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,
vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 299-327, viewed 10 May 2019, < https://bit.ly/2WbbVjD>.
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>.
Bohane, B 2000, A group of well armed guerrillas soldiers, members of the Isatabu
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>.
Stephen, D 2003, Sergeant Adam Gilles of 2nd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment
(2RAR), holds a rifle from a…, awm.gov.au, viewed 18 May 2019, <
Wallis, J 2015, ‘The South Pacific: ‘arc of instability’ or ‘arc of opportunity’?’, Global Change, Peace & Security, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 39-53, viewed 12 May 2019, <https://bit.ly/2VwfmwX>.
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).
The flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces flies high over the last conquered area of the Islamic State’s proto-state, signalling a military defeat to the organisation. This comes nearly five years after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – leader of the organisation – took to a platform in al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s heart to declare the establishment of the proto-state, rallying thousands of Salafist-Jihadists to fight for the self-declared Caliphate. Coming from across the globe to kill and spread carnage, thousands of fighters once eager to expand Baghdadi’s vision now surrender en masse to the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces, while Baghdadi – once commander of a proto-state that stretched from Raqqa to Mosul – flees to evade capture in the region. He leaves a crumbled Caliphate behind.
As Baghdadi evades detection, the remains of his vision are being cleared out by the Syrian Democratic Forces and US-led Coalition. Thousands of Syrians gave their lives in the fight against the Islamic State. These ‘martyrs’ – as they are more commonly referred to as – consist of fighters from Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other ethnic as well as religious communities across northern Syria. Each community gave up sons and daughters in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), all in the cause of liberating areas that ISIS controlled. Since the battle of Kobane in 2014 and going forwards, eleven thousand lives are estimated by the Syrian Democratic Forces’ press office to have fallen in pursuit of the cause, highlighting the large list of martyrs that died in pursuit of peace in northern Syria.
These martyrs include Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection units (YPJ), the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the original combat force that has operated since the start of the war against ISIS. Syriac communities who fought with these Kurdish fighters gave lives to the cause too, especially from the Syriac Military Council (MFS) and Bethnahrain Women’s Protection Units (HSNB). Arab tribes from the north of Syria sent forces to fight in conjunction with this growing multi-ethnic coalition of militias in defiance of ISIS, sending Sanadid Forces and forming ranks with contingents of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), such as the Northern Sun Battalion – later known as the Manbij Military Council (MMC). Each force gave sons and daughters in the fight against ISIS.
The list of martyrs includes internationalists that ventured from across the globe to join the Syrian Democratic Forces. They were people who took up arms in the same spirit as the internationalists of the Spanish Civil War over seventy years prior, each holding different beliefs but sharing a desire to eliminate what they perceived to be a modern-day tyranny invested in taking the lives of the innocent. Leaving relatively safe homes and joining local Syrians, these internationalists fought gruelling battles in a faraway land called Syria. Internationalists such as British volunteers, Anna Campbell and Jac Holmes; American volunteer, David Taylor as well as many, many more would not return home alive, dying instead on the battlefield.
Across northern Syria (Rojava), hundreds of monuments dedicated to those who fell in the war against ISIS have been erected. Decorated with the portraits of thousands of martyrs, these locations provide a sad reminder for locals and visitors of the cost of this war. (Each portrait shows the individual’s face, along with the force that they fought in. For example, David Taylor’s portrait shows his face with the background of the YPG.) Cemeteries are also found across the north, where families, friends and loved ones still travel frequently to mourn. These graves contain the bodies of fighters and civilians alike, including humanitarian workers and local journalists such as Dilishan Ibish – a Kurdish journalist who perished in an explosion in 2017.
In Kurdish there is a proverb used to remember those that perished. The proverb is, “Shaheed namirin” and it translates in English as, “martyrs never die”. Connected to the culture of martyrdom that is common but not exclusive to communities in the Middle East, the proverb evokes an understanding of dying in pursuit of a noble cause. This can be best understood for those unfamiliar with martyr culture by reading Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem, “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep”. The poem speaks about the nature of death and how the spirit of those that perished lives on in the world. If the last line of Frye’s poem were to be repurposed to better understand the martyr culture of northern Syria, it would read something like this:
‘Do not stand at my grave and cry; While Rojava lives, I did not die.’
