The International Committee of the Red Cross is sounding the alarm over the fate of civilians in the city of Afrin, Syria, where aid workers have been unable to gain access in the eight months since it was seized by a Turkish-supported militia.
“This worries me. It is not just about the ICRC not getting access. No humanitarian actors impartial and neutral are able to access the area,” ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord told Fox News. “This worries me for the people affected and the community in this area.”
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) earlier this year took control of Afrin thanks to a Turkish military offensive aimed at driving out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which in turn is part of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish-backed FSA maintains authority in Afrin, while the SDF holds scattered territory farther south.
The ICRC hasn't been in Afrin since early March. Even then the situation was described as "dire," with few hospitals in operation, and more than 30,000 people displaced.
Daccord noted that despite repeated recent requests – while not specifically addressing whether Turkey was allowing cross-border operations – the ICRC has not been granted permission to enter Afrin, situated in Syria’s northern Aleppo Governorate.
“You have groups or government controlling the territory not willing to see any humanitarian aid arriving in this area. They want to control the population. They want to control access to health, access to water, it is a way to control the population,” he said. “It is not to do with one organization or the other, they don’t want humanitarian action or aid to arrive in areas that they control.”
Without access, Daccord emphasized, they are unable to compile a clear picture of the civilian suffering.
“I think the conditions are difficult, but it is difficult to speculate,” he said. “Not just in Afrin, but in general in Syria and the region. The level of insecurity, the level of economic crisis, the level of the health crisis is extremely high and this is also true in Afrin.”
Residents who spoke to Fox News from inside Afrin in recent days said the situation is chaotic. Their biggest grievance is the ongoing and violent kidnappings for ransom, carried out by various rogue gangs and groups. One Kurdish student explained that people conduct abductions and ask families for big payouts – if not delivered “they kill the victim and cut his head and send to his family.”
But the Northern Brigade – a wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in charge of securing Afrin – say they have been working to free victims of the abductions. They said perpetrators claim to be affiliated with the FSA and pass easily through checkpoints, but are instead fighters expelled from the group, who have since formed their own rival faction.
“The situation unstable because of the spread of gunmen. Turkish police are trying to control the city but it is safe enough for us. We just want stability,” bemoaned Maen, a 29-year-old pharmacist working in an Afrin medical facility told Fox News. “There are a lot of challenges – there are no jobs, the rents of houses are too high, a lot of refugees must live in tents even in the winter because they have no money for rent. The electricity works only for eight hours, and that is from generators which belong to the people anyway.”
Maen also said the community is desperate for humanitarian assistance.
“There are some aid groups, but it’s not enough to cover all the city and all the poverty. I don’t know what it means to be safe since 2011,” Maen added, referring to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. “Of course, there is no feeling of being safe in any area of Syria after this war.”
Others claim anyone tied to Kurdish militia groups are especially targeted. Kurdish residents claim their olive crops have been looted, their houses overrun and taken over, and that some families who have attempted to flee Afrin have been killed by landmines.
Kurdish activists and officials in neighboring Erbil, Iraq have also bemoaned what they view as “extreme demographic changes” inside what was once a Kurdish-majority city now being “cleansed” by the “Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups” who captured Afrin. In its June report, the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) also documented large-scale human rights violations and high levels of violent crime taking place in Afrin.
Meanwhile, other residents claim the situation is mostly calm, and people can go about daily life. Their biggest fear is being caught up in an attack spurred by YPG infiltration.
“The security situation is fairly good with the presence of the Free Army,” contended Khaled Taffour, 46, an executive manager at a school in Afrin. “However, there are some difficulties with the living situation. There are a number of Syrian and Turkish relief institutions, but the humanitarian situation and the onset of winter is very cold and difficult.”
Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news outlet has lauded the country’s non-governmental organizations for providing drinking water for internally displaced Syrians. But after a one-off visit to Afrin in early March, the ICRC called for greater access, and declared the Turkish Red Crescent “lack credibility” among the Syrian Kurds.
Questions of impartiality and ensuring all residents receive adequate assistance have since lingered. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has since told Fox News that "following the liberation of Afrin from PKK's Syria affiliate PYD/YPG, the current phase of Operation Olive Branch is focused on ensuring security and stability as well as creating necessary conditions for the return of the people of Afrin that had fled the oppression of PYD/YPG."
"Several individual incidents of violations have quickly been investigated and necessary measures have swiftly been taken by Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and FSA. Furthermore, an Operation Center was formed by TAF and the FSA to receive complaints from local people on alleged cases of violations," Cavusoglu continued. "Turkish efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Afrin continue. There has been a continuous cross-border flow of fundamental humanitarian assistance items and services from Turkey to the region since the start of Operation Olive Branch."
He also stated that the "UN’s cross-border humanitarian assistance deliveries from Turkey to Afrin have been facilitated by the Turkish authorities.”
Turkey deems the U.S-supported Kurdish militias – known as the YPG – to be an addendum of the PKK, which has waged a guerrilla war against Turkey for more than 30 years, and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., and other countries. The YPG has driven a sharp wedge between Washington and its NATO allies in Ankara.
And regional fighting may not be finished. “The way we freed Afrin, we will save other lands of northern Syria,” President Tayyip Erdogan pledged in a speech last week.
Tensions increased between Turkey and the U.S-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria on Sunday after the Turkish army shelled YPG positions along the borders. Erdogan vowed to double-down on a campaign of “neutralization,” and said Turkey will continue to cleanse its borders from “terror.” The YPG, meanwhile, has insisted Turkish strikes were “unprovoked,” and intended to draw attention from what might be the Turks' final effort to drive ISIS from Syria.