Three years after Kurdish-led forces liberated the northern Syrian city of Kobane from ISIS — after a months-long siege that captured the world’s imagination — the democratic, multi-ethnic and feminist revolution in Syria’s north is facing a new assault.
This time, it is coming directly from the virulently anti-Kurdish Turkish state, which had supported ISIS’s siege of Kobane.
With approval from both Russia and the United States, it has launched an invasion of the Afrin Canton of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), in its latest attempt to destroy the revolution it sees as a profound threat.
Late last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the war in Syria, which began in 2011, was almost over. But on January 20, Turkey’s attacks against the Afrin canton in Rojava (the Kurdish name for the northern Syrian region) signalled an intensification of the conflict.
Turkey launched air strikes by US-supplied war planes in support of an invasion by the Turkish armed forces and their Syrian auxiliaries.
Afrin was one of the three then-geographically separated cantons liberated in the Rojava Revolution in 2012. In these cantons, a unique form of grassroots democracy, known as Democratic Autonomy, was established.
Democratic Autonomy has spread beyond Rojava, to cover almost a third of Syria’s geographical area and almost a quarter of its population. But Afrin remains geographically isolated.
Turkey’s invasion is especially concerning as half the population of Afrin are refugees from other parts of Syria, who have been provided with assistance by the DFNS despite its own limited resources. Refugee camps and other civilian infrastructure have been targeted by the Turkish air strikes.
By January 25, 37 civilians had been killed and more than 100 hospitalised.
The invasion has been met by mass mobilisations in Afrin and other parts of Rojava, and solidarity protests worldwide. At stake is much more than just the lives, homes and infrastructure of 400,000 people.
It is an assault against the system of Democratic Autonomy. This system is remarkable for its bottom-up participatory democracy; ethnic and religious inclusiveness; economic development model prioritising community and ecological needs; and, especially, its commitment to women’s liberation.
The most visible aspect of this feminism is the women’s military units, most famously the largely Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). But it extends much further.
All DFNS participatory democratic bodies, from the neighbourhood level up, have quotas ensuring gender parity as well as parallel women-only structures. This extends to all institutions, such as courts.
The revolutionary legal system takes gender-based violence seriously. It is dealt with by women-only police units and women-only courts. Laws and customs that discriminate against women have been banned. There are also women-only industrial and agricultural cooperatives.
The Turkish state was hostile to Democratic Autonomy from the start.
Part of this is the anti-Kurdish ideology of the Turkish state, which has deep roots. Since the 1920s, this ideology, based on hostility to non-Turkish ethnicities, led to the Turkish state seeking to eradicate the Kurdish identity inside Turkey.
However, it is not as simple as Turkey not wishing to see a self-governing Kurdish entity in the region. Turkey has enjoyed a close relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, for instance.
Turkish hostility to the Rojava Revolution comes from its ideological affinity with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), based in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan). The PKK has been struggling against the Turkish state and its oppression of Kurds for the past four decades.
At the turn of the century, the PKK and ideologically affiliated groups abandoned nationalism in favour of the multi-ethnic ideology of Democratic Autonomy. One of the most notable features of the Rojava Revolution is its commitment to ethnic and religious inclusion. Quotas ensure all ethnic communities enjoy representation, including the right to use their own language in administration and education.
This example threatens the ethnic nationalist Turkish state. It also provides a model for ending Syria’s gruesome war, which has become increasingly defined by conflict between ethnic and religious communities.
Documentary on the revolutionary model being built in northern Syria and the challenges it faces.
Turkey’s response to the Rojava Revolution was to support attacks on the region by armed groups. Initially, these were groups backed by the West and its regional allies to fight the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rojava's revolutionary military forces — the Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and the YPJ — thwarted these assaults.
Turkey helped enable the explosive rise of ISIS in the region in 2014, providing material and logistical support — on the proviso ISIS targeted Rojava.
The rapid success of ISIS in taking over territory in Syria and Iraq led to the West deciding the threat posed by ISIS outweighed hostility to the Assad regime. The spectre of ISIS also provided a more domestically palatable justification for the US and its allies to militarily intervene.
