Every day that Afrin remains occupied is another day of suffering for those living within the region. It is saddening to hear the reports of kidnapping, murder and general disorder. How far Afrin is from safety of prior years. There are no longer local people to take care of the land. Only blood, sweat and tears remain. Olive trees now grow from blood soaked land.
Displaced Afrini residents live in scarce conditions in neighbouring Shahba canton in Tal Rifaat. Awaiting an inevitable invasion from the occupiers of the Turkish state whose desire it is to extend the occupation territory. Over a hundred thousand displaced and it is not enough to feed that violent war monger in Ankara. The new Sultan of Anatolia.
The armies of Sultan Erdogan took a region where millions of war scarred civilians sought refuge and turned it into a hellscape. Forcing those same war scarred civilians to flee once again and start over. Without home or business to provide for their loved ones. Unable to return to the area without threat of violence.
There seems to be no one that cares to stand up to Erdogan and his autocratic regime. The ones expected to are acquiescing to his demands for territory and offering up more territory under the guise of maintaining a fractured alliance. These ‘negotiations’ take the form of a proposal by the United States for a ‘safe-zone’ in Syria’s northeast. One running along Turkey’s southern border.
The United States under Trump does not currently possess a back bone. There does not appear to be anyone in Washington bold enough to act in the manner demanded by the highest office. Well Trump lampoons his critics with barrage after barrage of tweets, he cosies up to the Sultan and sends James Jeffrey to strike an appeasement deal. A deal that would trade blood for Ankara’s good graces.
Stretching from Kobani to the border crossing between Rojava and Bashur at Faysh Khabur and with a depth of five kilometres, this ‘safe zone’ would see civilians as well as Kurdish militants expelled from Turkey’s southern border. A reasonable idea to anyone with any cursory knowledge on the region but a ludicrous one to those with a proper understanding of the lives living there. There are over a million people that live in that region. That is a million plus people who will be forcefully displaced. Where will they go?
This ‘safe zone’ is nothing but a noose around the neck of the people living in the northeast. It is a death zone not a safe zone. Jeffrey is trying to convince the international community to endorse this zone and send troops to monitor it. The problem with such a plan is that disinterested parties, notably European states are not guaranteed to maintain a long term presence nor stand up to the Sultan’s armies should he decide to march them south.
The very fact that such a proposal is being made shows what era the world is in. Autocrats, whether they be moustached racist zealots to Revolutionary despots, should not be appeased. Hitler was handed Czechoslovakia through appeasement and still ended up annexing most of Europe as well as starting a world war. After most of the free world closed up that Pandora’s box, again, many nations banded together and declared, ‘never again!‘ Nearly eighty years later and you would think that ‘never again’ was declared in jest.
Since then, dictator after dictator has continued to rampage regions, creating mass violence and suffering in their wake. And, as was done in the past, someone put pandora’s box aright. One can only hope that the chaos wrought by Erdogan’s regime in Syria will be put back in its place before more suffer. I sincerely hope so or else there will be more blood.
Trump’s desire to withdraw the US from Syria has sent shockwaves through the populace of northeast Syria who now fears the worst. In an atmosphere of growing uncertainty, solidarity from the international community is needed. And internationalists need to defend Rojava in whatever way they can.
The withdrawal of United States Special Operations Forces from northeast Syria raises questions over the future of the Coalition’s fight against Islamic State and stability in the region.
The Russian-led axis and Erdogan’s Turkey both expressed in the past interest in taking parts of the region for themselves, with Erdogan recently expressing a desire to invade the north to wipe out “Kurdish terrorists.” With these threats, coupled with the Syrian government’s insistence on taking the region entirely, the people of the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” – the de facto multi-ethnic autonomous government running the area – now fear mass displacement and violence.
Northeast Syria is one of the few areas in Syria that provides stability, security and peace in a country devastated by nearly a decade of civil war. The population in this area numbers more than two million, with an additional million internally displaced people. There are around 2,000 United States Special Operations Forces operating in the northeast, assisting local partner forces, notably the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in protecting this large population. French and British special forces also assist the Americans in this defense and provide support to local partner forces in the fight against ISIS.
A hasty US withdrawal from this region before the fight against ISIS is completely over puts the longevity of Coalition victories against the group at risk. The more than 20,000 ISIS fighters estimated to be still active in Syria and Iraq pose a threat to the region.
These fighters are active in areas like Hajin, where SDF and Coalition forces are seeking to uproot ISIS’s last territorial area of control and destroy the group’s proto-state. The SDF’s capability to combat ISIS relies in part to air power and artillery. Without this support, the fight against ISIS becomes difficult – allowing a potential for the group to resurge and recapture territory.
A Turkish incursion into the northeast of Syria without any form of deterrence or protection for the civilians within the area would put lives and stability at risk. Should Erdogan deliver on his threats to invade the northeast of Syria through an attack on Tal Abyad and Manbij, there are concerns from locals that Turkish-backed forces will loot and destroy property as well as kill civilians. These concerns arise from Turkey’s most recent military operation into the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria’s northwest, where more than 300,000 civilians are displaced, and mass looting occurred. Locals fear a similar result will happen to Afrin within areas in the northeast.
The departure of the US from northeast Syria undermines all that the Coalition sought to facilitate for the future of Syria and sets a dangerous precedent for future US incursions in the Middle East. A withdrawal from the northeast of Syria lessens US influence in negotiations over Syria’s future, specifically the peace process. Before the announcement to withdraw, US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey made clear the intent of the US to play a role in pushing for a UN-backed peace process under UN Resolution 2254. Without a ground presence in the region, negotiations become difficult.
Additionally, an abandonment of local partner forces like the Syrian Democratic Forces sets a dangerous precedent that fuels animosity towards the US and increases anti-American narratives perpetuated by US enemies. These narratives make it difficult to foster trust in areas where the United States seeks to exercise influence, such as Syria and Iraq. Uncertainty is created, as locals wary of US reliability will seek to make alliances elsewhere. This harms long-term US foreign policy objectives, such as the containment of Iran in the region.
