Afrin was one of the three autonomous regions that made up the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria). Located in the northwest of the country, it was Syria’s oldest Kurdish region, home to an estimated 30% of the country’s Kurdish population prior to the start of the Syrian Civil War. According to the United Nations, in November of 2017— just two months before Operation Olive Branch began— the region had over 323,000 residents.
In the summer of 2012, the Syrian government withdrew from several majority-Kurdish areas in the north of the country. Local residents then took control of Afrin, formally declaring the establishment of the autonomous Afrin Canton in 2014. Though surrounded by Turkey to the north, Turkish-backed rebels to the east, and Syrian government forces to the south, the region saw little to no combat for the majority of the war. Both the Turkish Army and Turkish-backed rebel forces occasionally shelled the border and attacked civilians in Afrin— but no full-scale assault on the canton was attempted until 2018.
This relative peace allowed Afrin to become a center of Northeast Syria’s pluralistic, feminist, participatory democracy, a home for internally displaced Syrians fleeing conflict in other parts of the country, and an economic success story.
The region’s historic Kurdish population coexisted peacefully with Arab IDPs from across Syria, Armenian Christian families who had fled genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, and one of Syria’s largest remaining Yezidi communities. Afrin had three official languages: Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac. Mosques, churches, and Yezidi and Alevi shrines were present across the region, and religious freedom was established policy. The second ever Kurdish-language university in Syria was established in Afrin City in 2015, enrolling over 200 students in its first year of operation.
The highest-ranking member of Afrin’s elected governing council was a Kurdish woman, and all elected bodies there— like in the rest of Northeast Syria— were required to achieve gender parity. The YPJ, or Women’s Defense Units, were founded in Afrin in 2013. Autonomous women’s organizations and women’s houses were established to address discrimination, gender-based violence, and other women’s issues.
A Turkish blockade forced Afrin to become relatively economically self-sufficient early on in the Syrian conflict. Primarily an agricultural region, Afrin’s most famous exports were olive oil products— especially Aleppo soap, which has been produced from olives grown in Afrin for centuries. Under the Autonomous Administration, Afrin also produced and exported textiles, and boasted several factories, quarries, and even oil refineries. The Autonomous Administration even worked to move destroyed or defunct factories and shipping companies from Aleppo to Afrin, where the relative peace and intact infrastructure would allow economic activity to flourish. Because of policies like these, Afrin’s economy actually grew between 2012 and 2018— almost unheard of in wartime Syria.