Part of the military operation called "Operation Peace Spring", launched by the Turkish army together with armed factions on October 9 2019, was the creation of a "safe zone", extending from the cities of Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye and Tal Abyad/Kre Spei 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory. The aim of this operation was to expel the SDF, with Kurdish forces as its backbone, from the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turks consider them "terrorist" forces which pose a threat to their national security. Eventually, Turkey indeed took control of Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye on October 20 after the U.S.-Turkish agreement recommending the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the city. As a direct result of the military operation, there was forced displacement including of thousands of civilians. The effects of the occupation have shown in human security, but also on the local economy. Extremist factions and the "national army" committed millions of seizures, looting, theft of public and private property, tools, facilities and the contents of civilian homes. They also seized agricultural wealth in the region in terms of vast agricultural areas, tools and facilities such as grain, fertilizer, tractors, harvesting machines, etc. To date, there is no accurate statistic describing the magnitude of the significant losses suffered by the inhabitants of the city, although these are estimated at millions of dollars.
A Brief History of Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye.
Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye is a historic city dating back thousands of years BC, located in the northwest of Hassakah province on the Turkish-Syrian border, from which the Khabur River crosses into Syrian territory. The city is strategically located, 85 km from Hassakah city and 90 km from Qamishli with a total area of 23,000 km². There are no recent official statistics, but according to the 2004 census, the province has a population of 177,150 consisting of a diverse population mosaic with predominantly Kurdish citizens, completed by Arabs, Syriac, Armenians, Chechens and Mardaly .
After 2014, since the free army and ISIS were driven out of the city, its people have begun to revive it and economic activity started again in all sectors. In 2019, the area faced increased monsoon rains, reviving agriculture and in turn reflecting positively on the trade and industry sector as well as the real estate sector. The number of industrial projects registered with the Chamber of Industry in Sere Kanye/Ras Al Ayn reached 650, according to an investigation conducted by The North Press Agency entitled “Economic War behind the continuing Turkish threats to invade Sere Kanye”. However, there are no official statistics on the extent of economic losses, which likely amount to millions of dollars. Armed groups furthermore arguably are using local resources as a kind of capital recycling to finance their war machine, occupying cities and towns and stealing and disposing of property and civilian funds in Turkey, Jarabulus, Afrin, Tel Abyad and the rest of the Turkish-occupied areas.
Hassakah province is the food basket of Syria and Ras al-Ayn is known as an agricultural city characterized by its vast and fertile lands and abundant water. This made for very rich seasons prior to the Turkish invasion of the city. Just before the invasion, 70% of the city's residents had prepared their agricultural mechanisms, seed and fertilizer to start cultivating their land, however Operation Peace Spring forced them to leave everything, carrying only their clothes they were wearing. The Syrian armed opposition factions, protected by Turkey, seized more than 500.000 hectares of agricultural land from their owners after they were forcibly displaced. These armed factions also looted wheat silos and cotton fields and transported their contents to Turkey. This, in turn, has resulted in heavy losses for the people: they have lost everything they owned, from land and agricultural machinery to shops and houses.
Agricultural engineer Alan Wanki says: Ras al-Ayn city and its countryside accounted for approximately 35% of the agricultural revenues for the whole of Hassakah province. More importantly, there are some types of agricultural seed found exclusively in Ras al-Ayn and its countryside, and even its wheat is of higher quality compared to the rest of northeast Syria. This is due to the different nature of the soil and water of the city, affecting the quality of agricultural produce in general in Syria. This makes it pivotal to use these crops to prevent severe food insecurity among Syrian people, however the different parties (self-administration, armed factions) that control territory haven’t yet been able to set up an effective system to exchange these crops.”
The agricultural land areas of Ras al-Ayn and its countryside, which were controlled by the factions of the National Army and Turkey, consist of an estimated 112,676.6 hectares, divided between irrigated land and rain-dependent land, with an agricultural area of about 20,349 irrigated hectares and 92,328 hectares dependent on rain.
In addition to the agricultural land that was owned by the Syrian Libyan Industrial and Agricultural Investment Company of 18,700 hectares, there is also public land called "State Farms", consisting of 35,000 hectares. These lands were taken over by armed factions and sold to Turkey, while the Self-Administered Agriculture Directorate had invested in them by planting them with crops (wheat and barley) prior to the Turkish military operation.
