Syrian exile Nidal Shaikho should have been delighted when he found a bottle of his hometown olive oil at a grocery store in upstate New York. Shaikho comes from Afrin, Syria’s Holy City of Olives, whose produce is famed across the Middle East.
But Afrin is a city at war, invaded and occupied by Turkish forces in the first of two drives against local Kurds greenlit by President Donald Trump—and Shaikho knew that the olives used to make the oil sold in Syracuse must have been stolen from the farmers who have tended them for generations.
Instead of delight, he said, he felt “pain, sadness, and heartbreak.”
Unfortunately, Shaikho’s experience is not unique. An investigation by The Daily Beast has found that conflict olives stolen by Syrian warlords to finance their fighting units are being smuggled into Europe and used to produce high-grade olive oil. And from there it is sold on and stocked in grocery stores across America, from Syracuse to small town Massachusetts, to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.
Turkish forces invaded Syria twice—once in 2018 and again in October 2019—with a personal green light from Trump. Along with pro-Turkish militias, they’ve been accused of looting Kurdish-majority areas under their occupation. Multiple sources have told The Daily Beast that Turkish-backed warlords are taxing, extorting, and outright robbing local farmers of their olive crops. And thanks to Trump administration policy, the militias can now profit from olive oil sold on American supermarket shelves, untouched by the strict U.S. economic sanctions on Syria.
Kurdish farm owner Avrîn Hawar (whose name has been changed to protect her safety) says that this season’s harvest has been a nightmare. “By God, most of the season was stolen,” she told The Daily Beast. “I am deprived of my livelihood.”
On Thursday, members of the Turkish opposition and Turkish industry representatives accused their country’s agricultural bank of travelling to New York to try to market seized olive oil in the U.S., according to Ahval News. They were seemingly unaware that the product has already hit bodegas on this side of the Atlantic.
The oil The Daily Beast found in stores across the East Coast comes from Afrin, a hilly district northwest of Aleppo. The local olive industry was worth $150 million and employed 90 percent of Afrin residents even in the early years of the Syrian civil war, according to some estimates.
Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018 as part of a military campaign against Kurdish-led rebels, and handed over the district to a coalition of Islamist fighters called the Syrian National Army. These militias have been accused of war crimes—from looting and human trafficking to ethnic cleansing and torture—by the United Nations and U.S. government.
And they have financed their operations by taking control of Afrin’s olive industry, with Turkey’s help.
“We want the revenues from Afrin, in one way or another, to come into our hands. This is a region in our hegemony,” Turkish agriculture minister Bekir Pekdemirli told parliament in November 2018. “We, as the government, do not want revenues to fall into [left-wing Kurdish militants’] hands.”
Soon after Pekdemirli’s speech, European politicians and Turkish olive industry representatives complained that thousands of tons of “pillaged” Afrin olives were being funneled into international markets, falsely labeled as Turkish olives.
Turkana Food, a Turkish food importer based in New Jersey, advertises “Afrin Olive Oil” in its online wholesale catalogue. Former Afrin resident Shaikho found a bottle of the Turkana-branded olive oil at a Syrian grocery store in Syracuse while independent researcher Meghan Bodette spotted another with an April 2019 production date in a store in Lowell, Massachusetts.
An employee at the Jerusalem Bakery in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell confirmed that their store carries Afrin olive oil, but she said that she does not know where it is from.
The Turkana-brand bottles are labeled “product of Afrin, Aleppo, Syria” in Arabic, but not English. The font on the label resembles the logo in a trademark application filed in Hatay, Turkey, near the Syrian border, under an unknown name last year.
Aziz, manager of the Abo Alezz Halal Market in Lowell, confirmed to The Daily Beast by phone that the olive oil had been “transferred” from Syria to Turkey, but added that he did “not know anything” about Afrin when asked about the situation there.
Multiple employees of Turkana Food said by phone that they were not authorized to speak to the press, and the company did not respond to email requests for comment.
