As I write, the Turkish army is engaged in an illegal cross-border invasion of the Syrian-Kurdish region of Afrin. Claiming to fight “terrorists,” the Turkish state — an EU candidate, ally of the West and second-largest NATO army — launched an act of aggression against the same people who earned the world’s respect for defeating ISIS with their courageous sacrifices and historic resistance. The military campaign includes pro-Erdogan Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops and poses a threat to 800,000 civilians, half of whom are internally displaced people who sought refuge in Afrin from regions like Idlib and Aleppo.
The targeting of Afrin exposes every letter in the ABC of imperialism. The attack could not have been launched without the approval of Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, as well as the consent of Iran and Assad. According to officials in Afrin, Russia proposed to protect Afrin in return for handing over control to the Assad regime. But as the offer was rejected, Russia gave green light to Turkey’s invasion.
The United States, meanwhile, which conveniently used the Kurds as “reliable boots on the ground” in Syria for the last years in the international anti-ISIS coalition, stays quiet over their NATO ally’s ambitions to sacrifice the heroes of the ISIS war, merely warning Turkey to “avoid civilian casualties.” European governments, especially Germany, have their own stakes in the game, as mostly European weapons and tanks are used by the Turkish army; weapons in the hands of fascists, which drive millions of people to leave their homes and risk death to become refugees in Europe.
Seven years into the war, Syria is destroyed; ISIS came, killed and left; genocide and massacres have been committed; the region’s demography and ecology have changed; Assad seems to be here to stay. The legitimate demands of all Syrians who took to the streets and risked their lives to call for dignity, freedom and justice against the Assad regime have been betrayed bitterly. Meanwhile, the powerful state actors in the region and beyond seem to have come full circle, as more than half a million people died and around 6 million have been displaced. Activists speak of the Third World War taking place in this region.
It is within this context that Turkey launches its war on Afrin, far exceeding the historical hostility of the Turkish state towards the Kurdish people. The battle symbolizes the two options that the peoples and communities of the Middle East face today: between militarist, patriarchal, fascist dictatorships on the one hand, controlled by foreign imperialist interests and capital, or the solidarity between autonomous, self-determined, free and equal communities on the other. The defense of Afrin is an opportunity for the left to unite against fascism and mobilize against militarism, occupation and war.
What is at stake
Within the context of the war on ISIS, the same states that are known to have fueled jihadist forces inside Syria — especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — became part of a coalition led by the same powers which invaded the Middle East for imperial interests, committed war crimes in the name of “fighting terrorism,” and thus established the ground on which ISIS would eventually flourish. The forces that represent systems of capitalism, authoritarian statism, religious fundamentalism and in some cases pure fascism, were put in charge of establishing democracy and peace.
Meanwhile, as ISIS captured the attention of the international community, the initial issue of Assad’s dictatorial and bloodthirsty rule was side-lined, as were any notions of a lasting and just peace for Syria. With the entrance of Russia on the Syrian war scene and the role of Iran, the false binary of Sunni-Shiite animosity — a commonly used trope to disable just solutions in the Middle East — was reinforced. Regardless of all the conflicting interests of the involved powers, their common practice was the suppression of meaningful dissent, grassroots resistance and projects for genuine democratic alternatives. On the ground, this led to the mobilization of fascist and sectarian ideologies for which people were willing to die and kill.
By default, any attempts at popular self-determination and self-defense against colonialism and capitalist exploitation would need to be annihilated for this concept to work. That explains all the hostility campaigns towards the liberationist Rojava revolution, including the attempts of big powers such as the US to use Rojava militarily and try to empty its politics of its revolutionary principles. Taking advantage of the contradictions emerging within the imperialist power games, the Kurds, trying to stay true to revolutionary ideals while being literally surrounded by fire and in temporary tactical alliances with some actors, have constantly been accused of being puppets of imperialism in their attempt to establish radical democratic systems of self-governance, while defending millions of lives from certain death by ISIS fascists.
Sadly, the sectarian and dogmatic sections of the international left were unable to read these emancipatory politics and act accordingly, allowing imperialism to go ahead by refusing to extend vital solidarity to the Kurds when it was most needed. There is still time to correct this mistake.
