Turkey’s Attack on Kurdish Afrin Puts Future of Democratic Project in Northern Syria at Risk

Civilians running for cover during the attack on Afrin in March. CreditBulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Civilians running for cover during the attack on Afrin in March. Credit: Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Kurdish-held Afrin, an enclave located in northwest Syria, was occupied by the Turkish military and its Free Syrian army affiliates on March 18. Most woke up to the so-called “Operation Olive Branch” seeing images of widespread looting, physical abuse, and the toppling of a Kawa the blacksmith statue, a Kurdish mythological hero, on the eve of Newroz, the very celebration which celebrates him.

Legend has it that it was on Newroz, only a week after the occupation, that Kawa killed a cannibalistic King and lit a fire to alert the community. Every year, Kurds replicate this ritual as a celebration. A week before Newroz this year however, Afrin went through hell for 58 days and hundreds of civilians perished. The Kurdish led city had fallen. Kawa wept.

The Turkish government claimed that the operation to occupy Afrin was initiated to expel the Kurds that oversee it – a group the government deems as terrorists. Turkey claims that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are Syrian affiliates of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But not only does the former Kurdish-led administration deny this, they also believe that the occupation was one against their entire way of life and governance. In Afrin, 65% of Kurdish officials were women, and at every level of governance, women had to be in power alongside men. Different ethnicities were not only granted autonomy, but political power.

The so-called Free Syrian Army soldiers would often publicize their own crimes over the course of the occupation of Afrin as a badge of honor. While fighting Kurdish forces, they regularly recorded themselves committing war crimes. In one video, an old shepherd is seen abused, in another a dead Kurdish woman fighter of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) is seen mutilated as Turkish-backed fighters debate on her beauty. The Turkish backed opposition felt it needed to release a statement half-heartedly condemning war crimes, but it was mostly concerned with ensuring that fighters didn’t take cameras with them on the battlefield.

When the Turkish Armed Forces and its Free Syrian Army affiliates decided to attack Afrin, they did so unhindered. Europe and the United States looked away with periodic pleas for “de-escalation.” They also claimed to recognize the “legitimate security concerns” that Turkey had about their very own Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Germany provided Turkey with tanks. The UK provided them with £100 million worth of fighter jets. France even went so far as to retract a statement of concern made by President Macron. While some British parliamentarians had strong words to say about the operation, they did so to an almost empty room at the House of Commons. As for the United States, it made clear that its only concern was the fact that the invasion of Afrin would distract Kurdish fighters from the fight against IS. The armed wings of the PYD, the YPG and YPJ, have been at the forefront of the campaign against the so-called Islamic State, and understandably feel betrayed by their tactical partner.

US Coalition spokesperson Ryan Dillon bluntly told Turkish government media that the US didn’t “consider [the YPG in Afrin] as part of our Defeat ISIS [Daesh] operations which is what we are doing there and we do not support them.” Many Kurds felt offended by this, as it implied that Washington only supported them when they were fighting ISIS.

Afrin had its air-space under the control of Russia in an agreement with the YPG and Moscow. But as Turkey planned to attack, Russia reportedly gave the Kurds of Syria an ultimatum – either they allow Assad to take control of Afrin, or they would let Turkey attack. Because the residents of Afrin refused to let Assad take over their city, Russia allowed for Turkey to invade the small enclave. And whereas in the midst of the operation the Kurds felt abandoned by the international community, and out of self-preservation felt the necessity to call on the Syrian government to provide reinforcements – only small loyalist militias engaged with the Turkish Government and its FSA affiliates. They were sacrificial lambs, after all, given that Assad wanted to see Afrin fall too.

In other words, Afrin is a story of abandonment. For many Kurds, and most of Afrin’s non-Kurdish population, the attack was apocalyptic.

But Afrin was once a beacon of stability and home to close to a million in a country ravaged by a civil war. Most who resided there have now fled.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which oversees Afrin’s political experiment, is a party which ideologically pledges allegiance to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – Abdullah Ocalan – but claims to be organizationally separate from the PKK. Afrin, like other parts of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, proposes a system of direct democracy. The basic unit of what they call “Democratic Confederalism” is the commune. Save for military matters and emergency circumstances (which often come up in wartime), day-to-day governance is delegated upwards from the commune level towards the neighborhood, town, and regional level.

The imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan ideologically renounced the quest for a Kurdish State. He concluded that the state was not the means to self-determination, but the greatest obstacle in its way. Kurds, he argued, were not to construct a national state, but a “democratic nation” which incorporates all of the peoples of the middle east. This democratic nation would have the capacity for self-defense and would also be tasked with converting the undemocratic states of the Middle East into multi-cultural Democratic Republics. Democratic Confederalism and armed self-defense provided roadmap for Ocalan, who also insisted that women had to be at the forefront of this process.

The administrators of Afrin, and the leaders of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria at large, claim to be putting this project into practice.

A safe haven occupied by a despot

The PYD, which controls Afrin, does not claim to be an independent Kurdish state. Turkey, however, does not believe them.

The Turkish government believes that not only are Kurds building a contiguous statelet, but they are also giving ideas to their own restless population. In a word, the Turkish government believes that the Kurds of Northern Syria are endangering the very “territorial integrity” of their own state. Britain seems to agree.

