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.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson ( Originally written for James Cook University on the 09/11/2017 – Updated and released for the Region on 28/01/2018). Region version: https://theregion.org/article/12639-unpacking-rojava-examining-power-dynamics-in-northern-syria
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- Mcdowall, D. (2004). A Modern History of the Kurds (3rd ed.). New York, United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan.
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- 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
As Turkey resumes its air and land invasion of Afrin in Syria, Anthony Avice Du Buisson provides you with his take on how to understand the geopolitics of the crisis.
What is the Afrin Crisis?
Turkey has recently launched a new military operation into Syria’s Afrin canton called, ‘Olive Branch’. This new operation aims at expelling what Ankara claims to be, ‘PKK terrorist elements’ from its borders and ‘liberating’ locals from ‘PKK/PYD rule’. The operation comes at a time when US – Turkish relations are at an all-time low and when Russia has green-lighted a Syrian government offensive in Idlib.
The Turkish airforce (TyAF) conducted a number of airstrikes around the canton, including Afrin city itself that injured innocent civilians and damaged ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) outposts. Airstrikes were followed by advancements north of Idlib by the Turkish Army (TSK) and Turkish backed opposition forces of the Free Syrian Army (TFSA) into southern Afrin. Clashes erupted throughout the canton as YPG sought to repel a number of TFSA from Euphrates Shield (ES) territory and southern Afrin.
Afrin canton is located in Syria’s Northwest, just above Syrian opposition held Idlib. It has been under the YPG, a Kurdish – dominated militia and military wing of the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD), ever since locals rose up against the Syrian government at the start of the Syrian conflict. Relatively untouched by the war, Afrin has endured minor clashes with and shellings by Islamists over the years. It currently has a truce with Damascus and has had increasingly warm ties with Russian Military police and Special Forces as well.
Why does Turkey feel threatened by the YPG/PYD?
The YPG/PYD in Syria has long been viewed by Ankara as a Syrian branch of the Turkish outlawed organisation, ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ (PKK) – who has been fighting the Turkish state within its borders since 1984. Turkey’s obsession with preventing what it perceives as a ‘terror corridor’ from forming along its border has put it at odds with Washington.
The Pentagon has been backing the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria since 2014. In late 2015, the Pentagon helped form the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian fighters – made up of various FSA groups, Arab tribes and YPG. SDF has been a major local ally in the fight against ISIS, which has placed strain on US-Turkish relations for much time.
Ever since the siege of Kobane, Turkey has taken a hostile stance towards the YPG and has expressed repeatedly its desire for the US to sever ties with YPG. And at every moment Turkey has shown disapproval, Washington has paid lip service to its relationship with Ankara and has tried to keep the peace. However, Ankara has grown tired of this and increased its rhetoric against US, as well as the SDF. Things, as they currently stand, don’t look good for US-Turkey relations.
Earlier this week, Turkish president Erdogan announced plans for a military operation into Afrin and Manbij, which lies near Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River. Erdogan warned that should the YPG not withdraw and surrender to Turkish forces, then it would be annihilated. These strong statements came in response to the news of a ‘border force’ that was to be established out of the SDF. This ‘border force’ (in reality nothing new and just a reorganisation of local forces to keep ISIS from regrouping) was accused by Turkey of being a ‘terror army’ that was being supported by US. Erdogan promised on Turkish state media to oppose this army and those who supported it.
The launching of Operation, ‘Olive Branch’ (quite the misnomer given the artillery and jets) coincides with another operation that is being conducted in Idlib by the Syrian Government and its allies.
What does Idlib have to do with the Afrin Crisis? How does Moscow play into the Turkish invasion of Afrin?
Since the Astana talks in September between Iran, Russia and Turkey (interlocutors in the conflict), it was decided that Idlib would be divided into de-escalation zones. The international community has been alarmed both by rebel infighting in the province and the domination of Jihadists in Idlib.
When arrangements were made between Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir Al – Sham (HTS), an Al – Qaeda aligned group dominating Idlib, in late 2017 to allow Turkey access to Idlib’ s north, Russia expected Turkey to do its part in ‘softening up’ the opposition. However, when Russia became displeased at Turkey’s ‘cuddling’ up to HTS, Russia green lighted Syrian Government forces to begin pushing north of Hama and into Idlib in January. In response, Erdogan increased further his rhetoric against Assad’s Government.
Angered at the behaviour of Russia and seeking to increase the support of his nationalist base, Erdogan promised to conduct an attack on Afrin, which has Russian personnel stationed there. Threatening to engage with anyone who stands in Turkey’s way, Erdogan has engaged in political theatre while Russia watched and laughed. That was until yesterday, when Turkey called Russia’s bluff and began bombing Afrin.
After Russian military officials met with Turkish military officials to discuss Afrin, Russian foreign minister Lavrov assured that Russian forces would not be withdrawing in Afrin. However, this clearly would not be the case, as soon after airstrikes started, Russian forces withdrew to a safe distance away from the attacks. Indicating that an arrangement had been made between the two nations, where southern Idlib would be taken in exchange for parts of Afrin, Russia threw its Kurdish allies under the bus.
What is so significant about Afrin, and what is next?
One of the few areas left untouched by war now has Turkish planes flying overhead. Armed with equipment and Aircraft supplied by UK, as well as other NATO allies, Turkey is now using what it has to target refugee camps and civilian areas – all under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism’. However, for the thousands of people living in the canton, the differentiation between Jihadists and the Turkish state is practically non -existent. For many in Afrin and Rojava, Turkey is a ‘fascist’ and ‘anti – Kurdish’ state, ‘hell-bent on annihilating Kurds’.
As the shelling and airstrikes continue across the canton, Islamists of TFSA slowly begin their push into the region. Chanting slogans that are reminiscent of a past siege, where ISIS attacked another Kurdish canton at Kobane. For the YPG and people of Afrin, an invasion by Turkey has been on the horizon for some time. Now the invasion has commenced.
Should Turkey advance far enough into the canton, it will be no surprise to see an operation being conducted into Euphrates Shield territory by YPG. Moreover, should Erdogan be so bold as to push into Manbij where US coalition area of operations is, it is feared that relations between the US and Turkey will be at a crossroads. However, it has not come to that yet.
For now, Afrin is under siege and civilians seek protection. The international community must stand in solidarity with the people of Afrin and humanitarian aid needs to be delivered, as well as a strong defence of the region from Turkish aggression needs to be made. Until this happens, things will get worse in Syria. People in Afrin and throughout Rojava now prepare for what is to come. As for me, I will be standing in solidarity with the people of Afrin, as should the world.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (21/01/2018)
Originally published for the Region here: https://theregion.org/article/12559-a-geopolitical-primer-on-the-afrin-crisis
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.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (05/01/2018)
Original piece on the Region website can be found here: https://theregion.org/article/12375-homage-to-demirtas-as-he-steps-down-more-leaders-will-rise
Stories of those forcefully taken from their homes by ISIS’ militants and sold into slavery are just haunting reminders of the tyranny that Daesh (ISIS) has wrought on so many, during its seizure of power in Iraq and Syria. Yazidi women were some of the worst effected by ISIS, as many witnessed their families butchered, homes destroyed and children taken. Having to undergo emotional, psychological and physical trauma through rape, beatings and abuse that is too graphic to mention in detail is unimaginable, yet there were thousands who experienced this — one being Nadia Murad.
Nadia Murad speaking at the UN.
When parts of Shingal (another name for it is ‘Sinjar’) — a district located in the North of Iraq and home to a large proportion of Yazidis — were taken by ISIS’ militants in August 2014, the world witnessed a brutal and bloody campaign of slaughter. Those Yazidis who had not yet fled to the Shingal mountains by the time ISIS arrived, and who instead became trapped in villages at the bottom of its slopes, bore the brunt of ISIS’ brutality. In villages like Kocho, men were forced to either convert — as Yazidis are considered to be pagans by ISIS — or be executed. Many refused ISIS’ demands to convert, resulting in hundreds of Yazidi men being butchered and thousands of women, some as young as twelve and taken from their schools, being forced into slavery. Nadia Murad was one of these women who was captured. Nadia was just nineteen, when she witnessed her brothers butchered before her eyes and was sold off into sex slavery. Taken to Mosul, Nadia endured three months of horror before luckily escaping. She has since gone on to speak out about the injustices of ISIS and the need to bring ISIS’ militants to trial.
Nadia returned to her village in Kocho in Late May, 2017 — just after it was liberated by Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU), a collection of a majority Shiite militias backed by the Abadi government of Iraq (1). It is evident that years of trauma and horror at the hands of ISIS, especially when family and friends were taken, executed and sold, came flooding back to Nadia, as upon returning she cried out in agony around the ruins of desolate buildings in the village. For many of the young taken by ISIS, the trauma still stings and such experiences that Nadia has faced will not be forgotten any time soon. Since 2016, Nadia has been the UN’s goodwill ambassador.
Nadia’s story, which has been documented in a ‘Time’s’ article from 2015 (2), also highlights the barbarity of ISIS and the suffering experienced by those sold into sex slavery. For example, Nadia recalls how some women would throw battery acid on their face, just to avoid being picked by militants for sex. Women enslaved are treated as objects to be used and abused, where militants share and trade them amongst one another. This sex slavery network, where militants buy, sell and gift sex slaves to other militants between Iraq and Syria, is very popular — narcotics comes close too. After being captured and interviewed, a wife of an ISIS militant — wives are treated differently to sex slaves, as these wives came to the caliphate voluntarily — explains how this operation works below(3).
