On March 18, Turkish troops, supported by a 10,000-strong horde of Islamist militia, stormed into the largely Kurdish city of Afrîn in northern Syria. After an unequal eight-week struggle against the Middle East’s most powerful military force, the city’s lightly armed defenders had little choice but to melt away and fight another day.
The city’s fall was inevitable. Afrîn is isolated from Kobanê and Jazira, the other predominantly Kurdish cantons to the east. The Kurds gambled unsuccessfully on international support against the illegal invasion.
The gamble was not unreasonable. The invasion was patently illegal, and the world also owes the Syrian Kurds a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices in defeating ISIS.
Sadly, almost all of the world’s governments looked away — or directly or indirectly aided Turkey.
Ostensibly committed to a “no fly zone” in northern Syria, Russia allowed Turkish jets to bomb and strafe Afrîn city and surrounding villages. One of the jets’ first targets was the famous 3000 year-old Hittite temple of Ain Dara, which was largely destroyed.
The United States wrung its hands and begged for “restraint”. Britain signed a new contract to provide the Turkish military with new fighter jet technology as the Turkish air force pounded Afrîn. German Chancellor Angela Merkel belatedly and mildly condemned the invasion — even as German-built Leopard tanks blasted Afrîn’s defenders.
At the United Nations, the Australian government rightly condemned Russia and its Syrian client for atrocities in East Ghouta, but remained silent about the Afrîn invasion. The Labor Opposition, with the honourable exception of Wills MP Peter Khalil, ignored the pleas of the Australian Kurdish community for support.
Even the Greens, except for prominent figures in the NSW branch, went quiet after some initial support for the Kurds.
In these dire circumstances, the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) decided that a last stand would be futile and would cause the civilian population great suffering.
Since the city’s fall, the world’s media has moved on as if nothing ever happened.
The people of Afrîn have no such luxury. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s troops and their Islamist allies are committing grave crimes against Afrîn’s civilian population. Bloated with victory, Erdoğan plans to extend military operations to the rest of Rojava and beyond. He sees himself as a new Sultan, re-adjusting the boundaries of the Turkish state that were set after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and imposing harsh authoritarian rule at home.
Afrîn today presents a dismal picture of unnecessary suffering. Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents fled the invaders. At least 137,000 residents are still internally displaced and face an uncertain future without adequate food and shelter.
Those who managed to make it to other parts of Rojava are housed in rudimentary refugee camps, but many are still sheltered only by bits of tarpaulin or tin. Diseases are spreading. The Kurdish Red Crescent lacks the resources for effective help.
Dr Hawzhin Azeez, who is coordinating the international “I Love Afrîn” relief campaign from Kobanê, reported that Western banks have rejected or refunded donations. In contrast, just days after Afrîn fell, the European Union provided a €6 billion package for refugee assistance in Turkey at the same time as Erdoğan created a new flood of refugees in northern Syria.
Upon entering Afrîn, the jihadi militia bulldozed a statue of Kawa, the legendary Kurdish hero, and raised the Turkish flag in the city’s central square. Openly boasting that they would kill the Kurdish “infidels”, the Islamists went on a rampage of looting and destruction.
Despite Turkey’s denials, its operatives are carrying out ethnic cleansing in Afrîn. Thousands of families from elsewhere in Syria have been re-settled in Afrîn in the houses of Kurdish residents. Kurdish families who have tried to return have been turned away.
The new authorities in Afrîn are carrying out what Erdoğan boasted would happened when Turkey conquered the city. In January, he told a rally in Turkey: “The whole issue is this: 55% of Afrîn is Arab, 35% are the Kurds who were later relocated, and about 7% are Turkmen. [We aim] to give Afrîn back to its rightful owners”.
In fact, until the invasion, Kurds made up about 90% of Afrîn’s population and they had stubbornly resisted attempts to make them anything else. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, about 300,000 Syrian Kurds were carrying “red cards”, which, since 1962, classified them as “foreigners” in their own land.
Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current dictator Bashar al-Assad, carried out forced population transfers, settling Arab families on Kurdish land, and prohibited the use of the Kurdish language and customs. Erdoğan is carrying on where the Assads left off — only his aim appears to be the Turkification of Afrîn, rather than its Arabisation.
Erdoğan has form. In 2016, he launched “Operation Euphrates Shield”, penetrating deep into Syria to prevent the Kurds from linking Afrîn with the Kobanê and Jazira cantons east of the Euphrates River. Since then, under Turkish occupation, school classes in Jarabulus and other centres are taught in Turkish and the Turkish curriculum is in force.
A similar process appears to be under way in Afrîn. The Turkish authorities have admitted that “We have no intention nor do we think of giving it [Afrîn] back to the [Assad] regime.” Nor do they intend to withdraw and allow the Kurds back to their homes to choose their own form of government.
In the wider context, the invasion is a set-back to the hopes of an end to the vicious civil war that has devastated Syria.
It is unlikely that the conquest of Afrîn and occupation of Jarabulus will sate Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman appetites. He has repeatedly threatened to invade the rest of Rojava, a region that stretches nearly 400 kilometres to Iraq along Turkey’s south-east border, and which has been organised into the Democratic Federation of Northern Syrian.