The brokering of a deal between Damascus and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria by Russia for the handover of territory in the northeast undermines Washington’s policy of preventing the expansion of the Syrian government’s control over the country. The potential hand over of rich resources from areas in Deir Ezzor such as the Al-Omar oil fields would allow Damascus necessary resources to build up its military centers, destroyed infrastructure and allow for Iranian paramilitaries to pose a greater threat to Israel next door. Iranian paramilitaries make up the bulk of the land forces fighting for the Syrian government. Iran’s objective in Syria is to create a land corridor to expand influence in the region.
There are many issues that arise from a hasty US withdrawal from the northeast of Syria that need to be addressed. Without addressing these issues, there will be negative consequences that arise within the region and outside of it.
In late November, United States congressman Thomas Alexander Garrett met with officials of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria to tour the region. Earlier in the month, the U.S. Representative from Virginia visited the Nineveh Plains and met with officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government to discuss the situation of local minorities and the plight of the Yazidis under ISIS. The visit was facilitated by the Freedom Research Foundation, who accompanied the congressman in both Iraq and Syria. During Garrett’s visit to Northeast Syria, he was escorted around the region by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a multiethnic coalition of militias operating with US support to defeat Daesh.
Travelling from the east of the Euphrates River to the west and stopping in places such as such as Manbij, the Congressman heard stories of war from locals. The Manbij Military Council, which secures Manbij alongside U.S. special forces, showed Garrett the area that has become a point of contention for Turkey.
Turkey views Manbij— and by extension, the rest of the northeast— as a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) safe haven. The United States is attempting to work with Turkey in Manbij through a roadmap, which aims at joint control of the city between the U.S. and Turkey. However, so far, the roadmap has only taken form through joint patrols between U.S. and Turkish special forces along the demarcation line outside the city. Garrett was taken to observe this demarcation line from a safe distance by MMC officials. Thomas Garrett is not the first US official to have seen the DFNS or Manbij specifically. Midway through this year, Senator Lindsey Graham visited the region also.
The congressman was taken to many areas within the DFNS, and met with representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) as well as members of the rest of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). In these meetings, the congressman discussed political representation, minority issues, the fight against ISIS, and the human rights violations in Afrin. Afrin has been occupied by Turkish-backed forces since March, and has been the site of gross human rights violations, which include ethnic cleansing against Kurdish inhabitants and widespread looting. Garrett returned to the US after a few days in the region.
In December, Garret delivered a presentation to Congress on his visit to Syria and Iraq, which can be found in full on C-SPAN. He began by talking about genocide and the refugee crisis that has occurred because of Syria’s civil war. Highlighting the ineffectiveness of U.S. Syria policy by pointing to the funding of the Free Syrian Army, specifically Islamist members of that entity, Garrett points out the crimes that the US-backed FSA committed against Syrian minorities. The congressmen went on to discuss the ongoing occupation of Afrin and Turkish policy in Syria:
“Turkey has taken the occasion of calamity in Syria in order to enhance and expand Turkey itself….You see pictures of the entrance to the hospital, along with areas that the Turkish have taken control of. Under the auspices of a carefully named marketing ploy…to root out ISIS. Why do Turkish flags fly above the buildings there instead of Free Syrian Army flags? Why is it that the sign in front of the hospital is no longer in Kurdish…but now in Turkish and Arabic? Why are they changing the names of the streets there to Turkish names? Why is the police force of Afrin equipped with Turkish equipment, swearing allegiance to Erdogan, speaking Turkish, and imposing a Turkish will upon a people who are not ethnically Turkish?”
The congressman went on to discuss the atrocities committed by Turkey and Turkish-backed forces in places like Afrin. Garrett went on to note the word games that the Turkish government uses when referring to the SDF and mentions the need for a proper US approach toTurkey. He said the following about Turkey’s characterisation of the DFNS and its people: “The Turks tell us that North and Eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Council is a subentity of the Kurds [referring to the PKK]. The Turks are lying.”
Garrett mentioned the ethnic diversity of the councils within the DFNS, noting their pluralism and democratic representation. Highlighting the important work of the SDC and the administration of DFNS, Garrett also pointed out the significant representation of women within leadership roles— a higher percentage than that of the U.S. Congress itself.
Towards the end of Garrett’s presentation, he mentioned a few active policies that the US could adopt for northeast Syria. These included political recognition of the DFNS in the Syrian peace process and as an entity within a sovereign Syria, protection of the DFNS under a US no-fly-zone, and to “make concrete commitments to these people that share our values.”
On Iraq, Garrett emphasised the need for greater financial support for minorities and increased representation of locals within the framework of a greater Iraq.
To end off this brief report, I have included one outstanding quote from the congressman’s final remarks:
“I’m not advocating on behalf of an independent nation in north and eastern Syria, but on behalf of a Syrian nation that shares values on what the leaders in this land— which has undergone so much tragedy, so much death, so much rape—have suffered through to begin. Instead, we shape our policy on what might the Turks do…. I have got bad news. There’s not a thing we can do to make them like us. Meanwhile, we’ve got people who are inherently drawn to us by virtue of an idea, that every person has a right to go to sleep in his or her community without fear that they won’t wake up in the morning, who just need us to say, ‘you have a right to be there.'”
Afrin Canton in Syria’s northwest was once a haven for thousands of people fleeing the country’s civil war. Consisting of beautiful fields of olive trees scattered across the region from Rajo to Jindires, locals harvested the land and made a living on its rich soil. This changed when the region came under Turkish occupation this year.
YPG in Afrin.