Another Yazidi woman that was taken into slavery by ISIS was Nihad Alawsi (4). She was just fifteen, when militants abducted her. In slavery, Nihad was beaten, raped by multiple men and forced to have a child — to describe her experiences as, ‘going through hell’ would not come close to reality. This woman was beaten, raped repeatedly and verbally abused by her ‘owners’. Nihad is scarred, both physically and mentally, and has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over what she had to go through in those months of captivity, but she is not the only one. Many Yazidi women who have been liberated from ISIS have shown signs of trauma and now have to undergo serious psychological treatment (5). This only further highlights the impact that ISIS has had on the psyche of people, especially the Yazidi community.
Put simply, ISIS committed a genocide in Shingal through its deliberate targeting of Yazidis for slaughter and its mass enslavement of Yazidi women(6). Targeted for their identity, Yazidis who managed to escape ISIS’ clutches are still dealing with the trauma. Some, like Nadia Murad, have decided to help other victims and raise awareness of what happened at Shingal. Others, however, have decided to take up arms and take the fight to ISIS. Joining the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) in Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan) and those in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), Yazidi fighters now are the ones on the hunt. There still remain many more of their fellow friends and family trapped by ISIS, in places like Raqqa — Syria. These fighters desire now simply to help liberate those they care for. And they are not the only ones.
In 2014, it took a concerted effort from multiple forces, such as the Peshmerga, Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the United states, to prevent further slaughter in Shingal region. Those Yazidis who fled to the Shingal mountains, out of fear for their family’s safety, had help provided to them by the PKK who brought arms and training to Yazidis that had escaped ISIS during this period. These Yazidi fighters formed with The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) for self-defence and brought the fight back to ISIS. These units have since gone on to cooperate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS in Syria.
Sinjar Resistance Units arriving at the Raqqa front.
Nearly three years on since the Yazidi genocide took place in Shingal, when the world watched ISIS expansion in Iraq, and the Yazidi community is slowly returning to the region. However, ISIS is far from defeated, but the forces that are bringing it closer to its death are made up of those who care for others. Those forces fighting against Daesh intend to oust its presence from their homes and liberate those held captive — to turn back the years of tyranny. There are Yazidis who fight with SDF that want to free their sisters from slavery. And it is that struggle that will be won, but only through unity, support and determination. As for those Yazidis and many other women who have been liberated, it is clear that serious help will have to be given to them, especially psychological help. This will all happen in time, but until then, we can only fight till its over.
Written By Anthony Avice Du Buisson (27/07/2017)
Original version can be found at Areo Magazine here: https://areomagazine.com/2017/07/30/nadia-murad-and-yazidi-sex-slavery-under-isis/
“Even if we douse it in the sea.
this fire will burn forever.
It beats out light in the darkness.
It burns on.”
– Bejan Matur
To be able to understand the importance of Kurdish women’s poetry in the contemporary context, it is first necessary to illustrate the condition of the Kurdish identity—regardless of gender—in the present day Middle East. The position of the Kurdish people within modern day society is possibly best portrayed by the old Kurdish proverb, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Following the end of World War One—the consequence of which was a thorough reconstruction of middle-eastern borders and the creation of a new geopolitical landscape—the Kurdish people have become a thoroughly disjointed, stateless entity dispersed across the mountainous territories now encompassed by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish borders. Denying the Kurds their own independent state, and forever erasing Kurdistan off the map, ushered in an era of oppression suffered at the hands of the regimes of either of the four aforementioned countries. Since they were no longer considered a legitimate nation, but rather a numerous minority in every country that they now inhabited, the Kurds have more often than not been subjected to ethnic cleansing (be it at the hands of the remnants of the fallen Ottoman Empire known as Turkey or the deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein), involuntary resettlement and forced attempts at assimilation via language bans.
Where Kurds are located in the Middle East via ‘The Kurdish Project’.
Within this whirlwind of endeavours to render the Kurdish identity non-existent by stripping the people of the rights to their own language, as well as abolishing their rights to freedom of cultural expression, and numerous armed uprisings in an attempt to reclaim the sense of ‘self’ from the merciless jaws of new identities assigned by none other than the oppressors, another, more covert struggle was taking place — the women’s struggle. In the midst of the Kurdish cultural apocalypse and perpetual ‘linguicide’, women have been—and still are—fighting their own battle in both the public and the domestic sphere of existence. They commenced not only fighting against ‘culturcide’ perpetuated by either of the previously mentioned countries by directly facing the oppressor in the field of battle, but also decided to stand up to another, less visible, but ever so dangerous enemy — the patriarchal mentality ingrained into every pore of society, thus dictating clandestinely each and every aspect of their every day lives. In a sense, the Kurdish women were victims of ‘double oppression’, that of the regime that turned the Kurd into the unmentionable ‘other’— an undesirable, barely existent, leper-like entity whose very language and culture are a threat to society — and that of the ever present notion of the dominant male/submissive female dynamics still deep-rooted in the middle-eastern society, thus becoming forced to tackle an array of gender-specific obstacles in an effort to save their own identities from extinction.
“Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies. In the Western discourse, Kurdish women’s agency in their struggle was often denied by claims that they are “being instrumentalized for the national cause” or that they participate in the liberation struggle in order to escape their sad lives as “victims of a backward culture”.” (‘Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement’, Dirik, paragraph 3)
In the aforementioned passage, Dilar Dirik manages to perfectly illustrate the issues experienced by Kurdish women caused by the prevalent patriarchal mentality. It became clear that Kurdish women’s liberation cannot be achieved solely through the means of armed struggle, since the efforts will only continue to be undermined by mistreatment of women in other aspects of life. In order to fight the regime, one first had to destroy the notion of the dominant male and reimagine the woman not as a submissive ‘extension’ of a man, but an equal. Thus, in order to be able to successfully reclaim her culture, the Kurdish woman first had to reclaim herself.
Dilar Dirik in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.
In a society where women’s actions are heavily dictated by the will of men, where there is little space left for women in the context of the public sphere—as well as regulated by the oppressive nation-state intent on reducing her cultural and linguistic identity to absolute nothingness—literature became a new battlefront, an act of defiance and unconditional resistance. Poetry replaced a gun, and verses written in Kurdish became bullets shooting through the walls encasing the Kurdish woman and piercing holes, however small, which allowed her to become seen by her oppressor and yet remain protected from him. The ambiguity of poetry allowed the Kurdish woman to express and explore a myriad of issues — from those addressing the taboo status of women’s sexuality, to those providing harsh political criticism cleverly disguised in the form of a seemingly innocent musing — while still remaining safely hidden from prosecution and ostracising by using the socially imposed ‘walls’ to her advantage, and fighting the oppression by ever so carefully filling her every word with vagueness, sure to enable her to render herself a submissive woman acceptable within the framework of patriarchy, if the need arises.
The aforementioned can be said to be rather similar to the notion of the veiled Algerian woman in Frantz Fanon’s essay, ‘Algeria unveiled‘:
[In the essay] the colonizer’s attempt to unveil the Algerian woman does not simply turn the veil into the symbol of resistance; it becomes a technique of camouflage, a means of struggle – the veil conceals bombs. The veil that once secured the boundary of the hone – the limits of woman – now masks the woman in her revolutionary activity (…) (Bhabha, pg. 63)
Much like the Algerian woman from Fanon’s essay, the Kurdish woman has learned how to turn the oppression suffered by women into her own advantage and seemingly give into the concept of an obedient, submissive woman by retreating from the frontline back into her own home. Her submissiveness is her veil which allows her to stand up to the oppressor and convey her revolutionary ideas to others maybe even more efficiently than a man — simply because she is not expected to engage in any of those activities simply due to the perceived nature of her gender. Her pages littered with words written in Kurdish and subtly portraying the long history of the Kurdish people is a weapon as effective as a gun wielded by a man fighting fervently on the frontline, maybe even more so. Unlike the frenzied gun fire in the midst of battle that sends a clear message of defiance and unwillingness to yield, poetry sends a much different, but an even more compelling message.
While soldiers and various other Kurdish individuals may perish, reading and writing poetry will ensure that the notion of ‘Kurdishness’ never does, for once the poem is completed it no longer depends on the poet. It becomes a part of society, slowly making its way from one individual to another remaining forever embedded in people’s minds. Once the poem is read for the first time after being written it cannot be destroyed. Its physical copies may be destroyed or banned, but the impact it left on its reader is something that can never be taken away from them since it is safely nested within the walls of their own minds, where it rests and waits to transferred to the minds of others. In that regard, the poem has more power than any other weapon used to fight the aggressor. It exists defiantly and indestructibly, sending a clear message — We exist. We are Kurds. We are women. And our existence can never be erased.
In the following paragraph is one of the poems possibly best illustrating all of the aforementioned, titled Separation from Earth and written by a Kurdish female poet by the name of Kajal Ahmad:
“When I exploded
Like the horizon, my hair
Became a belt around the Earth’s waist.
For the frozen poles of the south,
I turned myself into a pair of socks,
For the chills in the North, from threads of my soul
I wore hats and turbans.
The homeland was sick of me:
It wanted to tear me off like an old coat,
But I hung myself on the mercy of its beard
And from earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe.
In the sky I became a star
And now I have my own place and my own passion
And I am denser with lives than Earth.”