Over thirty thousand foreign volunteers joined the Islamic State to fight for Baghdadi’s vision. This vision included the mass slaughter of local indigenous people, from Yazidis to Arabs and thousands of others, a violence that robbed thousands of their homes and lives. In response to this mass violence that swept across Syria and Iraq, people took up arms in defiance of the organisation, giving their lives to destroy the vision that Baghdadi sought to implement. And as the dust settles five years later with the deaths of over ten thousand anti-ISIS fighters, the cause that each fought for still goes on. Only now over forty thousand hands are doing that work and building the society for tomorrow’s generation.
Plenty of work remains ahead now for the Syrian Democratic Forces and US-led Coalition, as the next phase of the war begins. With liberated areas in need of reconstruction and ISIS sleeper cells active in both Syria and Iraq, it is important to note that the elements that led to the formation of the Islamic State are still present. If those elements continue to remain, so too will the organisation’s appeal. Saying this, however, there will be people always ready to take up the struggle against ISIS and preserve all that makes life worth living. As long as there is resistance to tyranny, there will always be another dawn for humanity.
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.
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.
legal mechanisms available to the international community for the prosecution of
human rights (HR) violations such as crimes against humanity are extensive.
Taking the form of international courts and ad hoc tribunals established on
statutes set up through the approval of the United Nations Security Council
(UNSC), these legal mechanisms have been used to hold perpetrators of HR
violations accountable. The application of these legal mechanisms in the
prosecution of high ranking Serbian personalities for HR violations during the
Bosnian war (1992-1995) by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former
Yugoslavia (ICTY) is one such example. Bound legally through established
international conventions and monitored through HR treaty-based bodies, United
Nations (UN) and member states that make up the international community are
obligated to adhere to human rights law in the prevention of HR abuses.
UNITED NATIONS SECURITY
international community – including the UN – uses the UNSC to authorise
enforcement mechanisms that address HR violations such as crimes against
humanity that are committed by state and non-state actors. The UNSC is the
principal security body of the UN that has powers under the UN charter to
establish subsidiary organs for the maintenance of peace and security. UNSC
responds to matters of international security and passes resolutions that can
be binding on member states. When
nations violate international law conventions – whether in war or peace – and
threaten international security, the UNSC acts in accordance with the UN
charter and under the deliberation of the council to address those violations. Utilising
a variety of mechanisms to deter state actors and mitigate violations, the UNSC
authorises these mechanisms to enforce international law.
Some of these mechanisms take the form of ad hoc tribunals such as the ICTY.
TRIBUNAL FOR THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA:
subsidiary body established by the UNSC in response to gross HR violations was
the ICTY. The ICTY was established by the UNSC during the Bosnian war in 1993
under resolution 827, as
a legal mechanism to bring perpetrators of HR violations in the regions consisting
of the Former Yugoslavia to trial. The
former Yugoslavian regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans were
embroiled in an ethno-nationalist conflict during the early 1990s resulting in
gross HR violations being committed by military forces upon civilian
populations. One notable HR violation
occurred in 1995 with the killing of over 3000 Muslim Bosnians by the Serbian
army in the town of Srebrenica. The
ad hoc tribunal’s statute (including UNSC authorisation) granted the ICTY
jurisdiction to bring public as well as military officials of the Former
Yugoslavia to trial at the Hague. During
the trial of one of these military officials [Radovan Krsitć] in 2004,
the ICTY determined that the massacre in Srebrenica was genocide and found the
official guilty of crimes against humanity. This
ICTY judgement was based on the tribunal’s statute that was set up in
accordance to international law conventions such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). Throughout
the 1990s-2010s, more than ninety individuals connected to atrocities in the
former Yugoslavia have been convicted by the ICTY and sentenced to imprisonment
for long periods of time. The
ICTY is no longer in existence as of December 2017 but the decisions of the
tribunal are still used by intergovernmental judicial bodies like the European
Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. The
ad hoc tribunal of the ICTY provides just one example of a legal mechanism
available to the international community that has set a precedent for the
prosecution of HR violators.
THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT:
International Criminal Court (ICC) was established five years after the
creation of the ICTY as a permanent international tribunal for the prosecution
of individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression
and genocide. Founded on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal
Court (Rome Statute) created by
the UN General Assembly in 1998, the ICC is an intergovernmental legal mechanism
that transitioned the legal strategy of concurrence and primacy found in the ad
hoc tribunal systems to one of concurrence and complementarity.
Aiming to set a permanent entity for the conviction of international law
violators, the UN and member states of the international community use the ICC
as a court of last resort when a nation’s internal legal system is not
functionable or hostile to international law.
The ICC works with the UNSC and other organs of the UN to bring individuals to
justice. The ICC is currently still in existence as of July, 2018.
The legal mechanisms utilised by the international community for the prosecution of human rights violations are wide-ranging. Ad hoc tribunals and international courts established on United Nations Security Council authorisation are the primarily international form of legal defence to human rights existing. As highlighted in the organisation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and International Criminal Court in pursuing prosecution of individuals for crimes against humanity, there are international judicial mechanisms available to the international community to persuade individuals and states to adhere to human rights.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson for LA1027, assessment task 3 (07/09/2018)
The last phase to uproot the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) is underway in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley as ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), assisted by artillery and air support of the ‘US-backed Coalition’, push against the last remnants of ISIS’ proto-state.
With ‘Operation Jazeera Storm’ – the name of the operation – intensifying in Syria and Abu Al-Baghdadi’s hiding spot found in near the Iraqi border, in Hajin, Syria, it is not hard to have many heavy emotions rushing through one’s body. It was not even four years ago when ISIS was building its proto-state in Iraq and Syria, slaughtering thousands of Arabs, Yazidis and Kurds. Now that proto-state has lost over 95% of its territory in the span of a couple years – a huge blow to the organisation’s attempt at building a caliphate.
Thousands have lost their lives at the hands of this ‘cult of death’. Millions more have been displaced by its political-religious pursuit of dominance. Journalists, aid workers, soldiers and civilians – all targeted during this conquest. I think of the journalists, such as American James Foley who were brutally beheaded. I think of the Yazidis at Sinjar forced out of their homes and massacred – raped, abused and enslaved. The children indoctrinated. The survivors left with trauma and PTSD. I think of the large-scale suffering, destruction and torment wrought at those who loved death more than life itself – a modern evil. Millions are unable to return home because of the destruction caused by ISIS. Many who have lost loved ones – daughters, sons, fathers and mothers – and who will never see the joy of their lives again.
A Yazidi girl on Sinjar mountain in 2014
However, despite all the suffering that flashes when I think of the years that have passed, I still remember heroes who gave their lives to save thousands. I think of the fighters in Iraq and Syria – the Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and so on – who refused the barbarism of ISIS. Who said, “no” to the injustice and inhumanity. I think of the sacrifice of Abu Layla, a man whose smile is captured in the below photo. (Abu died during the liberation of the city of Manbij in 2016.) The Love for life that this smile shows will never leave me.
The survivors of ISIS who carry their scars and use their experiences to help others inspire me, normal heroes who are doing extraordinary work. The people, who are fearless, brave and want to create a better world. The work of Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji come immediately to mind. Both are Yazidi survivors of ISIS’ brutality that refused to remain silent, choosing to instead speak out and help those still carrying scars. There are thousands of these heroes around the globe. Helping survivors to rebuild and tell others about the horror of ISIS, educating the next generation and fighting those militants left defending the remnants of a dying caliphate. Rojda Felat is an example of one of the commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces who has sacrificed heavily in the fight against ISIS.