The bottles are labelled with the address registered to the Syrian-Danish businessman Aref Hamid, who also sells Afrin olive oil in Europe under the brand name Kafar Janna.
Attempts to track the provenance of the olive oil reveal a murky world of militia commanders and middlemen profiting from Afrin farmers.
Some of the olive farms have been seized outright. In 2018, 150,000 Afrin residents fled the Turkish invasion. Their property was taken by militias, according to human rights activist Hasan Hasan, who lost his own olive and pomegranate groves after fleeing the district and now runs the Afrin Human Rights Organization from elsewhere in Syria.
“It was a family heirloom which I inherited from my father, who in turn inherited from his father, from our ancestors centuries ago,” Hasan wrote in a text message, claiming that his father “later died of sorrow.”
Turkey and the Syrian National Army control the remaining olive industry in Afrin with an iron fist. Farmers are blocked from selling their produce on the open market, and must hand over a large portion of their harvest to the warlords, as the Asia Times first reported last year.
Warlords also charge landowners a fee to export olives or even to access their own land, in addition to levying a tax on trees. The fees vary depending on the militia faction, but one thing is constant: farmers are forced to sell their produce to Turkish-backed entities at low prices.
“It is uglier than theft, than if they were just stealing and exporting the olives,” said Hawar. “But everything is stolen from a Kurd — hard work and livelihood and effort and dignity, rights from the smallest to the biggest.”
Four sources from the region said it is now impossible for olives to leave Afrin without the warlords’ approval.
“Our oil, which they take from our trees, is sold in front of our eyes, and we are deprived of it,” says Hejar Sido, a Syrian-Danish citizen whose family owns olive trees in Afrin. “So when I see any businessman has taken oil from Afrin, I feel that it is stolen wealth.”
The companies whose logo and address appears on the bottles of oil in the U.S. admitted to exporting Afrin olive oil, but denied that their product was being sold on U.S. soil via Turkana Food, a Turkish-American importer. Turkey’s role in Afrin is a controversial topic among the Syrian and Kurdish diaspora.
The label includes an address in Denmark registered to a Syrian-Danish businessman named Aref Hamid. Hamid confirmed that he sources his olives from a well-known Afrin exporter named Azad Shikho and markets them in Europe under the brand named Kafar Janna, but denied selling them to the U.S. through Turkana Food.
When reached on WhatsApp, Azad Shikho, the merchant in Afrin, also admitted exporting the oil to Europe under the brand name Kafar Janna. But both men denied dealing with Turkana Food, speculating that the label on the Afrin Olive Oil brand bottles could be a forgery.
Shikho’s former business partner Suleiman Rsho owns a Syrian trademark for Afrin Olive Oil, but he too denied “dealing with Turks” and claimed the bottles could be forged. He blamed unknown people in Turkey for stealing his trademark.
All three denied dealing with Syrian warlords in exporting the olives and olive oil.
While the Turkish-backed authorities in Afrin will not protect farmers from the predatory olive trade, the Trump administration could potentially help through U.S. sanctions laws that could provide the government with tools to stop “transactions with a Syrian entity involved in activities that are contrary to U.S. foreign policy,” according to Arent Fox counsel Matthew Tuchband, a former deputy chief counsel at the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.
But the Trump administration has not sanctioned the Syrian National Army. U.S. officials have praised Turkey’ s operations in Syria as an important counter to Russian influence, and elements of the Syrian National Army have received U.S. support under both the counter-ISIS campaign and a covert CIA program to undermine the Syrian government.
Spokespeople for the Treasury and State Department declined to comment, citing policies against talking about “potential sanctions designations.”
For most Afrin residents, it is not a matter of geopolitics but of their lifeblood.
“I felt pain, sadness and heartbreak as my eyes teared at this injustice that my city of Afrin was subjected to,” said Shaikho, the former Afrin resident, who now lives in upstate New York. “Long live Afrin. Long live the Holy City of Olives.”