In this compelling poem originally written in Kurdish, Ahmad tells not only a story of herself, nor does she solely provide her own personalized experience of the world as it may seem at first glance. Her poem is her story, but behind its carefully draped veil of vagueness, it is also every woman’s and every Kurd’s simultaneously. While speaking of her own experience of forcing herself into submission and reshaping the very core of her identity for various metaphorically expressed reasons (e.g. “For the frozen poles of the south, I turned myself into a pair of socks”), Ahmad also speaks for every woman suffering from oppression at the hands of the dominant male. She speaks for every woman desperately twisting and turning her own sense of self in a desperate attempt to conform to the expectations of society by becoming a submissive ‘extension’ of a male figure, but no matter how hard she tries to conform, any remaining particle of her true, independent self will remain an object of scrutiny by the dominant male (e.g. “It wanted to tear me off like an old coat, but I hung myself on the mercy of its beard.”).
The very same verses that speak of the women speak of the condition of the Kurdish culture in today’s society as well. It ever so covertly tells a story of the Kurds as a stateless nation, scattered and forced to wander the earth in search for a homeland that can never be found. It subtly evokes the notion of ethnic cleansings and forced resettlements that both played a significant role in creating the modern Kurdish identity (e.g. “The homeland was sick of me” (…) And from the earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe. In the sky I became a star”).
Ruined city of Kobane, Syria.
Most importantly, the poem conveys a message of hope. In its last two verses (“And now I have my own place and my own passion, and I am denser with lives than Earth.”) the poem accentuates that even in the face of adversity, the author, the women and the Kurds have only been given a chance to grow stronger and more resilient for what is yet to come. By being written and read this very poem has now found its own place within more minds that there are lives on Earth. Its message of resistance has become embedded within the lives of women, Kurds and Kurdish women thus first allowing woman to utilize its power in their fight against patriarchal oppression and then Kurdish women to stand side by side with their male counterparts and reclaim their identity by speaking, writing and reading in the Kurdish language and openly living the Kurdish culture. Only when the women are free of the chains of the patriarchal mentality will the Kurds be able to efficiently fight the socio-cultural erasure at the hands of other countries and become truly free — and here poetry and its readers, and more specifically, women’s poetry, can play a crucial part.
Originally written in Croatian by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja (17/07/2017)
Translated by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja
Edited by Anthony Avice Du Buisson
Link to original post in Croatian here: click here
– Ahmad, Kajal. “Magazine.” Words Without Borders. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Bhabha, Homi K. The location of culture. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
– Dirik, Dilar. “Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement.” Home – KurdishQuestion.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Hale, Thomas. “A short history of the Kurds.” Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– “Kurdish Academy of Language enables the Kurdish language in new horizon.” Kurdish Academy of Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
After clashes between ‘People’s protection Units’ (YPG) and Turkish backed mercenaries of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) came to an abrupt end west of Manbij in early March, Turkey’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation essentially was put on hold. President Erdogan’s bid to dislodge YPG from Northern Syria, started in August of 2016, ended in stagnation. Forces from both Russia and US made sure that Ankara’s efforts to capture Manbij were nullified, and ‘Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) and FSA repelled(1, 2).
Manbij Situation map prior to March 29th. Credit for map goes to Transylvania Intelligence.
This embarrassed Ankara greatly and angered Turkish President Erdogan, as TSK and FSA could not advance any further, unless they wanted to be in direct conflict with Russia and US forces—something that Ankara was not prepared to do. With its hands tied and its forces forced to pull back, Turkey tried in vain to persuade US and Russia to reconsider their actions in Manbij (3). These meetings did not prove fruitful for Turkey and on March 29th, in a reluctant move, Ankara announced an end to its Euphrates Shield operation—one that lasted eight months(4). (August 24, 2016 to March 29th, 2017)
Military leaders meet in Atayla, Turkey March 7th. From Left to right: US Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.
Meanwhile, focus now shifted for YPG, as external pressure that had sought to jeopardise Raqqa operation ‘Wrath of Euphrates’ was reduced. ‘Syrian Democratic forces’ (SDF) resumed their push for Raqqa, heavily clashing with ISIS and edging ever closer towards the snake’s heart. Crossing the Euphrates River with the assistance of US Special forces, SDF troops set sights on a city west of Raqqa called, ‘Tabqa’ (5, 6). It stands as one of the last obstacles before Raqqa.
SDF forces airdropped behind enemy lines gear up to prepare an advance towards Tabqa dam.
A strategically significant city known for its dam, Tabqa stood for many years under the occupation of ISIS militants, ever since August of 2014 (7). ‘Syrian Arab army’ (SAA) fought bitterly to maintain the city and its important airbase when ISIS militants were swarming around it, but were overwhelmed in the end. Majority of those captured were used for ISIS’ propaganda machine in execution videos and as a warning to those forces who dared to challenge it (8).
Years had passed since SAA’s defeat at Tabqa and ISIS now faced a new, as well as more determined foe. Coalition jets flew high above Tabqa and bombed positions around it, crippling ISIS militants defending its dam (9). Bullets ripped through the air, as SDF forces engaged with ISIS militants and edged their way closer to Tabqa’s airbase—taking it completely on March 26th (10). In a last ditch effort, ISIS claimed that Tabqa dam was on the verge of collapse due to coalition airstrikes(11). These claims circulated widely, but had no basis in reality—disproved later by SDF engineers, who found only minor damage (12).
YPG spokesperson Cihan Sheikh Ahmed speaks from recently liberated Tabqa airbase.
-Ankara’s eyes on Europe:
Ankara’s operation to oust YPG from Northern Syria may have been a failure, but Erdogan vowed to reignite new operations at a later date (13). ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP) now focused on other matters across the globe; namely, gaining support for a referendum to grant greater executive powers to Erdogan. From Germany to the Netherlands, Erdogan encouraged Turks living abroad to be sure to cast their ‘Evet’ [Yes] vote in April’s referendum (14). This call for support ignited a storm in Netherlands, as authorities turned back Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s plane and turned away other AKP agents from campaigning on Dutch soil (15).
Keeping in autocratic fashion, Erdogan denounced the Dutch government as Nazis—ironic given the president’s fascist tendencies (^Ibid). AKP loyalists in Rotterdam and Istanbul, meanwhile, committed mass genocide on oranges too, through the squashing of dozens of the delicious fruits in protest—a horrifying spectacle for many (16). When AKP loyalists were not butchering food products, they were protesting in the streets with Muslim Brotherhood and Grey wolves hand gestures. Some went so far as to infiltrate the Dutch consulate building in Istanbul and replace its Dutch flag with a Turkish one (17).
Evet supporters horrifically slaughter dozens of oranges in Istanbul.
Growing autocracy in Turkey for Erdogan had been simmering for months, but it was drawing towards a singular defining moment—Turkish referendum. AKP’s domestic policy of cracking down on journalists and jailing those with a ‘whiff’ of ‘Kurdish Worker’s party’ (PKK) affiliation, such as members of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ (HDP), only could go so far (18). It would take more than this and anti-European rhetoric and crackdowns to win Erdogan the referendum. Economic and protection narratives became more prevalent in government spokespersons’ speeches (19).
Evet posters have Erdogan’s face on them.
Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, did not listen to Ankara’s demands for US to end its support for YPG, when he came to Istanbul on March 28th (20). Ankara doesn’t seem to take the hint that maybe, just maybe, US does not want TSK and FSA to lead the Raqqa charge. A lack of organisation, centralisation and infighting amongst FSA does not look good to the ‘United States Central Command’ (CENTCOM). Moreover, why should the United States abandon an ally that repeatedly shows its effectiveness in combating ISIS? Besides, Trump Administration had more to deal with than just balancing its relations with Turkey and YPG.
Rex Tillerson meets with Erdogan.
-US’ reaction to another CW attack:
After a failed offensive by FSA and ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) troops to capture northern Hama, bickering amongst Assad opposition forces increased, well SAA steadily pushed back against a splintered opposition (21). For many years now, the ‘Syrian Airforce’ (SyAF) and Russian Airforce had been targeting civilian centres in a long campaign to ‘eliminate terrorists’. (‘Terrorists’ referring to both jihadists and dissenters of Assad regime.) Dropping barrel bombs, using chlorine gas and other chemical weapons, pro-regime forces killed thousands of civilians in an effort to cripple what resistance remained (22).
The International community’s silence and inaction in prior years had given rise to a man who was not afraid to use whatever methods at his disposal to regain control of a broken country. In 2013, Assad showed the world what Sarin could do to thousands in Ghouta—dropping the substance and killing thousands through toxic suffocation (23). Denying responsibility and instead throwing blame on opposition forces, despite the overwhelming evidence presented by UN, Amnesty International, Doctors without borders and OPCW, even hiding behind Russia’s back, Assad displayed back then a refusal to care for the lives of civilians or take responsibility (24, 25, 26). The chemical weapon attacks in Khan Shaykhun in early April would show no different.
A mother and father weep at the sight of their dead child, who was killed in the Sarin gas attacks in East Ghousta, 2013.
However, unlike the Obama Administration’s response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta (not doing enough), Khan Shaykhun would prompt Trump administration to take a much more ‘firmer’ stance. In retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens, and after having his heart tugged on by the sight of dead children, Trump ordered 59 tomahawk missiles to be launched at an Assad [Shayrat] airbase—a poor move for Trump (27). A poor move, not because of the act itself, but because the administration decided to inform Russia—who informed the Assad regime—beforehand (28).
Flight path of SyAF from Shayrat airbase to Khan Shaykun. As provided by Pentagon.
