A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter tears down a picture of Abdullah Ocalan north of Afrin during military operations in March. Photo: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – An interim local council has been elected in Afrin, consisting of 20 “elders from the city” – 11 Kurds, eight Arabs, and one Turkmen, Turkish state media reported.
The council is headed by a Kurd named Zuhair Haider who, in an interview with Anadolu Agency, expressed his gratitude to Turkey and vowed to “serve” the local citizens.
“We thank Turkey for making this happen. We will serve Afrin people. The Olive Branch region will be a model as Euphrates Shield was,” said Haider.
Turkey and allied Syrian militias took control of the Kurdish canton of Afrin last March after a two-month military campaign named Operation Olive Branch. The cross-border offensive followed Turkey’s 2016 Euphrates Shield operation on areas west of the Euphrates and north of Aleppo.
An estimated 137,000 civilians are still displaced from Afrin, most living in the Tal Rifaat area where conditions are difficult. Many families are sleeping in the open, restricted from entering regime-held territory in Aleppo and unable to return to their homes.
An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people have remained in Afrin city.
Haider called on people to return to their homes. “If all Afrin people return, we could hold a more democratic election,” he said.
Members of the Turkish-backed council must be from Afrin and live in the canton.
“We will govern ourselves, not those who come from Qandil or elsewhere,” Haider added, referring to the Kurdistan Region headquarters of the PKK.
Afrin is the western-most canton of the self-autonomous Northern Syrian Federation, known as Rojava. Turkey considers the ruling Rojava party, the PYD, and the armed YPG/YPJ to be branches of the PKK, a named terror group. Ankara framed its military operation in Afrin as counter-terrorism.
The Kurdish groups deny the charge and have accused Turkey of trying to change the demography of Afrin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has urged Turkey to hand Afrin over to Damascus – a move Ankara has flatly rejected.
“We will give Afrin back to its inhabitants when the time comes, but we will determine the time, not Mr. Lavrov,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The newly-elected head of the council explained that the body was formed under the umbrella of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and is affiliated with Aleppo’s local council.
Abdulrahman Mustafa, deputy head of SNC, vowed to restore basic services to the canton.
“Turkey is trying to prevent the division of Syria. We have same priorities as Turkey,” he said, adding, “The interim council will soon resume health and education services.”
Eight people were also elected as members of an executive board.
The Kurdish forces have vowed to continue to fight Turkey in Afrin, carrying out guerilla-style attacks on Turkish troops and Syrian militias.