Australian government’s role in the stabilisation of the Solomon Islands in the
early 2000s was crucial to the restoration of law and order in the state. A
diplomatic peace initiative through the ‘Pacific Islands Forum’ allowed for the
Howard government’s brokering of negotiations amongst warring militias. Subsequent
military and political assistance in the wake of political instability through the
‘Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands’ initiated a peace building
process. This would lead to the disarmament of militias and the peaceful
resolution of ethnic tensions in the state. Allowing for the Solomon Islands to
re-establish law and order and provide for a benefit to Australia’s national security
in the South Pacific. Through the analysis of the ethnic tensions between
Malaitan and Guadalcanalese peoples in the Solomon Islands and Australia’s
bilateral relations with the Solomon Islands’ government during ‘the Tension’
period, a greater understanding of the reasons leading to the ‘Townsville Peace
Agreement’ will be established. Following from this analysis, there will be an analysis
of Australia’s national security concerns in the South Pacific with emphasis
placed on lessons learnt from former interventions in the region, specifically
the intervention into East Timor in 1999. Finally, there will be an examination
of the Regional Assistance Mission t0 Solomon Islands and the assistance that
was provided by the Australian Federal Police, Department of Foreign Affairs
and Trade and other principal participating agencies in the restoration of
order in the state. The purpose of this essay is to show the success of Australia’s
intervention into the Solomon Islands helped benefit the state and secure
Australia’s role as an important regional played in the South Pacific.
ethnic rivalries created from disputes over land, movement and immigration in
the Solomon Islands created political instability resulting in the necessity of
foreign diplomatic intervention and a peace settlement in form of the ‘Townsville
Peace Agreement’ (TPA). The Solomon Islands are an archipelago in the South
Pacific region consisting of more than 900 islands, with two Islands being
populated predominantly – Malaita and Guadalcanal (Gyngell & Wesley 2007,
p. 227). During the late 1990s, the political process in the Solomon Islands
deteriorated and corruption created civil disturbance as the Guadalcanal people
(the Guale) and Malaitans engaged in disputes over land. For the Guale, lack of
infrastructure development to the north coast, perceived disregard for customs and
increased dominance of Guadalcanal by the Malaitan immigrants caused ethnic
resentment to the Malaitans (Moore 2018, pp. 165-167). This ethnic resentment
escalated into conflict with the formation of armed militias in 1998, first
with the formation of the ‘Istabu Freedom Movement’ (IFM) that started
dispossessing Malaitans of land and then the formation of the ‘Malaita Eagle
Force’ (MEF) by Malaitans with the backing of Malaitan sectors of the ‘Royal
Solomon Islands Police Field Force’ (RSIPF) in retaliation [see Appendix,
figure 1.1 & 1.2] (Ibid, p. 166). The period that followed from 1998 is
referred to as the Tension (1998-2003) as the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara
and surrounding areas were subject to clashes between the militias resulting in
political instability and disorder (Ibid, p. 169).
A coup d’ etat in June of 2000 led by the
MEF resulted in the forced resignation of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu
creating increased political turmoil and a risk of destabilisation in the
Solomon Islands. Concerned with preventing this disorder, John Howard’s
government brokered a peace settlement through the Pacific Islands Forum in Townsville (Allen & Dinnen 2010, p.
306). This Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA) facilitated negotiations between
the MEF and IFM leading to these militias disbanding with an ‘International
Peace Monitoring Team’ (IPMT) set up to monitor the situation as well as
collect weapons for destruction (Hegarty 2001, p. 1; Barbara 2008, p. 129;
Scales 2007, p. 207). Despite the initiative of the IPMT (2000-2002) to
maintain a long-term peace in the Solomon Islands, ethnic tensions in the state
were replaced by lawlessness and corruption from ex-Militiamen joining
government law enforcement forces – renewing political disorder and instability
(Hegarty 2000, pp. 1-2). The breakdown of law and order in subsequent years after
TPA’s signing resulted in an incursion led by Australia in 2003, contributing
significantly to the longevity of stabilisation in the Solomon Islands.
