The actions of Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies in the northern Syrian areas captured in last month’s military offensive amount to deliberate demographic re-engineering and possible ethnic cleansing, the Sunday Telegraph said, citing testimony from local residents and video evidence.
The British newspaper said it had reviewed evidence including footage of Turkey-backed jihadist fighters of the Syrian National Army (SNA) burning and looting Kurdish and Christian homes and taking over shops whose Kurdish owners had fled during the fighting.
Turkey launched a cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 to drive the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and other Kurdish-led groups from its borders.
The Turkish government said its operation addressed a legitimate security concern, since the SDF and its affiliates are linked to insurgents that have fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since the 1980s.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also said the operation would be used to create what he calls a safe zone to return a large portion of the 3.6 million mostly Syrian Arab refugees currently hosted in his country.
But the offensive has displaced more than 200,000 people, United Nations figures show, and the Sunday Telegraph spoke to displaced Kurds who said they were not being allowed back to their homes.
“If you are Kurdish and they suspect you even have sympathy for the YPG, they make it very clear – you are not welcome back,” Mr. Yacoub, a Kurdish farmer, told the newspaper. He was referring to the Peoples’ Protection Units, an armed group that makes up the bulk of the SDF fighting force.
Other displaced people interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph said those who had attempted to return to their home villages had been asked a series of questions starting with “are you an Arab or a Kurd,” and that few had braved the journey.
“One who did was kidnapped and then ransomed back to his family for a large sum of money, another, a well-known factory owner who had returned to check on his properties was threatened and told the land was no longer his and that he should leave,” said Rodi Ayo, a journalist with local radio station Arta FM.
Erdoğan himself signalled a troubling understanding of regional demographics when he told a Turkish interviewer the border areas targeted in the operation were more suitable for Arabs than Kurds since they were mostly desert.
Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for New American Security, told the Sunday Telegraph that this understanding of an ethnic dimension to the conflict might have been passed on to the Syrian rebels through Turkish intelligence.
“A large component of the SNA is either closely tied to Turkish intelligence, or have been imbued by Ankara with a strong sense that the Kurds are the enemy. It has helped create a deep mistrust between the two,” he said.
“Normally, once a military operation finishes a so-called stabilisation phase follows … The objective of conquerors is usually to get civilians to return so they can solidify their power … But that’s not what has been happening here,” he said.