Operation Olive Branch gives Afrin's oppressed Kurds hope for return

Fleeing the atrocities and oppression of the PKK-affiliated YPG, former residents of Afrin look forward to returning home once the operation ends

The launch of Operation Olive Branch against the elements of the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has surely been a sigh of relief for Turkish citizens as it entered the fourth day. In fact, the offensive has a unique meaning for another group: Afrin's oppressed Kurds.

Having fallen into the hands of the PKK-linked group in 2012, the strategically crucial city has been exploited and run as the PYD pleased since then. Despite the PYD's self-proclaimed autonomy that supposedly brought peace and prosperity to locals, the reality is very different.

Selahaddin Mustafa knows the situation in Afrin in the wake of PYD rule very well.

"We couldn't live with the PYD. There was no order. You have 100 oil cans, and then 25 of them would forcefully be taken by the PYD," said the 48-year-old Kurd, bemoaning the arbitrariness of the group. "They also took my taxi, to which I had to keep silent as well," Mustafa said.

Standing up against the practices of the PYD is also an option.

"When you don't want to pay the so-called taxes, you're accused of being a Turkish intelligence agent," he recalled. "Are you from the MİT [Turkish National Intelligence Agency]?" is a popular question about the PYD for Kurds and Arabs not bending their knees.

Struggling to bear the burden, Mustafa fled Afrin to find shelter on the other side of the border. The 48-year-old now lives in the small border village of Kaletepe.

Muhammed Abdullah, an Arab who used to live in Afrin, shares the same fate.

"Life was relatively more difficult as I was an Arab. I had to pay taxes. Nearly half the money I earned was taken by the PYD in the name of taxes," Abdullah said. "So I fled."

Others like Mustafa and Abdullah were able to make their way across the Turkish border. Now, there may be a chance for them to return home. Operation Olive Branch, initiated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on Jan. 20, aims to liberate the PYD-held city.

As the operation enters its fourth day, the Turkish military, in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has opened several fronts from the eastern, northern, northwestern and western parts of Afrin. Some 16 villages have been taken from the terrorist group so far.

While FSA forces make a push from the opposition-held Azaz to march toward the city, Turkish jets and artillery are pounding western rural Afrin to wear out the terrorist group. So far, the operation has reportedly been able to clear a 5 to 7-kilometer area from the PYD. Ankara has already announced that a 30-kilometer area will be secured from terrorist elements as part of the first goal of the maneuver.

For the time being, the TSK will reportedly focus on expanding its control horizontally rather than going deeper, a strategy that allows better awareness of possible YPG attacks. The terrorist groups are estimated to have attempted to breach the border dozens of times over the course of the last 72 hours.

The oppressed Kurds and Arabs of Afrin, in the meantime, keep their fingers crossed that Operation Olive Branch will succeed in the end.

"If Afrin is completely cleared of the PYD, if they are gone, I swear to God, I will go and settle there," Mustafa said.

That being said, the liberation of the inner city remains tough. As the PYD vows to defend the city at all costs, the TSK and FSA plan meticulously and in detail. Furthermore, the Turkish side places great emphasis on the lives of civilians in Afrin, which is, indeed, another obstacle.

The PYD has been reported to be preventing civilians from fleeing the city. The more civilians residing in the city, the more problems the TSK will have in conducting the operation. Aware of this fact, the terrorist group is taking advantage of the situation.

"The PYD/YPG and the regime in the south aren't allowing civilians to leave Afrin. These routes are currently closed. This is a violation of humanitarian law," Turkish Red Crescent Head Kerem Kınık said earlier this week. "The YPG/PYD and Syrian regime forces should end their blockade on civilians who want to leave Afrin."

As Afrin's oppressed Kurds and Arabs regain hope for a return to their hometown, Turkey's plans to liberate areas do not seem limited to this city alone. After President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said PYD-held Manbij would be targeted next, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ late on Monday confirmed.

Moreover, "Turkey's measures against the YPG/PKK cannot be limited to Afrin alone. There is also Manbij and east of the Euphrates River," said Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last week.

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