By Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Diaa Odeh/ Nour Dalati/ Mohamed Homs
While the region of Afrin is frequently mentioned in Syrian media coverage, Afrin residents are absent from all scenes. They seem to be invisible compared to the media attention that the area is receiving.
Most of the city’s residents live in forced isolation imposed by circumstances, while new arrivals, coming mostly from Eastern Ghouta, are more active in the region. Thus, Afrin gradually began to take the guests’ style.
The migrants from Eastern Ghouta constitute about half the population of Afrin currently, and play the role of the popular incubator of the military authority controlling the region, composed of the Free Syrian Army factions that are affiliated to the Syrian National Army.
The civil administration, which is composed of seven local councils, puts Kurdish council members as a forefront of its activities, while the Interim Government and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces supervise administrative tasks directly.
Afrin residents are afraid of returning home
“Why do Afrin residents not return to their areas?” Beginning with this question and in an attempt to find answers, Enab Baladi sought to contact a group of people who stayed in their villages and towns, and others who were forced to leave due to many factors. Those displaced Syrians went to rural areas and to regions controlled by the Syrian regime in the vicinity of Aleppo or even in al-Hasakah Governorate, where the Kurdish Democratic Union Party is still imposing its authority.
Most of Enab Baladi’s attempts to hold interviews with Afrin residents failed, but the few successful encounters were centered on disappointment and frustration. As such, Afrin locals feel that all parties were conspiring against them.
Enab Baladi was able to communicate with three residents, while ten others refused to make any press statements, citing their fear and unwillingness to engage in problems with the dominant forces in their areas.
S.M, a 20-year-old young woman who lives in a village in Afrin, agreed to talk to Enab Baladi on condition that we keep her name and place of residence confidential for fear of members of the opposing faction living in her village.
S.M said: “We suffered a great deal during the war, and today we suffer even more. The Kurdish people are humiliated daily.” She added that a number of those who have returned to their villages have left again after being subjected to security restrictions.
The young woman explained that her family refused to leave Afrin despite all the restrictions, while many other locals were forced to leave after being arrested, kidnapped or severely beaten.
According to a survey conducted by Syria Response Coordination Group, last July, there were 28,461 families living in Afrin since last March, including 21,352 families originally from the area.
In contrast, there are no accurate statistics on the number of Afrin residents who left the area, while human rights activists indicate that most of the locals who fled earlier did not manage to return.
Violations committed by the opposition factions make the return harder
S.M told Enab Baladi: “We suffered a lot during the reign of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, but we are enduring more hardships with the presence of the Free Syrian Army.” She confirmed that a large number of those who returned to Afrin, after the opposition factions took over the area, have left again.
The young woman’s family was among many others who preferred to stay in their village. However, other families, like S.M’s relatives, could not resist. Her relative “preferred to stay by his son’s grave at first, but he was severely beaten and his son and wife were detained for a while.”
The human rights activist Shiru al-Alou, a resident of Afrin, indicated that the violations committed by some opposition factions make it difficult for the displaced locals to return home. He pointed out that many among the ones who left their areas returned to find other people living in their homes. Eventually, some of those locals decided to migrate internally, while others left to areas under the regime’s control around the city of Aleppo, specifically to the towns of Nabel and Zahra. The remaining group headed towards regions dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in al-Hasakah Governorate.
Al-Alou stated that “some residents of Kutanli village, which later became Bak Obasi village, were prevented from returning home, after the opposition factions took control of the region, on the pretext of land mines. After the displaced citizens were allowed to enter their village, each family was forced to pay $ 200.”
He added that “the remaining number of residents in several villages is far fewer than the number of people who refused to leave. For example, Bulbul town has a small percentage of residents today, but the remaining ones are still gradually leaving the area..
Enab Baladi met a young man from the town of Afrin who fled to one of the neighboring villages escaping arbitrary arrests. He said that “the main purpose of the arrests was looting and pillage. Life in Afrin is no longer tolerable.”
The Syrian Regime and the People’s Protection Units hold the people of Afrin as hostages
The regime forces and elements of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units deployed in the vicinity of the city of Afrin practice a policy of harassment and material extortion against civilians wishing to return to their areas.
According to a local source, whose name will be kept confidential for security reasons, many Afrin residents who wish to return from the areas controlled by the regime to their home towns are facing barriers that often require large amounts of money to pass through. Such security patrols often kidnap and rob civilians, forcing those willing to return to resort to routes of smuggling.
According to identical media sources, the security checkpoints of the People’s Protection Units stationed in the vicinity of Afrin prevented the residents of the city and its villages from returning after the opposition factions took control of the area.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Aleppo countryside said that “the Kurdish Units would not let the locals to bypass the checkpoint of Tanab village towards Afrin, in addition to accusing them of spying and treason.”