Operation Olive Branch:
Under the governance of the Afrin Council – a part of the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ (DFNS) – the region was relatively stable. The council’s members consisted of locally elected officials from a variety of backgrounds, such as Kurdish official Aldar Xelil who formerly co-headed the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEVDEM) – a political coalition of parties governing Northern Syria. Children studied in their mother tongue— Kurdish, Arabic, or Syriac— in a country where the Ba’athists once banned Kurdish education. The local Self-Defence Forces (HXP) worked in conjunction with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to keep the area secure from existential threats such as Turkish Security forces (TSK) and Free Syrian Army (FSA) attacks.
This arrangement continued until early 2018, when Turkey unleashed a full-scale military operation called ‘ Operation Olive Branch’ to oust TEVDEM from Afrin. The Turkish government views TEVDEM and its leading party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey. Under the pretext of defending its borders from terrorism, the Turkish government sent thousands of troops into Afrin with the assistance of forces from its allies in Idlib and its occupied Euphrates Shield territories. This forced the Afrin Council into exile and pushed out Afrin’s residents as well as its defenders. TSK and Turkish-backed FSA (TFSA) bombarded the region and eventually took control of Afrin city on March 18th – claiming victory.
During the bombardment campaign that was committed by Turkish artillery and aircraft, thousands of people lost their homes. Many civilians fled to nearby regions, mainly Shahba, to seek refuge away from the fighting. YPG and HXP defended what areas they could, but made a tactical decision to withdraw in order to protect civilians. Those fighters who stayed are resisting the occupation, with some forming groups like the ‘Afrin Falcons’ to assassinate targets within the TFSA.
Seven months on from the completion of Turkey’s military operation, Afrin remains under Turkish occupation. Thousands of former residents are displaced and now live outside the region in refugee camps, such as the camps in Shahba. Deprived of basic necessities, such as running water, and cut off from electricity, life for these displaced civilians is hard. They are unable to return to their homes because the fighters that took Afrin either destroyed the houses during the process of invasion or are outright looting and occupying them.
Under the Turkish government’s watchful eye, these TFSA fighters occupying Afrin are taking personal items left by fleeing civilians. After looting the homes, the fighters then settle in with their families. Adding insult to injury, the Turkish government rewards them with Turkish citizenship and helps facilitate the safe passage of fighters of Jaysh al-Islam and other opposition forces, escaping places like East Ghouta, into Afrin.
Hundreds of thousands of families from Syria’s southwestern Ghouta and Daraa regions accompany these fighters. Through the Turkish government’s ‘resettlement policy’, thousands of Syrian refugees within its borders are being resettled in Afrin and Euphrates Shield territories. This resettlement policy has impacted upon the once predominantly Kurdish Afrin canton. Kurdish homes are now filling with Arab families in what appears to be a concerted effort by the Turkish government to shift the demographics of the region.
Schools that once taught Kurdish along with other languages as part of the curriculum now are reducing access to the learning of the language. Kurdish teachers are being replaced by Arab ones. In schools in places like al-Caviz, the Kurdish language is no longer taught. Children are instead taught an Arab-centric curriculum reminiscent of the Baath regime’s curriculum system. However, praise of Assad has been replaced with praise of Erdogan – as evident in the Turkish propaganda videos coming from the school.
Internally Displaced People in Shahba.
Ethnic Cleansing in Afrin:
During the initial days of the operation, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear that his government would resettle Syrian Arab refugees living in Turkey:
“The whole issue is this: 55 percent of Afrin is Arab, 35 percent are the Kurds who were later relocated, and about seven percent are Turkmen. [We aim] to give Afrin back to its rightful owners…. We house about 3.5 million Syrians [as refugees]. We want to send them back to their land in no time…”
Afrin’s population consists of predominantly Kurdish inhabitants who have lived in the region for centuries— long before the existence of the Turkish state. However, the Turkish president’s statements are meant to revise history and justify state policy. Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to revise history to justify state policy, especially when that policy is aimed at Kurds. When this revisionism is used to justify the displacement of thousands of people of a group from their original homelands, then there are grounds for claiming such action as ‘ethnic cleansing’— a war crime.
History tells us that when there are signs of ethnic cleansing occurring, genocide is soon to follow. For example, during the Bosnian war, the Republic of Srpska forcefully displaced thousands of Bosnian Muslims and expelled these individuals from their homelands. In the following months, the occupation by Serbian forces in places such as Srebrenica turned violent and resulted in the deaths of thousands in what is classed today as a ‘genocide’. Afrin is not near this stage yet, but it is important to keep in mind where ethnic cleansing often leads.
Turkish and Free Syrian Army flags in Afrin city.
Turkish State Chauvinism
Demonstrating a disregard for facts and the original inhabitants of the region, Erdogan spent weeks— in preparation for the election no less— rallying the country behind the costly operation. Exploiting the fervour of the nation, Erdogan legitimised violence against critics by uniting ultranationalists and enforcing strict censorship laws within the country. This demonstration of Turkish chauvinism in the form of ultranationalist legitimation was frightening. Even more frightening was the sheer extent to which critics within the country were locked up. Those daring to criticise the government’s operation found themselves either arrested under charges of ‘abetting terrorism’ or beaten by ultranationalists.
Turkish chauvinism did not stop at the country’s borders, but extended to the front lines as well. Soldiers on the front lines demonstrated their sense of eagerness for the operation through nationalist songs and displays of ‘Grey Wolves’ hand signs. Others displayed their pride through sadistic pleasure in the filming of tortured Afrin civilians and the draping of Turkish flags over conquered buildings. Some even burnt Kurdish flags on camera – a sign of anti-Kurdish sentiment that Erdogan claimed was not present.