Left to right: Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji.
In July 2017, Iraqi Security Forces liberated Mosul – ISIS’ defacto capital in Iraq – and the place where Baghdadi announced, three years prior, a caliphate. Iraqis celebrated the defeat of an organisation responsible for so much loss and destruction. In October 2017, Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Raqqa – ISIS’ de-facto capital in Syria. Liberating large swaths of territory and helping to crumble the caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Whenever I think of the years of suffering that ISIS wrought on the world, I cannot but also think of the love and heroism of normal people put in difficult situations. I cannot help but think of how much evil as humans we are capable of, but also how much beauty is in us.
Kurdish fighter kisses a man’s forehead during the liberation of Manbij in 2016.
Artillery pieces provided by the Americans and French are currently shelling ISIS positions, well Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi forces advance steadily in the Deir Ezzor governorate. Operation Jazeera Storm will take months to complete as the Syrian border is cleared of remaining fighters. Whether Baghdadi is captured alive by SDF or killed in the crossfire is yet to be known, but what is known is that his vision of an Islamic caliphate has failed. And with that failure, so too the dreams of ISIS.
Editors note [Mohammed Elnaiem]:
It has been 41 days since attacks by Turkey on Afrin began. Anthony Avice Du Buisson provides you with an updated primer on the latest updates of the attack. He also discusses the role of the International community in bringing the Afrin crisis to an end. What are the latest updates on the situation in Afrin?
Turkish attack helicopters (TuAF) have been conducting aerial bombardments on the town of Jinderis in Syria’s Afrin region, for the last couple days. Artillery barrages assist in the bombardments, as fighters of the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) scramble to repel the attack on the town. Jinderis is just a recent addition to the many towns being targeted by Turkish security forces (TSK), assisted by Islamists of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), since the launch of Operation Olive Branch (the Afrin offensive) in late January.
Since its inception, the Afrin offensive has claimed the lives of nearly three hundred and fifty civilians (Kurdish Red Crescent estimate). Met with fierce resistance by the people of Afrin, TSK and TFSA have found it difficult to advance deep into the region. What was expected by Ankara to be a quick operation has turned into a gruelling and lengthy exercise. Despite the superior technology, numbers and firepower of the Turkish military, the YPG and its allies are putting up strong opposition, where they hold the advantage of familiarity with the mountainous terrain.
In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has whipped the country into a frenzy, as State news media pumps out propaganda in support of the offensive, while police and other state organisations eliminate dissent. (Anadolu Agency, a state media outlet, exaggerates the numbers of kills Olive Branch forces have made. The current number is over two thousand, at the time of writing.) Any show of public disapproval or critique towards the operation runs the risk of state crackdown, as journalists, politicians, academics and so on, are arrested without question. Further highlighting Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism.
Turkey claims to be fighting against “Terrorists” in Afrin, is the international community convinced?
Despite the Turkish state’s effort to impose a positive narrative of the operation upon its own people, it has had a difficult time convincing the world that the Afrin offensive is justified. Ankara may claim that it is waging a war to cleanse its borders of ‘terrorists’ and help relocate its refugee population, however, the forces that it commands demonstrate another more sinister intent.
Videos have surfaced online of TFSA and TSK forces committing atrocities, from the brutal interrogation of an Afrin farmer to the mutilation of a ‘Women’s Protection Unit’ (YPJ) fighter. All these videos, as well as Erdogan’s rhetoric on Turkish state media, portray the Turkish forces as conquerors, as opposed to ‘liberators’. (A recent video of a farmer being executed by TFSA fighters is another example of the brutality of the Olive branch forces.) Erdogan’s rhetoric also has been suggestive of a possible intent for ‘ethnic cleansing’ Afrin and ‘annexing’ the territory to expand Turkey’s border.
So how has the world responding to the Afrin offensive? And who is to blame for sanctioning it?