Fear and the silence option
In the context of the restrictions imposed on the residents of Afrin by the opposition factions in the city or the dominant parties in the migration targeted areas, most of the locals preferred not to communicate with media and various human rights organizations.
The human rights activist, al-Alou, said the documentation authorities insisted that the locals are reluctant to testify for fear of the consequences.
He told Enab Baladi that “the people of Afrin are always afraid and have a great sense of injustice caused by a military body that considers itself a free army.”
Al-Alou stressed that the dominant opposition factions are preventing people from sending any pictures to the media, for fear of leaking pictures of major military sites belonging to of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
The Syrian activist believes that some people are being cautious about the return of Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the regime’s control over the region. In case such scenario happens, they fear being punished if they make any contact with opposition media.
In addition to what has been mentioned, the hierarchy of the military factions or the National and Military police, which recruit Arab elements mainly, gives the Kurdish residents of Afrin an impression of having no military support, according to Enab Baladi’s source in the area.
A military source in the town of Afrin, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, indicated to Enab Baladi that 90 percent of the military and security personnel were from outside Afrin. The source confirmed that some of the youths in Afrin were offered to join the National Police without any willingness from their part.
The National Police expressed its readiness to recruit hundreds of young men in the area after starting its operations in Afrin, but only few of them accepted the offer; no more than 100 members in different towns and areas of the region.
The factions’ violations in Afrin
Abduction, theft and futile accountability
Afrin may be the most striking example of the “looting” actions carried out by the Free Syrian Army’s factions after they managed to establish control over it last February. Social media websites were fluttered with photographs and recordings depicting the members of the military factions while they were looting the city after they managed to break into it and establish full control over it.
These pictures were circulated by activists from Aleppo countryside, who witnessed the battles, and international agencies, including Agence France-Presse (AFP), which published dozens of photographs depicting the militants stealing house furniture and shops, in addition to motorcycles and tractors. This has triggered a widespread anger, given the fact that these practices are not different from the violations of the other military forces in Syria.
During a previous interview with Enab Baladi, Mohammad Hammadin, the spokesman for the Syrian National Army, stated that the acts, which everyone is speaking about, were known previously. In case any force managed to break into an area, then it will be subject to the “individual abuses” carried out by the members of these forces.
Calls for accountability urged the Syrian National Army to take certain measures in order to reduce thefts that followed the immediate control over the area and to announce the arrest of dozens of members who were involved in robberies and looting. The General Staff also issued a decision to prosecute the members involved in robberies. This has been accompanied by campaigns which targeted the military groups that tried to take the stolen furniture and goods to the countryside of northern Aleppo.
However, despite these measures, the members of the factions went on committing robberies, but individually. These actions have been documented through the photographs and videos published by activists from the region, the most recent of which were in early September 2018, when members were extracting copper from metal utensils.
Apart from theft, the region witnessed the abduction of civilians by unknown groups who did not declare which side they are affiliated to.
Abduction and arrests
Arrests among civilians in Afrin have become widespread on the pretext of joining the Democratic Union Party (PYD), but the argument most of the detainees have been providing was unrealistic in many cases, said human rights activist Shiru al-Alou, who assured Enab Baladi that much of the arrests were targeting civilians who did not belong to any party.
Al-Alou divided arrests into two categories. The first one is related to investigations and is most likely to target people who have been proved to be linked to the Democratic Union Party (Kurdish). The second type targeted the recruited members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in an attempt to obtain ransom.
He pointed out that some of the detainees were civilians working for the self-governance bodies, without having partisan links.
The abduction of civilians has also become widespread. On September 4, Afrin Media Center, which is covering news in the region, documented the names of the abducted civilians, namely Ghassan Omar Fawzi Hassan, the girl Amal Omar Hussain and 2 young men: Khalil Mohammed Khalil and Ayman Hamdoush.
The center stated that Khalil Mohammed and Ayman Hamdoush were kidnapped by an unknown armed group while they were in a thread shop in Mahmoudia neighborhood in Afrin. The members of al-Hamzat faction abducted the young Amal Omar Hussain from al–Ashrafia neighborhood in Afrin.
Activists have published a video depicting Ghassan Omar Fawzi, citizen of Badina village in rural Afrin, while a masked fighter, whose identity was not known, was threatening to slaughter him in case his family refused to pay a ransom of 10 million Syrian Pounds.
The Syrian National Army denied the fact that any of its factions is behind the abductions, but the People’s Protections Units held the Army responsible for these accidents.
Last August, Amnesty International accused Syrian opposition factions of committing serious “human rights” violations in Afrin with Turkish collusion.
The organization said in a report that these violations ranged from arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, confiscation of property and looting, accusing Turkey of supplying the “armed groups responsible for these operations with equipment and weapons.” The organization also criticized the forces of the Syrian regime, considering that they failed to protect civilians who have been displaced from Afrin and increased their suffering.
