Utopia disrupted: Turkey’s assault on Kurdish-held Afrin
On 20 January, the Turkish state and pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops launched a cross-border military operation on the majority Kurdish region of Afrin in north western Syria. This invasion into another country is a blatant violation of international law and happens with little scrutiny even as the international community watches. Moreover, this declaration of war constitutes an atrocity against the same people that have formed the first line in the fight against ISIS fascism, while building a democratic, secular, gender-egalitarian shelter for all communities amid war.
The US and their allies tacitly approved of the operation by claiming that it is Turkey’s right to defend its borders and national sovereignty. Russia, meanwhile, deliberately consented to the assault by allowing Turkey to use the airspace under Russian control, after the offer to hand over Afrin’s administration to the Assad regime was refused.
The same powers which have not managed to organize peace talks for Syria over the last seven years, are seemingly able to act in accord when it comes to the suppression of alternative democratic politics and the satisfaction of the interest of the second largest NATO army, Turkey, regardless of the latter’s complete disregard for even its own partners’ geopolitical concerns. Not only did the same states in a joint anti-ISIS coalition use the Kurds as ‘reliable boots on the ground’, they have also deliberately chosen to stay inactive over the incriminating evidence of Turkish support for reactionary forces like ISIS. These approaches expose the hypocrisy of the international actors whose policies have actively contributed to the escalation of the wars in the Middle East for their own interests.
As pro-Erdogan FSA fighters and Turkish soldiers try to establish a ‘safe zone’ to defend Turkey ‘from terrorism’, the propaganda apparatus of the state lumps native Kurdish forces and the rapist murders of ISIS into the same category and claims to fight both, although ISIS does not even have a presence in Afrin. However, even if that was true, Turkey was not bothered for years, when ISIS controlled crucifixions and sex slave markets existed alongside its border to Syria.
Although several western governments, including former US vice president Joe Biden of the Obama administration criticized Turkey’s role in contributing to the rise of jihadist violence in Syria through political, financial, and logistical means, including the so-called Islamic State, the strategic importance of NATO member Turkey for regional undertakings was too high to be risked. As is now commonly known, Turkey has been the main supply and travel base for jihadist killers from all over the world. Dozens of Islamic State members have been cleared of charges in Turkey, peaceful anti-war activists and dissenters have been given long sentences after being charged with incredible criminal offenses, some even for social media posts.
Thousands of people in Afrin and other parts of northern Syria and wider Kurdistan have taken to the streets to protest the Turkish invasion, which they view as a historic betrayal of all the states that had supported them in their historic fight against ISIS. Ordinary people across Rojava have taken up arms and vow to fend off Turkish attacks, just as they have mobilized against ISIS and others’ attacks on civilians.
An assault on a liberationist, democratic project
Since the war in Syria started in 2011, Afrin has been among the safest areas of the devastated country. Refusing to play by the rules of neither the Assad regime, nor the Free Syrian Army and Syrian oppositional groups controlled by regional forces, the majority Kurdish area in the northwest of the country has been establishing its self-reliant grassroots democratic self-governance structures since 2012 and is currently hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from Syria. While their military fight against ISIS has received tactical support by outside forces, especially the US, no political guarantees accompanied these temporary collaborations. Thus, today’s historic betrayal of the Kurds after ISIS’s defeat had long been anticipated.
When Afrin’s self-governing councils and communes decided to organize themselves in the form of a canton as part of a system of Democratic Autonomy in 2014, they, together with the cantons of Kobane and Jazeera, declared ‘a political system and civil administration founded upon a social contract that reconciles the rich mosaic of Syria through a transitional phase from dictatorship, civil war and destruction, to a new democratic society where civic life and social justice are preserved’. Today, Afrin is part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which establishes a secular federal self-governance system with a commitment to radical democracy, ecology, and women’s liberation for the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs-Chaldeans, Assyrians, Chechens and Armenians in the region. This is especially significant since Erdogan domestically upholds a doctrine of nationalist supremacy and uses the language of ethnic cleansing when distorting the demography of northern Syria and declaring to ‘return Afrin to its rightful owners’, thus echoing the Baath party’s racist policies that go back to the 1960s.
In recent years, especially since the historic battle for the city of Kobane in 2014, the emancipatory politics of the north of Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava, has been a beacon of hope in a region otherwise destroyed by war, chaos and bloodshed. Women have taken the lead in all spheres of society and establish equal representation in the governance structures through 50 per cent quotas and co-presidency principles, alongside a massive popular, radical grassroots women’s liberation movement through autonomous women’s self-defence units, communes, assemblies, academies and economic cooperatives.