While Erdogan has gotten the Turkish public to largely support the Afrin offensive, the response of the international public has been quite different. Public demonstrations have been held in major cities across the globe in solidarity with the people of Afrin. Protests have erupted all over the world against the offensive, whether it be on the streets of Cologne, Germany or outside the parliament in Canberra, Australia – people everywhere across the globe have been condemning the offensive.
The condemnations have not only been directed at the Turkish state but also at Western states for failing to intervene to halt an offensive against a force that fought ISIS. Supporters of the people of Afrin point towards the use of German tanks, British jets and other EU supplied equipment and armaments by the Turkish military, as a sign of complicit support for the offensive by Western states. Parliamentarians in the German and British governments, especially from the Labour party and German Left Party (Die Linke) have raised concerns over Turkey’s war, calling it ‘illegal’ and ‘unjustified’.
Despite the US not having an active military presence in the Afrin region and thus no military intelligence on the ground, Afrin supporters including those from the US see it as a complicit actor that has enabled Turkey. The US State Department has voiced concerns over Turkey’s Afrin operation, calling it a ‘distraction’ from the fight against ISIS. A rather neutral position that the US continues to maintain, due to the increasing weakening of US-Turkey bilateral relations. (Tillerson recently visited Ankara, unaccompanied by any translators, to try repair relations between the states. Confusion still surrounds the details of that over three-hour long conversation.)
International organisations are being lobbied by Turkish officials to end support for the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD), as well as other members of the ‘Movement for a Democratic Party’ (TEV-DEM) who currently govern the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ (DFNS), to cripple international support for YPG. Turkey even went as far as to attempt to extradite former PYD co-chair, Salih Muslim, while he was in the Czech Republic. An attempt that ended more in embarrassment for Turkey than anything else.
Recently, Afrin authorities called for help from Damascus, why?
On the ground, Afrin Authorities have called for international solidarity in general, but to little avail. While Convoys are coming from all parts of Northern Syria to defend Afrin, crossing through Syrian Government controlled territory in Aleppo to reach the cities in the region that are being attacked, this has not been enough. Due to the need to use such territory, dialogue channels between Afrin Authorities and the Syrian government have been increasingly used. Given the precarious situation of the canton and the lack of international military intervention, authorities in Afrin have exercised the right of autonomy of the canton to find alternatives to deal with the crisis. (Each canton in the DFNS is autonomous, as the current ideology of the system is democratic confederalism.)
Negotiations over pro-Syrian government [Iranian-backed] troop placement along Afrin’s borders have been made, as popular forces of the National Defence Force (NDF) have deployed to Afrin’s southern border. However, the nature and extent of these negotiations have yet to be fully disclosed, as negotiations are ongoing and the forces that are currently in Afrin are limited in number (a few hundred) and not assisted by Syrian air force (SyAAF). TuAF targeted convoys of NDF entering Afrin, killing many, which demonstrated the ineffectiveness of these units.
These negotiations have been opposed by Russian authorities, as well as questioned by TFSA supporters and some MENA analysts. Initially, it was Russia who gave the green-light for Turkey’s Afrin operation, after Afrin authorities refused to accept the ultimatum Russia posed:
“Either Turkey will attack you and occupy Afrin or the regime will come and enter Afrin.” – Shahoz Hassan, said PYD co-chair on the Russian proposal.
What exactly is the role of Russia in the Afrin offensive by Turkey?
Russia allowed Turkey to use the airspace that it controlled in Afrin in exchange for parts of Idlib – a province to the south of Afrin in Syria that is currently dominated by Al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Russia wants Afrin to return under the government control, as was the case prior to the uprisings in 2011. (Russia would rather see a battered and weak YPG that is forced to accept all of its demands, rather than one that is able to stand.)
However, even though Russia is playing a thuggish devil’s game, Afrin authorities insist that should they be forced to play this game, then the terms must be negotiated as much as possible in Afrin’s favour. I have mentioned previously that there is a limited troop presence of pro-Government forces. This is important to note, as some MENA analysts and TFSA supporters are jumping the gun already and proclaiming that YPG has ‘sold out to the oppressive government’. (A claim that is not true, but one that, regardless, should be avoided by Afrin Authorities.)
