Operation Olive Branch was the name given to Turkey’s advance into the majority-Kurdish Afrin enclave in northwest Syria, beginning in January 2018.

The operation to wrest control of the region was brief. However, more than one year later in April 2019, Turkey began demarcating its control of the region by building a three-meter high concrete military wall.

An investigation by the Ruptly Verification Unit examines the ground-level impact of the wall, using a never-before-published satellite image of the region, combined with first-hand footage from our source on-the-ground.

Investigation summary:

Construction on the wall began in April 2019, according to our source and corroborating reports in Kurdish media, Ronahi and ANHA. The wall was not one consistent structure, but was instead being built in separate sections in the eastern Afrin region, near the villages of Jalbul and Kimar.

We were provided with our first video package in April showing a large concrete wall under construction at the village of Jalbul.

In May, we received, validated and published our second video package of the wall in Jalbul, which also included footage of the smaller section of wall further south at the village of Kimar.

We had evidence that a wall was present in the Turkish controlled region, but we wanted to examine further two specific questions:

1. Where exactly are the sections of wall located?

2. What is its imprint on the region?

In collaboration with Planet Labs, an Earth satellite imaging company, we were able to investigate these questions with up-to-date imagery analysis combined with our first-hand reporting and footage from the region.

Combing the satellite imagery we identified where exactly the sections of wall were located.

And comparing new and old satellite images of the area we ascertained the ground-level impact.

We were also able to use the satellite images to provide further context to our published video packages of the wall, making topographical comparisons to affirm elements seen in our footage.

Our analysis showed, most strikingly, that many of the homes and properties in Jalbul had been demolished and replaced with a bisecting perimeter wall, as well as other intersecting wall structures.

Hundreds of Syrian-Kurdish people, including many displaced from the Afrin region, have protested against the construction of the wall. Protesters view the wall as an effort by Turkey to demarcate its control of the region and prevent internally displaced people returning to their homes.

The Turkish Defence Ministry has not yet responded to our request for comment.

Investigation in-depth:

In this section we explain the steps we took to locate the sections of the Turkish wall and identify any notable landscape changes since Operation Olive Branch.

We detail our comparative analysis of old and new satellite imagery and also share an insight into how up-to-date satellite imagery added context to our published video packages.

Here we outline the full context behind our work:

April 2019:

Our source on-the-ground in the region told us about construction starting on a wall in the eastern Afrin area controlled by Turkey. We received footage showing the wall around Jalbul and a protest in the area by Syrian-Kurdish residents.

We have a long-established relationship of trust with our stringer, but still ran their footage through InVid video analysis software checking for duplicates, as well as scanning keywords in social media to ensure the validity and authenticity of the footage.

We cross-checked the information we received against local sources close to the story in order to develop a broad description of the wall and its construction.

May 2019:

Keeping apace with ongoing events connected to the wall, we next covered another demonstration against the construction, held by hundreds of Syrian-Kurdish people in Aleppo province. We again cross-checked our information with Syrian-Kurdish online secondary sources.

Days later we received a second package showing the wall at both Jalbul and Kimar. The wall in Jalbul is seen from 0.00 to 1.00, while the wall at Kimar is visible from 1.27 to 1.39.

The footage showing Jalbul was recorded from a village to the east named Tanibah (translated from Arabic to Engish).

We confirmed the camera position of our footage by building a Google MyMaps diagram of the area, marking the typographical elements we can see in a wide-angle shot in our package, such as electricity poles, roads and buildings.

In the direction of Jalbul. Ruptly video. May 8, 2019.
MyMaps diagram showing stringer camera position from Tanibah facing Jalbul.

We adapted the same process to the scene in our footage that shows the wall at Kimar. Our stringer told us that this footage was recorded in the village of Sorhane, facing southwest toward Kimar.

In the direction of Kimar. Ruptly video. May 8, 2019.
Google MyMaps diagram showing stringer camera position from Sorhane facing Kimar.

June 2019:

We began a collaboration with Planet Labs, who provided us with up-to-date satellite imagery of the region — integral to the successful comparative analysis of our investigation.

We combed Planet Labs’ high-resolution satellite image taken on June 7 of the Afrin region to spot the locations of the wall, using the information provided to us by our source as a guide.

We found significant wall structures in Jalbul and also a smaller wall at Kimar. We also noted significant landscape change east of the village of Maryamayn.

Contrary to some reports, the wall does not run as one consistent structure running north to south, from Maryamayn to Kimar, in eastern Afrin.

We next looked to examine the imprint on the region by comparing old satellite images against our up-to-date image. We saw that Jalbul had experienced dramatic change in little more than a one year period.

Jalbul. Google Earth. May 26, 2018.
Jalbul. Planet Labs Inc. June 7, 2019.

Most of Jalbul had been destroyed to clear a path for a large bisecting perimeter wall spanning around 400 meters, as well as other wall structures within the village.

Jalbul. Planet Labs Inc. June 7, 2019.

Another section of wall ran about 500 meters north from Jalbul, along the road to Maryamayn. This is the longest part of wall in the region.

Jalbul. Planet Labs Inc. June 7, 2019.
Observation tower at Jalbul. Ruptly video. May 8, 2019.
Observation tower at Jalbul. Google Earth. June 4, 2016.

At the village of Maryamayn, a swathe of land has been bulldozed by Turkey. Comparing our Planet Labs image with a Google Earth satellite image from June 2018 there is notable landscape change.

Maryamayn. Google Earth. June 23, 2018.
Maryamayn. Planet Labs Inc. June 7, 2019.

Further south in eastern Afrin, at the village Kimar, we identified the smaller wall structure under construction, spanning roughly 150 meters.

We applied the same methodology as before, examining old and new satellite images to discover any alterations to the landscape.

Kimar. Google Earth. May 21, 2018.
Kimar. Planet Labs Inc. June 7, 2019.

In the course of our investigation, we discovered numerous public Instagram photos, geotagged to Afrin, shared by or featuring Turkish military. This provided further evidence that Turkish military are still actively stationed in the region.

Note: Not all of the above information is contained in our video due to time limitations.