He has also made similar threats against the Yazidi heartlands on Mt Sinjar. Previously, he stated his desire to create a “buffer zone” extending 80 kilometres south of the border to exclude Kurds, whom he regards as terrorists.
He has repeatedly claimed that Turkey has a right to expand beyond its current boundaries, which were set in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne. He declared in a 2016 speech that Iraq, Bosnia and Syria — formerly parts of the Ottoman Empire — are “part of our national soul”. He has even staked a claim to the city of Salonika and parts of Western Thrace adjacent to European Turkey.
Although this sounds as absurd as an Austrian revanchist dreaming of a return to the Hapsburg Empire, given Erdoğan’s Islamo-fascist ideology and military power, it might well become nightmarish reality. Whether he can achieve any of this remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that he harbours the dangerous dream of re-creating at least a portion of the Ottoman Empire with himself as Sultan and Caliph.
The Afrîn invasion appears to have boosted Erdoğan’s domestic popularity. Turkish casualties were relatively light because Turkish commanders used Islamist militias as cannon fodder.
Opinion polls suggest that 70-80% of the Turkish population supported the Afrîn invasion, although how accurate this can be in an authoritarian, even fascistic, state is debatable. Nevertheless, Erdoğan has milked his victory for all that it is worth, stumping the country to deliver incendiary nationalistic tirades.
Erdoğan’s message is clear: Turkey can once again become a Great Power and regain what he insists is rightfully hers. We are witnessing the rise of a rogue state that will only further destabilise an already volatile region.
The Turkish public, however, know only what Erdoğan wants them to know about the invasion. Reporters Without Borders note that “Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists”.
Press freedom has been crushed and the Internet is heavily censored. In April last year, for instance, Erdoğan banned Wikipedia in all languages because it had drawn attention to the Turkish authorities’ past association with ISIS.
The president has also brought forward the general election to June 24, a year-and-a-half before they were due. He clearly hopes to capitalise on the euphoria generated by the seizure of Afrîn.
The Afrîn victory will also deflect attention from the huge corruption of the president and his cronies. Erdoğan may also fear that voters will turn on him over the economic malaise that has gripped Turkey.
Lezgin Botan, an MP from the left-wing pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), pointed out: “The Turkish lira is one of the fastest falling currencies in the world. Diesel and gasoline are very expensive and inflation is high. Recently, some people set themselves on fire because of economic problems.”
The official unemployment rate is currently running at almost 11% and one-in-five young people are jobless. One suspects, however, that the Sultan will stop at nothing to ensure that he wins the election.
Operation Olive Branch was a terrible crime. When Syria’s civil war began, the dictatorship withdrew troops from largely Kurdish regions in northern Syria, and the resulting power vacuum allowed the region’s people to reclaim their democratic and cultural rights.
Although it was not perfect, Afrîn was an oasis of peace, gender equality, multiculturalism, grassroots democracy and stability in a region beset by war, religious sectarianism, ethnic intolerance and extreme patriarchy. The cantons served as a model for the rest of the ethnic and religious mosaic of Syria and the Middle East.
As the writers Güney Işkara and Alp Kayserioğlu observed, the Syrian Kurds showed “it’s feasible to build a democratic federation which solves the issue of national oppression, founded on principles of gender equality and socialism”.
That vision is anathema to Erdoğan, who marked International Women’s Day in 2016 by declaring that “a woman is above all else a mother”. Turkish women, he insisted, should bear at least three children, and the promotion of birth control is “treason”.
Using a failed 2016 military coup as a pretext, Erdoğan has steadily eroded democratic rights and carried out huge purges of the civil service, the judiciary, academia and the professions, replacing real and imagined oppositionists with pliant Islamist stooges. He has imprisoned thousands of democrats, feminists, trade unionists and socialists, often on trumped up charges of supporting terrorism.
In particular, since 2015 he has targeted Turkey’s huge Kurdish population with savage repression, bombarding Kurdish cities in Turkey’s south-east and jailed HDP leaders and members.
The world has allowed him to get away with all of this. But then the world has always looked the other way when Turkey has abused the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
When Kurdish tribes rose in revolt against the British mandate in Iraq in 1920, they were brutally suppressed. Winston Churchill even argued (unsuccessfully) for the use of poison gas against “the uncivilised tribes” as it would “spread a lively terror”.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein took his advice, and bombarded Kurdish civilians at Halabja with chemical weapons. In 1991, when the Kurds responded to appeals by the West to revolt against the Iraqi dictator, they were left in the lurch.
Unfortunately, we see the same story repeating itself today with the Syrian Kurds, who gave their blood to crush the barbarians of the so-called Islamic State. One suspects the governments of Australia, Russia, Britain, along with NATO and the European Union, were relieved to see Erdoğan land heavy blows against the radical alternative model that Rojava provides.
When and if Erdoğan carries out his threat to invade the remaining Rojava cantons, he will find victory harder to come by than in Afrîn. But the Kurdish-led freedom fighters cannot stand alone. They need and deserve our support — and we need to crack the wall of silence that has allowed the Turkish autocrat to operate with impunity.
[Abridged from Tasmanian Times.]