Turkish troops have assumed full control of dozens of villages in the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin after evicting their Syrian rebel allies from positions they captured together from Syrian Kurdish forces in March, local sources told Ahval.
After weeks of conflicting information about whether Turkey was in charge of security of the villages, people in the countryside around Afrin said Turkish soldiers were manning checkpoints and Syrian rebel forces had pulled out.
“In the past five days, several rebel groups have pulled out from nine villages near the border town of Bulbul as well as villages near the town of Jinderes,” said a resident of Kotana, one of the villages.
The resident, who declined to be named, said the Sultan Murad Division, one of the largest Turkish-backed rebel groups in Afrin, had been in charge of his village. Its fighters now have moved to the town of Bulbul, near the border with Turkey, he said.
Another resident from the village of Kaza near Jinderes said rebel groups that used to control the village had suddenly disappeared.
“We used to see (rebel) fighters everywhere, on the streets and at checkpoints,” he said. “But right now we only see Turkish soldiers and their presence looks more organised than before.”
Turkish military and their Syrian rebel allies seized the district of Afrin on March 18 after a two-month-long operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that Ankara views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey considers the PKK and YPG to both be terrorist organisations. The United States however has backed the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as it most reliable partner in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
Afrin residents have complained about regular abuses committed by Turkish-backed rebel fighters, especially in the countryside around the town.
In its June report on Syria, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had documented an increase in armed clashes between different armed groups reported to be under the control of Turkish forces. The clashes, it said, had a serious impact on civilians and resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also released a report in June in which it said Turkish-backed rebels “have seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria”.
Analysts said the negative reports had stung Turkey.
“Afrin is a sensitive topic for the Turkish government,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist groups in the country. “So by removing some rogue rebel groups from several villages, Turkey wants to show the local population and the outside world that it is serious about establishing good governance in Afrin.”
But, he said, such tentative measures would not entirely stop rebels from carrying out what he called “repugnant actions” against civilians.
Turkey allowed foreign journalists to enter Afrin last week, the first time since it captured the district in March. But they were only allowed to report from the city centre where Turkey has handed over security to a newly established military police force.
Several international news organisations reported security had improved in the city since the new Turkish-backed police force had been in charge.
Kinno said this move was an attempt by Turkey “to whitewash its public image in regards to Afrin.”
Tensions and infighting recently have increased between different rebel groups over power and revenue sharing. In late June, two car explosions rocked the centre of Afrin, leaving dozens of fighters and civilians killed and wounded. Rebel groups have accused each other of carrying out the attacks.
Residents in the town of Jinderes, southwest of Afrin, said Turkish warplanes had last week targeted several bases belonging to rebels who refused Turkish orders to leave.
“One of the groups that is vehemently opposing Turkish plans is al-Hamzat Brigade,” a resident of Jinderes who goes by the name Abu Jamil, told Ahval.
He said the bases targeted “most likely belonged to al-Hamzat Brigade”.
The Sultan Murad Division, al-Hamzat Brigade and the Suqour al-Shamal Brigade are the most cruel groups in Afrin, according to Abu Jamil.
“A displaced family from Homs that now lives in an Afrin village felt bad for occupying the house of a local Kurdish family, so they decided to leave the house,” said another resident of the town of Bulbul in Afrin.
“When members of Sultan Murad found out about it, they forced them to return to the house and punished the head of the household. So even some displaced families are not pleased with the actions of these groups towards the local population,” he said.
The man said a rebel group had seized his house and his repeated pleas to a rebel leader to allow him to return had been useless.
“Removing rebel groups from a couple of villages won’t solve our problems,” he said. “If Turkey is serious about ending lawlessness in Afrin, it must remove rebels from the entire district.”