It's been nearly three years since a new governance and security infrastructure was put in place in Afrin, Syria - but the menace of terror still haunts its people.

Syria's Afrin was liberated in a joint Syrian-Turkish military operation at the beginning of 2018. Three years have passed since the new governance and security structure were established, more people than ever live in the region but the threat of terror still haunts civilians in the region. 

Protecting civilians from a 40-year old terror organisation in a warzone is herculean task. Russian policy to provide terrorists with a safe zone and the Assad regime’s ambitions of demographic engineering complicate the mission to no end. Despite all odds, Syrians – with the help of the Turkish government – are showing progress.

The city of Afrin is connected to the world and, areas held by the Syrian Interim Government, through highway 217, a highway that symbolises the destruction of the Syrian war. The eastern and southern parts of the highway are protected by a big trench and the soldiers of the Syrian National Army against the YPG. Driving on that road is no easy task. 

Mortar and bomb attacks by the YPG have left the road with massive holes so that civilians have to use the dirt rounds around it to bypass the broken roads. Repeated infiltration attempts by the YPG and random targeting by the terrorists risks the lives of every civilian trying to use that road. Almost no day passes without the Syrian National Army repelling an attack by the YPG.

Russian military presence in Tal Rifaat provides the YPG with a safe zone. The pocket of Tal Rifaat is positioned as a wedge in between the areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government. The YPG plans, organises, and executes its attacks as it can operate freely without any obstacle from the Russians. On the contrary, Russia is accused of providing the YPG with weapons and ammunitions including new models of anti-tank guided missiles. On May 5 2019, the Syrian National Army started an operation to clean the terrorist pocket, but this attempt was stopped by Russia.

While the frontline around Tal Rifaat is torn by the constant exchange of fire between the YPG and the Syrian National Army, the real danger comes from the YPG’s cells in Afrin and the use of car bombs to terrorise the people of Afrin. According to the database of Terrorism Analysis Platform, the YPG has conducted 18 car bomb attacks in 2020 in the region of Afrin alone. These acts of terror killed at least 65 people and wounded at least 148 others.

The toxic combination of an experienced terror group with military protection from Russia makes it extremely challenging to secure Afrin. Despite the odds, the Free Syrian Police and the Syrian National Army with the help of Turkey are doing better day by day. More recruits are trained, surveillance cameras are established and YPG cells dismantled. However, as long as the safe zone for terror in Tal Rifaat remains, security measures will only have a limited effect.

On top of it, the Assad regime’s demographic engineering has significant social ramifications for Afrin. After agreements with the Assad regime, Syrian rebels together with hundreds of thousands of civilians were evacuated from Homs, Ghouta, Aleppo city, and Daraa were evacuated to areas under the control of the Syrian Interim Government. Many of these IDPs are now living in the countryside of Aleppo including Afrin. Many Syrians had to flee from the YPG and seek protection in these areas as well. 

From Manbij to Deir Ezzor, more than 350,000 civilians from YPG-held areas live as IDPs under the protection of the Syrian Interim Government. In total, the areas of the Syrian Interim Government have experienced a population increase of 229 percent compared to the 2004 census.

Shifting demographics has meant that the local Kurdish farmers of Afrin now have townsmen from Syria’s capital and its economic heart as their new neighbors, as well as Bedouins from Deir Ezzor and artists from Syria’s cultural center Homs. 

Rapid social change, the outside spoiler of terror by the YPG, and the general problems stemming from war like a weakened economy and poverty result in daily challenges for the Syrian people. For the Syrian victims of this misery, their only helper is Turkey. 

Turkish NGOs as well as Turkish institutions like the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Defense are doing their best to make lives easier for the people in those areas. Several schools and hospitals were built or renovated, teachers and medical staff are trained and equipment is provided by Turkey. Turkish NGOs rush to the help of the civilians and try to protect them from poverty and hunger. Last but not least, the Ministry of Defense is helping Syrians to establish a proper security design to counter the threat of terror by the YPG. While Turkey helps as much as it can, the international community is not.

The international community has to make it clear to the YPG that terrorism will not be tolerated. If the international community and especially the backers of the YPG, namely the USA, Russia, and Europe do not, then there remains only military solutions. A joint Syrian-Turkish military operation to clean Tal Rifaat from the YPG terror group will solve the problem as according to the Turkish-Russian agreement, the terror group has to be removed from Tal Rifaat.

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