Armed factions have also looted and cultivated thousands of hectares of land belonging to forcibly displaced civilians on the pretext that they belonged to SDF instead. The proceeds of the production of all these crops will go to the fighters of these armed factions. This type of practice against the population has increased in the past two months in the eastern and western countryside of Ras Al-Ayn. One of the factions known as "Sultan Murad" cultivated dozens of hectares of agricultural land owned by forcibly displaced civilians in the villages of Bir Noah, Al Qatof, Al Mujaibra, Tal diab, Tal baider and Mabrouka. This faction imposed on every farmer in the villages a tax consisting of 8 bags of crops (wheat or barley) , allowing them to harvest.
A.J., a resident of the village of Bir Noah (7 km south of Ras al-Ayn) says: "We have been running an agricultural project for 25 years, with an area of 150 hectares. Since the occupation of the city, we have been forcibly displaced like the rest of the population., Through our communication with one of our peasants who remained close to the fields, we heard that the Sultan Murad faction had cultivated the entire piece of land: 100 hectares of wheat and 20 hectares of barley, in addition to seizing agricultural machinery fertilizers and other materials that had remained."
Tons of stolen crops ...?
Preliminary figures and statistics indicate that pro-Turkish armed opposition factions have forcibly seized tons of agricultural crops in Ras Al Ayn/Sere Kanye and its countryside, including those harvested from the land of forcibly displaced civilians and those stolen from warehouses and grain silos.
The stolen crops included 24,000 tons of wheat, 1,500 tons of sterile wheat seed, 12,000 tons of barley, 2,400 tons of cotton in the silos of Safah Town, 2,500 tons of organic manure and theft of silos in the villages of Safah, Alia and Mabrouka at as estimated thousands of tons of grain and seeds of all kinds of grains.
The people of Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye and the surrounding villages didn't expect that they would escape with their clothes only. They had high hopes that the U.S.-led international coalition would protect them from the Turkish invasion. The invasion however happened so fast that they couldn't harvest the lands they had planted and hence sought alternative solutions in the hope of addressing the disaster after their displacement. As such, some of them tried to communicate with their Arab neighbors through the Internet, to ask them to cultivate their land on their behalf in exchange for a percentage of the yields. Even in this situation, it would not be guaranteed that the yields would end up with their rightful owners. Others decided to take the risk and return to the city, but most of them were prevented from returning or arrested when they did.
According to activists, the pro-Turkish Syrian National Army factions looted civilian homes and wheat silos in Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye, Tal Abyad, and have them inhabited by their families and displaced people from Aleppo, Idlib, Ghouta and Homs. Cotton fields were stolen and farmers lost their seasons’ yield, property and homes, having had to flee for camps lacking the most basic necessities. This is part of a process of systematic demographic change by the Turkish government, as happened in Afrin.
Transport and marketing to Turkey.
Crops seized from the grain centers were transported to Turkey via the border crossing in Ras al-Ayn/Sere Kanye. The rest of the crops were harvested by harvesters from Turkey, having entered into Syria through the "Tal Abyad" crossing to Ras al-Ayn and its countryside, and harvested almost all crops in the region. Turkey and armed groups have not allowed other agricultural harvesters to enter the areas under their control .
As Arab farmers there found themselves forced to sell their produce at cost price, after the deduction of harvest costs and transport wages, they have no access to markets except the Turkish market. This produce enters Turkey hrough the "Tal Abyad" crossing controlled by the "Shamia Front", which buys it at $60 per ton and later sells it to traders on the Turkish side at $100 per ton, according to several testimonies given by farmers from the Countryside of Sere Kanye to SHAR magazine.
Turkey and its loyal factions have not respected the provisions of the agreement signed with the United States, which clearly indicate the need to protect the property of civilians, which Turkey has not complied with.
The exchange of spheres of influence and control has become a form of rotation where these stolen funds are used to finance human rights violations and war crimes by pro-Turkish national army factions.
Stealing agricultural crops and transporting them to Turkey will create a major food security crisis in Syria, especially after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and with regard to wheat and barley used in the production of flour and bread. The Syrian people, who have been living in war for years, are reliant and deserving of these crops.
Documentation clearly shows that the seizures, theft and displacement of land are systematically carried out on the basis of national and religious discrimination, targeting mainly Kurdish components and religious components such as Yazidis and Christians. The same happened in Afrin and is aimed at bringing about major demographic change.
The United States should re-evaluate its agreement with the Turkish government and ensure that Turkey complies with the terms of the agreement and abides by its commitments to northeastern Syria.
The United Nations, represented by the Security Council, should intervene and stop these violations and demographic changes and end the Turkish occupation of all Syrian territory.
All perpetrators of human rights violations must be prosecuted, and Turkey must compensate those affected by its operations and return the crops it has stolen to its owners.
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