Russia’s ‘tip off’ to the Assad regime allowed for it to pull most of its aircraft from the airbase, in effect only allowing the missiles to destroy a few aircraft and kill a few SAA personnel (29). This ‘symbolic’ move by the Trump Administration to deter future CW attacks has yet to show its long-term effects. However, one can say that such an act only showed, what was already evident to many, that Russia’s dedication to its ally only is rhetorical. In other words, if US decided to send ground forces into Syria to overthrow Assad, then Russia would not be willing to confront it.
President Assad and President Trump. On opposite sides of the world.
-A new phase with old problems:
Well Trump administration tried further to wedge itself between Russia and Assad regime, SDF forces continued to tighten the noose around Raqqa with continued attacks near Tabqa dam. These attacks aimed at setting the groundwork for Wrath of Euphrates’ next phase. Announced on April 13th by YPG command, as SDF and USSOF edged closer to Tabqa’s west, Raqqa operations entered a new [4th] phase—aim would be to cut supply routes to Raqqa and isolate it completely (30).
SDF commanders announce that liberation of Tabqa is next in Raqqa operations.
During the launch of the new phase, CENTCOM jets received poor ground intel from SDF commanders, which resulted in friendly fire that killed 18 SDF fighters—most from the ‘Raqqa Hawks Brigade’, a former FSA unit that joined SDF in 2016 (31, 32). FSA supporters, as usual, were quick to jump on this tragedy and claimed that Rojava forces were deliberately targeting Arab fighters within their own ranks. An absurd claim, given that there are a large number of Arab fighters fighting in Rojava forces and that are leading in the Raqqa offensive.
Always quick to target the YPG for any failure, the anti-YPG brigade was out in full force when these airstrikes happened. It is no surprise that such a high level of scrutiny was placed on the YPG, as many FSA supporters are quick to point out the faults of a different group and ignore their owns—usual tribalism on show. This was most evident with the apologetics surrounding the attack of busses transporting civilians, as well as SAA forces, from Madaya and Zabadani to the Idlib province.
Map shows area of attack in Idlib province.
A transfer and exchange deal, agreed to by Iranian militias and FSA, that was supposed to assure safe passage of civilians of Assad besieged cities in Damascus’ west and those of rebel besieged cities in North-west of Idlib, ended in blood shed (33, 34). A suicide bomber blew up busses filled with Shiite civilians and over a hundred died, including many children. FSA and Assad supporters blamed one another, but given the history of attacks by jihadists on Assad loyalists and civilians in the area, one is to wonder if HTS or ‘Ahrar Al-sham’ (AAS) is to blame (35).
Assad opposition had devolved over the years, from a centralised force that wanted to rid Assad and establish pluralistic democracy to a splintered opposition that now was dominated by jihadists who want an Islamic caliphate. This sad regression has been due to the longevity of the Syrian conflict, where thousands of Syrians have become desperate to end the conflict. Throwing their hopes on those who only seek to usher in a new tyranny, blinded by a mindset that has been brought up on Arab supremacy, many side with jihadist factions and any forces that depart from their mindset, such as Rojava forces. It is this mindset that Rojava forces are seeking to change.
Jihadists of Jund al-Aqsa, prior to 2017, when their fighters joined HTS.
-Changing minds, but not allies:
Helping to establish a ‘Raqqa Civilian Council’ (RCC) to takeover after SDF have liberated the city of Raqqa, SDF are seeking to change the mindset that has long plagued Syria. Appointing Layla Mohammed—a feminist and Raqqa local—to co-head the Council, Rojava forces sought to make a statement (36). By empowering women and putting them in places of authority, Rojava forces seek to change the gender dynamics and slowly erode the religious traditionalism that had sought to subjugate women as second-class citizens—A stark contrast to the jihadists’ vision.
Layla Mohammed (L) and Hamdan al-Abad (R) are leaders of the Raqqa Civilian Council.
Around the same time of Layla Mohammed’s appointment and RCC’s formation, Turkey was holding its referendum. April 16th saw Turks flock to voting booths, guarded at all times by Turkish soldiers and often surrounded by ‘Evet’ supporters, who kept close eyes on what way locals were voting. Intimidation was not the only thing awaiting potential ‘hayir’ [no] voters, but also fraudulent votes and a clear manipulation of votes to favour Evet side. Many counters of the results were filmed accepting fraudulent Evet votes—a clear violation of the voting process, but not to be a surprise, given Erdogan’s tactics (37).
However, what was clear to the world was that in Turkey there was still a resistance to autocratic rule. A majority of Kurdish regions in Turkey voted ‘Hayir’ and many of the major cities, such as Ankara and Istanbul, voted Hayir too. This showed that, even though the Turkish referendum was a victory for Erdogan, with 51.8% Evet votes in his favour, the coming darkness would have its future cracks of light from those areas (38, 39). With new power secured, President Erdogan could now set his sights on Rojava.
Results, as presented by AA – a Turkish state media outlet – for April 16th.
Now Turkey looks to be amassing troops north of the Tell Abyad border, for what looks to be a likely point of a possible future offensive by TSK into Rojava. Erdogan did say that Turkey would launch future military operations, this time without using the pretext of fighting ISIS, as it did for Euphrates Shield. However, Ankara’s methods of doing this are varied, but what is clear is that Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani’s ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party’ (KDP), whose party co-administrates the ‘Kurdish Regional Government’ (KRG), would play a part.
President Barzani of the KRG and head of KDP.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s KDP acts as a Turkish organisation that heads a ‘quasi-Turkish protectorate’, as KDP has allowed Ankara’s interests to dictate KRG’s foreign policy. This is no more evident in KDP’s actions towards the PKK in Sinjar and to the Yazidis of ‘Sinjar Resistance Units’ (YBŞ). In August of 2014, when ISIS militants were edging their way towards Sinjar, thousands of Yazidis became victim to a massacre that would see Yazidi women enslaved, children butchered and men killed (40). Many of Yazidis had been disarmed in prior days by KDP forces, which retreated when ISIS militants broke through—leaving thousands defenceless (41).
A corridor was opened just in time by the YPG with the help of the PKK and YBŞ to create a path between Sinjar Mountains and Rojava territory. This corridor served to save thousands of Yazidis from being butchered further, showing that the Rojava forces and PKK wanted to aid those battling oppression (42). However, KDP pushed Ankara’s line and cracked down harder in following years against PKK, as well as the YBŞ. Pushing Rojava Peshmerga into Sinjar in March 2017 to try oust YBS, KDP intended to push any trace of PKK from Iraq. These clashes continued between KDP forces and YBŞ near Sinjar Mountains, inevitably escalating with Turkish airstrikes on April 25th (43).
Ibrahim Huso and Newroz Guvercin are the two soldiers attempting to stop a Peshmerga vehicle.
-Bombs over Rojava:
Turkish jets flew high across Rojava and the Sinjar mountains, dropping bombs on YPG headquarters in Cizere and YBŞ’ military bases in Sinjar. Dozens killed, including many civilians and even KDP Peshmerga as well, showed that Ankara’s eyes were still firmly set on the Kurds (44). Launching further attacks, TSK clashed with YPG in the Afrin and Cizere cantons—battling at Darbasiyah. During this time, US commanders visited the site of the bombings in Sinjar a day later, despite the anger of both Turkey and FSA supporters (45).
A US officer, from the US-led coalition, speaks with a fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes near northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on April 25, 2017.
Turkish warplanes killed more than 20 Kurdish fighters in strikes in Syria and Iraq, where the Kurds are key players in the battle against the Islamic State group.
The bombardment near the city of Al-Malikiyah in northeastern Syria saw Turkish planes carry out “dozens of simultaneous air strikes” on YPG positions overnight, including a media centre, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN
Rojava supporters began to campaign for a ‘no fly zone’ over Northern Syria, shortly after the airstrikes, to prevent further Turkish aggression. In the interim, US State department, Iraq and Syrian governments denounced Turkey’s airstrikes—US even going so far as to warn Turkey to not take any further action against YPG. However, Ankara ignored Pentagon’s demands and continued to mortar YPG positions, as well as attempt to push armour into Rojava (46). This defiance prompted CENTCOM to authorise US Special forces to come to the aid of YPG in Darbasiyah.
Wedging itself firmly between TSK and YPG, US armed vehicles—with raised American flags—drove with YPG to the border and set up positions to deter Turkish aggression. US flexed its muscle and Russia found itself desiring to do the same, as Russia followed soon after with troops being sent to Afrin canton to deter aggression too (47, 48). It was a Manbij situation all over again, as Turkey again found itself confronted by both US and Russia. Creating, in effect, a ‘buffer zone’ along the northern Syria border, US stands now in Ankara’s way–again.
YPG vehicles escort USSOF along Rojava border with Turkey.
Charles Lister and other anti-YPG analysts took this opportunity to beat Ankara’s drum at Congress and on social media, outlying desperately the need for US to reconsider its relations with the YPG. Like Roy Gutman before in February, Lister and friends spared no time in pointing out YPG’s connection to the PKK—a ‘terrorist organisation’ (49). Julian Röpcke, another ME analyst, even went so far as to decry the USSOF that attended the funeral of killed YPG fighters in Qamshilo. Highlighting yet again, how far the anti-YPG brigade will go in their hatred of Rojava forces and their affirmation of Turkey’s narrative (50).
‘Jihadi Julian’ is what many YPG supporters refer the analyst as.
