The Turkish campaign to force Kurds from their homes in Afrin and deport Syrian refugees back from Turkey to replace them is demographic engineering. The U.S. should be honest about it.
Speaking at a press briefing on August 2nd, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller denied that Turkish policy in Afrin—a historically Kurdish region of northwest Syria that has been under the control of Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) since 2018—is intended to change the region’s demographics.
The full exchange went as follows:
“QUESTION: Yeah. And one question on Syria. Türkiye has declared its intention to move about 1 million displaced Syrian back to Syria, and has already deported 950 refugees to northwest Syria, and also – in the past week, and also intends to settle large amount of the Syrian refugee in formerly Kurdish areas in northwest Syria, which the Kurdish leaders in the area says that this is an alter of the demographic on – in this area, especially in Afrin, because Türkiye has finished the construction of 50 apartments in Afrin, Sharran district. Then are you monitoring the situation in Afrin, and how do you see this call of the Kurdish leaders in the region that they are defining this intention of Türkiye to change the demographic of Afrin?
MR MILLER: First of all, let me again thank Türkiye and its host communities for generously supporting nearly 3.7 million refugees, 3.3 million of whom are Syrians who have sought refuge from a brutal conflict. We believe the rights of all Syrians should be respected, including the housing, land, and property rights of those remaining in Syria and those who have been displaced. We encourage all parties to act in a manner that promotes peaceful coexistence and the respect of human rights. And as we have said before, any refugee returns to Syria should be voluntary, safe, dignified, sustainable, and coordinated with UNHCR. And while we do not oppose individual voluntary returns, the conditions in Syria today do not allow for organized large-scale returns, and we have been very clear about this with our foreign partners, including Türkiye.
QUESTION: You don’t see this that this is an alter – this is an intention to alter the demographic change in Afrin?
MR MILLER: No.”
Documentation from United Nations investigative bodies, Kurdish, Syrian, and international NGOs, and academic experts on Turkey and Syria contradicts Mr. Miller’s claims. Turkish forces and affiliated SNA groups have subjected Kurds in Afrin to a variety of serious human rights abuses. These abuses are intended to systematically reduce Afrin’s Kurdish population by forcing Kurds to flee the region.
At the same time, Turkey is moving large numbers of non-Kurdish Syrians into Afrin. While many of these individuals are IDPs who have come to Afrin voluntarily, some are refugees who were coerced into returning to Syria from Turkey in violation of international law.
This two-pronged campaign of demographic change is an intentional component of Turkey’s strategy in northern Syria—itself derivative of Turkish strategy in the broader Kurdish conflict.
Violations of the housing, land, and property (HLP) rights of Afrin’s Kurdish inhabitants and the principle of voluntary, safe, dignified, sustainable refugee returns—both of which Miller urged relevant parties to respect—are integral components of the demographic change campaign.
Disproportionately Poor Conditions for Kurds in Afrin: A Structural Cause of Displacement
Conditions for Kurdish civilians in Turkish-controlled Afrin are near-universally assessed not only as poor, but as worse than conditions for Arab civilians in Afrin and conditions for all civilians in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria without substantial Kurdish populations.
This is the direct outcome of Turkish and SNA choices about security and governance. These choices stem from Turkey’s strategic goal of destroying and degrading the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and preventing any kind of Kurdish self-governing entity from arising on its southern borders in the future.
In June 2018, three months after Turkey and the SNA assumed control of Afrin, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that “reports continue to be received by OHCHR that civilians, particularly ethnic Kurds from Afrin, are being targeted for discrimination by the de facto authorities.” They cited examples of thefts of Kurdish properties and ethnically motivated arbitrary detentions.
In August 2018, Amnesty International reported that “residents in Afrin are enduring a wide range of violations, mostly at the hands of Syrian armed groups that have been equipped and armed by Turkey. These violations include arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and confiscation of property and looting to which Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye.”