Afrin is in a precarious situation now, as it is being attacked by a NATO country that is determined to deny its autonomy and impose a system of authority that runs counter to the system currently in place. Employing Islamist mercenaries as cannon fodder to fight on its behalf, while justifying these fighters’ acts with fatwas and proclamations in support of waging a war of ‘jihad’ against the Kurds, Erdogan is willing to stoop to any level to capture Afrin and ensure the longevity of his political career.
What has the United Nations done, and what should be done next for the people of Afrin?
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recently voted to adopt a resolution in support of a thirty-day ceasefire over Syria. A resolution that was unanimously passed and one that has already been violated by Russia, Iran and Turkey – the so-called ‘guarantors’ of peace in the Syrian conflict. In the resolution, it mentions that humanitarian aid is to be allowed into areas of conflict, such as eastern Ghouta. Although it does not mention Afrin by name, nonetheless the resolution – as was confirmed by US State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert – extends to Afrin. Meaning that Turkey is required to follow through, as are all parties in Syria, to this ceasefire.
The very fact that Turkey was one of the main entities calling for a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, but continues to attack Afrin, should highlight the level of hypocrisy on display by the Turkish state. Although a lack of agreement to the ceasefire by some parties is not surprising, given the history of resolutions over Syria, it should be concerning for all how little power the UNSC has to stop parties from violating the ceasefire. Those who suffer the most are the people of Syria, who simply demand to live in peace and security. A simple request that has yet to be delivered.
The people of Afrin are continuing to resist Turkish occupation, despite the inaction of those that claim to be allies. Even though the world focuses on the tragedies unfolding in eastern Ghouta, which are concerning and should not be ignored, focus should also be concerned with those in Afrin. Civilians are being forced to hide in caves to escape Turkish bombardments, while children are denied access to education due to the destruction of their schools. The death count rises with each passing week and the only way this can stop is for pressure to be applied to Turkey, as well as humanitarian aid delivered to those in need. I would even go so far as to argue for humanitarian intervention by UNSC and sanctions to be imposed on Turkey, but whether this would do anything is another question. What is clear is that a devil’s game is being played in Syria. And all suffer.
Syria’s Kurds are altering the political landscape of Northern Syria, reducing the power of Bashar al-Assad’s government and reorganising the power dynamics of the country – allowing for political and legal rights for Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Turkmen and other minorities that were absent under Arab Socialist Baath rule. It is through organisation of political and military resistance, establishment of place of authority and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, that Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy.
Figure 1: Kurdish Inhabited areas and population distribution.
Kurds are one of the largest ethnicities in the Middle East with a population of over thirty million, occupying parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey (Yildiz, 2005, p. 1). Descendants of Indo-European tribes that migrated westward from Zagros Mountains in Iran, Kurds have a distinct culture and identity that sets Kurds apart from other Middle Eastern ethnic minorities (Mcdowall, 2004, p. 8). In northern Syria, Kurds make up 8-10% of the nation’s population (over thirteen million people) and have been the subject of Arab assimilation policies – Arabization. One such policy was conducted in Hassakah governate in 1962, when a consensus rendered over 110, 000 Syrian Kurds without citizenship – giving these individuals status of ‘ajanibs’ (foreigners), well absentees were given status of ‘maktoumin’ or, ‘hidden’ (Fragiskatos, 2007, pp. 112-114; Sherry, 1996, pp. 13-19). Discrimination and persecution followed in subsequent decades, right into early 21st century. When Syria fell into civil war after the wake of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian Kurds revolted against Bashar Al-Assad’s government and started the ‘Rojava revolution’ – ‘Rojava’ is Kurdish for ‘Western Kurdistan’ (Savran, 2016, p. 7).
Figure 2: Rojava.