When TFSA and TSK soldiers entered Afrin city, the Kurdish statue of blacksmith Kawa that had long been at the heart of the city was torn down, under claims that it was a statue of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Even ancient structures were not spared in the offensive, with the temple of Ain Dara facing damage by Turkish aircraft. The level of destruction brought upon monuments of once great ancient civilisations in Syria throughout this Syrian war is saddening. US Senator Hiram Johnson was once purported to have said the line, ‘the first casualty, when war comes, is truth.’ One might add that the second casualty of war is history.
After expelling the locally elected Afrin council and TEVDEM’s government from Afrin, the region has come under new administration. Considered to fall under the control of the Hatay province in Turkey’s southwest, officials appointed by the Turkish government are running the region in accordance with state policy. Each appointee placed in control of the canton is paid in Turkish Lira and is under supervision of TSK.
A ‘local’ interim council formed prior to the invasion are jointly administering the region with the Turkish government. This model of joint control has been adopted by other Turkish occupied areas such as those incorporating territories in ‘Euphrates Shield’ (Jarabulus-al-Bab pocket). The model shares similarities to the model adopted by Turkey and France for the Republic of Hatay in the 1930s. That was, of course, before the annexation of the state by Turkey in 1939. It would not be surprising if a ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Syria’ were to form, in the same vein as the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ and other occupied areas when Turkish control is finally consolidated.
The annexation of Afrin by Turkey reflects the ideology of neo-Ottomanism that is supported by a large segment of Turkish nationalists within the country. There is a longing by thousands of Turkish citizens for the reestablishment of Turkey as a global power. A desire for Turkey to reclaim its history and establish control over former Ottoman states in the Middle East. This sense of nationalism extends to religious institutions, with Turkish imams— and Erdogan— attempting to ‘persuade’ the Islamic world that Turkey is its protector and sole representative.
Military institutions were not left untouched by this ideology. Turkish foreign policy for the last couple decades in areas like Cyprus and Syria reflects this. The construction of military bases for long-term occupation under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ and the establishment of an administration that does not reflect the local populace’s wishes suggests that there is something more sinister at play. When the Turkish-backed administration is taking orders from Ankara, considered essentially to be a de-facto part of Turkey, paying its employees in Turkish lira and giving fighters citizenship, what is really on display is imperialism. The development of Turkish infrastructure in Afrin only demonstrates this further.
An injured Kurdish boy.
Silence and Violence:
The international community has been silent about Turkey’s military operation and occupation of Afrin. Calls of ‘deep concern’ were repeatedly uttered throughout the conduct of the operation, but little was done. No emergency United Nations Security Council meeting was held, nor did any nation prevent Turkey. Overall, the international community was complicit in Turkey’s operation. This was not surprising given the strategic ‘importance’ of Turkey as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Continuing a long trend by western governments in remaining silent about the injustices committed by their allies, well condemning those of their enemies. Protesters across the world took to the streets to do what their governments would not do.
Resistance continues in Afrin to oust the occupation army from continuing to control the region. The attacks continue to target those abetting the occupation forces, which extends to those officials assisting Turkey. Explosive mines left from the fighting also continue to kill TSK and TFSA forces. The YPG has sworn to retake Afrin from Turkey, although this occupation is unlikely to end any time soon. With the Idlib offensive on the horizon for the regime in Damascus, Turkish forces are being spread out across the occupation zones, from Idlib to al-Bab.
The relationship between the guarantors of Syria— Russia, Turkey and Iran— continues to fluctuate as Turkey gambles on what to do in Idlib. The occupation of territories within Syria has been costly on Turkey and the prospect of an offensive against Idlib only exacerbates the situation. Erdogan wants to remain perceived as a ‘strong leader’ externally with the spread of military might, well simultaneously clamping down on increasing dissent internally. This arrangement will not last forever.
The war in Syria is now in its seventh year. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead and more than two million people have been displaced. The world continues to watch as humanitarian crisis after humanitarian crisis continues, unchallenged and without clear sign of ceasing. Dictators continue to control the country with little response from the international community. The blood of Syria’s people continues to be shed.
Despite the death, destruction and devastation wrought upon the country, there are signs of development and progress. In northeastern Syria, people are building up communities and choosing to live. There might be the threat of invasion by Turkey to the north and a regime invasion from the south, but this does not deter the spirit of these people. Children play in the streets of Kobane – a city once devastated by Daesh – with joy, Arab and Kurdish families in Manbij coexist with one another. These are flashes of light in the darkness. These lights are sometimes all that are needed to establish hope for the future.
Editors note [Mohammed Elnaiem]:
It has been 41 days since attacks by Turkey on Afrin began. Anthony Avice Du Buisson provides you with an updated primer on the latest updates of the attack. He also discusses the role of the International community in bringing the Afrin crisis to an end. What are the latest updates on the situation in Afrin?
Turkish attack helicopters (TuAF) have been conducting aerial bombardments on the town of Jinderis in Syria’s Afrin region, for the last couple days. Artillery barrages assist in the bombardments, as fighters of the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) scramble to repel the attack on the town. Jinderis is just a recent addition to the many towns being targeted by Turkish security forces (TSK), assisted by Islamists of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), since the launch of Operation Olive Branch (the Afrin offensive) in late January.
Since its inception, the Afrin offensive has claimed the lives of nearly three hundred and fifty civilians (Kurdish Red Crescent estimate). Met with fierce resistance by the people of Afrin, TSK and TFSA have found it difficult to advance deep into the region. What was expected by Ankara to be a quick operation has turned into a gruelling and lengthy exercise. Despite the superior technology, numbers and firepower of the Turkish military, the YPG and its allies are putting up strong opposition, where they hold the advantage of familiarity with the mountainous terrain.
In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has whipped the country into a frenzy, as State news media pumps out propaganda in support of the offensive, while police and other state organisations eliminate dissent. (Anadolu Agency, a state media outlet, exaggerates the numbers of kills Olive Branch forces have made. The current number is over two thousand, at the time of writing.) Any show of public disapproval or critique towards the operation runs the risk of state crackdown, as journalists, politicians, academics and so on, are arrested without question. Further highlighting Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism.
