Explainer: Why is Turkey arresting its own proxy council members in Afrin?

9 PKK/YPG suspects arrested in Afrin, Syria
Thousands of Kurds have been disappeared by Turkish forces in Afrin, but arrests targeting Turkey’s own political apparatus are unusual (file photo, al-Andalou)

Why is Turkey arresting its own proxy council members in Afrin?

Mass arrests, disappearances and kidnappings are nothing unusual in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Since the Kurdish enclave’s invasion and occupation by Turkey at the start of 2018, thousands of people have been seized by the Turkish-backed militias which now control the region – hundreds in the past two months alone.

But a new trend has emerged in recent weeks. Dozens of arrests have targeted Kurdish members of the proxy councils Turkey has built up in the region to legitimize its occupation, including many members of Syrian Kurdish-nationalist opposition bloc ENKS, which is linked to the Turkish-controlled Syrian opposition. Arabs transferred into the region from elsewhere in Syria by Turkey have also been seized, with an estimated 20 to 25 local council members detained to date.

Though individual Kurdish politicians working with the Turkish apparatus in Afrin have on occasion been detained, it is unprecedented to see such a large number of arrests targeting Turkey’s own political proxies in Afrin. Possible reasons include Turkey’s opposition to ongoing negotiations between ENKS and the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC); Turkish anger over a new UN report highlighting atrocities committed by its militias in Afrin and elsewhere; and further attempts to reconfigure the ethnic make-up and political infrastructure of Afrin in Turkey’s favour.

What are the local councils being targeted?

Afrin was previously part of what is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), the non-contiguous autonomous regions of northern and eastern Syria organized on the basis of local, devolved democracy and represented diplomatically by the SDC. Turkey’s 2018 assault against the region resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Afrini civilians. Displacement occurred on an ethnic basis and primarily targeted Kurds, though local Yezidi, Christian and Alevi minorities were also forcibly displaced.

Now, Turkish-controlled councils have been established to replace the AANES system of local communes and councils. In the regions

Subhi Rizq, President of the Turkish-controlled local council in Jinderes,
is among the most senior local politicians to have been arrested

under these councils’ nominal control, real power is retained by Turkey, through direct control of local political bodies, top-down exploitation of economic resources, and governance through proxies “dependent on Turkey’s political, economic and military backing for their survival.” At the same time, Turkish-controlled militias are granted limited autonomy to plunder and extort money from the local population.

The new councils established by Turkey are thus little more than a fig-leaf for the occupation. They tend to underrepresent the Kurdish population and are mostly made up of individuals with political ties to Turkey, or economic interests in the ongoing plunder of Afrin’s natural resources. They are also overwhelmingly male, with the general committee for local councils selected in April 2018 containing 100 men and only seven women, as opposed to 50-50 gender parity in the AANES system.

Who are ENKS and what are they doing in Afrin?

Kurdish politics in Syria is not monolithic. In Afrin as in other majority-Kurdish Syrian regions then a majority of local Kurds supported the PYD, particularly following the revolutionary period from 2012 onward, when Afrin rapidly became the most progressive and politically-developed region within the AANES itself.

But as elsewhere in North and East Syria (NES) then parties under the influence of Masoud Barzani’s KDP, a Kurdish-nationalist party which is dominant in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, were also supported by a minority of Afrinis. When Turkey launched its assault, this ‘ENKS’ coalition attracted opprobrium across Kurdistan for its political affiliation with the forces being used by Turkey to launch its assault against Afrin’s Kurds.

Since the occupation ENKS branch members have remained in Afrin, working alongside the Turkish-backed forces in political and civilian capacities. Such individuals have faced arrest – most notably Hussein Ibesh, head of ENKS’ Afrin branch. Commanders of small Kurdish forces similarly used by Turkey to whitewash its forcible displacement of the Kurdish population have also been disappeared by their own allies.

Why the new wave of arrests?

However, the recent wave of arrests targeting local council members is unusual. “The Turkish forces and the Syrian armed groups supported by them continue to commit more violations… arrest and kidnap citizens for ransom… prevent their families from knowing the location or reasons for their detention, refuse to bring them to trial and prevent them from appointing a lawyer,” Hassan Hassan of the Human Rights Organization – Afrin tells RIC.

Mr. Hassan suggests that the new wave of arrests are likely linked to negotiations between the SDC on the one hand, and ENKS on the other, as Turkey puts “pressure on the ENKS side not to enter into any deal” with the SDC. Ankara is angered by these US-sponsored talks, which aim at establishing a new unified Kurdish political body in Syria to complement the multi-ethnic AANES and SDC system. Arrests of mid-ranking ENKS members in Afrin is one way for Ankara to express its displeasure at ENKS’ participation in this ‘Kurdish-Kurdish dialog’.

While agreeing with Mr. Hassan, independent researcher Caki further suggests that some of these individuals may be suspected of providing information to the United Nations for a recent, high-profile report documenting massive human rights violations, atrocities and potential war-crimes conducted by the Turkish-backed factions in Afrin and elsewhere, often in the presence of Turkish forces. Turkey has a track record of targeting and disappearing anyone suspected of passing information about the situation in the occupied regions to journalists or human rights researchers.

Finally, Mr. Hassan adds, “Turkey is attempting to reshape these councils under Turkmen dominance,” as part of ongoing efforts to create a ‘Turkmen belt’ in Afrin under the sway of Turkmen militias who are Ankara’s preferred partners among the scores of Sunni militias which it has deployed in the invasion and occupation of NES. As such, Kurdish and even Arab council members are being removed to make way for Turkmen replacements as Turkey solidifies its de facto control of the region.

Who is being arrested?

Arrests have targeted dozens of local council members in the towns of Jinderes, Mabatli and Rajo.  In Jinderes, the first major arrest occurred on 9 September and targeted Subhi Rizq, president of the Turkish-controlled council there, along with eight other council members and affiliates. All of these individuals were ENKS members and three have been released, while the location of the remaining six is still unknown.

In Mabatli, eleven local council members were arrested in September; local council vice-president Salah Shabo was arrested on 12 October, along with six other council members, including those working in the humanitarian, education and procurement sectors; and four more council members, including president Abdul Mutalib Sheikh Nassan, were arrested on 14 October.

Similar arrests targeted council members in Rajo. Other individuals working with the Turkish apparatus in Afrin have also been targeted. Kurdish mukhtar (village chief) Nabi Jafar Omar was also seized by Turkish intelligence services, despite his previous support for and legitimization of the Turkish presence in Afrin. Meanwhile, on 1 October a round of arrests in Istanbul  targeted 11 Kurdish ENKS supporters now resident in Turkey.

What’s next?

This batch of arrests are part of wider trends. In recent years, Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of elected Kurdish politicians and lawmakers even within its own borders. These arrests should also be seen in the context of a marked increase in disappearances conducted by Turkey and its proxies in Afrin in recent months. The Human Rights Organization – Afrin has documented over 200 disappearances in August alone, while monitor Syrians for Truth and Justice documented 116 disappearances in September 2020 amid a steady month-on-month increase in the number of disappearances.

Nonetheless, it is unusual to see Turkey targeting members of its own political apparatus in such a systematic way. These arrests are likely motivated by Turkey’s desire to jeopardize the tentative Syrian Kurdish unity talks currently underway – talks motivated, in part, by a desire to unite against the threat of a further Turkish invasion.

But they will also further serve to strengthen Turkey’s program of forcible demographic change in Afrin. As Turkey continues to entrench its de facto occupation of the region and strengthen the Turkmen militias it has installed there, even those Kurds who have chosen to work alongside Turkey are beginning to look expendable.