The assault on Rojava

Rahila Gupta on why Turkey is encroaching on Rojava, an autonomous democratic commune fighting on the frontlines against ISIS.

Kurdish YPJ fighters embrace in Afrin, a city now occupied by Turkey since January 2018. Credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

On 9 October, Turkey began a military invasion on northern Syria to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It’s an open secret that Turkey has been waiting in the wings for an opportunity to annihilate the Kurdish autonomous region Rojava in northeastern Syria, ever since it was established in 2012 while Assad’s attention was focussed on the civil uprising, part of the Arab Spring, in the south.

According to President Erdoğan of Turkey, the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, in south-east Turkey, led by the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) which is proscribed by the authorities as ‘terrorist’, is closely related to the PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Rojava.

There is no doubt that theirs is a shared ideology, one that has been formulated by their joint leader, Abdullah Öcalan, now in his 21st year of incarceration in a Turkish prison.  But the PYD’s organizing principle is democratic confederalism: a system of direct democracy, ecological sustainability and ethnic inclusivity, where women have veto powers on new legislation and share all institutional positions with men.

Within the short time since forming Rojava’s democratic experiment, child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy were banned; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women were criminalized. It is the only part of Syria where sharia councils have been abolished and religion has been consigned to the private sphere.

This is a blueprint for the kind of society that many of us have been campaigning for all our lives – and yet it is the best kept secret in the world. Most people, by now, know that the Kurds were the most reliable boots on the ground when it came to the battle against ISIS. Much of the widespread condemnation of Turkey’s aggression is articulated in terms of the US abandoning its loyal ally. While that is certainly true, what few people know is the kind of society that will be destroyed.

Collateral damage

The writing has been on the wall almost from the moment that the US and its European allies provided air cover to the embattled Kurds surrounded by ISIS in the famous battle of Kobane, northeastern Syria, which lasted more than four months from September 2014 to January 2015.

The US had been reluctant to help because its NATO ally, Turkey, would have preferred the defeat of the Kurds to ISIS. The entry of the US into the war turned around the fortunes of the Kurds. However, it was a purely transactional relationship. When Kobane lay in ruins because of the aerial bombing, the US did not provide funds for reconstruction nor did they pressure Turkey to open its borders so that Rojava could bring in much needed rebuilding materials.

Indeed until the military defeat of ISIS and the intermittent closure of the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava was basically blockaded. The US was not expected to have any interest in a society built on anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal ideas which were antithetical to everything it stood for. 

The Kurds have been under no illusions about the superpower on whom they were forced to rely and knew that Turkey would move in as soon as the US vacated the space. Not even waiting till US evacuation, the westernmost cantonment of Afrin was invaded by Turkey in January 2018 and has been occupied ever since.  And in February 2019, the last stronghold of ISIS at Baghouz collapsed. Within months, the US is leaving although the received wisdom is that the threat from ISIS is not over.

There are 12,000 ISIS prisoners (and 100,000 women and children, members of the ISIS fighters’ families) being held by the overstretched Kurds whose attention is now focussed on the Turkish invasion. These prisons and camps have become highly dangerous places where ISIS fighters are regrouping to relaunch their attacks.

Women have been killed and others injured in riots in the camps which broke out when ISIS enforcers imposed sharia dress codes on non-ISIS related women. Turkey has facilitated ISIS with arms and became a conduit for ISIS fighters crossing its border into Syria in what became known as the jihadi highway. If these prisons were to fall into the hands of Turkey, it would be bad news for all of us.

A source based in Tell Abyad (Kurdish name: Girê Spî) from the autonomous administration of north-east Syria, which is one of the towns currently facing Turkish bombing, told me: ‘Half the population of the town has been displaced. There is heavy fighting in the city between the Free Syrian Army, which is full of jihadi groups and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Force). Turkish F-16s are bombarding the city. I and my family are planning to move to a safe town nearby. We cannot remain if the jihadis take control of the city.’

Another source from the Foreign Relations Committee of Rojava believes that the town will fall fairly soon, a fate that could have been avoided if aerial bombing had not occurred. He added that aerial bombing was taking place all along the border, as far east as Qamishli, the de facto capital of Rojava, where five people died yesterday.

The Kurds have been asking for the imposition of a No-Fly zone monitored by international forces. That would certainly reduce civilian deaths and give the Kurds an equal fighting chance in which they always excel. Stopping arms sales to Turkey would also be an important step. Norway has begun the process. There has been a long running campaign of boycotting Turkish goods and tourism which provides the funds to help Turkey buy arms. NATO allies should also consider ejecting Turkey from its membership. These are some of the concrete ways in which UK, US and Europe can bring pressure to bear on Turkey.

What is interesting so far is the absence of comment from President Assad. After all, he and Erdoğan have been sworn enemies. Perhaps Assad wants Erdoğan to finish his dirty work for him and get rid of the final thorn in his side. It is a dangerous strategy indeed to allow an arch enemy to occupy your land to get rid of a harmless people that are not even demanding secession. They simply want to be left in peace to continue their democratic experiment. That is what many of us want too – a beacon of hope to inspire us to bring about radical changes in the way we live.