Turkey claims to be fighting against “Terrorists” in Afrin, is the international community convinced?
Despite the Turkish state’s effort to impose a positive narrative of the operation upon its own people, it has had a difficult time convincing the world that the Afrin offensive is justified. Ankara may claim that it is waging a war to cleanse its borders of ‘terrorists’ and help relocate its refugee population, however, the forces that it commands demonstrate another more sinister intent.
Videos have surfaced online of TFSA and TSK forces committing atrocities, from the brutal interrogation of an Afrin farmer to the mutilation of a ‘Women’s Protection Unit’ (YPJ) fighter. All these videos, as well as Erdogan’s rhetoric on Turkish state media, portray the Turkish forces as conquerors, as opposed to ‘liberators’. (A recent video of a farmer being executed by TFSA fighters is another example of the brutality of the Olive branch forces.) Erdogan’s rhetoric also has been suggestive of a possible intent for ‘ethnic cleansing’ Afrin and ‘annexing’ the territory to expand Turkey’s border.
So how has the world responding to the Afrin offensive? And who is to blame for sanctioning it?
While Erdogan has gotten the Turkish public to largely support the Afrin offensive, the response of the international public has been quite different. Public demonstrations have been held in major cities across the globe in solidarity with the people of Afrin. Protests have erupted all over the world against the offensive, whether it be on the streets of Cologne, Germany or outside the parliament in Canberra, Australia – people everywhere across the globe have been condemning the offensive.
The condemnations have not only been directed at the Turkish state but also at Western states for failing to intervene to halt an offensive against a force that fought ISIS. Supporters of the people of Afrin point towards the use of German tanks, British jets and other EU supplied equipment and armaments by the Turkish military, as a sign of complicit support for the offensive by Western states. Parliamentarians in the German and British governments, especially from the Labour party and German Left Party (Die Linke) have raised concerns over Turkey’s war, calling it ‘illegal’ and ‘unjustified’.
Despite the US not having an active military presence in the Afrin region and thus no military intelligence on the ground, Afrin supporters including those from the US see it as a complicit actor that has enabled Turkey. The US State Department has voiced concerns over Turkey’s Afrin operation, calling it a ‘distraction’ from the fight against ISIS. A rather neutral position that the US continues to maintain, due to the increasing weakening of US-Turkey bilateral relations. (Tillerson recently visited Ankara, unaccompanied by any translators, to try repair relations between the states. Confusion still surrounds the details of that over three-hour long conversation.)
International organisations are being lobbied by Turkish officials to end support for the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD), as well as other members of the ‘Movement for a Democratic Party’ (TEV-DEM) who currently govern the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ (DFNS), to cripple international support for YPG. Turkey even went as far as to attempt to extradite former PYD co-chair, Salih Muslim, while he was in the Czech Republic. An attempt that ended more in embarrassment for Turkey than anything else.
Recently, Afrin authorities called for help from Damascus, why?
On the ground, Afrin Authorities have called for international solidarity in general, but to little avail. While Convoys are coming from all parts of Northern Syria to defend Afrin, crossing through Syrian Government controlled territory in Aleppo to reach the cities in the region that are being attacked, this has not been enough. Due to the need to use such territory, dialogue channels between Afrin Authorities and the Syrian government have been increasingly used. Given the precarious situation of the canton and the lack of international military intervention, authorities in Afrin have exercised the right of autonomy of the canton to find alternatives to deal with the crisis. (Each canton in the DFNS is autonomous, as the current ideology of the system is democratic confederalism.)
Negotiations over pro-Syrian government [Iranian-backed] troop placement along Afrin’s borders have been made, as popular forces of the National Defence Force (NDF) have deployed to Afrin’s southern border. However, the nature and extent of these negotiations have yet to be fully disclosed, as negotiations are ongoing and the forces that are currently in Afrin are limited in number (a few hundred) and not assisted by Syrian air force (SyAAF). TuAF targeted convoys of NDF entering Afrin, killing many, which demonstrated the ineffectiveness of these units.
These negotiations have been opposed by Russian authorities, as well as questioned by TFSA supporters and some MENA analysts. Initially, it was Russia who gave the green-light for Turkey’s Afrin operation, after Afrin authorities refused to accept the ultimatum Russia posed:
“Either Turkey will attack you and occupy Afrin or the regime will come and enter Afrin.” – Shahoz Hassan, said PYD co-chair on the Russian proposal.
What exactly is the role of Russia in the Afrin offensive by Turkey?
Russia allowed Turkey to use the airspace that it controlled in Afrin in exchange for parts of Idlib – a province to the south of Afrin in Syria that is currently dominated by Al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Russia wants Afrin to return under the government control, as was the case prior to the uprisings in 2011. (Russia would rather see a battered and weak YPG that is forced to accept all of its demands, rather than one that is able to stand.)
However, even though Russia is playing a thuggish devil’s game, Afrin authorities insist that should they be forced to play this game, then the terms must be negotiated as much as possible in Afrin’s favour. I have mentioned previously that there is a limited troop presence of pro-Government forces. This is important to note, as some MENA analysts and TFSA supporters are jumping the gun already and proclaiming that YPG has ‘sold out to the oppressive government’. (A claim that is not true, but one that, regardless, should be avoided by Afrin Authorities.)
Afrin is in a precarious situation now, as it is being attacked by a NATO country that is determined to deny its autonomy and impose a system of authority that runs counter to the system currently in place. Employing Islamist mercenaries as cannon fodder to fight on its behalf, while justifying these fighters’ acts with fatwas and proclamations in support of waging a war of ‘jihad’ against the Kurds, Erdogan is willing to stoop to any level to capture Afrin and ensure the longevity of his political career.
What has the United Nations done, and what should be done next for the people of Afrin?
