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.
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.
Barbalet, J. M. (1985). Power and Resistance. The British Journal of Sociology, 36(4), 531-543. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/590330
Cemgil, C. (2016). The republican ideal of freedom as non-domination and the Rojava experiment: States as they are’ or a new socio-political imagination?. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 42(4-5), 419-428. doi: 10.1177/0191453715624959
Dalton, M. (2017). Defeating terrorism in syria: A new way forward. Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, , 16. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/1872372441?accountid=16285
Duman, Y. (2017). Peacebuilding in a Conflict Setting: Peace and Reconciliation Committees in De Facto Rojava Autonomy in Syria. Journal of Peace Building & Development, 12(7), 85-90. doi: 10.1080/15423166.2017.1285245
Federici, V. (2015). The rise of rojava: Kurdish autonomy in the syrian conflict. The SAIS Review of International Affairs, 35(2), 81-90. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/1764138153?accountid=16285
Fragiskatos, P. (2007). The stateless kurds in syria: Problems and prospects for the ajanib and maktumin kurds. The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, 21(1), 109-VIII. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/216672132?accountid=16285
Ghada, H. T. (2001). Syria: Islam, arab nationalism and the military. Middle East Policy, 8(4), 110-127. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/203767053?accountid=16285
Gunter, M. M. (2017). Trump, Turkey and the Kurds. Middle East policy, 24(2), 78-86. doi: 10.1111/mepo.12269
Hevian, R. (2013). The Resurrection Of Syrian Kurdish Politics. Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), 17(3), 45-56. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/1496997227?accountid=16285
Kaya, Z., & Whiting, M. (2017). Sowing Division: Kurds in the Syrian War. Middle East Policy, 24(1), 79-91. doi: 10.1111/mepo.12253
Krajeski, J. (2015). What the kurds want. The Virginia Quarterly Review, 91(4), 86-105,7. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/1720425017?accountid=16285
Mcdowall, D. (2004). A Modern History of the Kurds (3rd ed.). New York, United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pace, S. (2005). Bashar al-assad’s balancing act. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 24(7), 37-37,53. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/docview/218803868?accountid=16285
Savran, Y. (2016). The Rojava revolution and British solidarity. Anarchist Studies, 24(1), 7-12. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=james
Sherry, V. N. (1996). Syria: The Silenced Kurds (No. 4). Retrieved from Human Rights Watch website: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/SYRIA96.pdf
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.