Background Information on Efrîn
Afrin (spelled Efrîn in Kurdish) is a Kurdish majority town and district in northwest Syria. Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Afrin was administered as part of the diverse Aleppo governorate, Syria’s largest and most populous governorate. In 2012, the regime of Bashar al-Assad lost control of Afrin and many other Kurdish majority areas of northern Syria, and these regions have since experienced de facto autonomy – providing for their own security and governance while repelling military threats from various sides.
The city of Afrin is currently the administrative center of the Afrin Canton within the Afrin Region, one of the three regions included within the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. While Afrin is a Kurdish majority region, its own diversity is reflective of the diversity of Syria as a whole. Along with a large Kurdish population, Afrin includes Arabs and other smaller groups including Armenians and Turkmens. The overwhelming majority of Afrin’s people are Sunni Muslim, though there are also Christians, Alevis, Shi’ite Muslims and Yazidis. Afrin has long been known for its olive groves, and Syria was once among the leading Middle Eastern exporters of olive oil, with Afrin playing an important role in olive production. The region’s fertile soil and water resources have also allowed for large scale production of fruits and nuts, and there is a local textile industry as well.
Like most of the Levant, Afrin has a history going back many centuries – demonstrated by the presence of archeological wonders dating back to the times of the Hittites, the Old Testament, and the Roman Empire. The Ain Dara temple, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple in the village of Ain Dara, located within the Afrin district, was constructed at least 2,700 years ago. The region was part of the Roman province of Syria (and its successor provinces) from 64 B.C. until the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the seventh century, and remained under the control of Muslim empires for many of the centuries that followed until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. With the foundation of the League of Nations Mandate for Syria and Lebanon in 1923, a border was established between Syria and modern-day Turkey, with Afrin lying within Syria’s borders. This post-Ottoman border, which delineated the boundaries of the newly born modern states of the Middle East, cut directly through the ancestral homeland of the Kurdish people. To this day, many families in Afrin and other parts of northern Syria maintain contact with close relatives to the north of this border, and visit as the security situation permits. Following the creation of modern Syria from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the country experienced decades of chaos and instability. Afrin remained under the control of Syria’s central government until 2012, when regime forces pulled out from the city and the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and local people took control, setting up a self-administration system based on direct democracy and instituting mother tongue education – a stark contrast to the one party rule and enforced primacy of Arab identity and Arabic language that was a hallmark of the reign of the Ba’athist regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and, before him, his father Hafez al-Assad).
Until recently, the Afrin region has enjoyed relative stability despite the war raging to its south and its east. Indeed, as a consequence of this stability, Afrin now hosts hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians, predominantly Arabs, from various parts of the country. However, Afrin is also somewhat isolated and vulnerable, as it is geographically separated from other areas of northern Syria under the administration of the autonomous federal authorities – it is separated from the Kobani canton by a swath of land from Jarablus to Azaz, which has been controlled by various jihadist groups, some backed by the Turkey, over the past few years.
Since the establishment of de facto autonomy in Afrin, the Turkish military and allied jihadist groups have attacked Afrin hundreds of times. On January 20, 2018, the Turkish military, along with its jihadist allies (including Syrian and foreign fighters) launched a full-scale military offensive against Afrin, bringing indiscriminate terror to what was once an island of stability and democracy within war ravaged Syria.