Unpacking Rojava: Examining power dynamics in Northern Syria – [Region Piece & University Submission]

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

References

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A Geopolitical Primer on the Afrin Crisis [Region Piece]

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.

Why now?

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


Homage to Demirtas: As he steps down, more leaders will rise – [Region piece]

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