On a green hillside in Afrin in northern Syria, Arab militiamen allied to the Turkish army which invaded this Kurdish enclave seven weeks ago have captured a group of terrified looking Kurdish civilians. The unformed and heavily armed militiamen are shouting “pigs”, “pimp” and “PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] pigs” all the while chanting “Allah Akbar [God Is Great]”. The Kurds, their hands raised in the air, are led away by the militiamen and their fate is unknown.
There are many such videos and still photographs from Afrin taken by Kurds and members of the Turkish forces showing the shelling and bombing of houses, the mangled bodies of children killed by the explosions and others of Kurdish civilians being herded away. One horrific selfie taken by a militiamen shows him staring at the camera while over his left shoulder is a burned out civilian car in which sits the corpse of the driver, his white teeth thrown into relief because the rest of his body is burned black.
If any of these images were coming out of Eastern Ghouta, they would be leading every television newscast and dominating the front pages. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, would be holding up pictures of dead and dying children. But because these events are happening in Afrin and not in Eastern Ghouta, in the same country but 200 miles apart, they are almost entirely ignored by both media and foreign politicians.
Afrin is seeing the beginnings of a tragedy that could be every bit as bad or worse than anything witnessed in Eastern Ghouta today or East Aleppo in 2016. Coming upon pictures of children buried under broken concrete, one has to search for additional information to know if the deaths are of Kurds killed by the Turkish bombardment in northern Syria, or people in Eastern Ghouta slaughtered by the Syrian government at the same time in much the same way. The greatest difference between the two situations is that the atrocities in Damascus are publicised by the media across the world, while in the Kurdish case they are regarded as scarcely worth a mention.
Over the past week in Afrin, the siege of heavily populated areas has tightened and the death toll has risen – 220 dead and 600 injured civilians according to the local Kurdish health authority. The suffering is likely to get a lot worse. The Turkish advance is speeding up, something the Kurds believe is happening because Turkey knows that international attention is focused exclusively on Eastern Ghouta. On Thursday, the Turkish forces announced that they had captured the large and strategically placed town of Jinderes, south-west of Afrin city. The latter is the largest urban centre in the enclave where most of the population driven from their villages in the countryside have taken refuge. Such is the chaos in Syria that nobody knows how many people are trapped in Afrin with the UN giving a figure of 323,000 and Kurdish leaders saying that it is closer to one million.
Afrin is about three times larger in area than Eastern Ghouta before the latest Syrian government assault, but, as we have seen in other sieges in Syria and Iraq, civilian casualties go up as the besiegers press people into a smaller and smaller zones. The water-pumping station in Afrin City was hit in the last few days, reducing the availability of drinking water.
As with Eastern Ghouta, there is a grizzly argument about whether or not the local inhabitants are free to leave Afrin or are being detained as “human shields”. Elham Ahmad, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, which administers Kurdish-controlled areas and has just returned from Afrin, denied this and told me that people were free to leave.
As in Eastern Ghouta, where are these poor people in Afrin to go to if they leave their homes? At best, they will end up in a refugee camp and taking to the road may not be the safest course as the captured Kurds shown in the video mentioned earlier learned to their cost. Afrin is some distance from the main Kurdish majority areas and the road there has to skirt Turkish army positions and pass through territory controlled by the Syrian government.
Among reasons for Kurds in Afrin to stay where they are is the nature of the Turkish forces that invaded the city on 20 January. There are regular Turkish troops and special forces, but also as many as 25,000 fighters operating under the umbrella name of the Free Syrian Army. But evidence from the front line and from former FSA and Isis members suggests that many of these are battle-hardened Islamists who had previously fought with or alongside Isis and al-Qaeda. They detest the US-backed Kurds, who hold 25 per cent of Syria, as one of the main reasons for the Islamist defeat in the struggle for Syria. No Kurd who falls into their hands will be safe.
The Kurds have an additional fear that they are about to become the victims of a campaign of ethnic cleansing under which they will be cleared out of Afrin wholly or in part. This enclave has traditionally been one of their core majority areas, but on the day after the invasion President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “55 per cent of Afrin is Arab, 35 per cent are the Kurds.” He added that Turkey’s aim was “to give Afrin back to its rightful owners.” It is a threat that carries all the more menace because the Syrian war has already seen widespread sectarian and ethnic cleansing, though the expulsion of a particular ethnic group from Afrin would be larger than earlier examples. The departure of the Kurds would have the advantage from the Turkish point of view of establishing a powerful Sunni Arab bloc north of Aleppo which would be under its influence.
The Kurds of Afrin could end up like the Greeks in Cyprus who fled or were driven from the northern part of the island by the Turkish invasion of 1974 and are still trying to return to their homes and lands 44 years later.
I have been struck since 2011 by the unbalanced way in which the Syrian war has been reported by the media. Vast attention was given to the sufferings inflicted on the people of East Aleppo in 2016 under attack by Syrian government and Russian air strikes, but very little notice was taken of the almost complete destruction of Isis-held Raqqa, with massive civilian casualties, at the hands of the US-led coalition.
I used to attribute such uneven coverage of the war to the greater skill and resources of the Syrian opposition in recording and publicising atrocities committed by the Syrian government and its allies. Isis had no interest in the fate of civilians under its control. But in Afrin there is no shortage of film of the suffering of civilians, but it simply is not widely broadcast or printed. In many respects, the role of the international media in the Syrian war has been as partial and misleading as the warring parties inside the country or their foreign sponsors without.