The report noted that Turkey, as the occupying power in Afrin, was “responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and maintaining law and order” and could not “evade responsibility by using Syrian armed groups to carry out its dirty work.”
In a 2021 comparative study of governance in Turkish-controlled Afrin, Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad, and Azaz, Khayrallah al-Hilu found that “where the dominant SNA factions do not include local fighters, as in Afrin..violations are abundant and security is minimal.” The “abundant” violations included “arrests, assaults, kidnappings for ransom, harassment of media professionals and activists, seizures of civilian properties and homes, and rape and sexual violence against detainees.”
In comparison, the study found “when local fighters make up the backbone of SNA factions, there are fewer violations and security is generally greater.” It also revealed that “demographics play an important role in determining the levels of security and stability. In the town of Tall Abyad, for example, Kurds represent a small minority of less than 10 per cent of the 140,000 civilian residents, which reduces the frequency of violations.”
Alexander McKeever’s 2023 assessment of Turkish-backed governance and security structures in Afrin stated that “since 2018, Afrin’s native Kurdish population has fallen victim to widespread abuses largely perpetrated by members of SNA factions…[including] cases of property seizure, SNA protection rackets targeting the regions’ farmers, kidnappings and disappearances, torture, and occasionally murder.” McKeever noted that, “whereas IDP populations from elsewhere in Syria often maintain strong ties to SNA factions originally from their home regions, providing them defense mechanisms from widespread abuse, there are no Kurdish or Afrini SNA factions, meaning the indigenous population has no armed representatives.”
Assessing these conditions in the context of Turkish strategic goals, these studies concluded that Turkey “has given a free hand to the SNA factions with the aim of expelling the Kurdish community and eliminating the risk of any Kurdish national entity arising on its southern border under the leadership of the PYD” and, “through facilitating demographic change to the detriment of the Afrin’s native Kurdish inhabitants, has prevented potential re-emergence of Kurdish autonomy in the region for the foreseeable future.” These conclusions highlight the intentional, strategic nature of the rights violations causing Kurdish displacement from Afrin.
HLP Violations and Demographic Change
Housing, land and property (HLP) violations targeting Kurds and other minorities, like Yezidis and Alevis, are among the most common abuses in Turkish-controlled Afrin. These violations both force civilians to flee and make it difficult—even impossible—for them to return if and when they might desire to do so. They are also intertwined with other rights abuses—like torture, arbitrary detentions, and sexual and gender-bsed violence—that force civilians to leave Afrin.
In June 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that SNA groups “have seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria…installed fighters and their families in residents’ homes and destroyed and looted civilian properties without compensating the owners.”
In 2020, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reported that “after civilian property was looted, Syrian National Army fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture and detention.”
Syrian NGOs have extensively documented common types of HLP violations and their disproportionate impact on Kurdish and non-Muslim communities.
A January 2023 report on HLP violations and demographic change in Turkish-controlled northern Syria from Hevdesti quoted nine Afrin residents who were subjected to these abuses. The report’s executive summary described common violations and their impact:
“Since the Turkish forces and the SNA’s factions entered Afrin, Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tall Abyad regions, after the latter pillaged civilian properties, the SNA’s fighters and families occupied houses after civilians had fled or ultimately forced residents, especially the Kurds, to leave their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, kidnapping, torture and detention.
As the SNA forces plundered and seized civilians’ properties in a coordinated manner, civilians claimed complaints to the military councils of those forces or to the local councils affiliated to the Syrian Interim Governments- which follows the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in Afrin, Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tall Abyad regions. However, the residents could not reclaim their properties. Moreover, members of the SNA threatened, extorted or detained many residents and other people were abducted and were forced to pay ransoms to leaders of the SNA factions to be released.
Types and patterns of property appropriation owned by civilians in Afrin, Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê and Tall Abyad regions varied. House walls were marked with the names of individual brigades or their leaders as signs the property was seized or marked with signs of appropriation as a clear indication that they prevented the return of the residents. The properties were occupied by families of the SNA fighters or used as military headquarters or administration institutions that follow the local councils without informing the owners or offering them compensations.
