On 19 January 2018, Turkish military forces launched a military assault on the YPG and YPJ, the armed wings of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Afrin district. The stated aim of the operation – dubbed Operation Olive Branch – was to push the YPG and YPJ back from the Turkish border and to prevent the formation of a territorial unity between Afrin, Kobane and Qamishli. The Free Syrian Army joined Turkey and served as a front-line force under the cover of Turkish air support. After approximately 2 months of fierce fighting, Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces managed to capture the city of Afrin.
According to the UN, more than 183,500 civilians, mostly ethnic Kurds, escaped Afrin over the course and in the aftermath of the operation. The majority, some 140,000 people, have fled to Tal Refaat while others were forcibly seeking refuge in Menbij and Hassakeh and surrounding areas. Many are blocked from returning to their homes. Weeks after Operation Olive Branch concluded, the Syrian government's offensive on the rebel held Eastern Ghouta districts in the Damascus countryside put into effect a parallel wave of displacement.A number of those, from Eastern Ghouta and greater Homs in particular, settled in Afrin, where rebels have reportedly offered newcomers the houses of Kurdish residents that fled the city during Operation Olive Branch.
A number estimated between 50,000 and 70,000 civilians remained trapped in Afrin facing hardship after Olive Branch forces entered the city.According to OHCHR in their June 2018 Monthly Human Rights Digest in Syria, the security situation remains volatile and the de factoauthorities are currently unable or failing to act to ensure public order and safety.Moreover, reports are made of an acute lack of access to basic humanitarian assistance, including healthcare, due to the conditions on registration criteria that Turkey monitors closely.
Images and testimonies emerged of rebels looting, including homes and businesses abandoned by fleeing civilians. Remaining Afrin residents face fear of expropriation, kidnapping for ransom and vandalism of carried out by Turkish backed rebel groups - such as the Free Men of the East (Ahrar al-Sharqiyah) and the Lions of the East Army (Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya)both originating from the Deir ez-Zor governorate. Their presence is illustrated by a degree of increasing religious conservatism, among others illustrated by the posters calling for women to cover their heads and wear modest clothing, a phenomenon previously unseen in the district. The combination of the conservative influence of these FSA groups which have been dictating Islamist social norms, and new cleavages between local residents and the displaced from Damascus countryside over moral, religious and traditional fault- lines, has led to a degree of social juxtaposition in disfavour of previous, more secular Kurdish rule of Afrin.Local Kurds fear their presence bypassed by the increasing external influence. Besides the inevitable endangered property rights of those that fled the city and left their homes and businesses, fears rise that in addition to the restrictions already in place on expressions of Kurdish culture, language and affiliation, attempts are made to change the region's demography.
The Interim Government that was set up by FSA, and through which the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces coordinates and supervises administrative tasks directly, is now granting official residency toArab families who were either forcibly displaced or are affiliated with or belong to the families of de-escalated combatants. The recent-established civil registry, headed by local mukhtarswith strong links with the IDPs regions of origin such as Deir ez-Zor, has the authority to issue or revoke IDs and marriage and birth certificates. Fears loom that the rebel's footprint will be further anchored in the city and the district as a whole.