This article was published in Arab News on March 26, 2018.
Erdogan’s conundrum: Who will govern Afrin?
Turkey’s military operation in the Syrian district of Afrin has completed its first stage, which was the seizure of the city of Afrin. After this difficult episode, Turkey is now taking its efforts into the political arena. It is hoping to expel the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the district, but it has to do so without contravening article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides that “individual or mass forcible transfers… are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
Turkey should also refrain from resorting to manhunts. This will complicate the process even further, because ill-intentioned individuals may crop up and mislead the authorities into targeting the wrong people, for reasons of personal rift, political or commercial rivalry, or greed.
Turkey’s ultimate objective was to dismantle the cantonal structure established by the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and set up a more representative administration in the district. But UN Security Council Resolution 2254 provides that the political transition in Syria will be “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.” In line with this UN framework, the Turkish authorities, on March 18, the day Afrin city center was seized, convened a meeting in Gaziantep under the title of the “Afrin Liberation Congress” and elected 30 delegates to represent Afrin’s population of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds who do not support the PYD. It is not an easy task to find in Afrin Kurds who do not support this party, because this district is the biggest Kurdish agglomeration in Syria.
Turkey’s president has set up a ruling council in the city captured from the Kurds, but this may be disbanded or altered when Syria has a government elected by its own people.
Apart from the issue of how representative the congress is, there is also the problem of its competences. The “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” process has not yet announced its choice regarding what type of state structure will be introduced. In the 1920s, the Syrians rejected France’s initiative, in its capacity as the mandatory power under the League of Nations, to divide Syria into six autonomous republics, instead opting for a unitary state. After the present crisis, the circumstances may dilute the over-centralized nature of the unitary state and devolve certain competences to local authorities, even if the unitary character of the state were to be maintained.
Many Kurds, whether PYD supporters or not, are likely to vote in favor of their autonomy, preferably in the form of cantons, at least in Rojava and Jazira, though this may no longer work in Afrin. Such autonomy could be sustained only with strong support from the US and Russia. Turkey vehemently opposes such a move, and it proved in Afrin that it means what it says.
Russia suggested a federal structure for Syria in a draft constitution that it prepared within the framework of the Astana process. The overlapping feature in the attitude of the five major actors in Syria — the Syrian government, the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey — is that they all favor the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity. Turkey, Iran and Syria would prefer this integrity to be translated into a unitary state, while the US and Russia want a federal state.
For a city council to be representative, the starting point would be reliable data about the ethnic and confessional breakdown of the population. It is not easy to determine this breakdown for Afrin because the district’s population has undergone substantial change throughout the Syrian crisis. Many ethnic Kurds left Afrin when the Turkish army seized the city, and this breakdown is further complicated by the Syrian government’s denial of citizenship to Kurds for several decades. Some were granted citizenship as late as 2013 as a concession to keep them neutral in the crisis. Therefore, earlier census data will not accurately reflect the ethnic composition of the district’s population. A council that does not reflect the accurate breakdown of its population is likely to face other difficulties in the future.
Turkey used, for this trans-border operation, the experience it gained in Jarabulus in 2016. A local administration council was established there and the result was satisfactory. The members of this council are divided into sub-committees in charge of security, education, public health, justice, etc. The council functions in coordination with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is part of the Geneva and Astana processes, hence part of Syria’s democratization process.
No matter how successful these councils may become, they may be disbanded or altered when Syria comes under the stewardship of a government elected by its own people. For this reason, Turkey’s cooperation with the Syrian regime at every stage of its mission is important for the continuity of the work it is doing.
The chances of the Turkish military operation’s success will be higher if these complexities are addressed properly.