Seizing depends on the case
The most prominent issue in Afrin is the seizing of the houses that their residents were evacuated from during the military operations. In recent months, the military factions have been accused of taking over the homes of those who left and have been now substituted by others who were displaced from Northern Homs countryside and Eastern Ghouta.
A local source from Afrin, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Enab Baladi that the seizing of houses in the area can be divided into two categories: the first includes seizing the houses of the members of the People’s Protection Units (Kurdish Units) and the second involves seizing the houses of those who “were involved with the members of the YPG” and “left the area after the Free Syrian Army managed to enter.”
The source added that families from Afrin returned to their homes in the past months and found other people living there. He point out that the Military Police of the “National Syrian Army” is working to remove the displaced from the houses they seized and to give them back to their original owners, “after checking the affiliations of the returnees and whether they have something to do with YPG units, and proving their ownership of the house.
Against the background of many talks about the seizing of civilians’ houses, the Syrian Islamic Council issued a fatwa stating that the property belonging to YPG in Afrin area are to be considered as public property.
According to the fatwa which has been published last August, the Council denied access to the property of the peaceful people. The fatwa also considered that the property of “separatist militias” is public property.
In the details it has presented, the Council stated that “the property belongs to its original owner, and any access to it without a legitimate reason is to be prohibited.” It has also said that private property in the areas, which YPG left, belongs to the people of that region, and may not be taken from them, confiscated or seized.
According to the fatwa of the Islamic Council, the property of YPG family members should remain theirs, and cannot be confiscated or damaged. The Council also considered that the family members of a fighter who left with those “militias,” including his parents, siblings, wife and children, shall not be harassed, taken out of their homes or their lands and crops confiscated.
What the YPG left behind them, including headquarters, equipment and property proved to be not taken by force from civilians, shall be managed by the public institutions under the supervision of local administrations.
According to the fatwa, “in case it has been proved through the court of law that some lands were taken over and usurped by militias, they shall be returned to their original owners. If the real owner has not been identified, then the property will be preserved and be at the disposal of local administrations.”
The Council called on every fighter, faction or civilian, who took money, land or agricultural crops without the permission and consent of the owners or did not pay the real price to give it back to the owners.
Local authorities in the “liberated” areas were also advised to identify and document property and real estate in those areas, and to immediately investigate and return any encroached property to peaceful population.
The new demographic map in Afrin
Since al-Assad regime has launched the policy of forced displacement in its held areas, thousands of citizens have left areas such as al-Qusayr, rural Homs, Northern Hama, Eastern Ghouta, southern Damascus, Barzeh, al-Tal, Khan al-Shih and its neighborhoods, Darayya, Moadamiyeh, Quneitra and Daraa, and moved northward. Some of them, particularly those of the Eastern Ghouta, Homs and its suburbs, moved to Afrin after they have been taken over by the opposition factions backed by Turkey in March.
No statistical or civilian body has determined the number of displaced people who arrived in Afrin. The Response Coordination Group in the north of Syria has tried to count the population distribution in the area. However, major developments in the north of Syria have made the counting process difficult, the Group’s Communication Office confirmed to Enab Baladi.
The Office said it will soon issue statistics about the population distribution it has been conducting.
According to the latest statistics published by the Response Coordination Group, on July 9, there have been 28,461 families residing in Afrin since March, including 21,352 indigenous families distributed as follows: Afrin district (20,000 families), Sharran district (115 families), Rajo district (317 families), Maabatli district (250 families), Bulbul district (20 families) and Shaykh Hadid (650 families), while the counting process of the number of indigenous people is still ongoing in the districts of the Pavilion and Jindires.
There have been 6,863 displaced families from Damascus and its villages, distributed in the districts of Afrin (5,800 families), Rajo (280 families), Maabatli (420 families), Bulbul (83 families), the Pavilion (30 families), and Jindires (250 families), while the counting process of the number of arrivals from Rif Dimashq to the districts of Sharran and Shaykh Hadid is still ongoing.
There have been 246 families displaced people from Rif Dimashq living in Afrin, distributed in the districts of Sharran (79 families), Rajo (77 families), Maabatli (30 families) and Shaykh Hadid (60 families), while the counting process is still ongoing in the districts of Afrin, Bulbul, the Pavilion and Jindires.
“National Army,” security bodies and Military Police
Turkey has applied the model of the military structure of the areas of the Euphrates Shield in the countryside of Aleppo on Afrin, as part of the steps it has started working on to fully manage the civilian life. The National Army is widely spread in the area and is the main body responsible for the management of its security and stability. Two police bodies have alongside been established; the first being the Military Police to control the factions’ violations, and the other being the Police and Public Security Forces to control security and day-to-day dealings between civilians.
According to the official spokesman of the National Army, Mohammed Hammadin, there are security bodies from the three divisions of the National Army in Afrin, working alongside the Military and Civilian police, and there is full coordination and organized work between them to manage the area.