The Kurdish uprisings in Northern Syria have subverted the traditional authority of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, as political and military resistance has formed to resist Baath hegemony. ‘Power’, as defined by German sociologist Max Weber, is the potential of an actor to achieve personal objectives in a social relationship in the face of opposition (Uphoff, 1989, p. 299). When a subordinate entity can limit or reduce the potential of an entity to achieve personal objectives, then that denotes ‘resistance’ (Barbalet, 1985, p. 541). For decades, the Arab Socialist Baath party government, under first the leadership of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad, enacted its power through coercion, fear, state repression, manipulation and bribery.
Figure 3: Hafez al-Assad (Left) and Bashar al-Assad (Right).
Any other party, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that stood in the Baath party’s way would be heavily suppressed and have its members locked up in jail. Policies, such as those of assimilation and Arabization, aided in the consolidation of the government’s power and the pursuit of its aims – Arab nationalism (Pace, 2005, p. 37; Talhami, 2001, p. 112).
When peaceful demonstrations in Damascus and Idlib were suppressed by Syrian government troops in 2010, armed resistance developed, as defectors of the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) and local dissidents established the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) and its political wing ‘Syrian National Coalition’ (SNC) (Spyer, 2012, pp. 46-49). Uprisings occurred all over Syria, including Northern Syria in cities, such as Qamishli, Kobane and Afrin. These armed uprisings resulted in the start of a civil war between Syria’s government, FSA and Islamist entities of Al-Qaeda (JFS), and the Islamic state (ISIS) after 2013. However, what distinguishes the Northern Syrian Uprisings in 2012 from the other uprisings in the rest of Syria is the organisation and direction.
In 2012, the Syrian government was pushed out of Jazira (Cizire), Kobane and Afrin cantons by organised local militia of the ‘People Protection Units’ (YPG) and its political wing, the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD). Subverting Assad’s power in Northern Syria by exploiting the conflict dynamics of the civil war, with Assad’s forces focused on fighting FSA in other parts of Syria, PYD established a political alternative to Assad’s government with formation of a de facto autonomous government – Rojava Autonomous Administration (Federici, 2015, pp. 82-84). Organised under the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s Party’ (PKK), the PYD and other parties in the ‘Movement for a Democratic Society’ (TEVDEM) coalition (leadership of Rojava) adopted a ‘Democratic Confederalism’ ideology and implemented it in governing (Paasche, 2015, pp. 78-80).
Figure 4: Abdullah Ocalan
Figure 5: Flag of TEVDEM
The ‘Rojava project’ spearheaded by TEVDEM undermines the ideology of Arab nationalism and political hegemony of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party, as the ideology of Democratic confederalism focuses on empowerment of minorities through local governance and aims at decentralising power – redistributing power among local municipalities. Instead of adopting a Kurdish nationalist project – similar to that of the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraq – that aims at establishing a Kurdish region (Kurdistan), TEVDEM adopted a Democratic Confederalist project – similar to that of the PKK – that aims at establishing grassroots, democratic and parliamentary system (Ibid, p. 78):
…[TEVDEM] sought a bottom-up system of self-administration whereby the direction of the flow of power is from the local municipally organized councils toward a larger democratic confederation of libertarian municipalities with local councils directly controlling policy-making. Such organization of politics is to provide it with concrete social content and reduces the likelihood of potential relations of domination, thereby contributing to advancing the cause of freedom as non-domination (Cemgil, 2016, pp. 424-425).
Through the implementation of ideology of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration in Northern Syria, the influence of ideology of Arab nationalism that had disenfranchised non-Arabs was significantly reduced. Kurds and other minorities in Northern Syria, such as Syriacs and Assyrians, could now establish local assemblies – form militias, police and self-administrate (Ibid, p.425; Duman, 2017, p. 85).
Figure 6: Syriac Military Council (MFS)
This system decentralises power and prevents power from establishing in one party, thus weakening Assad’s central government in Damascus from having total domination in Northern Syria.