Australian government’s involvement in the Solomon Islands reflects a ‘risk
management approach’ to the security of the South Pacific region and prevention
of continued destabilisation from the arc
of instability. The term arc of instability
refers to security challenges facing Melanesia (the South Pacific) posed by the
increase in terrorism, civil disturbances, transnational crime and political
instability in the region during the 1990s onwards (Wallis 2015, p. 41). In the
1990s and early 2000s, the arc of
instability was viewed with importance by Australian officials such as
Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Affairs Minister Andrew Downer. Both
argued that Australia’s security in the South Pacific relied on the maintenance
of stability in neighbouring states within the Melanesian arc [see Appendix,
figure 1.3]. Through bilateral and multilateral involvement with these states
in the form of financial aid, diplomatic and military support, it was argued
that the potential risk of political and social disintegration as well as state
failure could be countered – resulting in stability for states in the arc of instability and overall security for
Australia (Wallis 2015, pp. 42-44; Dobell, pp. 89-93). This risk management
approach to the security of the South Pacific was reflected in the Howard
government’s involvement in peacekeeping missions in the South Pacific in the
late 1990s and early 2000s, such as in East Timor in 1999.
Australian-led United Nations peacekeeping mission into East Timor in 1999 reflected
Australia’s perceived role as a responsible
international actor for the security of the South Pacific and provided lessons
to Australia of for future increased regional engagement such as with the Regional
Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003. In 1999, the Australian
government – under authorisation from ‘United Nations Security Council’ (UNSC)
Resolution 1264 – led a multilateral intervention through the multinational
force of the ‘International Force East Timor’
(INTERFET) to provide humanitarian assistance and re-establish order in East
Timor (McDougall 2009, p. 188). This intervention into East Timor was prompted
by ethnic tensions within the state, human rights abuses and a breakdown of law
and order. Providing over five thousand Australian Defence Force (ADF)
personnel to assist in restabilisation of the state, Australia provided the
bulk of troops for INTERFET (Cotton & Ravenhill 2012, p. 148). INTERFET’s
objective started with police reform in within the state, before evolving into
rebuilding the state’s governance structures and transitioning the state
towards self-governance. This development was necessary for East Timor as it allowed
for the state to return to stability with law enforcement returning to a
competent capacity. The perceived success of the intervention by the Howard
government set a precedent for future action within the South Pacific region
approach under the Howard government was a departure to past approaches of
respect for sovereignty in the region under Paul Keating’s Labour Party
government (1991-1996). An increased regional engagement through interventions
in the South Pacific, such as in East Timor normalised as the Australian
government pursued a new role as a responsible
international actor in the region (Cotton & Ravenhill 2012, pp.
148-149; McDougall 2017, pp. 461-463). This approach entailed active engagement
in regional affairs in the South Pacific through diplomatic and military means
and provided a new lesson for Australia:
intervention in pursuit of state-building in the South Pacific could be
a viable means for regional stability and national security (Ibid). With this
in consideration, the Howard government again pursued an intervention in the
South Pacific through RAMSI in 2003.
Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands(RAMSI)
facilitated the reestablishment of law and order in the Solomon Islands through
the assistance that the mission provided to local law enforcement, government
and economy – highlighting Australia’s key role in the nation’s development. With
political instability, corruption and lawlessness risking the collapse of the
state, the Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza asked for assistance from
John Howard’s government in 2003. This request for assistance was accepted on
the condition that a formal request from the Solomon Islands’ parliament be
made (Gyngell & Wesley 2007, p. 228). Thus, giving the Australian
government legal legitimacy to intervene without a breach being made in local
national sovereignty or international law (Ibid). Through approval and
negotiations with the Pacific Islands
Forum, John Howard’s initiation of RAMSI facilitated the foundations for
self-governance that was needed by the government of the Solomon Islands (Gyngell
& Wesley 2009, p. 230; Cotton & Ravenhill 2012, p. 148).
‘Helpem Fren’ (Helping friend in Pigeon) – another name for RAMSI – utilised
the resources of multiple departments of the Australian government and other
principle participating agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and
Trade (DFAT), Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Agency for
International Development (AusAID), Defence and Treasury to engage in state [or
peace] building (Ibid, p. 229). Over 1600 ADF personnel were deployed to
Honiara along with 300 AFP to assist in the training of RSIPF, with the
objective of eliminating the lawlessness, corruption and instability (McDougall
2009, p. 296-298; Cotton & Ravenhill 2012, p. 148; Barbara 2008, p.