-A New Dawn for Syria:
Now that Ankara is once again forced to rethink its strategy in Northern Syria, SDF forces are on the verge of liberating Tabqa from ISIS. Well I write this, most of Tabqa’s old districts have been liberated and clashes now go on in the last remaining streets of the city. ISIS is done in Tabqa that is for sure. There seems to be a determination with the SDF that has tickled the fancy of the US, as Trump administration looks to be aligning more firmly on the side of it in the fight against ISIS than Ankara (51, 52). Ankara is starting to read the warning signs and has become increasingly tenser with the US.
Map of situation in Tabqa, May 5th. SDF repelled an ISIS counterattack.
Turning its eyes to its rebel partners, Ankara, Damascus and Tehran did manage to come to agreement on future ‘safe zones’ for refugees and civilians in the Syrian conflict to return (53). Whether or not these safe zones will work is yet to be seen; however, I am sceptical that such agreements will last unless maintained through force. It is speculated that TSK might intervene to prevent these safe zones from regressing back into conflict zones, and to stop further escalation of tensions between rebel groups, such as HTS and Sham Legion.
Deescalation zones proposal and what it will look like if implemented correctly in Syria.
A new dawn breaks for Syria, as the forces of totalitarianism fight for survival in an ever increasingly difficult situation. Their leader gone and their units on the back foot, under siege by those who had suffered the most at their hands, ISIS militants now fight for what is left of a broken caliphate. With the strength of thousands that have perished in the most grotesque of manner behind them and with the cries of thousands in captivity still, female and male fighters—in equilibrium—of the Syrian Democratic Forces march onward. Rojava’s eyes are on Raqqa and its people now. Liberation is on the horizon.
YPG fighter oversees an airstrike.
Written By Anthony Avice Du Buisson
The United States is in a precarious position. Its NATO ally Turkey for the last couple of weeks has been pressuring Washington into a tough decision: ‘People’s protection Units’ (YPG) or ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). Ankara has placed enormous pressure on Washington to reconsider its support for ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) leading the Raqqa offensive, as it consists of fighting forces of the YPG, which Turkey considers an extension of a domestic “terrorist” organisation—‘The Kurdish Workers Party’ (PKK). Instead favouring FSA and ‘Turkish Armed Forces‘ (TSK) to take over the offensive, Ankara wants to push the Kurdish militia group fully out of Coalition’s efforts against ISIS (2).
Territory divide in Northern Syria. Red for SAA, Blue for FSA, Yellow for YPG, Black for ISIS.
Launching operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ in August of 2016, under the pretext of fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, TSK and FSA began a campaign to dislodge YPG from the region. Pushing first to Jarabulus and then onwards to al-Bab, TSK and FSA forces took land from ISIS—engaging in clashes with YPG as they went (3). During this time, SDF forces launched its own offensive in November—operation ‘Wrath of Euphrates’. Aiming to force ISIS from its second stronghold in Ar Raqqa, SDF strategically moved southwards and liberated large areas of land from ISIS militants(4).
Turkish Tanks heading towards FSA controlled areas in Operation Euphrates Shield.
YPJ and SDF fighters at announcement of Operation Wrath of Euphrates in November.
Plans for Raqqa froze in February, however, when Trump asked military officials to reassess—over a thirty-day period—the offensive(5). Ankara’s eyes set on Raqqa, negotiations between Washington and Ankara for FSA involvement became stagnant, as Turkey’s arrogance and stubbornness to deny compromise left its proposals for involvement dead in the water. Becoming more evident, that Ankara’s desire to extend its anti-PKK domestic policy into the realm of its foreign policy was not working in its favour(6).
Additionally, President Erdogan’s call for FSA to move onto Manbij after the capture of al-Bab, an area controlled by US-backed SDF and ‘Manbij Military Council‘ (MMC), increasingly greased Ankara’s grip of Washington(7). Leading military officials to push Turkey out of considerations for Raqqa, Ankara vows now to do what it can to take Manbij and move onto Raqqa—regardless of Washington(8). This increase in tensions in the region between Coalition forces is weighing heavy on US’ mind, as considerations over future of Raqqa’s post-ISIS state hang in the balance.
President Erdogan (Center) with AKP administration.
US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis.
Storming Western Manbij with TSK armour and troops, FSA engaged with YPG in a series of clashes south of Al Arimah region in the nearby villages of Tall Turin and Qahar(9). Well clashes on the field escalated, MMC took this time to default to Russia and negotiate a trade: In exchange for SAA governance of territory near Arimah region, MMC would have a buffer zone created between it and FSA(10, 11). During the announcement of this trade by MMC, US ‘Special Operation Forces‘ (SOF) moved into Manbij and Coalition officials quickly confirmed their commitment to SDF, as well as MMC(12).
Armoured vehicles of SOF enter Manbij.
Now that Ankara has its eyes wide shut on the Raqqa offensive, as it continues to deny negotiating with YPG and continues to believe that its FSA should lead, SDF continues its operation against ISIS. Advancing eastwards and cutting off road between Dier-ez Zor and Raqqa cities, SDF look to encircle the capital(13). Restricting blood flow to the serpent, SDF continue to wrap a noose around Raqqa and force ISIS into an ever-increasing stranglehold. By way of Pentagon providing oversight with airstrikes and armour, as well as with Washington fending off Ankara’s political bombardment, the road to Raqqa is clear(14).
SDF vehicles in eastern Raqqa.
Situation map of Raqqa offensive. Link: http://syria.liveuamap.com/en/2017/6-march-sdf-have-cut-the-road-between-raqqa–deirezzor-cities
However, how long this road will be clear for in this hostile political environment is uncertain. Ankara’s determination to undermine offensive seems unwavering, as TSK and FSA continue to do battle with YPG near Manbij. In this contentious atmosphere, Washington has to ask itself an important question: How far will it go to keep its alliance with Ankara? I think the answer to this question will only become known in a post-ISIS Syria, which most likely will be in the next two years. Moreover, with Turkey increasingly becoming an Islamist dictatorship, US willingness to stop “radical Islamic terrorism” will be put to the test(15). I hope for the best, but am prepared for the worst, as the US should be.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool
For the last nine months, Erdogan has increased crackdowns on journalists and political dissidents, especially Kurdish ones. In November alone, Erdogan arrested dozens of Kurdish MP’s and ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ members in Southern Turkish districts, which are predominantly Kurdish(16). This hunger for power that Erdogan displays and the evident desire to target any organisation that is remotely Kurdish or connected to PKK is frightening. Demonstrating a napoleon complex with censoring of media, Erdogan and Turkey demonstrate to the International Community exactly why no self-proclaimed free person should view it favourably.
Moreover, Erdogan’s domestic policy against fighting PKK ‘terrorists’ has extended over two nations external of Turkey and has shaped Turkey’s foreign policy. In Iraq, Ankara’s oversight extends to the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) who is headed by President Barzani(17,18). Barzani and Prime Minister Yıldırım of Turkey have increased Turkish forces to KRG, training ‘Rojava-Peshmerga’ (Roj-pesh) and sending units to Sinjar in response to PKK. Occupied by a large Yazidi population, Roj-pesh units pushed recently into the area in an attempt to scare PKK out(19).
President Barzani (left) and President Erdogan (right) in Istanbul, in late February.
Denying this imposition from Turkish forces, ‘Sinjar Resistance Units’ (YBS) and locals armed themselves in response(20). A force created in conjunction with the PKK, the YBS was Yazidis response to ISIS’ massacre of its population in Sinjar in 2014. Now threatened by a new authoritarian force, Yazidis find themselves in the middle of a tough situation. This has not been easy, given that Roj-pesh fired upon YBS and civilians now flee a new battle area(21). One only hopes the Yazidis will find a place for their own, as it seems KDP deny them that now. (Kurdish Unity is something that I wish could be, as was in the days of fighting Saddam Hussein. However, tribalism runs deep.)
A family of Yazidis leave the Sinjar area. Displaced from Clashes between Roj-Pesh and YBS.
It is important to remember principles when analysing conflict, as it can become very easy to be a megaphone for a party. One principle that has guided me through is that of taking the side of the oppressed against tyranny and injustice. ‘Take the side of the victim; aid them in their struggle’. Those seeking to do justice and protect those facing tyranny should be supported. And those who depart from this are generally not to be trusted. However, even keeping to this principle is not always easy. But you have to try.
The Battle lines are drawn.
Current Situation map of Syrian conflict, March 6th.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson
It has happened.
After heavy bombardments and intense fighting, al-Bab has finally fallen to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). This comes after months of shelling from Turkish artillery on the city and fighting between FSA troops, under the oversight of Ankara, and ISIS militants—battling for an area that is 30 square kilometres(2). Dozens dead and wounded, ISIS withdrew from al-Bab and FSA managed to take the area before ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) forces could advance.
al-Bab is circled in red and was captured by FSA on 25th of February.
Storming the city with Turkish armour, troops of ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ (AaS) were amidst the ranks of FSA fighters that took al-Bab. These troops are among the many Islamist forces that are fighting in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield‘ that Turkey started in August of last year (3). Armed and extremely zealous, these fighters rushed into al-Bab and had no hesitation in claiming its ‘liberation’ (4).
Ahrar Al-Sham fighters pose in al-Bab after capturing it from ISIS. (c. Feb 26th, 2017)
However, the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist organisations such as ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) in the ranks of FSA, demonstrate a rather darker aspect of the current Syrian opposition; namely, its domination by Islamist factions(5). This domination is because of infighting amongst FSA that has been going on since 2012. Fights between Salafist and Jihadist factions (collectively Islamist factions) and “moderate” (secular) factions have forced FSA in splintering(6).