Resistance or fascism
Only a few months after the largely Kurdish Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) announced the liberation of ISIS’s capital of Raqqa, where thousands of women had been held as sex slaves for years, outright religious fundamentalists under Erdogan’s command now chant fanatic slogans accompanied by bizarre neo-Ottoman folkloric war rituals upon crossing into Syria. The secular, nationalist sections of Turkish politics, which like to think of themselves as “modern,” also cheer-lead the operation with glorifications of fascistic militarism.
Although jihadist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates have been beheading, crucifying, gang-raping and burning alive innocent people for years at the Syrian-Turkish border, the Erdogan administration did not seem too concerned about “terrorism at its borders” then. Efforts to expose the military, logistic and political Turkish support for ISIS have met deaf ears, even when Erdogan could barely disguise his excitement over the possible fall of the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane to the hands of ISIS in 2014.
Once again it is clear that the women’s liberationist, multi-ethnic grassroots democratic experiment of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which started with the Rojava revolution in 2012, is a far greater threat to Turkish interests than any reactionary force of rapist murderers. In other words, the Turkish state under Erdogan is trying to finish what their accomplice ISIS did not manage: to annihilate the legitimate aspirations for self-determination of the Kurdish people, and with that the possibility of an alternative Middle East based on solidarity, justice and freedom.
Half a week into the operation, spectacularly named “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish state has already committed civilian massacres. In Turkish media, this violation of international law is called a war for “democracy, fraternity, and peace.” The doublespeak of the “war on terror,” started by the Bush administration in the US, is being employed to fool Turkish society and the world into thinking that this operation is necessary to protect Turkish citizens from terrorist attacks and to defend national sovereignty.
In reality, the invasion is led by the same state that has imprisoned children, community activists, legally elected MPs and mayors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, peace ambassadors, human rights activists, women’s rights defenders and academics for demanding peace, not war. Facts are being twisted, international law suspended. A truly historic crime is being committed in front of the eyes of the world.
Shoulder to shoulder with Afrin
The Kurdish saying “we have no friends but the mountains” is often repeated when referring to the countless massacres, injustices and betrayals that the people of Kurdistan have experienced throughout their history. Stretching over four of the most important countries of the Middle East — Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria — and constantly threatened with genocidal attacks from all sides, this expression resonates with lived experience more than it should.
The saying reflects why the Kurds — or anyone for that matter — can never trust states to back their desires for freedom and justice. The recent tactical cooperation with Russia and the US in Syria have been exposed in today’s Turkish assaults on Afrin as nothing more than imperial power games, with both major powers known to be willing to sacrifice the lives of millions of civilians in order to safeguard their wider geopolitical interests. The Kurdish freedom movement acted in awareness of this, and that is precisely why, at the moment of betrayal, their autonomous structures based on self-organization do not dissolve but prevail. The ordinary population of Afrin, with the consciousness and experience of self-organization acquired over years, is today ready to defend itself against any attacks and occupations.
It is now clear that the peoples of the Middle East can only rely on their self-sustained efforts at mobilizing popular power and international solidarity and comradeship. All over the world, Kurdish activists have once again occupied the streets to protest the international war on their freedom struggle. The massive months-long uprising across Kurdistan and beyond played a decisive role for the eventual victory of Kobane in January 2015. The demands of the current solidarity protests do not only concern the end of military attacks, but also the ceasing of arms trade with Turkey and calls to start genuine peace processes in both Turkey and Syria.
In the spirit of Kobane, it is crucial to mobilize solidarity quickly and massively again today for Afrin. We can never rely on states to take the lead in bringing about justice. Ordinary people, the oppressed, the resisting, freedom-loving people and communities of the world must be each other’s comrades. Just like hundreds of thousands of people from Argentina to Afghanistan to South Africa joined our rallies, occupations and protests in 2014 for the defense of Kobane from ISIS fascism, the Kurdish freedom movement and all democratic, progressive forces in Syria in particular — and in the Middle East more generally — rely on the power of international solidarity in this historic hour.
In the battle for Afrin, it is possible to see the universal dimensions of popular struggles against fascism, dictatorship and death — and for democracy, for freedom, for justice. Afrin’s future symbolizes the fate of a region that has been denied a life in dignity for too long.
It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that Afrin embodies the defense of humanity today. This is what the war against fascism looks like in twenty-first century Mesopotamia.
We must stand shoulder to shoulder and defend Afrin against fascism!
Dilar Dirik is an activist of the Kurdish women’s movement and regularly writes on the freedom struggles in Kurdistan for an international audience.