132-133). RAMSI’s state building mission in the Solomon Islands was crucial for
the development of the nation’s governance and infrastructure, with $840
million being invested by the Australian government between 2003-2006 into the
project (Gyngell & Wesley 2007, p, 230). This investment allowed for the
training of local law enforcement that helped to maintain law within Malaita
and Guadalcanal by the dismantling of weapons and crackdown of criminal
organisations [see Appendix, figure 1. 4]. Fundamentally allowing for the
rebuilding of the machinery of government and democracy in the state (Moore
2018, pp. 172-174). Operation Helpem Fren
completed its mission in 2017, playing a key role in the maintenance of peace,
reestablishment of law and order and development in the Solomon Islands (Ibid,
The Australian government’s involvement in the Tension period through the brokering of a peace settlement in 2000 and subsequent peacebuilding mission in 2003 during the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands was highly significant for the development of peace in the Solomon Islands. The Townsville Peace Agreement allowed for a peaceful resolution of ethnic tensions between the Guale and Malaitan militias – the Istabu Freedom Movement and Malaita Eagle Force. The disbanding of these militias along with the establishment of an Australian-led International Peace Monitoring Team to dismantle weapons and monitor the situation allowed for a temporary peace. The Melanesia arc of instability altered Australia’s approach to the South Pacific, with a more interventionist Australia arising through peacekeeping and state building projects in places like East Timor. Lessons learnt from East Timor allowed Australia to pursue increased regional engagement leading to intervention into Solomon Islands through RAMSI. RAMSI’s training and development of the Solomon Islands allowed for the reestablishment of law and order, elimination of corruption and rebuilding of the mechanisms of self-governance. This intervention into the Solomon Islands highlights Australia’s key role in the development of peace in the nation and stabilisation of the South pacific region.
Allen, M & Dinnen, S 2010, ‘A North Down
Under: antinomies of conflict and intervention in Solomon Islands’, Conflict, Security & Development,
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Barbara, J 2008, ‘Antipodean Statebuilding: The
Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands and Australian Intervention in
the South Pacific’, Journal of
Intervention and Statebuilding, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 123-149, viewed 11 May
2019, < https://bit.ly/30mUThX>.
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Freedom Movement (IFM), stop…,awm.gov.au,
viewed 10 May 2019, < https://bit.ly/2WceIZK>.
Bohane, B 2000, Masked and armed Malaita
Eagles Force (MEF) guerrillas gather on the outskirts of Honiara. This…,awm.gov.au, viewed 10 May 2019, <
Cotton, J & Ravenhill, J 2012, ‘Australia, the
Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste’ in J Cotton & J Ravenhill (eds), Middle Power Dreaming: Australia in World
Affairs 2006-2010, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp. 147-164.
Dobell, G 2007, ‘The ‘Arc of Instability’: The History
of an Idea’, in R Huisken & M Thatcher (eds), History as Policy: Framing the debate on the future of Australia’s
defence policy, ANU Press & Strategic and Defence Studies Centre
(SDSC), Canberra, pp. 85-104, viewed 12 May 2019, <https://bit.ly/2HymdRz>.
Geocurrents.info 2014, Is There an Arc of Instability?, Geocurrents.info, viewed 13 May
Gyngell, A & Wesley, M 2007, ‘Case Study: The
Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands’, Making Australian Foreign Policy, 2nd edn, Cambridge University
Press, Melbourne, pp. 227-231.
Hegarty, D 2001, Small Arms in Post-Conflict Situation – Solomon Islands, State, Society
and Governance in Melanesia Project, Pacific Islands Forum, viewed 11 May
2019, < https://bit.ly/2Q5iyOW>.
McDougall, D 2009, ‘Southeast Asia: Indonesia’, in
L Caiazzo, C Cooper, F Eden & J Whitton (eds), Australia Foreign Relations: Entering the 21st Century,
Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest, pp. 160-203.
McDougall, D 2017, ‘Peacekeeping from Oceania:
Perspectives from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji’, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs,
vol. 106, no. 4, pp. 453-466, viewed May 14 2019, <https://bit.ly/2Q6Fuxt>.
Moore, C 2018, ‘The End of the Regional Assistance
Mission to Solomon Islands (2003-2017)’, The
Journal of Pacific History, vol. 53, no. 2, pp. 164-179, viewed 10 May
2019, < https://bit.ly/2W8Npj5>.
