Afrin: Property Violations Go Beyond Simply Taxing Trees

The Syrian National Army, which is affiliated with the opposition Syrian Interim Government, issued a decree in mid-October banning its armed factions from imposing taxes on fruit-bearing trees in the border areas that were captured in Turkish military operations, including the Afrin area northwest of Aleppo city.

The decree comes after a series of committees to respond to grievances were established in mid-2020 at the suggestion of Syrian judges and sheikhs, which earned Turkish support. The committees are present in various areas of northern Syria now under the control of Turkish-backed factions and are following up on the complaints of local residents concerning violations of their rights by armed groups.

Still, there has not been a solution to land rights violations. Sherwan (not his real name), a Kurdish resident of the Sheikh Hadid area of Afrin, told The Syria Report that he transferred the ownership of his land to a relative residing in Europe. He fears that he could be forced to surrender the property. Also, Sherwan thought that transferring the land ownership could protect him from having to pay taxes on his olive trees. He thought he could evade tax if he was working on land that he didn't own. Sherwan’s land extends over 30 hectares, cultivated with thousands of olive trees.

The tax in Sheikh Hadid is around USD 2 (or the equivalent in Turkish lira) per olive tree, though the amount differs from one district to another in Afrin, according to military forces in charge of the area. In the last week of October, a group from the Sultan Murad Division imposed thousands of dollars of taxes on Sherwan because he had transferred ownership of his land, which the fighters considered a form of tax evasion. Sherwan was able to reduce the new taxes imposed on him after local mediation with the Sultan Murad Division.

The Sultan Murad Division oversees the Sheikh Hadid district. It is a faction within the Syrian National Army and is composed of mostly Turkmen Syrian fighters. The group has strong relations with Turkish institutions and agencies involved in Syrian affairs.

Their violations do not stop at imposing taxes on olive trees. Armed factions have also expropriated the properties of displaced former Afrin residents, including houses and agricultural lands. They have also placed taxes on olive presses, and on transport for harvested crops.

Many Kurdish residents of Afrin fled the area after Turkey’s so-called “Olive Branch” military operation there in January 2018, against the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as a branch of the PKK. Armed factions affiliated with the Syrian National Army and Turkish-backed National Liberation Front now control Afrin. Meanwhile, many people displaced from Idlib, as well as areas of Homs and rural Damascus recaptured by the regime arrived in Afrin, settled at random in the empty homes of displaced residents. They had an urgent need for housing, and there was no official policy in place for absorbing these new arrivals while preserving the rights of the original homeowners.

Around 600 of the 1,300 Kurdish families who had been living in Sheikh Hadid before 2018 fled the area, while 700 new families arrived. Most of them were displaced people from Idlib, who soon took up residence in the empty homes of Kurdish families who fled.

There appear to be widespread discriminatory policies in place against remaining Kurdish residents of Afrin, and they cannot be attributed solely to members of the armed factions in charge. It may be difficult for the grievance response committees to redress the violations inflicted on residents, due to Kurdish residents’ lack of trust in the factions.

For his part, Sherwan did not approach one of the grievance response committees to raise his case because he feared how the Sultan Murad Division may respond, and he had no confidence in the committee to bring him a solution.