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recently voted to adopt a resolution in support of a thirty-day ceasefire over Syria. A resolution that was unanimously passed and one that has already been violated by Russia, Iran and Turkey – the so-called ‘guarantors’ of peace in the Syrian conflict. In the resolution, it mentions that humanitarian aid is to be allowed into areas of conflict, such as eastern Ghouta. Although it does not mention Afrin by name, nonetheless the resolution – as was confirmed by US State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert – extends to Afrin. Meaning that Turkey is required to follow through, as are all parties in Syria, to this ceasefire.
The very fact that Turkey was one of the main entities calling for a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, but continues to attack Afrin, should highlight the level of hypocrisy on display by the Turkish state. Although a lack of agreement to the ceasefire by some parties is not surprising, given the history of resolutions over Syria, it should be concerning for all how little power the UNSC has to stop parties from violating the ceasefire. Those who suffer the most are the people of Syria, who simply demand to live in peace and security. A simple request that has yet to be delivered.
The people of Afrin are continuing to resist Turkish occupation, despite the inaction of those that claim to be allies. Even though the world focuses on the tragedies unfolding in eastern Ghouta, which are concerning and should not be ignored, focus should also be concerned with those in Afrin. Civilians are being forced to hide in caves to escape Turkish bombardments, while children are denied access to education due to the destruction of their schools. The death count rises with each passing week and the only way this can stop is for pressure to be applied to Turkey, as well as humanitarian aid delivered to those in need. I would even go so far as to argue for humanitarian intervention by UNSC and sanctions to be imposed on Turkey, but whether this would do anything is another question. What is clear is that a devil’s game is being played in Syria. And all suffer.
Syria’s Kurds are altering the political landscape of Northern Syria, reducing the power of Bashar al-Assad’s government and reorganising the power dynamics of the country – allowing for political and legal rights for Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Turkmen and other minorities that were absent under Arab Socialist Baath rule. It is through organisation of political and military resistance, establishment of place of authority and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, that Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy.
Figure 1: Kurdish Inhabited areas and population distribution.
Kurds are one of the largest ethnicities in the Middle East with a population of over thirty million, occupying parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey (Yildiz, 2005, p. 1). Descendants of Indo-European tribes that migrated westward from Zagros Mountains in Iran, Kurds have a distinct culture and identity that sets Kurds apart from other Middle Eastern ethnic minorities (Mcdowall, 2004, p. 8). In northern Syria, Kurds make up 8-10% of the nation’s population (over thirteen million people) and have been the subject of Arab assimilation policies – Arabization. One such policy was conducted in Hassakah governate in 1962, when a consensus rendered over 110, 000 Syrian Kurds without citizenship – giving these individuals status of ‘ajanibs’ (foreigners), well absentees were given status of ‘maktoumin’ or, ‘hidden’ (Fragiskatos, 2007, pp. 112-114; Sherry, 1996, pp. 13-19). Discrimination and persecution followed in subsequent decades, right into early 21st century. When Syria fell into civil war after the wake of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian Kurds revolted against Bashar Al-Assad’s government and started the ‘Rojava revolution’ – ‘Rojava’ is Kurdish for ‘Western Kurdistan’ (Savran, 2016, p. 7).
Figure 2: Rojava.
The Kurdish uprisings in Northern Syria have subverted the traditional authority of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, as political and military resistance has formed to resist Baath hegemony. ‘Power’, as defined by German sociologist Max Weber, is the potential of an actor to achieve personal objectives in a social relationship in the face of opposition (Uphoff, 1989, p. 299). When a subordinate entity can limit or reduce the potential of an entity to achieve personal objectives, then that denotes ‘resistance’ (Barbalet, 1985, p. 541). For decades, the Arab Socialist Baath party government, under first the leadership of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad, enacted its power through coercion, fear, state repression, manipulation and bribery.
Figure 3: Hafez al-Assad (Left) and Bashar al-Assad (Right).
Any other party, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that stood in the Baath party’s way would be heavily suppressed and have its members locked up in jail. Policies, such as those of assimilation and Arabization, aided in the consolidation of the government’s power and the pursuit of its aims – Arab nationalism (Pace, 2005, p. 37; Talhami, 2001, p. 112).
When peaceful demonstrations in Damascus and Idlib were suppressed by Syrian government troops in 2010, armed resistance developed, as defectors of the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) and local dissidents established the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) and its political wing ‘Syrian National Coalition’ (SNC) (Spyer, 2012, pp. 46-49). Uprisings occurred all over Syria, including Northern Syria in cities, such as Qamishli, Kobane and Afrin. These armed uprisings resulted in the start of a civil war between Syria’s government, FSA and Islamist entities of Al-Qaeda (JFS), and the Islamic state (ISIS) after 2013. However, what distinguishes the Northern Syrian Uprisings in 2012 from the other uprisings in the rest of Syria is the organisation and direction.
In 2012, the Syrian government was pushed out of Jazira (Cizire), Kobane and Afrin cantons by organised local militia of the ‘People Protection Units’ (YPG) and its political wing, the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD). Subverting Assad’s power in Northern Syria by exploiting the conflict dynamics of the civil war, with Assad’s forces focused on fighting FSA in other parts of Syria, PYD established a political alternative to Assad’s government with formation of a de facto autonomous government – Rojava Autonomous Administration (Federici, 2015, pp. 82-84). Organised under the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s Party’ (PKK), the PYD and other parties in the ‘Movement for a Democratic Society’ (TEVDEM) coalition (leadership of Rojava) adopted a ‘Democratic Confederalism’ ideology and implemented it in governing (Paasche, 2015, pp. 78-80).