Scales, I 2007, ‘The Coup Nobody Noticed: The
Solomon Islands Western State Movement in 2000’, The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 187-209, viewed
11 May 2019, < https://bit.ly/30rznIQ>.
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(2RAR), holds a rifle from a…, awm.gov.au, viewed 18 May 2019, <
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Figure 1.1 & 1.2 (Above from Left to Right): Istabu Freedom Movement (IFM) guerrillas stop a vehicle in the outskirts of Honiara in 2000 (Bohane 2000). Malaita Eagles Force (MEF) guerrillas amass on the outskirts of Honiara in 2000 (Bohane 2000).
Figure 1.3 (Above): Nations within Melanesia considered part of the arc of instability (Geocurrents.info 2014).
Figure 1.4 (Below): Australian Defence Force soldier in front of a truck load of confiscated weapons. These weapons would be later dismantled (Stephen 2003).
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently announced the final push to take Baghouz in Syria’s northeast from Islamic State fighters. This move comes months after a concerted effort by anti-ISIS coalition forces to take the neighbouring city of Hajin. As the ISIS self-professed caliphate collapses, more fighters and their families continue to be captured, and increasingly consist of foreign volunteers from northern countries such as France and the United Kingdom. The question now is whether these countries will repatriate their citizens, or leave them to face retribution from local authorities, such as in Iraq.
Forty thousand volunteers from over a hundred countries flocked to join ISIS during its rise. Crossing the border from places such as Turkey into Iraq and Syria, these foreign fighters fortified the organisation and aided in its expansion. Notorious individuals such as British foreign volunteer Mohammed Emwazi – aka Jihadi John, conducted beheadings to spread the network’s terrorism. Other volunteers such as British medical student Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass assisted with the recruitment of volunteers and used their skills to abet the organisation, highlighting a vast network utilised by ISIS to solidify control in Syria and Iraq.
Women flocked from across the world – voluntarily – to join the self-declared caliphate, marrying local fighters and raising children to further the ISIS ideology. These female volunteers indoctrinated the youth in Salafi-jihadist ideology, normalising violence against victims of the caliphate and preparing those youth to one day join and fight for the organisation. The result of this indoctrination is evident in the propaganda videos produced by ISIS from places like Deir ez-Zor, where prisoners were executed by young children. Given the totalitarian nature of ISIS ideology, all individuals under the proto-state’s control are used to further the expanse of the organisation.
Fighters of the caliphate were not the only ones that engaged in violence towards local indigenous populations. Wives of fighters participated in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of enslaved individuals, such as the Yazidis. Lebanese journalist, Jenan Moussa of Al Ann TV conducted an interview with an ISIS female volunteer and wife in 2017, where Jenan noted the lack of remorse for victims by the interviewed volunteer. In the interview, the woman explains in detail the process of selling and acquiring slaves – showing a lack of empathy, understanding and moral conscious for why such things are wrong.
Another interview conducted by the French journalist James Andre for France 24, highlighted a group of captured female volunteers living in a refugee camp in Syria’s northeast after being freed from places like Hajin and Baghouz. They were segregated from the rest of civilians freed from the organization’s control. In that interview, volunteers from France, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere express regret for joining the organization, emphasizing the horrible nature and alleged deceit that coerced them into joining. However, whether these ‘confessions’ are genuine is another question, as radicals amongst these volunteers still cling to ISIS ideology and harm individuals that speak out against it.
The response to the capture of foreign volunteers by the international community has been mixed. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a multiethnic coalition of militias leading the fight against the Islamic State – currently hold thousands of foreign ISIS volunteers and fighters in captivity. Coalition countries who are involved in supporting the SDF are reluctant to take back their citizens that joined ISIS. Fearing the risk these individuals pose at home, these nations – except for the United States and France – are slow to repatriate their renegade citizens and prefer that justice be delivered by the local authorities, regardless of the problems that arise from this policy.
The problems that occur from refusing to repatriate ISIS volunteers are two-fold. The first is the lack of international judicial oversight in trials in local countries such as Iraq. Islamic State volunteers who were handed over to Baghdad receive short trials that result in life sentences or death. This is despite the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) launching an investigation into ISIS’s crimes under resolution 2379 in 2017. There is a lack of proper legal course in trials that are governed by retribution rather than law. At first glance, this may not prove a problem to those who wish to see ISIS volunteers ‘get what they deserve’, but does it not serve to undermine justice for victims of the organisation’s brutality?
