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Michael Jansen: Stolen oil
February 08, 2019
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The north-western Afrin district was until early last year a bastion of peace and tranquillity in war-gripped Syria. Afrin’s majority Kurdish population remained secure and welcomed displaced families. Security was provided by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which did not intimidate and abuse the population.

All this changed when Turkey and its militia allies invaded and occupied Afrin. The US-supported YPG was defeated and its fighters were forced to flee after Washington abandoned them. Half  of Afrin’s 230,000 civilians were expelled or fled. Afrin became booty of the proxy wars overlaying Syria’s domestic conflict.         

One year after its ironically named “Olive Branch” military conquest of Afrin, Turkey is looting the olive harvest and selling the oil in Europe. Last April, Abdullah and Yusif, Kurdish friends from Afrin who are employed in Damascus told The Gulf Today that Turkish forces had driven family members from the district. After fleeing their home, Abdullah’s wife and children were compelled to camp out in the cold and rain on the road to Aleppo along with thousands of other civilians until they reached the city. Yusif said Turkey’s allied militiamen had also bulldozed and sold for firewood some of the district’s 14 million olive trees. Afrin’s olive oil, said to be the best in Syria, was the main source of income of the district’s inhabitants.

Last month, Yusif told a colleague who was visiting Damascus that armed fighters from Turkey’s surrogate Free Syrian Army (FSA) confiscated oil pressed from his olives by relatives looking after his trees. He thought the militiamen, who have been robbing and abusing local civilians, would sell the oil and keep the profits. 

This is not always the case. Most of the seized oil and olives are transported to Turkey. Mainstream Turkish media reported that Ankara’s official body dealing with agricultural production would channel the oil into Turkey but gave the impression Afrin residents would benefit. This is not the case.

Last September, Salleh Ibo, head of Afrin’s former agricultural council, reported to the Netherlands-based Kurdish news agency that Ankara’s forces had not only confiscated olives and oil but also taken over olive groves belonging to families who had been chased from or fled the district. He said, “Eighty per cent of Afrin’s olives are being taken to Turkey,” producing revenue of $80 million. Of this, $22 million, he said, is paid to FSA militiamen imposing Turkey’s occupation.

Turkey openly admits this practice and justifies confiscation by saying Ankara does not want the revenue to benefit the YPG, which the Turks say is an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party which has fought Ankara for 30 years. Agriculture Minister Bekir Pademirli told the Turkish national assembly last November that 600 tonnes of Afrin olives had “entered the country.” That figure has risen dramatically to 5,000 tonnes. Since the trees, olives and their oil belong to local people, both Kurds and Arabs, Turkey is, in fact, robbing civilians who depend on their trees for their livelihood. The YPG cannot benefit as its fighters have been driven from the district which is cut off from other YPG-held areas.

Therefore, Turkey gains in three ways from this practice: Ankara earns substantial revenue, uses a portion to pay its surrogates, and puts pressure on residents of Afrin, largely Kurds, to leave. Thus, olives, the Mediterranean symbol of peace and prosperity, become a tool for ethnic cleansing.

Afrin’s stolen oil is blended with Turkish oil and sold in European markets, compounding pillage with fraud. Swiss member of parliament Bernhard Guhl told Olive Oil Times Spanish merchants buy the stolen oil, label it as Spanish and re-export it to other countries. He urged European countries to put a stop to this fraud. “It doesn’t matter if the final destination is Spain or Germany. I believe it is very important that the country or countries concerned launch a criminal investigation to determine whether countries are trading stolen olives or olive oil.” 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that Turkish-sponsored FSA factions continue to violate the human rights of Afrin’s population. Civilians, including women and children, have been detained and held for ransom. Militiamen accused of stealing tanks of olive oil from the presses are forcing residents to give false testimony to the Turkish-imposed authorities. Turkey has also settled Arab fighters driven from Eastern Ghouta last April in homes of expelled Afrin’s Kurdish residents. There is considerable resentment among local Kurds against the mainly fundamentalist fighters as well as FSA recruits who try to impose their conservative lifestyle on the more liberal Kurds. Turkey is accused of using Afrin as testing ground for ethnic engineering the shift in the population from Kurdish to Arab of the towns and villages in the border zone.  

This is Ankara’s plan for the broad 25-30 kilometre wide band of territory on the Syrian side of the border currently held by the YPG. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his intention to create a “safe zone” in the “zone” where he wants to settle 3.5 million Syrian Arab refugees living in Turkey. To achieve this end, the Turkish army and its surrogate militiamen would have to expel the YPG and local Kurdish civilians before importing refugees. The YPG has vowed to stand and fight. It has no choice if the Kurds are to remain in the region east of the Euphrates River, which Erdogan has repeatedly said he plans to invade.

It is hardly surprising that Turkey should loot Afrin’s olive crop. When FSA and al-Qaeda-linked factions seized control of eastern Aleppo, they stripped factories in the vast Shaikh Najjar industrial zone north-east of the residential quarters held by insurgents from October 2012 through December 2016. Goods and machinery were transported to Turkey for sale or on order from Turkish businessmen. The loot was imported freely into Turkey where the authorities all too clearly encouraged the enterprise. Of the nearly 2,000 factories in the industrial area, which was visited by The Gulf Today last year, 600 have been destroyed; few of those that survived have managed to recoup losses and restart production.

($1 = Dhs3.67)
 ___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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