Members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan
Once a centralised and organised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, and an opposition that I once previously supported, now has become a disorganised and splintered opposition(7). Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Sunni Islamist groups have come into the fray—gathering support over the years. Fuelled by a desire to replace Assad’s tyranny with the tyranny of Salafist jihadism, AQ affiliates fight against SAA and those who deny their ideology(8).
The butcher of Aleppo.
When Eastern Aleppo fell in December, many Syrians from moderate factions of FSA defected to Islamist factions. Desperate and afraid of reprisals from SAA, many either fled to Turkish protection or joined HTS and began fighting (9). Those still hanging on against both SAA and HTS, such as ‘Free Idlib Army’ (FIA), now fight on multiple fronts. Helpless and outmanned compared to jihadists(10).
This is convenient for both Russia and Assad, as Kremlin now has more justification to keep its airstrike campaign going in Syria. Kremlin and Damascus have claimed that airstrikes in prior months have only targeted ‘terrorists’(11). However, airstrikes have targeted more than just ‘terrorists’. Many hospitals, schools and civilian areas have faced barrel bombs, airstrikes and chemical weapons by both Russia and SAA forces (12,13). Thousands of civilians have died in Aleppo alone, during its siege.
Aleppo during siege in December.
An influx of jihadists in opposition ranks allows Kremlin now to move more swiftly in changing the narrative of Assad in Syria. Helping reclaim land for Assad is one thing, but to prevent further uprising and to secure Assad’s position as a ‘hero to the Syrian people’, Kremlin has started to increase propaganda around him and has pushed the narrative of ‘buffer to terrorists’ even more (14).
Moreover, by saying that all of the opposition that opposes Assad are Islamists, Russia forces west into a dichotomy: Assad or Islamists(15). In prior months, one could argue against opposition being entirely Islamists, but with current infighting and splintering amongst opposition, the propaganda view is starting to become more dominant.
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Turkish-backed Islamists, who now desire to further an advance to capture Manbij, did the capturing of al-Bab with a desired goal in mind. Unlike Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), as well as other Rojava forces (YPG and YPJ), these Islamists do not have liberty and democracy in mind. What they have in mind is the desire to create an Islamic State. When AaS’ fighters entered al-Bab, waving their index fingers in the air in the ‘Tawhid salute’ (oneness of god) and chanting Islamist slogans, the religious zeal was evident(16).
US forces and previous backers of FSA have halted their support, instead demanding that moderate factions regain control of opposition or risk being abandoned. This is very sad news, as many prior FSA supporters now watch the heart of Syrian revolution succumb to its wounds. With SAA tiger forces moving to cut off Euphrates Shield advancement, Turkish-backed Islamists and ‘Turkish armed forces’ (TSK) now scramble to continue offensive(17).
FSA fight in Aleppo region against SAA.
SAA forces reach the YPG held border near Manbij. SAA start advance against FSA.
Nevertheless, despite the erosion of FSA to Islamist domination, there is an unseen benefit in this conflict. That benefit comes from a possible securing of Rojava cantons in Northern Syria, especially Afrin Canton with Kobani canton. If FSA is bogged down battling SAA, then YPG may have chance to push against FSA and relink the cantons. In addition to this, if the cantons are linked and Rojava is secured, then it will give Rojava forces a better chance in negotiating the future of Syria.
However, before that can happen, YPG will have to defend Manbij from FSA advancement. President Erdogan has claimed the region to be in control of Arabs, implying that Kurdish militias are to abandon area or be forced out(18). YPG will refuse this and thus there will be future conflict to come.
New graduated YPG recruits in Afrin Canton, Northern Syria.
As for me, I watch these series of events on the sidelines.
Writing new observations in my journal.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson
It is quite convenient for Turkey that there has been an influx of anti-YPG articles written recently. This comes at a time when US is rethinking its strategy in regards to expelling ISIS from Raqqa in Syria. The current offensive there is fought by Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), made up of predominantly ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG). This has caused Turkey much frustration, as Turkey considers the YPG to be a branch of the ‘Kurdish Worker’s Party’ (PKK). With PKK considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, there has been conflict between PKK and Turkish government (1).
A woman cries over death of Turkish soldier.
Currently, YPG fight to secure a region in Northern Syria known as Rojava, which is just one of the four regions that Kurds consider a part of greater Kurdistan (Bakur, Baᶊûr and Rojhelat are other regions). ‘Rojava Revolution’ is what it is known as (2) and both men and women—offering a radical project given the environment that it is situated—are waging it. Assisted by US Special Forces and equipment, Rojava forces are Coalition favourites for fighting ISIS in Syria. For good reason as well, given that SDF and YPG, along with ‘Women’s protection Units’ (YPJ), have liberated many villages from ISIS (3). This rapid success and gaining of land in Northern Syria has made Ankara worried…very worried.
Bir Hebab and Makman fronts converge, as YPG encircle ISIS fighters.
In August of 2016, Ankara armed Free Syrian Army troops (FSA) with armour and pushed Turkish troops (T-FSA) into Northern Syria—igniting Operation ‘Euphrates Shield’. Under guise of fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, Ankara hopes to oust YPG from Northern Syria with T-FSA. Objective is simply to not allow YPG from securing Rojava and to keep a distance between YPG and Turkish border (4). Ankara has recently done its most to try undermine SDF’s operation, which is called ‘Wrath of Euphrates’—launched in November of 2016. Aim of which is to expel ISIS from Raqqa (5).
However, US tossed Ankara a lifeline with the recent rethinking of Raqqa offensive, as US Secretary of Defence and other officials now consider ‘alternative’ options. Proposing new strategies, Ankara desperately wants US to consider it and FSA for an offensive on Raqqa instead of YPG (6). (One of these strategies entails YPG making a pathway to Raqqa from Tel Abyad, even though that would also entail US oversight through conventional ground forces or it would result in a bloodbath, as forces would clash.) Pressuring Washington to consider its options carefully, Ankara has also sought to bring Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain into the mix to keep YPG in place by encouraging a greater local Arab force (7). In this geopolitical environment, Ankara has been doing its best to change the political dimension, as well as the narrative surrounding YPG.
King Salman and President Erdogan.
Recently a series of articles from Roy Gutman have appeared in ‘The Nation’ about Syrian Kurds—notably the YPG. In these articles, notably, ‘Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?’(8) Gutman seeks to undermine the credibility of YPG by insisting upon collusion between YPG and ISIS, as well as accusing YPG of war crimes, such as expulsion of Arabs from their households. Gutman in these articles seeks to paint a narrative of an unreliable and despotic force that does not have the people’s best interests in mind (9). Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (10), Meredith Tax, Joey Lawrence and Flint Arthur (11) have responded aptly to these allegations quite well.
This war of misinformation coincides with Ankara efforts to push for alternative options for Raqqa offensive quite well, which leads one to suspect that there may be funding involved in the publication of such articles. However, although this is speculation, these articles do come at an apt and convenient time for Ankara’s interests. With Operation Euphrates Shield, ongoing Turkish backed FSA move closer to Raqqa, putting pressure on Washington to act quick in deciding whether to continue corporation with Rojava forces or give into Ankara’s demands.
Armed Turkish forces have fought in Al-Bab against ISIS for a couple months now, which show that the force that Ankara wishes to ask US to lead is woefully insufficient and undisciplined (12). This is important given that the fight in Raqqa is expected to be much heavier than in Mosul. In other words, the fight to liberate Raqqa is not going to be an easy one. Ankara has also vowed to march forces from Al-Bab, should it be victorious against ISIS, onto Manbij—a city liberated by YPG in August (13). Demonstrating that Ankara’s dedication to stop YPG runs deep.
FSA fighter shooting in Al-Bab.
However, Syrian Kurds are cynical about continued US support. There are Kurds that believe US will side with Ankara—abandoning them (14). If this does indeed materialise, then it will be no surprise for a large insurgency to grow and push northwards. Anti-american sentiment is already rife, as Democratic Union Party (PYD) has already sought other avenues, such as Russian and Assad regime support. Pushing a more pragmatic approach, Russia and PYD have pushed for an autonomous rojava in region, if Assad is to remain.
Regardless of what happens in the next four weeks, there is going to be a lot of disappointment and bloodshed for all sides. However, for now, one has to wait and see.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson
SDF fighter waiting.
When during human developments, current establishments prove to be unjustified and tyrannical to the requests of human dignity and rights – when these bodies only wish to subjugate, steal and dictate humankind – the individuals within a society most oppressed have the eternal right to dissent against, and revolt against, these establishments. Moreover, for those who wish to spectate to this injustice against human dignity, may it be known that those who are spectators of injustice are unknowing accomplices to tyranny. One must take a stand when the moment demands it. One must speak up to break the silence that comes from fear and inaction.