The opposition to taking sides in the Syrian Civil war and the fight against the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), significantly increased TEVDEM’s influence in Syria’s political landscape and increased western support for the Rojava project – altering Syria’s power dynamics, and allowing TEVDEM more territorial control and political power. A strategy was adopted early on by the Rojava Autonomous Administration to not officially declare allegiance to any side in Syria’s civil war, instead opting to provide a ‘third path’ to the competing factions (Government forces versus rebels). This strategy aimed at allowing TEVDEM to focus on self-governance and self-defence, well keeping the war from reaching the de facto borders, therefore allowing TEVDEM to not lose local support and allow negotiation power with both sides, if need be (Hevian, 2013, pp. 50-52).
However, despite YPG clashes between both the FSA, JFS and SAA, the introduction of ISIS in 2014 would significantly alter TEVDEM’s trajectory.
Figure 7: (In clockwise direction) SAA, JFS, ISIS, FSA and YPG
The Siege of Kobane in 2014 by ISIS, brought global media attention to Rojava and increased Public Relations of TEVDEM with International Community. Victory by Kurdish forces against ISIS in 2015 was a huge Public Relations boost to TEVDEM, as the victory appealed to all sides of western political landscape.
Figure 8: Rojava flag on radio tower after ISIS is defeated in Kobane.
Conservatives had a force to support that was ‘western’ and hard-line Leftists could sympathise with Rojava revolution, and the Kurdish ‘struggle’. The United States-led Coalition to battle ISIS formed a military alliance with Rojava at Kobane, which started US supporting and supplying arms to YPG, as well as other militias (Dalton, 2017, p. 2).
Capitalising off this new-found support, TEVDEM mobilised forces to resist ISIS occupation in order to increase influence in Syria’s political landscape, liberate civilians and expand the borders of the de-facto Autonomous region through acquisition of territory (Kaya & Whiting, 2017, p. 86). The Islamisation of the opposition to Assad had also contributed in bolstering number of defectors to Rojava, as former secular FSA factions started aligning with YPG – this led to the formation of ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) in late 2015, a multi-ethnic coalition of anti-ISIS fighters (Gunter, 2017, p. 79; Krajeski, 2015, pp. 94-97).
Figure 9: The Syrian Democratic Forces’ flag.
The success of Rojava against ISIS and the territorial expansion of the de facto autonomous region’s borders altered Syria’s power dynamics, as TEVDEM posed an increasing threat to Assad’s government and legitimacy. The acquisition of oil fields has expanded Rojava’s economic and political power, as TEVDEM has leverage to negotiate its future and achieve Rojava’s goals of self-determination, as well as autonomy for Syrian Kurds and other minorities (Krajeski, 2015, p. 95). Though the war is not over, Rojava Autonomous Administration is in a greater position than ever before in its short history to negotiate and achieve its personal objectives, despite resistance of Assad’s government and external threats, such as ISIS and JFS (now Hay’at tahrir al-sham – HTS).
Figure 10: Map of Northern Syria showing territorial control of each faction.
However, as with everything in the Syrian conflict, the precarious nature of these relations and situations can change at any moment. In the recent months for example, with the liberation of Raqqa by the SDF, Turkish-US relations have begun to heat up. A new offensive into Idlib by the Syrian government and its allies in early 2017 has given way to a Turkish offensive in the Afrin canton of Rojava ().
Figure 11: Map of situation in Syria circa January 2018.
The power dynamics are shifting and TEVDEM officials face a difficult uphill battle in 2018. Despite these difficulties, the determination of the Kurds is stronger than ever before and international support for Rojava continues to grow with each passing month.
Through the organisation of political and military resistance to Assad’s government, establishment of an alternative government and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy. The implementation of ideology of Democratic confederalism in Rojava Autonomous Administration governance has challenged the hegemony of Bashar al-Assad and the ideology of Arab nationalism, empowering disenfranchised in Syrian society. The war against ISIS has allowed TEVDEM to acquire territory and has led to alteration of power dynamics within Syria, allowing for greater potential for Rojava in pursuing its personal objectives.
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