A US-led Western coalition began air strikes in Iraq and Syria. During the siege of Kobane, the US-led coalition began coordinating its air strikes with the YPG and YPJ. This enabled the YPG and YPJ to end the siege of Kobane — in alliance with some progressive anti-Assad military groups and armed groups based in other minority communities, such as the Assyrians.
This alliance was formalised in 2015 as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Backed by the US-led coalition’s air power, it was able to take swaths of territory from ISIS. The SDF successfully linked the cantons of Kobane and Cizire and expanded into areas outside Rojava.
The system of Democratic Autonomy spread with it, and was formalised as the DFNS, whose political representative body is the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD).
Afrin’s geographical isolation from the rest of the DFNS is the result of Turkey invading a small strip of territory around the towns of Jarabulus and al-Bab in late 2015.
Putin’s claim that the war was ending followed the defeat of ISIS last year, which lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The SDF liberated Raqqa, which had served as ISIS’s capital, then moved into Deir ez-Zor province, the last remaining ISIS stronghold.
At the same time, troops loyal to Assad (the remnants of the Syrian army, along with Lebanese, Iranian and Afghan troops), moved into different parts of Deir ez-Zor, backed by Russian air strikes.
Meanwhile in Iraq, ISIS was evicted from its Mosul stronghold by an entirely different constellation of forces — with Russia and the US-led coalition backing the same Iraqi allies.
New and old conflicts
However, the defeat of ISIS meant antagonisms — which were at least partially suppressed by the need to fight the terror gang that had declared war to the death to almost the entire world — are now re-emerging.
At the start of the Syrian Civil War, the US backed armed opposition groups collectively known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA originated in defections from Assad’s army after Assad ordered it to put down unarmed protesters in 2011.
However, the FSA was never a cohesive force, with brigades typically loyal to individual commanders. Some FSA groups degenerated into warlordism and banditry, preying on the people they were supposedly defending from the regime.
This process was accelerated by the fact that aid provision came largely through Western allies in the region, particularly Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These regimes’ rivalries increased the fragmentation of the FSA groups. They also increased the influence of various strands of jihadi Sunni Islamism.
The rise of anti-Western jihadi currents in the armed opposition and their general ineffectiveness meant that the West became less enthusiastic about giving material support. After the rise of ISIS, Western military support stopped altogether.
However, politically, the West continued to recognise the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Officially, the FSA are the armed forces of the SNC, although the SNC has no actual control over any FSA groups.
On the other hand, the US-led coalition’s alliance with the SDF was always purely military. It was premised on the SDF’s proven capacity to fight ISIS and win. The tactical nature of this is shown by the West’s refusal to offer any recognition to the DFNS or MSD.
However, the West’s collaboration with the SDF was enough to seriously strain relations with Turkey, a traditional Western ally and the only NATO member in the Middle East.
Russia has less room to manoeuvre than the West in pursuing its interests in Syria. All its interests are tied up with the Assad regime. However, the political unpopularity and military ineffectiveness of the regime means Russia has also sought alliances with other participants in the conflict.
When Russia began air strikes in late 2015, Turkey responded by shooting down a Russian plane, hoping it would force the US to seek a closer relationship with Turkey. It did not.
Since then, both the US and Russia have sought to play off Turkey against the SDF. For their part, both Turkey and the SDF have tried to play off the US against Russia. The game has borne some results for all participants.
The SDF has combined a refusal to compromise on its principled political goals with a pragmatic recognition that the US and Russian presence in Syria is a reality with which it has to deal.
While the US has been the SDF’s closest military ally, Russia has been more willing to offer political recognition to the DFNS and MSD. At the same time, Russian peacekeepers in Afrin had provided insurance against attacks by either Assad or Turkey.
Both the US and Russia have excluded the MSD from their rival peace processes.
This diplomatic game paid dividends for Turkey in 2016 when both the US and Russia gave the green light to the Turkish occupation of Jarabulus in northern Syria.
As the territory had been under ISIS control, it was not a deal-breaker for the SDF’s alliances.