Figure 4: Abdullah Ocalan
Figure 5: Flag of TEVDEM
The ‘Rojava project’ spearheaded by TEVDEM undermines the ideology of Arab nationalism and political hegemony of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party, as the ideology of Democratic confederalism focuses on empowerment of minorities through local governance and aims at decentralising power – redistributing power among local municipalities. Instead of adopting a Kurdish nationalist project – similar to that of the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraq – that aims at establishing a Kurdish region (Kurdistan), TEVDEM adopted a Democratic Confederalist project – similar to that of the PKK – that aims at establishing grassroots, democratic and parliamentary system (Ibid, p. 78):
…[TEVDEM] sought a bottom-up system of self-administration whereby the direction of the flow of power is from the local municipally organized councils toward a larger democratic confederation of libertarian municipalities with local councils directly controlling policy-making. Such organization of politics is to provide it with concrete social content and reduces the likelihood of potential relations of domination, thereby contributing to advancing the cause of freedom as non-domination (Cemgil, 2016, pp. 424-425).
Through the implementation of ideology of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration in Northern Syria, the influence of ideology of Arab nationalism that had disenfranchised non-Arabs was significantly reduced. Kurds and other minorities in Northern Syria, such as Syriacs and Assyrians, could now establish local assemblies – form militias, police and self-administrate (Ibid, p.425; Duman, 2017, p. 85).
Figure 6: Syriac Military Council (MFS)
This system decentralises power and prevents power from establishing in one party, thus weakening Assad’s central government in Damascus from having total domination in Northern Syria.
The opposition to taking sides in the Syrian Civil war and the fight against the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), significantly increased TEVDEM’s influence in Syria’s political landscape and increased western support for the Rojava project – altering Syria’s power dynamics, and allowing TEVDEM more territorial control and political power. A strategy was adopted early on by the Rojava Autonomous Administration to not officially declare allegiance to any side in Syria’s civil war, instead opting to provide a ‘third path’ to the competing factions (Government forces versus rebels). This strategy aimed at allowing TEVDEM to focus on self-governance and self-defence, well keeping the war from reaching the de facto borders, therefore allowing TEVDEM to not lose local support and allow negotiation power with both sides, if need be (Hevian, 2013, pp. 50-52).
However, despite YPG clashes between both the FSA, JFS and SAA, the introduction of ISIS in 2014 would significantly alter TEVDEM’s trajectory.
Figure 7: (In clockwise direction) SAA, JFS, ISIS, FSA and YPG
The Siege of Kobane in 2014 by ISIS, brought global media attention to Rojava and increased Public Relations of TEVDEM with International Community. Victory by Kurdish forces against ISIS in 2015 was a huge Public Relations boost to TEVDEM, as the victory appealed to all sides of western political landscape.
Figure 8: Rojava flag on radio tower after ISIS is defeated in Kobane.
Conservatives had a force to support that was ‘western’ and hard-line Leftists could sympathise with Rojava revolution, and the Kurdish ‘struggle’. The United States-led Coalition to battle ISIS formed a military alliance with Rojava at Kobane, which started US supporting and supplying arms to YPG, as well as other militias (Dalton, 2017, p. 2).
Capitalising off this new-found support, TEVDEM mobilised forces to resist ISIS occupation in order to increase influence in Syria’s political landscape, liberate civilians and expand the borders of the de-facto Autonomous region through acquisition of territory (Kaya & Whiting, 2017, p. 86). The Islamisation of the opposition to Assad had also contributed in bolstering number of defectors to Rojava, as former secular FSA factions started aligning with YPG – this led to the formation of ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) in late 2015, a multi-ethnic coalition of anti-ISIS fighters (Gunter, 2017, p. 79; Krajeski, 2015, pp. 94-97).
Figure 9: The Syrian Democratic Forces’ flag.
The success of Rojava against ISIS and the territorial expansion of the de facto autonomous region’s borders altered Syria’s power dynamics, as TEVDEM posed an increasing threat to Assad’s government and legitimacy. The acquisition of oil fields has expanded Rojava’s economic and political power, as TEVDEM has leverage to negotiate its future and achieve Rojava’s goals of self-determination, as well as autonomy for Syrian Kurds and other minorities (Krajeski, 2015, p. 95). Though the war is not over, Rojava Autonomous Administration is in a greater position than ever before in its short history to negotiate and achieve its personal objectives, despite resistance of Assad’s government and external threats, such as ISIS and JFS (now Hay’at tahrir al-sham – HTS).
Figure 10: Map of Northern Syria showing territorial control of each faction.
However, as with everything in the Syrian conflict, the precarious nature of these relations and situations can change at any moment. In the recent months for example, with the liberation of Raqqa by the SDF, Turkish-US relations have begun to heat up. A new offensive into Idlib by the Syrian government and its allies in early 2017 has given way to a Turkish offensive in the Afrin canton of Rojava ().
Figure 11: Map of situation in Syria circa January 2018.
The power dynamics are shifting and TEVDEM officials face a difficult uphill battle in 2018. Despite these difficulties, the determination of the Kurds is stronger than ever before and international support for Rojava continues to grow with each passing month.
Through the organisation of political and military resistance to Assad’s government, establishment of an alternative government and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy. The implementation of ideology of Democratic confederalism in Rojava Autonomous Administration governance has challenged the hegemony of Bashar al-Assad and the ideology of Arab nationalism, empowering disenfranchised in Syrian society. The war against ISIS has allowed TEVDEM to acquire territory and has led to alteration of power dynamics within Syria, allowing for greater potential for Rojava in pursuing its personal objectives.
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As Turkey resumes its air and land invasion of Afrin in Syria, Anthony Avice Du Buisson provides you with his take on how to understand the geopolitics of the crisis.
What is the Afrin Crisis?
Turkey has recently launched a new military operation into Syria’s Afrin canton called, ‘Olive Branch’. This new operation aims at expelling what Ankara claims to be, ‘PKK terrorist elements’ from its borders and ‘liberating’ locals from ‘PKK/PYD rule’. The operation comes at a time when US – Turkish relations are at an all-time low and when Russia has green-lighted a Syrian government offensive in Idlib.
