Interim governing council formed to tackle ‘disaster’ in Afrin after Turkish-backed offensive

The Turkish military announced “complete” control over Afrin canton on Saturday, following two months of battles against the local Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

During Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, Ankara-backed Syrian rebels not only ousted the YPG from Afrin, but also its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which led the civilian Self-Administration that governed the canton in northwestern Syria.

As Ankara-backed forces finalized their capture of the canton last week, dozens of Syrian Kurdish activists, opposition leaders and civil society members met in Gaziantep, Turkey in the hopes of  filling the power vacuum left by the PYD.

The conference, organized by the PYD-opposed, Turkey-based Syrian Kurds Independent Association, culminated in the appointment of a council charged with overseeing sectors such as aid, education and media in Afrin canton.

The newly appointed council is transitional, aiming to manage canton affairs “until things calm down and people return to their homes,” says Azad Osman, who was appointed to the body’s public relations committee last week.

Osman is one of 30 councilmembers set to take the helm of a canton slowly recovering from weeks of ground offensives, airstrikes and artillery fire.

A resident crouches amidst rubble in Afrin city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Afrin Media Center.

“Afrin is a disaster area,” Osman tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim from Istanbul, where is he completing a training for his new role.

More than 100,000 residents of Afrin city, the canton’s capital, remain displaced. Bombardment damaged dozens of schools across the region, while Afrin city residents struggle with “severe water shortages” due to infrastructure damage.

Human rights monitors and UN agencies documented cases of looting and theft by fighters of Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the days following the capture of Afrin city. On Sunday, infighting reportedly erupted between two Turkey-backed factions inside the city.

One Afrin resident told Syria Direct this week that he fears leaving his own neighborhood “because of the landmines and widespread weapons.”

“We have a difficult task ahead of us,” says councilmember Osman.

Q: Could you describe the makeup and role of the Afrin council formed in Gaziantep last week?

As you know, Afrin is a disaster and needs help. We, people from Afrin, wanted to lead the process to save it. In the conference, we came up with several recommendations and prepared two papers that will form a plan to be presented to the Turkish government, civil society organizations and relief organizations.

[In the conference], a council of 30 people was elected to monitor and coordinate [matters in Afrin] until things calm down and people return to their homes. We will enter Afrin to establish councils there. There will be councils for the [smaller cities] and a large [Afrin] city council. We are partners in this, and our role is only transitional.

Q: What do you and other council members envision for a future government in Afrin?

The council is only temporary. It has provided an initiative and vision, and most of our work will be service-oriented. We aspire towards a form of democracy that will be a good model for the area. We hope to make our council democratic, to some extent, and to make sure it represents the majority of the people with efficiency and integrity.

Looted shops in Afrin city on March 22. Photo courtesy of Afrin Media Center.

Q: How would the new system of governance differ from the previous, Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led government of Afrin? 

The previous [PYD-led] Self-Administration was authoritarian. It excluded everyone, and had the color and flavor of only one thing: PYD rule. Their prisons were filled with honorable people who opposed their policies. Many arrests were made based on differences of opinion. We don’t exclude anyone, and we want all people in Afrin to participate in our councils.

Q: What is Turkey’s role in the future administration of Afrin?

We hope that our brothers, the Turks, will support our council in rebuilding Afrin and establishing democratic councils. Frankly, if Turkey doesn’t stand by us, we don’t have the capacity to do anything. In this transitional stage, we will act as intermediaries to serve Afrin until it reaches steady ground and its councils are elected.

Q: According to media reports about the outcomes of the meeting in Gaziantep, the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces are to protect the borders of Afrin, while internal security will be the responsibility of the local governing councils. What is the plan for providing security and stability inside Afrin, especially given reports on looting and stealing in Afrin city after the Operation Olive Branch victory?

The vision we presented is for Afrin, in the future, to be free of weapons in the populated areas. We will rely on a local police force to manage security.

Inevitably, the task of defending and protecting the borders will belong to the Turkish military and factions that it selects—we don’t have anything to do with this issue.

Of course, we contacted our Turkish brothers to deal with the factions that participated in the robbing and looting. A military police [force] was established that caught a large group of the thieves. This matter is ongoing.   

Q: Several civil institutions sustained damage during the battle for Afrin city. In one particular instance, a civil registry office burned down. Could you talk about the new Afrin government’s plan of action for civil documentation, specifically regarding the loss of these records?

Yes, there were attacks on public properties and official institutions. We will contact specialists in this matter about how to retrieve the civil records.

We have a difficult task ahead of us and, to be honest, we were not prepared for it. But we are confident that in the coming days we will able to tackle these complications quickly. There are surely ways [to go about it]. The Free Lawyers [Association] kept records and many cases [Ed.: The Free Syrian Lawyers Association is a Turkey-based non-governmental organization concerned with human rights and legal affairs in Syria]. We will contact them as well.

You could say Afrin is a disaster area. The city was partially destroyed, and while there was no war inside Afrin [city], the landmines that were planted there have caused much of the destruction.

The looting and burning of offices, hospitals and public property [that took place] during the chaos [after Olive Branch forces took control] have also had a very negative impact.

With additional reporting by Avery Edelman.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.