“Many Yazidis are hesitant to leave Afrin because they think they won’t ever be able to return.”
Yazidis being displaced from Iraq by the Turkish offensive that has continued for two months are now taking shelter in Afrin in northern Syria. The US intervened in Iraq in August 2014, after Islamic State committed genocide against the religious minority. Now their co-religionists across the border in Syria say they are being displaced by Islamists associated with Syrian rebel groups.
“In a meeting with Yazidi Syrians today, most Yazidi villagers are now displaced to the city of Afrin. Only a few people have managed to exist the city barriers toward the south into the Syrian regime region,” wrote Murad Ismael, co-founder and executive director of Yazda, an organization that works on behalf of Yazidis. On Thursday, Ismael said air strikes were taking place as the Turkish Army closes in on Afrin. Since January 20, Turkey has been carrying out a major offensive in northern Syria against the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin Province. Turkey says the YPG are terrorists connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Yazidis say their villages and temples in Afrin are being pillaged.
“Many Yazidis are hesitant to leave Afrin because they think they won’t ever be able to return,” wrote Ismael.
Cule Cafer, the head of a local Yazidi union, said there were 22 Yazidi villages in Afrin and that only one is now left under their control. He said three Yazidi children had been killed in Turkish air strikes. “We lose our history once more,” he said.
In August 2014, ISIS launched an offensive in northern Iraq, executing thousands of Yazidi men and elderly women and forcing 300,000 Yazidis to flee. ISIS also sold more than 6,000 women and children into slavery, subjecting them to systematic mass rape that the UN and other countries have defined as genocide.
The US launched its first air strikes against ISIS in August 2014 because of the attacks on Yazidis. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent an act of genocide,” US president Barack Obama said at the time. Now Yazidi activists say that another act of ethnic-cleansing may be taking place.
Ezidi Press tweeted pictures showing what it said were “Turkish-backed jihadists” taking over the village of Qibar in northeastern Afrin. “They [the jihadists] asked for the houses of the Yazidis in the village.” In a translation of a video showing the alleged extremists abusing Yazidis in Afrin, the online media organization said the Jihadists had taken a woman door-to-door, asking her which houses were occupied by Yazidis. “The jihadists interrogate elderly Kurdish men who refuse to divulge the number and houses of the Yazidis,” the video said.
Many pro-Yazidi groups have called on the international community to intervene and have condemned NATO for supporting the Turkish offensive. The Free Yazidi Foundation tweeted: “Shocking that international powers, through silence, gave a green light to attacks on civilians in Afrin. Words about protection for minorities, like Yazidis and Christians, are empty.”
The role of the Syrian rebels who support Turkey’s operations in Afrin have been controversial from the beginning. Although Turkey insists it is being careful about civilian casualties, Turkish politicians have also said Syrian refugees will be re-settled in Afrin after the conflict. Most of these refugees are Syrian Arabs, and Afrin is predominantly a Kurdish area.
In addition, videos have emerged showing some of the rebel factions abusing civilians. On February 16, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published an op-ed that claimed Turkish forces in nearby Idlib in Syria had been accompanied by extremists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The group is seen as a version of al-Qaeda in Syria and is considered to be a terrorist organization by Russia, the US and other members of the international community.
“What does it mean when a Turkish military convoy consisting of military vehicles, including tanks belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces, moves toward Idlib alongside Tahrir al-Sham forces?” asked Sedat Ergin.
The alleged attacks on Yazidi homes and places of worship in Afrin and the fate of Yazidi villages and towns remains a concern as Turkey’s offensive unfolds around Afrin.