Turkish forces also were complicit in seizing and destroying properties and prevented the return of the residents, such as what happened in Dawoudiya village in the east of Ras alAyn/Serê Kaniyê, where the Turkish forces seized the Kurdish village and turned it to a military post after bulldozing many houses. They also transferred other houses to barracks for the Turkish soldiers to settle in. The Kurdish civilians were banned from returning to their village, or even burying their deaths in the village’s cemetery.”
In July 2023, PÊL – Civil Waves, another Syrian NGO, published a report on HLP violations and demographic change in Afrin, interviewing 90 Kurdish and Yezidi Afrin residents who had been displaced from the region. This report found that:
“Witnesses testified to recurrent systematic and widespread ethnic-based property rights violations against civilians who did not take part in any fighting. The violations included arbitrary seizure, destruction, and looting of civilian homes, businesses, and agricultural land with crops and livestock; the violators did not stop there. They turned the landowners into day laborers.
That said, witnesses’ accounts reflected the de facto powers’ inaction towards these violations and their disregard for the victims. In turn, the victims do not dare to claim their rights, given intimidation by Türkiye-backed opposition militias or civilians linked with them in light of the state of lawlessness in the region. In addition, no judicial, administrative, or implementing solutions are available to protect or redress the victims. Notably, trespassing on the properties of civilians, mainly the Kurds and Yazidis, combined with arrests, beating, and threats, led to mass displacements among the original population, contributing to a serious demographic change in the area.”
Thomas McGee’s 2019 analysis of HLP violations in Afrin documented further witness and survivor testimonies and connected the pattern of violations to Turkish strategy during and prior to Syria’s war.
McGee argued that “the role of Turkey – an external state actor with a history of forced displacement against its own Kurdish population – introduces a distinctly ethnic dimension to the analysis of developments in Afrin,” assessing that “HLP violations in Afrin..serve Turkey’s objective of countering the dominant Kurdish movement’s ‘self-governance’ initiative by changing the demographics.”
Involuntary Repatriations to Unsafe ‘Safe Zones’
Since the start of Operation Olive Branch in 2018, Turkish leaders—including president Recep Tayyip Erdogan—have justified military action in northern Syria by arguing that it will create conditions under which Syrians in Turkey can be sent back to their home country.
Since then, the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Turkish-controlled northern Syria—including Afrin—has been anything but “voluntary, safe, dignified, [and] sustainable.”
A 2023 report from the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy found that, as a result of political dynamics in Turkey and military dynamics in Syria, “the Turkish government, unable to solve the problems that make voluntary repatriation unrealistic for refugees, has begun to resort to coercion, both directly and indirectly, to get Syrians out of the country.” Indirect methods of coercion assessed included discriminatory housing and labor policies that “serve to degrade the quality of life for refugees in Turkey and make life in Syria – no matter how challenging and dangerous – more appealing by comparison.” The report also cited extensive documentation of direct deportations by human rights organizations.
This documentation regularly links the deportations to Turkey’s military action within Syria. In 2019, Amnesty International reported that, within the span of months, Turkish authorities had deceived or coerced hundreds of Syrians into returning to Turkish-held northern Syria, in violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement. The report explained that:
“…on 9 October 2019, Turkey launched the so-called “Operation Peace Spring” offensive into north-eastern Syria. Turkey and Syrian armed groups under its control entered territory held by a Kurdish-led alliance of armed groups, previously allied and supported by the US. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on 15 October that in the previous six days alone, over 160,000 people in north-eastern Syria had been displaced, fleeing military advances and hostilities. Amnesty International has documented summary killings and unlawful attacks carried out by Turkish forces and a coalition of Turkey backed Syrian armed groups. Turkey’s October 2019 military intervention is the latest development in Turkey’s longstanding plans to establish a so-called demilitarized “safe zone” along the border, extending 20 miles into Syrian territory. Part of the rationale behind this policy is the Turkish government’s avowed aim to relocate part or all of its refugee population from Syria there.”
