Hundreds of displaced residents make their way back to Afrin despite lingering ‘obstacles’ to return

AMMAN: Approximately 200 families returned to the formerly Kurdish-held Afrin region of northwestern Syria over the past 48 hours, local officials and rebel spokespeople told Syria Direct, while restrictions on movement and “monetary exploitation” by armed groups remain major obstacles to a large-scale return.

Since Monday night, roughly 200 families arrived in cities and towns across Afrin, Azad Osman, a public relations official for Afrin’s regional council, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The returning residents travelled by foot, car and tractor from informal displacement camps in Kurdish- and government-held territory to the east.

Osman’s council was formed in late-March at a conference in Gaziantep, Turkey as a transitional authority to establish new local governance in Afrin and oversee restoration of services and security to the region.

“We are expecting a larger influx of residents to come,” Ahmad Hassan, president of the local council in the western Afrin town of Sheikh al-Hadid told Syria Direct. Hassan said that 20 families had returned to Sheikh al-Hadid on Tuesday.

The displaced residents who returned to Afrin this week fled a military offensive by Turkey and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) there earlier this year.

Turkish-backed rebel factions fighting within Ankara’s Operation Olive Branch wrested control of Afrin from the YPG this past March. Ankara considers the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a terrorist organization due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades.

The months-long offensive, supported by Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire, displaced at least 135,000 residents from the region, according to a late April report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Residents return to the Sheikh al-Hadid area of Afrin on Monday. Photo courtesy of the Afrin Media Center.

The overwhelming majority of displaced residents sought shelter in the adjacent Tel Rifaat region—territories in northwestern Aleppo province controlled by the Kurdish-led Self-Administration—and the nearby government-held towns of Nubl and Zahraa.

In Afrin, local officials Ahmad Hassan and Azad Osman told Syria Direct this week that they are regularly meeting with Turkish officials to facilitate the return of Afrin’s displaced.

Afrin’s interim council “emphasized the necessity of returning people through official crossings,” said Osman, “but until now, there has been no decision to completely open the crossings.”

Most of Afrin’s displaced residents have yet to return, reportedly prevented from doing so by a combination of restrictions on their movement YPG forces in the Tel Rifaat region and financial exploitation by Turkish-backed factions.

Afrin council media official Osman accused the Kurdish militia of “intimidating [displaced residents] to prevent their return.”  

Pro-opposition media accused the YPG of preventing displaced people from leaving the Tel Rifaat region to return to Afrin in past months.

Earlier this week, one displaced Afrin resident was reportedly killed by a stray bullet fired by YPG fighters at a Tel Rifaat checkpoint as a group of residents attempted to pass through, claimed pro-opposition news outlet Enab Baladi, citing a correspondent in northern Aleppo and two journalists in Afrin.

Syria Direct contacted YPG spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud on Tuesday for comment on the accusations of restricting civilian movement but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Movement restrictions “continue to prevent the vulnerable population from . . . [a] return to their homes in Afrin,” read an April 16 UNOCHA report, which did not implicate any particular party in hindering civilian movement.  

The report added that a limited number of families had returned to Afrin using informal routes, running the risk of encountering mines or unexploded munitions on the way.

However, YPG forces are not the only ones accused of hindering civilians’ return. Azad Osman contended that Turkish-backed rebel factions are also “putting up obstacles” to civilian return by demanding bribes at checkpoints.

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Residents walk along a destroyed street in Afrin city on May 5. Photo courtesy of Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.

“It seems these obstacles have to do with monetary exploitation rather than any security matter,” the public relations official said.

A member of Tajama a-Thuwar al-Kurd, a coalition of Kurdish FSA factions that participated in Operation Olive Branch, claimed in conversation with Syria Direct on Tuesday that the 200 families who returned to Afrin this week were able to do so by paying personnel at FSA-run checkpoints in the region.

He asked not to be mentioned by name to avoid conflict with other Free Syrian Army groups in the area.

“The people of Afrin are struck between two problems: the [YPG] preventing people from departing….and exploitation at FSA checkpoints when returning,” added the FSA fighter.

A spokesperson for the Ankara-backed faction al-Jabha a-Shamiya, which Osman accused of financially exploiting returning residents, told Syria Direct that his faction does not man checkpoints on the road into Afrin.

The spokesman identified two other Turkish-backed groups whose fighters supervised checkpoints into Afrin, one of which was not immediately available for comment while the other did not respond to Syria Direct’s inquiry by time of publication.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.