For Russia, wooing NATO member Turkey is both a means of gaining leverage against the West and a possible long-term project of detaching the second-biggest army in NATO.
However, Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian jet has left lingering mistrust. Russia's Syrian ally Assad is even more mistrustful because of Turkey’s support for regime change in Syria and the armed opposition at the start of the war.
Russia’s green light to the Turkish occupation of Jarabulus was given in exchange for Turkey, by now the major backer of the SNC-affiliated armed opposition, cutting off arms to groups in Aleppo that would relocate to Jarabulus. Opposition-held East Aleppo fell to the regime as a result.
Russia and US
A similar deal appears to have been cut now. Russia withdrew its peacekeepers from Afrin, making possible Turkey’s use of air power. In return, Turkey withdrew groups it supports from Idlib.
Kurdish academic and activist Dilar Dirik said on social media that sources indicated that Russia told the leader of the Democratic Autonomous administration in Afrin that the peacekeepers would stay if the canton was handed over to the Assad regime. The Afrin leader refused.
Statements by representatives of the Rojava Revolution are understandably full of anger at Russia’s betrayal.
YPG Commander General Sipan Hemo told Hawar News Agency on January 22: “For two years, Russian forces have been in Afrin, and they have claimed that they will resolve certain issues working together with Kurds … We had certain arrangements with Russia.
“But Russia suddenly disregarded these agreements and betrayed us. They have clearly sold us out…
“But I would like to underline this: With the YPG-YPJ and the SDF, a new history is being written in the struggle of our people. There will come a day when Russia will apologise to the Kurds for this lack of principles.”
There is also anger at the role of the US and its allies. Not only is the Turkish army attacking with US planes and German tanks, but as a NATO member it is unlikely that Turkey could have gone ahead without at least tacit Western approval.
Hemo told Firat News Agency on January 16: “If the Turkish state dares to conduct such an aggression on Afrin, this will mean that everyone has responsibility in it.
“Should Iran, Russia, Syria and even the US not approve this in one way or another, Turkey cannot carry out such an attack … Should Turkey engage in such an attack, it means Russia, Iran, Syria and the US connive at it.”
Since the attack, the Western powers have been ambiguous at best. A January 24 White House statement, issued after a phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Trump called on Turkey to minimise civilian casualties but failed to condemn the attack outright.
Moreover it added, “President Trump invited closer bilateral cooperation to address Turkey's legitimate security concerns” and called for a “strategic partnership” against the PKK, which it called a terrorist group.
In a January 22 tweet, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “Watching developments in Afrin closely. Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure.”
While the revolutionaries in northern Syria are outraged at the betrayal, they are not surprised. The global and regional powers willing to entertain limited tactical alliances with them out of expediency are inevitably hostile to the feminist, ecosocialist revolution.
Responding to Turkey’s invasion, statements from the political and military representatives of this revolution have invoked their victory against ISIS’s 2014 siege of Kobane to insist their resolve will win out. Furthermore, since 2014 the revolutionary forces have gained more battlefield experience and some US military hardware.
The first days of fighting in Afrin suggest that the revolutionaries’ resolve is not bluff. Turkish forces have made little headway. They and their Syrian auxiliaries have suffered hundreds of casualties, while the SDF casualties have been low.
However, Turkish air power means that civilians are paying a horrific price.
The revolutionaries of Rojava have called for global grassroots solidarity to pressure world governments to reverse their betrayal. Protests have occurred in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia. These protests are demanding that the world repay its debt to Rojava for its heroic defeat of ISIS — at great cost.
This came after the West created the conditions for ISIS to emerge through the destruction of Iraq, interference in Syria, and looking away while Turkey provided support.
While world leaders talked tough against ISIS, and used it as an excuse to take away civil liberties, it was the feminist, ecosocialist revolutionaries of Rojava — Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens — who defeated the terrorists.
For ordinary people around the world, it is even more important to stand with Afrin — because a more democratic, just and sustainable world is not just desirable for us all, it is being created, in almost impossible conditions, in Rojava.