In 2022, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the potential consequences of any new Turkish ground incursion into northern Syria cited both widespread SNA abuses targeting Kurdish civilians in Afrin and Turkey’s practice of deporting Syrian refugees into areas of Syria under its control. The report noted that “a second stated objective [of a potential Turkish military incursion into northern Syria] is to forcibly relocate a million Syrian refugees to the zone from Turkey.”
It also cited previous HRW reporting on the deportation of Syrian refugees from Turkey, which found that hundreds of refugee men and boys had been deported between February and July 2022 alone.
Involuntary refugee repatriations are widely recognized as a component of a strategy of demographic change. The HRW report on deportations said that most of the refugees deported to places like Afrin were originally from government-held areas. A 2019 Reuters report on Turkey’s ‘safe zone’ plan concurred, noting that “most of the 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey are from Sunni Arab areas in western Syria, not the mainly Kurdish northeast. Moving huge numbers of refugees into an area hundreds of miles from their homes would involve a drastic demographic shift.”
Like HLP violations and other abuses impacting Afrin’s Kurdish population, refugee returns as a component of demographic change can be connected to Turkey’s overall anti-Kurdish strategy in Syria. Al-Hilu’s comparative study of governance in Turkish-held Syria noted that Turkey “seeks to use the returnees to achieve lasting demographic change in Syria by settling them in Afrin…Turkey believes the settlement of non-Kurds in Kurdish areas will eliminate the possibility of Kurdish self-rule.” In a 2023 analysis of refugee repatriations to Turkish-held Syria, Sinem Adar wrote that “Northern Syria’s demographic composition is another issue for concern. For Ankara, a safe zone to resettle refugees seems to be synonymous with creating an “ethnic belt” in order to contain a strong YPG/PYD presence at its Syrian border.”
Housing Settlements in Afrin: At the Intersection of HLP Violations and involuntary Repatriations
The newly-constructed housing settlements in Afrin that were alluded to in the question to Mr. Miller are key examples of the intersection between systemic HLP violations and involuntary refugee repatriations as strategies of demographic change.
These are often constructed on land belonging to Afrin’s Kurdish residents. Most Afrini Kurds, however, cannot live there: they are often reserved for SNA fighters and their families and for Arab and Turkmen refugees and IDPs from other parts of Syria.
An in-depth Syrians for Truth and Justice report on housing settlements in Afrin claimed that, “given the pattern of violations that STJ and other organizations have documented in Turkish-controlled and predominantly Kurdish areas of Northwest Syria, these settlements could be established to be part of this systematic process of altering the demographic composition of Afrin.”
Other human rights groups have assessed specific settlements in the context of demographic change. A report published by the Syria Justice and Accountability Center in 2021 discussed two foreign-funded settlements:
“Such projects are also entrenching the displacement of other sections of Syrian society: the approximately 137,000 predominantly Kurdish residents who primarily fled the area [Afrin] to Northeast Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan due to the Turkish-led military operations of 2018. The Kuwait al-Rahma settlement, for example, is being built on the location of the village of Khalta/Khalidiyya, which witnessed fierce fighting between the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) during Operation Olive Branch. Another settlement, this one built by the Turkey-based Ihsan Relief and Development Foundation, was constructed on land previously held in common by the village of Hajj Hasanah. These lands were seized in the context of a military campaign that witnessed egregious human rights violations and where the SNA targeted Kurdish property and culture in particular.”
The Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights and the Kurdish Centre for Studies & Legal Consultancy (YASA) documented several other examples in 2021:
“Ceasefire and YASA have also noted an increasing trend in the clearing of agricultural land to make room for major infrastructure projects. This accelerating trend has seen agricultural lands seized from their original owners and converted to real estate records, to be sold to developers for the construction of housing projects. The projects are usually established under humanitarian auspices, with investment from Gulf-backed charitable bodies, to provide housing to Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, these charity initiatives usually neglect to mention the military occupation and forced displacement which have created the context for the new construction projects to take place.