When the Bosnian war waged across former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the UNSC passed resolution 780. This resolution created the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The ICTY was tasked with the prosecution of perpetrators of human rights and international law violations. Under the ICTY, dozens were prosecuted for crimes against humanity, genocide and various other war crimes. Not only did it set a legal precedent in international law, but also verified the gravity of the crimes perpetrated by those convicted, leading to the classification of the massacre in Srebrenica – for example – as a genocide. The same process should be adopted for the prosecution of ISIS volunteers.
There is not just a legal precedent to be set, but a moral one too. Unless international support and oversight is provided to local authorities, then the system of justice that is delivered will not suffice to solidify in the public consciousness what happened to the many victims of ISIS. Ensuring an effective legal prosecution that highlights the extent of the group’s barbarism, as well as giving gravitas to the stories of victims will aim to preserve international law and human rights both in the present and the future. In turn, this will set a legal precedent and a standard from which to judge future atrocities by.
The second issue that arises from a refusal to repatriate ISIS volunteers is the security threat that these individuals pose to the longevity of the organization. There are thousands of fighters held in captivity in Syria by the SDF. Without continued support and military oversight, the maintenance of prisons which contain fighters will be challenged. With the withdrawal of the US from the region, concerns are rising over what will happen to these volunteers. These concerns are also exacerbated by the prospect of increased instability from threats of a military incursion into the area by Turkey, which is could result in a resurgence of ISIS.
As this phase of the war against the Islamic State ends, the question arises as to whether countries should repatriate their ISIS citizens or leave them to the fate of local justice. The poor quality of justice offered in those countries which currently holds ISIS volunteers, increase doubts over the effectiveness of local authorities to impartially prosecute these members. Waning military support coupled with weak infrastructure in Syria do not create confidence in the long-term security concerns of nations or for stability in the region. These concerns place the burden of responsibility on the international community in order to deal with the aftermath of ISIS. Western nations must take back that responsibility.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (20/02/2019) Original version available at Jerusalem Post: https://bit.ly/2IykI9J
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.
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.
Selahattin Demirtas, who is the co-leader of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ (HDP) in Turkey, will be stepping down from his position. This comes after a recent HDP party meeting where a letter from Demirtas was read out before the congress. It is a heavy blow to the Kurdish party, which is the third largest and youngest Turkish party in government.
Since its founding in 2012, the primarily left-leaning party has been a welcome breath of fresh air in Turkish politics. Fighting for Kurdish rights, secularism and desiring to re-establish a democratic Turkey, HDP’s presence in government is in stark contrast to the Justice and Developments Party’s (AKP), which has ruled the country since 2002. Selahattin Demirtas was elected co-leader of HDP in 2014, along with Figen Yuksekdag, and both have fought passionately in Turkish parliament against the various injustices that have been wrought by AKP rule.
Prior to the formation of the HDP out of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Congress’ (HDK), the Kurdish movement in Turkey had been largely framed by the war between the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s party’ (PKK) and the Turkish State. The PKK has been engaging in an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, where the organisation prior to this had been a civil rights movement (it was founded in 1978). This war brought Kurdish issues to the forefront and started a discussion in the 90’s over the ‘Kurdish question’ – a term that has since referred to conversations over Kurdish rights, homeland and so forth.
When the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been jailed in isolation on Imrali island since his capture by the Turkish ‘National Intelligence Organisation’ (MIT) in 1999, was contacted by AKP government in 2013 to discuss a solution to the conflict, HDP MP’s took part in negotiations. Turkish state media has since framed such engagements between HDP and PKK as being indicative of a partnership between the two. Accusing HDP of being a political wing to the PKK, these outlets’ (Daily Sabah etc.) contrived a narrative of events that would be later used by AKP as justification to jail HDP members.
Upon the election of Demirtas to party co-leadership in 2014, the Rojava revolution had been in full swing in Syria and a revitalisation of the Kurdish movement in the Middle East had taken hold. However, this revitalisation did not come without its challenges. Another group in Iraq and Syria had emerged out of the instability and chaos. The ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) had emerged and grown exponentially. Its growth had brought with it great suffering and bloodshed, and was now on the doorstep of a small Kurdish city in northern Syria called, ‘Kobane’.
