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Normalcy slowly returns to Turkish-controlled town in northern Syria

A year after a Turkish military operation drove out Kurdish forces, a sense of normality and stability is slowly returning to parts of northern Syria. 

In the town of Tel Abyad, the rhythm of daily life is stable, hospitals and schools are open again and kids are busy doing what kids should be doing: learning, playing, gossiping. 

In the wider region, the picture is still mixed. There is a desperate need for humanitarian aid. The economy has not yet recovered. And in IDP camps across the country, hundreds of thousands of children are still unable to go to school and fears of a “lost generation” ring true.  

Long a microcosm of Syrian conflict, Tel Abyad’s residents have lived under the control of a majority of the armed groups involved in the fighting in Syria over the past eight years.

Students at the Tel Abyad Seyh Ahmet Yasin Primary School in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad

Opposition Free Syrian Army fighters took control in September 2012. Then came Al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the al-Nusra Front, in 2013, followed by the so-called Islamic State in January 2014. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mainly Kurdish militia, took control in June 2015. American forces had an observation point in the town, where they trained fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces — another Kurdish-majority militia that included the YPG — to combat ISIS. 

In recent years, the Turkish military and Syrian opposition groups allied to Ankara launched three separate operations in the region — dubbed Olive Branch, Euphrates Shield and Peace Spring — to rid the area of the YPG, which the Turkish government sees as a terrorist organization, and make the region safe enough to relocate some of the more than 3.4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. 

It was during Operation Peace Spring, launched in October 2019 after the Trump administration ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria, that Tel Abyad fell into Turkish hands.

With the area still inaccessible to international NGOs, two Turkish aid organizations — AFAD and the Turkish Red Crescent — deliver food, medicine and clothing to those in need in and around the town.

So far, the area has been spared at least one tragedy: mass casualties from the coronavirus pandemic. No cases have been registered so far, though Syrian and Turkish doctors working at the local hospital say this is likely due to the fact most people are not aware of the disease and its potential symptoms. 

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