For example, in the formerly Yazidi-majority area of Şadêrê (Shadereh) in Shirawa sub-district, the Turkish humanitarian organization White Hands (Beyaz Eller) began construction of a residential complex called “Basma” to provide housing to displaced families from Idlib. The project, which will involve the construction of 144 apartments in its first phase, is also funded by the Kuwait-based International Charity Association for Development (Tanmia) and the Palestinian organization Live with Dignity, which collects donations from Palestinian towns and cities in the Southern Triangle for projects supporting Syrian refugees. Live with Dignity has also funded the construction of several mosques and other housing projects in Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria.
Similar projects have been initiated by the Sham Al-Khair Charity, which was founded in Eastern Ghouta and registered in Turkey, but receives financial backing from Kuwait. The charity was behind the construction of a settlement complex called ‘Kuwait Al-Rahma” in a village in Shirawa sub-district, including nearly 300 houses, a mosque, a dispensary, a school and a Quranic institute. The complex was designed to house IDPs from other parts of Syria and was built under the oversight of the Afrin Local Council. In the same sub-district, the charity is reportedly building a residential complex to house members of the Civilian Police and their families, funded by the Qatari Red Crescent.
The online media network Afrinpost has reported significant settlement activity in the village of Kafr Safra in Jenderes district. According to the outlet, 170 olive trees were uprooted from a field owned by a Kurdish citizen and sold in preparation for the construction of a housing complex. On agricultural land belonging to a Kurdish resident west of the village of Qorba, a housing project is being constructed by the Al-Ata’ Investment Associations Charity (Qatar), Al-Noor Association (Turkey) and the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). These construction projects, which are designed primarily to house Syrians arriving from other governorates, serve to entrench the displacement of local Kurdish residents who were forced to flee their lands as a result of the Operation Olive Branch military advance and its aftermath.
These demographic changes continue to gather speed as ongoing hostilities in northern Syria have pushed more displaced Syrians from Idlib, Ghouta, northern Hama, and rural Damascus towards the Afrin area. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, displacement into Afrin intensified over 2020, with approximately 13,000 arrivals registered in December 2020 alone. Concurrently, the Turkish government openly acknowledges the return of over 400,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey to northern Syria.”
If large-scale involuntary repatriations to Afrin continue, many more such settlements will likely be constructed—accelerating the theft of land and property from Afrin’s Kurdish residents and the displacement of the few Kurds remaining in Afrin.
If the United States legitimately seeks to promote peaceful coexistence and human rights in Syria and ensure that Syrian refugees in Turkey are not subjected to involuntary repatriations, it must be honest about Turkey’s track record and strategic objectives in Afrin.
The State Department should align its rhetoric and policy on forced demographic change in Afrin with the evidence. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s 2022 Country Human Rights Report on Syria has acknowledged, in its section on property seizures in Afrin, that “NGOs continued to assess these and other abuses by armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey were part of a systematic effort to enforce demographic change targeting Kurdish Syrians.”
There is no substantial reason why this cannot be the State Department’s public-facing position. If U.S. officials are in the possession of facts that challenge these NGO assessments, they should present this evidence to the public.
In line with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. should “exert pressure on Turkey to withdraw from all territory that it occupies as a result of cross-border operations into north and east Syria,” including Afrin, and “demand that Turkey order armed factions under its control or influence to cease all activities negatively impacting religious and ethnic minorities in Syria.”
In the long term, it should seek a negotiated political solution to Turkey’s transnational armed conflicts with Kurdish groups—the only way to guarantee the kind of long-term stability in northern Syria that will allow displaced communities to return to their homes and prevent further displacement.
(Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images)