This emancipatory political consciousness was the driving force behind the Kurdish resistance in Kobane which motivated the Obama administration to cooperate with the YPG and YPJ forces and the later formed multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces as their partners on the ground in the fight against ISIS. The opposing ideological positions made clear that neither side could work with the other beyond military cooperation against this common enemy. What is at stake in Afrin today is also the future of an alternative democratic, multi-cultural proposal of coexistence for the society and politics of the Middle East.
The attack on Afrin will only increase Erdogan’s authoritarianism
As observers of Erdogan’s war on the Kurds know, the current attack on Afrin is to be put into the context of Turkey’s longstanding racist hostility towards any prospect of Kurdish self-determination, including democratic rights within existing states. By labelling any attempt at self-determination as ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’, Turkey tries to legitimize its war crimes in the eyes of the international community.
Ever since the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ceased in the summer of 2015, and especially after an attempted coup attempt in July 2016, several massacres on Kurdish civilians have been committed by the state, while tens of thousands of people were arrested, and even more assaulted, sacked, injured or displaced.
The co-presidents of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), legally elected MPs, party members, and mayors are currently in prison since 2016, some still without charge. Hundreds of journalists are in Turkish prisons, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, makes the country ‘the world’s biggest prison for media personnel’. Nearly 150,000 public servants have been sacked, more than 100,000 civilians were detained, 50,000 arrested since the failed coup attempt of July 2016. More than 8,000 academics have lost their jobs. While some have been accused of coup activity, the crackdown on academics developed especially after an initial 1,000 academics signed a petition urging the state to stop its war on the Kurds and return to the peace process. Lawyers, women’s rights defenders, community activists, and other dissenters are among the thousands of people jailed under terrorism charges.
While the entire country has been put under a ‘state of emergency’ since the coup attempt in 2016, Kurdish regions have been increasingly militarized and received extrajudicial treatments under martial law, legitimizing ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate killing, and systematic destruction of entire settlements. According to a OHCHR report, 355,000 to half a million Kurdish civilians were forcibly displaced, while hundreds of civilians had been murdered by the Turkish army. These numbers remain conservative, as the delegation was not allowed adequate access to the affected regions by the authorities. The report describes the town put under curfew with terms like ‘apocalyptic’.
Today’s witch-hunt on those who oppose the war echo the policies of recent years. The government announced a ‘Social Media Operation’ to find and charge social media users who voice their dissent about the war. TV programs discuss and target celebrities who have not endorsed the illegal war. Already, hundreds of people have been arrested for speaking out for peace.
Where is the anti-war movement?
As should be clear from the nature of Turkey’s operation and the complicity of the powers involved in the war through tacit or direct approval or arms trade, the attacks on Afrin constitute an international military alliance against a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious peoples-led enclave, where women’s liberation is actively being fought for and in fact institutionalized in all spheres of society. In a region plagued by nationalism, religious extremism, and sectarian violence, fuelled by a genocidal group like ISIS, Afrin has been a shelter for Yezidis, Christians, Alevis, as well as Muslims from all ethnic backgrounds. For this system to be established, thousands of people in northern Syria have sacrificed and continue to risk their lives. For those who do not want to surrender the fate of an entire region to dictatorial regimes and imperialist exploiters, it is crucial to mobilize a common front against this international war on an alternative fate for the Middle East, free from death and chaos.
Just like during the siege of Kobane in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets all over the world since the start of the attack on Afrin. Among the people, who have been occupying streets, train stations, airports, public squares and motorways all over Europe to protest the Turkish attacks on Afrin today are thousands of refugees who have fled Syria and Iraq from war and destruction. Today, they demonstrate against the fact that the same governments which portray themselves as defenders of human rights are the same ones that provide anti-democratic, outright fascist states in the Middle East with political or military support, an act which only further strengthens the hand of powers like ISIS that were the reason for people to flee their homes. But among the hundreds of thousands of protesters are also former Kurdish refugees, who fled western arms trade-sponsored wars in the last decades. Just like Turkey used German tanks to destroy 5,000 Kurdish villages in the 1990s, to commit civilian massacres and displace entire populations and just like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemicals provided by European states to commit genocide on the Kurds, today, it is German leopard tanks which are being used in a cross-border invasion in violation of international law. The Kurdish community sees history being repeated in the complicity of western governments in the deaths of millions of civilians.
The attack on Afrin is one of the instances when the most influential powers of the world unite on a common front for once, to assault the native people of a region and their attempt to organize their own lives in dignity, justice and freedom. It ought to be a fundamental ethical concern for all those opposing war and militarism, to stand up to Turkey’s crimes.
Dilar Dirik is an activist of the Kurdish women's movement. She writes for an international audience on the freedom struggles in Kurdistan and is currently finishing her PhD at the Sociology Department at the University of Cambridge.