History shows that in every epoch, there are those who are willing to go against what a society deems ‘moral’, ‘traditional’ or—more condescendingly— ‘normal’ in pursuit of their own identity. Leading lives that inspire others to follow a similar course of action—from Rosa Luxemburg to Mona Eltahawy. These individuals do not choose their paths out of joy but rather out of a desire to escape what is around them and to seek out or ‘create’ a better realm. Often doing so as part of a minority, these individuals nonetheless fight fiercely for dignity, autonomy, identity and other values that make for a better humanity. However, this journey is not easy and many face serious penalties for even daring to take the road less travelled. No better examples of the cost for dissenting then in those societies that depart from human dignity and rights, such as in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
One of the largest kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (abbreviated ‘KSA’) lays claim to many things; notably, Islam’s holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—and oil reserves that span across its large desert. For these many things, however, KSA also is home to an archaic system of laws that gets its reinforcement from culture, tradition and religion. Those who disobey or dissent from these laws have serious punishments to face, from imprisonment and lashings to execution via public beheading. (Dare to criticise the government and you will find yourself taken away by police, as was the case for blogger Raif Badawi who posted commentaries on Saudi Society and was sentenced to a thousand lashes and imprisonment in 2012. He remains in prison to this day, despite his wife Ensaf Haidar’s activism.) These laws reach all aspects of Saudi society and benefit those few who are wealthy and powerful. However, what is notable is the way tradition and religion play a large part in Saudi society, as both extend to the private sphere and defy the roles of men and women. Women’s role being the worse within Saudi Society, as is evident with the Male Guardianship system.
Slavery still exists, and it comes in a variety of different shapes and forms: The Male Guardianship system is one. Male Guardianship is a system within Saudi Society that requires women to have a male ‘guardian’, which is usually a male relative who must accompany and give permission to a woman for her to be allowed to do tasks. From wanting to travel abroad to wanting to seek an education or even medical help, under Saudi law a woman is required to have a Guardian who can grant permission. Furthermore, if a woman should be involved in a domestic abusive relationship with their guardian, then the guardian’s rights supersede those of the woman—under Saudi law. This means that should a woman complain to Saudi authorities of abuse by her guardian, the word of the guardian is listened to first. The Male Guardianship system is geared to favour Male Guardians. Denying autonomy, financial independence, identity and rights for women, Male Guardianship eclipses the life of a Saudi Woman and denies her a future by herself. It is a system that makes women slaves.
Moreover, the quality of a woman’s life depends entirely on her Guardian. There are guardians who are liberal in their approach and allow women to travel abroad, seek an apartment or work. However, and what must be noted, is that just because the quality of a woman’s life may be good in some parts in KSA, it does not negate the negative experiences of women who depart from said ‘good experience’. In other words, just because some slaves are treated better than others, does not deny what happens to the majority of slaves and the reality of slavery. As for every one woman in Saudi Arabia that benefits, there are at least ten others who do not. This must be recognised, as there are always apologists and PR spokes people that Saudi Government is more than happy to prop up, who will deny this and who will state how ‘nice’ women are treated in KSA. Others will justify the treatment of women by appeals to analogies, often along the lines of claiming Saudi women are ‘queens’ who must be protected. Even though queens are treated better than Saudi women are—having their own autonomy, as well as subjects to command—analogies like the ‘queen analogy’ persist and the privileged stories of some Saudi women continue to be perpetuated, unknowingly at times, by writers.
Mona El-Naggar, an Egyptian writer based in New York, wrote an article in The New York Times called, ‘I live a Lie: Saudi Women Speak Up’ in October of 2016 about the experiences of Saudi Women in KSA. In it are many powerful stories but one story stands out. Meeting a group of privileged Saudi students in Washington Square Park, Mona asked them about their experiences under the system. What was their response? “We don’t need to abolish male guardianship. We need to teach men how to be better guardians.” This is a slap to the face of those struggling under the system. By including this story, Mona unknowingly has undermined the piece she seeks to make. (Audiences tend to think that a problem is not as big as it is when there are two sides to it.) Many Saudi girls have escaped from their home nation, many desiring ‘to feel the air on their faces’. One example of those who have escaped Saudi Arabia is Moudi, previously known by the online pseudonym, ‘Sinner’.
Using ‘Twitter’ to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women, as Twitter is just one of the few sites not banned in KSA, Moudhi—like many Saudi girls—sought to give both fellow Saudi women and foreign audiences a window into the life of a woman in KSA. In real life a law student studying in the USA, Moudhi wore a mask to protect herself from both her family and the system. (Saudi Law, especially when it comes to studying abroad, can send back Saudi girls on scholarships for even daring to criticise KSA.) After a long time of contemplation, Moudhi took off her mask and voiced public criticisms of the Male Guardianship system. Despite the psychological abuse that follows her, both by her own family and Saudi males, Moudhi continues to raise a voice for Saudi Women. Stories like Moudhi’s are not to be taken lightly, as they emphasise what individuals can do and must undergo when speaking truth to power.
[Writer’s note: More stories will be touched upon later within this essay. However, there are a few stories attached in the appendix.]
Picture: Moudhi, normal face and wearing a veil
History of Oppression
Saudi Arabia in the 60s and 70s, just like most countries in the Middle East during that time, from Egypt to Syria, underwent radical shifts in culture as more of its populace experimented with art and discussed new ideas, such as whether the ban on women driving — imposed in 1957 — should be lifted (what should be noted is that women can drive in non-public areas and only if their guardians allow it; however, they are not allowed to drive on public highways). But these shifts in culture did not come without hostile reactions.
Ever since its formation as a kingdom in 1932, Saudi Arabia — initially under the leadership of King Abdulaziz — had to deal with trying to synthesize both the non-religious and religious sectors of its nation. Prior to its formation, Al Saud monarchy had a close relationship with the ulema — a religious body of clerics. The ulema adhered to a more orthodox version of Islam, “Wahhabism,” and helped the conquest of Al Saud monarchy over most of the Arabian Peninsula throughout the mid-18th through the early 20th century. This bond between religion and the state (theocracy) helped to create the kingdom, as the government claimed its religious legitimacy from the Wahhabi clerics in turn for the clerics being able to propagate the “Tawhid” doctrine — monotheism (an intertwining of religion and politics was crucial in maintaining KSA’s legitimacy).
This changed when British imperialistic ventures in the Middle East proved to be an obstacle for the Saudi government, forcing the drawing of strict borders with surrounding nations. KSA had to cut concessions to the ulema and instead pursue secular goals: non-religious national security and foreign policy goals. This muddled the relations between religion and the state. While more technological and secular influences made their way into the country from western nations, and a “modernization” of the country began to take root, Mullahs and clerics condemned this “westernization” of Saudi Arabia in their mosques. However, these mullahs dared not delegitimize the royal family, and when Al Saud monarchy called upon religious justifications for its proposed state policies, clerics did not dare refuse (this “contradiction” remains, as clerics “criticize” policy in theory, but legitimize it in practice for the state — highlighting something worth note: the power of the monarch). After the abolishment of slavery in 1962, pushed by Prince Faisalbin Abdulaziz Al Saud and in conjunction with international pressure from the United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s growing internal struggles and changes led to the abdication of King Saud and the appointment of his successor — King Faisal.
King Faisal introduced “radical” policies in the 60s and 70s to Saudi Society that would alter its structure. Through the pushing away of Wahhabi draconian rules and condemnations, Faisal was able to allow women the ability to seek an education and allowed for the creation of Saudi television — policies that cemented Faisal as a “reformer king.” This angered a great deal of Wahhabi clerics and religious fanatics, who saw these policies as a “perversion” by the West on Saudi society. These clerics were not alone in their attitudes to westernization, as religious fanatics throughout the Middle East grew increasingly angry at their governments “capitulation” to Western influences — seeing their nations step away from “pure” Islam. However, in 1975, Faisal’s reign ended with assassination by his deranged nephew — Faisal bin Musaid. After King Khalid’s ascent to the throne to fill void left by Faisal, KSA found itself amidst turbulent political winds, as nations surrounding it were grew involved in its internal struggles, from Iran to Iraq. These winds engulfed Saudi Arabic in 1979 with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Armed with guns smuggled in via coffins, a group of insurgents stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and declared that Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani was the Mahdi (redeemer of Islam) and demanded King Khalid step down. Allegedly receiving word from Allah while in prison, Juhayman al-Otaybi, the religious activist who led the attack on the mosque, believed Saudi Arabia had lost its way and saw it as an imperative to not only rid the country of “western perversion,” but to also bring it back to a “purer” form of Islam. Otaybi and his brother-in-law, Qahtani, gathered a group of a few hundred devotees to enter Mecca’s holiest Mosque during the hajj (pilgrimage). Taking hostages, Otaybi demanded King Khalid step down. This “mahdist” group occupied the mosque for nearly two weeks. It was quelled when French and Pakistani forces, scrambled together by the royal family in desperation to secure KSA’s legitimacy, stormed the Mosque, killed Qahtani and captured Otaybi.
However, King Khalid had to seek a “fatwa” (religious decree) beforehand from the ulema to allow those forces to be given access to the mosque to remove the insurgents. The ulema sought the opportunity to push for an amending of relations between the state and religion. In turn for allowing access to the Grand Mosque, it demanded more power to affect policies, which it received after the recapture of the Grand Mosque. This increase in power meant that the Monarch gave Wahhabi clerics more decision making abilities and agreed to help export its religious ideology (Wahhabism) globally in the following decades.
With the reforging of the alliance between state and religion, Saudi Arabia started to reverse the modernization that had gripped it in the 60s and 70s. The ulema began to impose stricter Islamic law (Sharia) upon the country: censoring media, enforcing greater restrictions on women and banning things like alcohol. Forcing women to cover up, either with an abaya or with hijab, KSA ended its liberal experimentation and started to enforce traditional roles upon Saudi women. King Khalid’s successor, King Fahd, allowed for the formation of the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices” (CPVPV), which intended to maintain these laws. It did this through the Religious police who were given greater reign to enforce dress codes, sex segregation (aptly denoted by some as “sex apartheid”), and the Male Guardianship system. If a woman was seen in public unaccompanied by her Guardian, then the religious police could take her and lock her up in a “care home,” a prison for women. In the education system, more schools were forced to teach religious studies. In this way, the ulema regained Saudi Arabia’s status as an Islamic nation and ensured “Islamic values” were spread to its populace — orthodox values as opposed to liberal ones. This “Wahhabi” imposition on Saudi society did not come without its resistance.
