Hours before the Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies captured Afrin last month, some 97 activists and technocrats met in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep to discuss how to govern the northwestern Syrian town once it was cleared of Kurdish fighters.
The “Afrin Salvation Conference” formed a civilian-led council to run the city and provide services to the local population.
Members of the Afrin Civil Council said they wanted to avoid a power vacuum in the district after the departure of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which had run the area since Syrian government forces withdrew in 2012.
The Turkish-backed council is made up of 30 representatives, including Kurds, Arabs, Alawites and Yazidis, who were voted in during the Gaziantep conference, according to its officials. The elected members have been based in Turkey for years, local sources said.
Only six women attended the conference and only one elected to the council, the sources said.
“As soon as we set up specialised offices, we started contacting qualified people in Afrin to work with us regardless of their political leanings,” Azad Osman, an Istanbul-based member of the council’s foreign relations office, told Ahval.
Osman said the council firstly aimed to help Afrin residents return to their homes and secondly to help stabilise the region through providing education, healthcare and reconstruction.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war, said it had documented about 300 civilians, including 43 children and 28 women, killed during Turkey’s two-month military campaign to capture Afrin.
The United Nations says the fighting in Afrin city has displaced more than 137,000 people. Nearly 70,000 people remain in the city, it says.
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish-based armed group that has been fighting for greater autonomy in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for three decades.
While the United States also lists the PKK as a terrorist organisation it has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mainly of YPG fighters, as the most effective ground force against Islamic State.
The YPG denies any direct link to the PKK, but the two groups share the same symbolic leader and ideology.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented cases where rebel groups working with Turkish forces were “looting and destroying civilian property in the city of Afrin and surrounding villages.”
The Afrin Civil Council said it was looking into allegations of human rights violations committed by Syrian rebel fighters.
Afrin will administratively be part of Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, according to Haan Shindi, a leading member of the newly established council. He told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that a governor would be appointed to Afrin, but the Hatay governorate would assume the task of coordination.
PYD officials are critical of the new council, accusing it of working with an “occupying force”.
“Those working with the council are not known to the people of Afrin. All of its members were chosen by the Turkish government and they don’t represent the people of Afrin,” said Sulaiman Jaafer, the head of foreign affairs department at the PYD-led former administration of Afrin.
Jaafer and most of his colleagues have fled to the Shahba region, southeast of Afrin. He said thousands of displaced people from Afrin had been living there since Turkish forces captured the city a month ago.
“Even if we hypothetically said this council would do good work for the people in Afrin, the Ankara-appointed governor will not allow it to work freely. The governor will be the ultimate decision-maker in Afrin,” Jaafer told Ahval.
But Osman said his civilian council was founded only to serve the people of Afrin and help them return to their homes. He said the council does not pay any attention to what he called the PYD’s “empty accusations and slogans that have caused the destruction of our region to serve the interests of the (Syrian) regime and Iran.”
Syrian relief groups that have been working since the beginning of the crisis in Afrin said they were willing to cooperate with the new council, but the council had indicated a reluctance to work with them.
“We’re trying to work with the new council, but the coordination is still minimal,” said Dara Astiri, a Gaziantep-based relief worker from Afrin.
“It released a statement recently in which it credited itself for the return of fleeing residents, while in fact it wasn’t behind it. It was us and many other independent organisations that helped those people return to their homes,” Astiri told Ahval in a phone interview.
While Russia and Iran, the two main backers of the Syrian government, have called on Turkey to withdraw from Afrin, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said that Turkey would remain there and said operations “will continue until the whole region around Afrin … is cleared of terrorist elements”.