kurdish militia it had raised to fight Islamic State in northeastern Syria into a more permanent border force. The announcement incensed Turkish leaders, who had long feared that Syria’s Kurds would use the chaos of war to advance their ambitions – and to move into a 60-mile area between Afrin and the Euphrates river, which was the only part of the border they didn’t inhabit.
Ankara denies it is attempting to choreograph a demographic shift in Afrin, insisting it aimed only to drive out the PKK, not unaffiliated Kurdish locals.
“The people of Afrin didn’t choose to live under the PKK,” said a senior Turkish official. “Like Isis, the PKK installed a terrorist administration there by force. Under that administration, rival Kurdish factions were silenced violently. [The military campaign] resulted in the removal of terrorists from Afrin and made it possible for the local population to govern themselves. The vast majority of the new local council consists of Kurds and the council’s chairperson is also Kurdish.”
Many who remain unable to return to Afrin are unconvinced, particularly as the influx from elsewhere in Syria continues. Both exiles and newcomers confirmed to the Guardian that large numbers of those settling in Afrin came from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where an anti-regime opposition surrendered to Russian and Syrian forces in April, and accepted being transferred to northern Syria
Between bandits, militiamen, and wayfarers, Afrin is barely recognisable, say Kurdish locals who have made it back. “It’s not the Afrin we know,” said Areen, 34. “Too many strange faces. Businesses have been taken over by the Syrians, stores changed to Damascene names, properties gone. We feel like the Palestinians.
“The Syrian government couldn’t care less to help us reclaim our property, they won’t even help us get back into Afrin. We want to go back, we couldn’t care less if we’re governed by the Kurds or Turks or Assad, we just want our land back.”
A second Afrin exile, Salah Mohammed, 40, said: “Lands are being confiscated, farms, wheat, furniture, nothing is ours anymore; it’s us versus their guns. It’s difficult to come back, you have to prove the property is yours and get evidence and other nearly impossible papers to reclaim it.
“There is definitely a demographic change, a lot of Kurds have been forcibly displaced on the count that they’re with the PKK when in fact they weren’t. There are barely any Kurds left in Afrin, no one is helping us go back.”
Another Afrin local, Shiyar Khalil, 32, said: “When the Kurds try to get back to their house they have to jump through hoops. You cannot deny a demographic change, Kurds are not able to go back. Women are veiled, bars are closed; it’s a deliberate erasing of Kurdish culture.”
Umm Abdallah, 25, a new arrival from Ghouta said some Kurds had returned to Afrin, but anyone affiliated with Kurdish militias had been denied entry. “I’ve seen about 300 Kurds come back to Afrin with their families in the past month or so. I don’t know whose house I am living in honestly, but it’s been registered at the police station.”
She said Afrin was lawless and dangerous, with Arab militias whom Turkey had used to lead the assault now holding aegis over the town. “The Turks try to stop the looting but some militias are very malicious,” she said. “They mess with us and the Kurds, it’s not stable here.”
Both Umm Abdallah and another Ghouta resident, Abu Khaled Abbas, 23, had their homes confiscated by the Assad regime before fleeing to the north. “The Assad army stole everything, even the sinks,” said Abbas.
“These militias now are not leaving anyone alone [in Afrin], how do you think they will treat the Kurds? There are bad things happening, murder, harassment, rapes, and theft. They believe they ‘freed’ the land so they own it now.”