Turkey also claims that the YPG – which surely admires the PKK – is an offshoot of a Kurdish militant group that has waged a war on the Turkish state for decades. The YPG, which takes its ideological inspiration from Ocalan, a co-founder of the PKK, denies this. It also denies claims made by the Turkish government that the YPG is harbouring ISIS in Afrin. In fact, like many people around the world, the YPG believes that this is an absurd claim.

As a “canton” of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, Afrin is isolated from the rest of its counterparts. It is, quite simply, surrounded by enemies. To the north and west lies Turkey. To the south east, Assad and the Syrian Government control vast swathes of territory and are waiting for the right circumstances to attack those they call “traitors.” Toward the East, Turkish backed rebels are ready to attack at any time, and in fact did during the occupation. Finally, to the south, the Jihadist stronghold of Idlib has been another springboard for the occupation orchestrated by Turkey.

A map with the Afrin Canton within the middle of Operation Olive Branch. Yellow denotes the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava), Red denotes Assad-held territory, Light Green refers to Jihadist held Idlib, and Dark Green shows Euphrates Shield Territory.  
A map with the Afrin Canton within the middle of Operation Olive Branch. Yellow denotes the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava), Red denotes Assad-held territory, Light Green refers to Jihadist held Idlib, and Dark Green shows Euphrates Shield Territory.

Afrin is separated from the rest of the federation because in 2016, Turkey launched “Operation Euphrates Shield” to prevent it from being linked with cantons held by the Kurds and their friends in the northeast. As Kurds and their own Arab Free Syrian Army affiliates advanced westwards from Kobane, liberating territory from IS along the way, they hoped to connect Afrin with the rest of the federation. Turkey intervened into Syria to drive a wedge between Afrin, occupying Jarablus and Al-Bab.

Put simply, Afrin was geographically and politically susceptible to an attack by Turkey.

The rationale for the occupation and the role of the US

Turkey justified its campaign by claiming that it wanted to get rid of a “terror corridor” being formed across its border. Kurds, however, claim that Turkey is aiming for demographic change, and that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to replace a majority Kurdish city with Arab refugees.

“What are we doing there?” Erdogan said in a rally in the Turkish province of Bolu regarding the offensive against Afrin, “We’re trying to return those places to their real owners.” By this he meant that he would try to put Kurdish majority Afrin in the hands of Arabs, and he even planned to “repatriate” 500,000 Syrian refugees to an area they’ve never resided in.  Many Kurds believe that these gestures made towards a Kurdish-majority city are an attempt at ethnic cleansing. The New York Times reported that the Turkish government had also hand-picked a council to replace the Afrin administration on the day of the occupation. Many Kurds are convinced that such gestures are an attempt by Turkey to colonize northern Syria.

In the midst of all of this, and as international NGOs and the UN regularly protested against the death toll of the Turkish campaign, the US government often claimed that its biggest concern with the Afrin operation was that it was a “distraction” from the fight against IS. Not that it was a travesty, but that it was just a “distraction.” This too, angered the Kurds of Northern Syria, insofar as it implied they were seen as merely pawns in the battle against ISIS, instead of humans bestowed with the right to self-defense and self-determination.

It was only when the Kurds fighting at the frontlines in Eastern Syria – against the last stronghold held by IS – went on strike, that the US got more serious in its condemnation of the Afrin operation. Over 1,700 Arabs joined the strike, many of whom also call themselves the Free Syrian Army. Thousands more fighters left Deir ez-Zor to defend the city of Afrin.

The US government was put in an uncomfortable position by Turkey’s assault on the city. Turkey is a Nato ally, and the Kurds were the ally in the fight against IS. Defending the Kurds would mean risking a potential war with Turkey – something the US has been specifically advised not to do by groups like the RAND corporation. (While small, the possibility of such a war does exist. Turkey has, after all, insisted that it will take all Kurdish held territory, including that which may have stationed US military personnel). But if the US were to defend Turkey this would mean angering the Kurds and compromising the fight against IS. Therefore, when “Operation Olive Branch” began, the US and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in specific, decided not to make a decision at all.

In other words, the US was complicit in the travesty of Afrin through its silence and its refusal to make a decision. Washington is now in the position where it cannot be silent anymore.

“By controlling Afrin city center yesterday, we have passed the most important step of the Olive Branch operation,” Erdogan told Judges and prosecutors in Ankara after taking the city. “After this, we will continue now to Manbij, Ayn al-Arab (Kobane), Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Qamishli.” Simply put, Erdogan wants the whole Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

US military personnel are stationed in Manbij. If Erdogan advances there, a clash could take place between the US and Turkey. But if the US withdraws and compels the YPG to leave with it, then the Kurds will finally know, without any doubt, where the Trump administration stands. It’s not clear how this conflict will develop.

Either the United States supports its Kurdish tactical allies, which would mean supporting a radical democratic project they don’t like – or they support Turkey, which has expansionist aims and is often accused of trying to fashion itself as the new Ottoman Empire. Whichever decision is made, the future of the Middle East is at stake. Will the radical democracy of Northern Syria become another legend in the history books? It is a question that ought to weigh heavily on all of our minds.

Mohammed Elnaiem is an activist and editor at theregion.org. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History from Bucknell University and has a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Cambridge. His work has appeared in The New Internationalist, Jstor Daily, and Kurdish Question. You can follow him on twitter at @m_elnaiem.

Gokcan Aydogan is a writer and activist with roots in the Turkish left. He is media editor at theregion.org. He writes in Turkish and English and is also a designer and cartoonist. You can follow him on twitter at @GokcanAydogan.