The Turkish airforce (TyAF) conducted a number of airstrikes around the canton, including Afrin city itself that injured innocent civilians and damaged ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) outposts. Airstrikes were followed by advancements north of Idlib by the Turkish Army (TSK) and Turkish backed opposition forces of the Free Syrian Army (TFSA) into southern Afrin. Clashes erupted throughout the canton as YPG sought to repel a number of TFSA from Euphrates Shield (ES) territory and southern Afrin.
Afrin canton is located in Syria’s Northwest, just above Syrian opposition held Idlib. It has been under the YPG, a Kurdish – dominated militia and military wing of the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD), ever since locals rose up against the Syrian government at the start of the Syrian conflict. Relatively untouched by the war, Afrin has endured minor clashes with and shellings by Islamists over the years. It currently has a truce with Damascus and has had increasingly warm ties with Russian Military police and Special Forces as well.
Why does Turkey feel threatened by the YPG/PYD?
The YPG/PYD in Syria has long been viewed by Ankara as a Syrian branch of the Turkish outlawed organisation, ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ (PKK) – who has been fighting the Turkish state within its borders since 1984. Turkey’s obsession with preventing what it perceives as a ‘terror corridor’ from forming along its border has put it at odds with Washington.
The Pentagon has been backing the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria since 2014. In late 2015, the Pentagon helped form the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian fighters – made up of various FSA groups, Arab tribes and YPG. SDF has been a major local ally in the fight against ISIS, which has placed strain on US-Turkish relations for much time.
Ever since the siege of Kobane, Turkey has taken a hostile stance towards the YPG and has expressed repeatedly its desire for the US to sever ties with YPG. And at every moment Turkey has shown disapproval, Washington has paid lip service to its relationship with Ankara and has tried to keep the peace. However, Ankara has grown tired of this and increased its rhetoric against US, as well as the SDF. Things, as they currently stand, don’t look good for US-Turkey relations.
Earlier this week, Turkish president Erdogan announced plans for a military operation into Afrin and Manbij, which lies near Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River. Erdogan warned that should the YPG not withdraw and surrender to Turkish forces, then it would be annihilated. These strong statements came in response to the news of a ‘border force’ that was to be established out of the SDF. This ‘border force’ (in reality nothing new and just a reorganisation of local forces to keep ISIS from regrouping) was accused by Turkey of being a ‘terror army’ that was being supported by US. Erdogan promised on Turkish state media to oppose this army and those who supported it.
The launching of Operation, ‘Olive Branch’ (quite the misnomer given the artillery and jets) coincides with another operation that is being conducted in Idlib by the Syrian Government and its allies.
What does Idlib have to do with the Afrin Crisis? How does Moscow play into the Turkish invasion of Afrin?
Since the Astana talks in September between Iran, Russia and Turkey (interlocutors in the conflict), it was decided that Idlib would be divided into de-escalation zones. The international community has been alarmed both by rebel infighting in the province and the domination of Jihadists in Idlib.
When arrangements were made between Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir Al – Sham (HTS), an Al – Qaeda aligned group dominating Idlib, in late 2017 to allow Turkey access to Idlib’ s north, Russia expected Turkey to do its part in ‘softening up’ the opposition. However, when Russia became displeased at Turkey’s ‘cuddling’ up to HTS, Russia green lighted Syrian Government forces to begin pushing north of Hama and into Idlib in January. In response, Erdogan increased further his rhetoric against Assad’s Government.
Angered at the behaviour of Russia and seeking to increase the support of his nationalist base, Erdogan promised to conduct an attack on Afrin, which has Russian personnel stationed there. Threatening to engage with anyone who stands in Turkey’s way, Erdogan has engaged in political theatre while Russia watched and laughed. That was until yesterday, when Turkey called Russia’s bluff and began bombing Afrin.
After Russian military officials met with Turkish military officials to discuss Afrin, Russian foreign minister Lavrov assured that Russian forces would not be withdrawing in Afrin. However, this clearly would not be the case, as soon after airstrikes started, Russian forces withdrew to a safe distance away from the attacks. Indicating that an arrangement had been made between the two nations, where southern Idlib would be taken in exchange for parts of Afrin, Russia threw its Kurdish allies under the bus.
What is so significant about Afrin, and what is next?
One of the few areas left untouched by war now has Turkish planes flying overhead. Armed with equipment and Aircraft supplied by UK, as well as other NATO allies, Turkey is now using what it has to target refugee camps and civilian areas – all under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism’. However, for the thousands of people living in the canton, the differentiation between Jihadists and the Turkish state is practically non -existent. For many in Afrin and Rojava, Turkey is a ‘fascist’ and ‘anti – Kurdish’ state, ‘hell-bent on annihilating Kurds’.
As the shelling and airstrikes continue across the canton, Islamists of TFSA slowly begin their push into the region. Chanting slogans that are reminiscent of a past siege, where ISIS attacked another Kurdish canton at Kobane. For the YPG and people of Afrin, an invasion by Turkey has been on the horizon for some time. Now the invasion has commenced.
Should Turkey advance far enough into the canton, it will be no surprise to see an operation being conducted into Euphrates Shield territory by YPG. Moreover, should Erdogan be so bold as to push into Manbij where US coalition area of operations is, it is feared that relations between the US and Turkey will be at a crossroads. However, it has not come to that yet.
For now, Afrin is under siege and civilians seek protection. The international community must stand in solidarity with the people of Afrin and humanitarian aid needs to be delivered, as well as a strong defence of the region from Turkish aggression needs to be made. Until this happens, things will get worse in Syria. People in Afrin and throughout Rojava now prepare for what is to come. As for me, I will be standing in solidarity with the people of Afrin, as should the world.