Turkey ponders early withdrawal from Syrian city, but security situation is still shaky

Turkey says it wants to return Afrin to its “rightful owners."
Sunday 08/07/2018
Turkish soldiers atop an armoured personnel carrier secure the streets of Afrin during a Turkish government-organised media tour. (AP)
Risks abound. Turkish soldiers atop an armoured personnel carrier secure the streets of Afrin during a Turkish government-organised media tour. (AP)

AFRIN - More than three months after their army drove out Kurdish fighters from Afrin in northern Syria, Turkish officials say a troop withdrawal followed by a handover of security to local forces could begin within weeks but continuing violence and the weakness of local police raise doubts about the plan.

Turkish troops and Syrian fighters of the Sultan Murad Division, a Turkmen militia allied with Turkey, recently stood next to armoured vehicles in the blistering heat, guarding checkpoints on the road from the Turkish border crossing Oncupinar to Afrin. Members of other groups, some of them teenagers on motorbikes with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, swarmed around checkpoints. Some buildings along the way had bullet holes.

Turkey’s government took foreign reporters to Afrin, about 30km south-west of the Turkish border, to counter what one official called a campaign of negative publicity against Ankara’s policy in northern Syria. The message was that Turkey is not an occupation force and is preparing to leave Afrin in the hands of local leaders and security officials.

“Within a week, Turkish forces will begin their retreat,” Mehmet Akarca, head of the Turkish government’s press office, said during the visit. However, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy later told state broadcaster TRT that a withdrawal could take longer. “I want to issue a correction concerning that issue,” he said.

Afrin had escaped the violence and destruction that engulfed much of the rest of Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011. When Syrian government troops left the city in 2012, Afrin became part of several Kurdish autonomous regions along the Turkish border in northern and north-eastern Syria. Turkey says it cannot accept the presence of what it calls Kurdish terrorists so close to its territory.

The Turkish military and Syrian allies such as the Sultan Murad Division drove the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, out of Afrin in March after a 2-month campaign in which, Ankara said, approximately 4,500 Kurdish fighters were killed.

Turkey says it wants to return Afrin to its “rightful owners” and that the area is being made safe for residents and refugees to return. About 140,000 people have moved back to their houses in the region, Turkish officials in Afrin said. Refugees from other parts of Syria arriving in the Afrin area are housed in five camps run by Turkey.

While officials stress that all returnees are welcome and that a newly elected city council reflects all ethnic groups of the region, including Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, some Kurds who fled Afrin after the Turkish invasion say their houses have been taken over by Arabs, news reports said. Turkish officials in Afrin said a court system had been created to deal with conflicting property claims.

One official compared the future of Afrin to the situation in Jarabulus, a Syrian border town further east that was taken over by the Turkish Army two years ago. Turkey has repaired the infrastructure in Jarabulus and is sponsoring public services, such as the police, fire department and post office. Approximately 200,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey have settled in the Jarabulus area, Ankara said.

In Afrin, Turkey is paying the city budget that is managed by the new city council with the help of Turkish advisers. Public services like waste collection are also organised by Turkey. Some trash cans in Afrin bore the names of Turkish towns that sent them to the Syrian city.

Several schools in Afrin have reopened, while Turkish doctors provide health services and war-damaged bakeries are repaired and resume bread production with flour and yeast from Turkey. At the same time, Turkish engineers are reconstructing water supplies. A Turkish NGO is handing out free clothes to people in the city. “Life is returning to normal,” Aksoy said.

On a market square below the Turkish administrative compound in central Afrin, Omar Aras, 30, said he had fled the city to escape forced recruitment by the YPG and returned once the Kurdish militia was defeated. “We love Turkey,” he said. Asked what he would do after a Turkish troop withdrawal, he said Afrin would no longer be safe. “If the Turks go, we will go with them.”

Not everyone agreed that things were better with the arrival of the Turkish troops. A twin car bomb attack in Afrin’s city centre June 27, claimed by a militant Kurdish splinter group of the YPG, killed at least ten people. Turkish officials walking outside their heavily fortified compound in Afrin are accompanied by armed guards. Reporters were not allowed to go into the side streets off the square opposite the Turkish compound. “I don’t want bad things to happen to you,” a Turkish official said.

“People are afraid,” said a 22-year-old Kurd who gave his name as Cemil. He said life under the YPG was better than it is now. “We used to have running water twice in a week but now it’s down to once every ten days.” Another man, who declined to be named, agreed that the security situation had worsened. “We just want peace,” he said.

Turkish officials said training had begun for 2,000 members of a local police force that is to take over responsibility for security in Afrin once the Turkish troops leave the area. Another 2,000 police trainees are to be hired later. However, even members of the new police squad expressed doubt about their ability to keep the peace once Ankara’s soldiers were gone.

“Impossible,” said Hossein, a 22-year-old who said he received three months of training to become a member of the new Afrin police department, in response to a question about an imminent departure of the Turks. “We can’t do it.”