Looting Follows “Olive Branch” in Afrin

Advancing forces loot Afrin after Operation Olive Branch drives Kurds out of the city

(Source: Twitter / @NRT_English)

Operation Olive Branch came to an end as the main objectives were within reach. On March 18, Turkish forces and the Syrian rebels they backed swept into the city of Afrin. Turkish-led forces entered Afrin before dawn on Saturday, March 17, and met no resistance from Kurdish forces, which controlled the city since August 2012.

On the same day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights voiced concerns over the misconduct of fighters partaking in Operation Olive Branch in and around Afrin. @DFRLab investigated what happened in Afrin after its fall.

Afrin

Operation Olive Branch commenced on January 20, 2018, as Turkey announced its involvement in the fight against “terrorist organizations” on its southern border. ISIS forces were not in the Afrin region when the offensive began, as the region of Afrin was under the control of Kurdish forces since August 2012.

Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) organization, which is regarded as a terrorist group in Turkey. Nonetheless, Kurdish society in the region has been widely acknowledged for its success in establishing democracy.

Geolocation Confirmation

Civilians and military forces involved in Operation Olive Branch both did their fair share to document the fall of Afrin. A wealth of videos and photos were posted from the beginning to end of the operation. 
 
On the same day as Turkish-led forces entered Afrin, a video appeared on YouTube and provided first glances at the fallen city. The drone footage at the end of the video helped to confirm the location was Afrin. Several tanks, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers posed in the square in the city center of Afrin holding Turkish flags. The the tanks in the video were possibly the M60T Sabra tanks, which are extensively used by the Turkish military.

Turkish troops in Afrin. Top, Bottom Left: (Source: Twitter / World News); Top, Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

More video footage and pictures surfaced of Turkish and Free Syrian Army flags raised over a balcony, claimed to be in the Kurdish municipal building in Afrin. The location was, again, confirmed to be in Afrin.

Turkish and FSA flags in a local Kurdish municipal building. Top Left, Bottom Left: (Source: Twitter / @rosaburc); Top Right: (Source: Twitter / @Acemal71); Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The Kurdish municipality building was situated in the center of Afrin, close to the city bridges.

Location of the Kurdish municipality building. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Top Right: (Source: Twitter / @Acemal71); Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

Looting and Misconduct

During the operation in Afrin, Turkish forces accompanied by the Free Syrian Army swept through the city unopposed. Soldiers flew flags of the Free Syrian Army flag and Ahrar a-Sharqiya, an extremist group largely consisting of fighters displaced from Deir el Ezzor.

Comparison of flags captured in Afrin and pictures of Free Syrian Army flags. Top Left: (Source: Twitter / @Acemal71); Top Right: (Source: Twitter / @qalaatalmudiq); Bottom Left: (Source: livemap Syria); Bottom Left: (Source: GoogleMaps).

One distinguishing feature of the Free Syrian Army troops were their red bands on heads and arms. These bands and a mixed variety of camouflage uniforms helped identify them in video footage. 
 
On March 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported robberies in several villages around Afrin area by forces participating in Operation Olive Branch. Machinery and agricultural tools were seized and houses looted as Turkish-backed forces secured locations from Kurdish resistance.

The same pattern of activity was observed in the city of Afrin. Shops, houses, and cars, as well as property at the political and military headquarters were reportedly looted by the Olive Branch Forces. Clashes were also reported between groups that carried out the looting and locals. A variety of photos and videos surfaced on social media of the looting that took place soon after Kurdish resistance evacuated the city.

Looting in Afrin, Syria. (Source: Facebook / @syriahroe)

The location of these pictures was, again, confirmed to be Afrin. Tractors were lifted and carried away by cranes, civilian cars pulled away by tractors. Motorcycles, food supplies, gas tanks, livestock, and other items were taken from the local population by entering forces.

Looted agricultural equipment. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @NRT_English).
Looted livestock. (Source: NRT)
Looting in Afrin. (Source: NRT)

Most of the men involved in looting were wearing the red bands, which made it easier to identify them as members of the Free Syria Army.

Comparison of the looting militants (right) with Syrian Free Army militants (left). Left: (Source: The New York Times); Right: (Source: NRT).

According to various estimates, around 150,000 civilians fled Afrin since March 17, seven weeks of clashes reportedly took at least 250 civilian lives.

Fleeing population. (Source: Twitter / @NRT_English)

The evacuating locals were captured in photos that surfaced on March 17, which were geolocated in Afrin.

Withdrawing Kurdish civilians in Afrin. Top Left: (Source: Twitter / @sonkaleturkiye2); Bottom Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @aylinakilic).

Furthermore, Operation Olive Branch forces were documented taking down local Kurdish monuments, posters, and flags in the city. Photos of a statue being taken down and Free Syria Army militants destroying captured Kurdish flags received signicant social media engagement on Saturday, March 24.

Geolocation of the destroyed Kurdish statue. Top Left: (Source: Twitter / @sonkaleturkiye2); Top Center: (Source: Twitter / @t24comtr); Right: (Source: Twitter / @t24comtr); Bottom Left, Bottom Center (Source: GoogleMaps).

Here are the above mentioned locations pin-pointed on the map:

(Source: GoogleMaps)

Conclusion

As the Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch forces took Afrin on March 18, chaos and havoc enveloped the city. Numerous acts of looting, destruction of local property, and Kurdish monuments occurred. Most of the looting soldiers appeared to be members of the Free Syrian Army, nonetheless they fight alongside, and are supported by, Turkey. The Turkish government declared that its forces will not be staying in Afrin, as their next target appears to be Manbij
 
The case of Afrin suggests that as the relative power and territorial control by ISIS declines, regional conflicts that existed prior to the overall conflict in Syria will continue. In the case of Manbij, Turkey and supported local actors pursued old rivalries and conflict with Kurds on either side of the border.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

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