A small pocket of dissenters willing to raise their voices against tyranny and defy state law began to speak out over the years. This was the case in Riyadh in 1990, when a couple dozen women drove cars throughout Saudi Arabia’s capital. Knowing the risks perfectly well, these women took their guardians’ cars and drove them — in defiance of the law. Paying with the loss of their passports and jail time, such a demonstration only showed the desire of women to have rights and a sheer desperation of the Saudi government to keep its legitimacy through force. This spirit of protest from Saudi women continues on even in the 21st century.
Picture: Wajeha al-Huwaider driving a car in 2008
Moving to end the Male Guardianship system
The movement has blossomed with the advent of the internet and social media as more women gain access to platforms that allow them to voice their experiences under the Male Guardianship system. Despite KSA banning certain social media sites and apps, such as Skype, Facebook and Whatsapp, sites like Twitter and Instagram remain, providing a venue for women to write and share videos of what life is like in the KSA.
While there are many women who adopt pseudonyms to protect their identity from Saudi authorities, there are a brave few who choose to come out publicly — despite the costs and personal risk. Saudi women activists like Wajeha Huwaider, a woman who was arrested for posting a video of herself driving a car in Riyadh in 2008, and Manal al-Sharif, a woman who launched the “Women2Drive” campaign that sought to teach Saudi women to drive in 2011, both have been in the public eye and have protested the ban on women drivers. Aziza Yousef is another activist who is involved in the highlighting of women’s rights abuses in KSA. Emphasizing a couple cases in 2014 (one where a woman died on campus in Riyadh after not being given access to paramedics, all because of not having a male guardian), Aziza sought to petition the Shura Council with other activists to demand an end to male control over women. These activists seek to highlight the grave human rights violations that Saudi Arabia is guilty of and have inspired many Saudi women to take up a new mantra. A mantra that has since gone on to define a movement: “I am my own Guardian.”
‘“When you are born a girl in KSA, you will feel that the only crime that you have committed is being born into the wrong sex.” I am forced to love someone I hate. However, I am not the only one. There are many like me in my country. Many women who suffer as I do. We want our freedom from this tyranny. We want the Male Guardian system to end. This is my wish. My name is Aisha. I am just another woman who lives in KSA.“-Aisha
[Writer’s note: full story, as well as many others that I have received, will be attached in the appendix of this essay.]
[Aisha’s story attached at the bottom of this essay]
In mid-2016, Saudi women took to Twitter to start a movement to end Male Guardianship. Tweeting under various hashtags, such as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, #TogetherToEndMaleGaurdianship and #سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه (abolish the Male Guardianship system), Saudi Women started to raise awareness of the harrowing experiences that occur regularly in KSA. Many of these women, which included activists like Hala Al Dosari, posted videos and their stories of oppression, and demanded an end to Male Guardianship and Saudi women’s liberation.
#سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه is the Arabic hashtag that many Saudis use to voice their concerns. Some of the stories included in this tag are horrifying and provide a glimpse into the lives of Saudi women. Many of these stories include domestic abuse cases where the male guardian has subjected his daughters and wives to torture, psychological manipulation, and rape — and has gotten away with it! Human Rights Watch wrote an excellent piece in July 2016 called Boxed In which highlighted many experiences from Saudi women.
Exposing the injustice and discrimination of the system, the movement to end Male Guardianship has, broadly speaking, three goals, which many of those involved would agree with:
- Abolish the Male Guardianship System.
- End the ban on Women driving.
- Acknowledge human rights for women.
However, in order to achieve these goals, Saudi Arabia needs to acknowledge how it abuses its own people. The Saudi government is reluctant to do this and at times denies its oppressive treatment of women. This is evident with it saying one thing to United Nations Human Rights Council but doing another within the kingdom. It is a sad state of affairs when KSA is Chair of the Human Rights Council of the UN. Prior to the current King Salman, King Abdullah had made small concessions to international pressure to give women greater rights. Electing thirty female members to the Shura Council, more as a publicity stunt than anything else, Abdullah had made slow progressions.
Within the movement, there are both non-Saudis and Saudis alike who do their part to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women. Those who are against the movement claim it has a “Western agenda” in mind, because of the involvement of Western individuals. This rationale follows the same conspiratorial mindset of those who claimed that Otaybi’s zealots, such as the Ayatollah of Iran, were “CIA-backed agents.”
There is an international presence within the movement, but what must not be forgotten is that the movement is for Saudi women’s liberation. Saudi women come first and their concerns for rights should be the focus of the movement. In a nation where a woman can have her entire life dictated by a male guardian, where this guardian can take away her rights to go to school or seek medical assistance and so on, it is imperative to raise awareness of her struggles and seek justice to end them.
The fight for Saudi women’s rights is just one of the many fights that exist in the Arab world. Across the Middle East, women undergo their own struggle against oppression, whether it be from the totalitarian forces of ISIS to the theocratic imams of Iran, each population battles for freedom. In these cases, there are those who have no personal stake in the issue, but choose to take the side of the victim and aid them in their struggle. These humans take up Bertrand Russell’s injunction to “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”; refusing to be spectators of injustice and doing what they can to help; reminding those facing oppression to continue to raise their voices — as silence is what gives tyranny power.
The government of Saudi Arabia cannot ignore its populace’s voices forever.
Though it may try to, it will not win.
Saudi Women are too strong for that.
Never forget that.
Artwork: Ms Saffaa’s art for the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen movement
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson (11/12/2016)
Original version can be found here for Areo Magazine: https://areomagazine.com/2016/12/13/a-kingdom-of-tears-male-guardianship-in-saudi-arabia/
-Aisha’s story: http://philosophyismagic.com/a-womans-struggle-aishas-story/
I do not care anymore for this life.
I have become empty inside, as a result of the abuse around me.
Everyone is against me and accuse me of doing sexual things that I have not done!
They make me out to be an oppressor, but it is they who support an oppressor!
When I was nine years old, my father sexually abused me. But I didn’t stay quiet, and I told my mother about what he did to me. It was the worst thing that I did, as he only became angrier and acted crazy. He expected me to be quiet, but I refused! Mother told me to tell her if anyone touched you inappropriately, then I had to always speak up. I never expected it to be my father!
As a result of me speaking up, he became very abusive to me. He would deliberately scare me and try to kill me, but my mother would stand in his way and she would threaten him that she would tell everybody about what he did to me. I was only a child and I would not sleep for some nights because I was afraid of him as he always threatens to kill me. He would tell me, “by god I will nail your head to the floor!” When we moved to another house I was relieved to find the room me and my sisters shared had a lock. I started locking the door each night but he would still threaten me that he would insert a gun from the window and shoot me from there. I spent nights sleeping in the corners of the room so the gun wouldn’t reach me. Why does he do this?
I want to understand why this happened to me? I’m a person who hasn’t done anything wrong, I was a ‘model’ girl. I did what I was supposed to do, from prayer to listen to my mother. As the years went on, he continue to deny me things. He tied to prevent me from going to school, but I would go each year and felt involved in a constant fight! Some days I was afraid he would see me and hit me infront of my friends. When I would come off the bus, he would slap me. Even my bus driver tried to stop him. These efforts were in vain, as he would continue to humiliate me and abuse me by telling how he wants to take me out of school.
He wouldn’t give me an allowance even. Everything I owned were hand me downs from my sisters and mother since I was a child. I used to wear my brother’s shoes at school because he was the only one who was close to my age at the time and I remember the girls in school would make fun of me since they were boys’ shoes. Even my name he put it in his company so he can prevent me from supporting myself (I never understood why he did this.) He refuses to support me and doesn’t allow me to support myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m experiencing severe depression. I’m always thinking about suicide, especially in the last couple of months. But I always think about my mother and my siblings and I don’t want to leave them alone.
He doesn’t even allow me to go to the hospital. I have asthma, and a many time I get severe attacks where I can’t breathe and my mother tells him take her to the hospital but he would say No, let her die. I want her to.
My father is just despicable. He’s the worst person ever.
He would lock me up in my room for days. My mother would bring me food from the window. Even the bathroom, I would only go when he’s not in the house and if he’s back I could never go in. I would avoid drinking anything so that I don’t need to go.
He’s always helping everyone, even some of his friends’ daughters so that one would believe us. When I call the police after he hits me they would ask me, what did you do? Then they would give me numbers to call none of which I get a response. So I lose hope.
When I called human rights, they called him and he lied to them and told them that he loves me and cares about what’s best for me and that he needs me at home and the worker believed him. He’s a liar. And when the worker called me again to make sure, my father threatened my mother, that if I don’t shut up he’s going to get an official form that proved I’m crazy and that they would take me forcibly to a mental institute.
By god everything I told you is nothing compared to what he’s done to me. I literally want to die. He’s not allowing me to live. He intervenes and prevent me from everything even what I wear. I dreamt of being a teacher. Or to just live a normal life like every other girl. God has gave him many things. He has many foundations under his name. Sometimes I feel that god is unjust. This oppressive man who’s stopping my life and future is just so blessed.