The besieging of Kobane at hands of Islamic State militants created a huge outcry in Turkey. Thousands of Kurds in the country protested the inaction of the new president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. In Diyarbakir (Kurdish capital of Bakur) and places like Mursitpinar, Kurds vocalised their support for fellow Syrian Kurds. During the siege of Kobanî, Turkish forces watched from a distance and closed the border between Syria and Turkey, forcing hundreds of fleeing civilians from Kobanî to return. A charismatic Demirtas was one of most vocal proponents for intervention to stop ISIS’ siege and one of biggest critics of Erdogan’s lack of action.
Soon after ISIS besieged Kobani, the US delivered the necessary assistance in the form of airstrikes that helped break the siege. This led to a victory for the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who had been holding out against ISIS for months. After this victory, Demirtas became an increasingly pernicious thorn in Erdogan’s side. As the young HDP leader did not stop his criticisms of the president in parliament. These criticisms would culminate in his arrest in November of 2016.
When a military coup was foiled by AKP in 2016, Erdogan blamed the coup’s orchestration on Fethullah Gulen and his organisation, ‘The Gulen movement’. The president used the failed coup attempt as a pretext to arrest thousands of individuals, whether they be Gulenists or not. I have mentioned in my writing before that this was the spark that consolidated Erdogan’s, ‘Republic of Fear’. Thousands of members of government, education, law and rival parties were arrested on terrorism charges, as ErdoÄŸan unleashed a purge on the country.
In a speech that was delivered before the Turkish parliament in 2016 Demirtas highlighted the power that Erdogan had been given from the foiled coup and his abuse of that power. However, for Demirtas and for many other HDP members’ comments, many – including Demirtas – were arrested. Arrested without trial, the HDP leader and members of the party have since remained in jail ever since.
The new year of 2018 brought with it striking news for Kurds and supporters of HDP in Turkey, as before a recent HDP party meeting and regarding future party elections for February 11th, a letter was read from Demirtas that stated that he would be stepping down from party leadership. This comes as a sad development, but an understandable one, as the party’s main leadership is behind bars and cannot effectively run the party well in this state. Such a development has brought with it concerns for the future.
Debates over the Kurdish Question have resurfaced in Turkey, as Erdogan’s incursion in Syria in 2016 (operation Euphrates Shield) to stop YPG, which Ankara considers to be a Syrian PKK branch, and increasing crackdowns in the country have brought forth a discussion over the place of Kurds in the Middle East. Whether AKP has meant for this or not, there are large numbers of Kurds, both in Turkey and out of it, that do not trust the Turkish government. There are still Kurds who do not identify as Turks within the country and the banning of Kurdish terms in parliament does not help the AKP to convince Kurds of the fairness of the government to them.
The length of imprisonment for some HDP members, if the pro-AKP justice system is anything to go off, looks to be quite long. For Kurds, the major parties beside HDP, such as CHP and MHP, do not fight for Kurdish rights. Each of the major parties either has a Kemalist, Turkish Nationalist or Islamist ideology that have each been historically rooted in anti-Kurdish sentiment. As a result, there are many Kurds who do not feel that the government represents their interests and have supported HDP as a result, because they feel it to be an avenue for representation.
What is evident is that the country is in a precarious position, as increasing opposition towards Erdogan’s government coupled with a failing foreign policy, repressive policies and creeping Islamist decrees have put a lot of the country on edge. Regardless of what may happen and what can be speculated for the future, what is known now is that many Kurds desire a change in how the government treats them. It is up to the government of Turkey to heed their calls.
Stories of those forcefully taken from their homes by ISIS’ militants and sold into slavery are just haunting reminders of the tyranny that Daesh (ISIS) has wrought on so many, during its seizure of power in Iraq and Syria. Yazidi women were some of the worst effected by ISIS, as many witnessed their families butchered, homes destroyed and children taken. Having to undergo emotional, psychological and physical trauma through rape, beatings and abuse that is too graphic to mention in detail is unimaginable, yet there were thousands who experienced this — one being Nadia Murad.
Nadia Murad speaking at the UN.