Hammadin added to Enab Baladi that the area starting from Jarabulus in the eastern countryside of Aleppo up to Afrin is under a single military organization, without separating the areas of the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch.
In conjunction with the formation of the local councils of the area after taking control over it, Turkey announced the training of hundreds of members of the “National Police” to work in Afrin and its surroundings, followed by the National Army’s declaration of handing over its military functions in all areas of Afrin and withdrawing its combatants from the area, giving their duties to the “Military Police” which is affiliated to its Joint Chiefs of Staff and replaces it.
The training the police services received in the area included intervention against riots, police law and public discipline, as well as training on operations in residential areas, removing IEDs and forensics.
Afrin is different from the areas of the Euphrates Shield in several military aspects, especially the tense security situation to date, against the background of the presence of militias belonging to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units which announced in the past months carrying out assassinations targeting military commanders in the “National Army.”
There have been several explosions with improvised explosive devices and car bombs in the area that the militias of People’s Protection Units have been accused of being involved in, most notably in late June, when two car bombs exploded in the center of the city, causing a number of deaths and injuries.
Hammadin explained that the People’s Protection Units still have militias in the vicinity of Afrin, which are carrying out assassinations and threaten civilians in the area.
He noted that the Free Syrian Army factions are following up these militias through “information,” according to details received from the Turks, which they obtain from intelligence and aerial photography. He also pointed out to “the discovery of several militias and the killing and capture of many of them.”
After withdrawing from the area, the People’s Protection Units threatened to continue their military operations against the Turkish Army and the Free Syrian Army, noting that they would rely on the method of “surprise” by their militias under the so-called “Resistance of the Century in Afrin.”
After PYD Administrations…
Seven councils are running Afrin under Turkish supervision
Few weeks after the end of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, in March 2018, Turkey started forming local councils in the center and its sub-regions. The Afrin Rescue Conference in the Turkish city of Gaziantep was the first step regarding this matter.
The first local council in Afrin was formed in April of this year, one month after the full control by the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Army. This was followed by the announcement of the formation of local councils in the areas surrounding the center, namely Bulbul, Jindires, Sharran, Shaykh Hadid, Rajo and Maabatli.
The Director of Legal Affairs of the Local Councils in the Ministry of Interim Government, Youssef Nirbani, said that the councils were formed by a working group that was specifically created for this purpose. He explained that it is under the supervision of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian Interim Government, and the Aleppo Provincial Council, as well as some “revolutionary movements” in Afrin.
The council’s work is mainly focused on the rehabilitation of the infrastructure of the area and its villages, as well as the provision of basic services, such as furnaces, electricity, clean water and sanitation, in addition to the returning of displaced and indigenous people to their homes and the provision of livelihoods for families in the region, according to the Director of Legal Affairs of the Local Councils.
Focus on services and education
Afrin was included within the border areas that are run by Turkey in northern Syria. However, it differed in terms of services from areas known as the Euphrates Shield, which are spread from Jarabulus in the eastern countryside of Aleppo up to Azaz in the northern countryside.
The difference is mainly in the speed of services provided in most services, education and health aspects. A civilian from Afrin, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained to Enab Baladi that the work of the councils in Afrin lacks organization, and this is mainly related to water and electricity that only arrive at certain times to the civilians’ houses, and to its process of tax collection.
He pointed out that the services offices of the councils are currently only focusing on raising projects, the most recent of which was the restoration of the roads between the city center and the suburbs.
Abdo Nabhan, Deputy Head of Afrin Local Council, said that each local council is responsible for managing its area and all aspects of urban life, such as personal status departments, transportation, services, trade and agriculture.
Nabhan pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi that there are projects under study and awaiting implementation in Afrin. He clarified that the councils are currently focusing on education and services, along working on future developed plans.
Each local council in Afrin has offices specializing in specific activities, such as the Services Office which provides services like water delivery and road opening, the Legal Office which is responsible for providing the functions of traveling in Afrin and entering and exiting civilians, as well as the Security Office which regulates security matters and receives requests to join the Police and Public Security Forces.
According to the sources of Enab Baladi, there is one Turkish employee in each local council in Afrin, whose task is limited to overseeing the work of the councils and all its offices.
Nabhan had previously talked about the great challenges in serving the region, against “weak capabilities.” He added that priorities require securing the necessary living conditions for the people of Afrin, including the rehabilitation of bread ovens, provision of water, cleaning of public roads and the provision of fuel.
Regarding the education sector, Nabhan said that the councils immediately started paying attention to education in Afrin. An official from the Executive Office of Afrin Local Council was appointed, and he held several meetings with the Minister of Education in the Syrian Interim government, Imad Barq, and officials in Idlib Province Local Council in order to develop the education structure in Afrin.