Edress Othman, M.D.: A Syrian city cries out for help

Afrin, Syria, in 2009.

Afrin, Syria, in 2009.

This was sent to us by Edress Othman, M.D., an oncologist with Southcoast Health System, a native of Afrin and an ethnic Kurd.

Over the past six years, the Syrian Civil War has created a vast humanitarian crisis, with more than half a million people killed, almost half of the nation’s population displaced, and many cities destroyed.

The area in and around Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish enclave in northwest Syria, was one of the very few areas that had survived the war intact. The region, about the size of Rhode Island, became a safe zone and welcomed thousands of Syrians fleeing the destruction elsewhere.  In 2012, a democratic system based on respect for the environment and gender equality under local administration was created for the area’s burgeoning populations.  Since that time one man and one woman were selected by the people to lead every post in the government equally.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) protected Afrin from ISIS, Jihadi groups and Bashar Assad’s regime. The SDF is the same group that defeated ISIS with the assistance from the United States and coalition forces in northeast Syria.  Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, recently praised them as heroes, saying,  "I would say that the people who fought to take Raqqa back from ISIS are heroes, no matter what nationality they were, no matter what their beliefs were.”

Since Jan. 20, 2018, however, this peaceful enclave has come under attack.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began an aerial assault on the civilians of Afrin, forcing residents into their basements and caves. Since then Turkey has destroyed humanitarian aid stations and infrastructure, including medical facilities and water-treatment centers.  Cultural sites that define the Kurdish people have also been targeted. Many villages have been destroyed, forcing an estimated 70,000 people from the region into the city of Afrin, where they now desperately wait for international aid, food and clean water.  On Feb. 16, doctors in Afrin reported to their colleagues in other countries that they have begun treating villagers for injuries that they believe are consistent with chemical warfare.

Why is Afrin under assault?  It is the belief of the residents living there that the attacks are a direct result of the U.S. declaration of its intention to stay in Syria and support of SDF.  Turkey considers the Kurdish elements within SDF as terrorists despite the fact that they have been combating ISIS and have never targeted Turkey.

The United States has not yet stepped forward to defend the Kurdish people of Afrin.  While America provides weapons and equipment to the SDF east of the Euphrates, it has repeated that it understands “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns”. On Feb. 16, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the United States recognizes Turkey's legitimate right to secure its borders.

But meanwhile, Turkey’s President Erdogan continues his ethnic-cleansing campaign, publicly promising to kill “every atheist Kurd in Afrin”, thus putting  the lives of  Christians and Yezidis at stake.  With surrounding towns now in rubble, Afrin’s population has increased dramatically as humble farmers have fled into a densely populated area, making them easy targets for aerial attacks.  Since the bombing began, more than 200 civilians have been killed (that includes 32 children and 26 women) and hundreds have been injured. And more than a million people remain in the besieged city of Afrin.