When parts of Shingal (another name for it is ‘Sinjar’) — a district located in the North of Iraq and home to a large proportion of Yazidis — were taken by ISIS’ militants in August 2014, the world witnessed a brutal and bloody campaign of slaughter. Those Yazidis who had not yet fled to the Shingal mountains by the time ISIS arrived, and who instead became trapped in villages at the bottom of its slopes, bore the brunt of ISIS’ brutality. In villages like Kocho, men were forced to either convert — as Yazidis are considered to be pagans by ISIS — or be executed. Many refused ISIS’ demands to convert, resulting in hundreds of Yazidi men being butchered and thousands of women, some as young as twelve and taken from their schools, being forced into slavery. Nadia Murad was one of these women who was captured. Nadia was just nineteen, when she witnessed her brothers butchered before her eyes and was sold off into sex slavery. Taken to Mosul, Nadia endured three months of horror before luckily escaping. She has since gone on to speak out about the injustices of ISIS and the need to bring ISIS’ militants to trial.
Nadia returned to her village in Kocho in Late May, 2017 — just after it was liberated by Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU), a collection of a majority Shiite militias backed by the Abadi government of Iraq (1). It is evident that years of trauma and horror at the hands of ISIS, especially when family and friends were taken, executed and sold, came flooding back to Nadia, as upon returning she cried out in agony around the ruins of desolate buildings in the village. For many of the young taken by ISIS, the trauma still stings and such experiences that Nadia has faced will not be forgotten any time soon. Since 2016, Nadia has been the UN’s goodwill ambassador.
Nadia’s story, which has been documented in a ‘Time’s’ article from 2015 (2), also highlights the barbarity of ISIS and the suffering experienced by those sold into sex slavery. For example, Nadia recalls how some women would throw battery acid on their face, just to avoid being picked by militants for sex. Women enslaved are treated as objects to be used and abused, where militants share and trade them amongst one another. This sex slavery network, where militants buy, sell and gift sex slaves to other militants between Iraq and Syria, is very popular — narcotics comes close too. After being captured and interviewed, a wife of an ISIS militant — wives are treated differently to sex slaves, as these wives came to the caliphate voluntarily — explains how this operation works below(3).
Another Yazidi woman that was taken into slavery by ISIS was Nihad Alawsi (4). She was just fifteen, when militants abducted her. In slavery, Nihad was beaten, raped by multiple men and forced to have a child — to describe her experiences as, ‘going through hell’ would not come close to reality. This woman was beaten, raped repeatedly and verbally abused by her ‘owners’. Nihad is scarred, both physically and mentally, and has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over what she had to go through in those months of captivity, but she is not the only one. Many Yazidi women who have been liberated from ISIS have shown signs of trauma and now have to undergo serious psychological treatment (5). This only further highlights the impact that ISIS has had on the psyche of people, especially the Yazidi community.
Put simply, ISIS committed a genocide in Shingal through its deliberate targeting of Yazidis for slaughter and its mass enslavement of Yazidi women(6). Targeted for their identity, Yazidis who managed to escape ISIS’ clutches are still dealing with the trauma. Some, like Nadia Murad, have decided to help other victims and raise awareness of what happened at Shingal. Others, however, have decided to take up arms and take the fight to ISIS. Joining the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) in Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan) and those in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), Yazidi fighters now are the ones on the hunt. There still remain many more of their fellow friends and family trapped by ISIS, in places like Raqqa — Syria. These fighters desire now simply to help liberate those they care for. And they are not the only ones.
In 2014, it took a concerted effort from multiple forces, such as the Peshmerga, Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the United states, to prevent further slaughter in Shingal region. Those Yazidis who fled to the Shingal mountains, out of fear for their family’s safety, had help provided to them by the PKK who brought arms and training to Yazidis that had escaped ISIS during this period. These Yazidi fighters formed with The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) for self-defence and brought the fight back to ISIS. These units have since gone on to cooperate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS in Syria.
Sinjar Resistance Units arriving at the Raqqa front.
Nearly three years on since the Yazidi genocide took place in Shingal, when the world watched ISIS expansion in Iraq, and the Yazidi community is slowly returning to the region. However, ISIS is far from defeated, but the forces that are bringing it closer to its death are made up of those who care for others. Those forces fighting against Daesh intend to oust its presence from their homes and liberate those held captive — to turn back the years of tyranny. There are Yazidis who fight with SDF that want to free their sisters from slavery. And it is that struggle that will be won, but only through unity, support and determination. As for those Yazidis and many other women who have been liberated, it is clear that serious help will have to be given to them, especially psychological help. This will all happen in time, but until then, we can only fight till its over.