When following Turkish media, one would be excused for believing that with the attack on Afrin the country is aiming to eliminate what—judging from the coverage of pro-government TV channels and newspapers—can only be considered an existential threat to the longevity of the Turkish republic. The invasion of the predominantly Kurdish and self-governed Afrin canton in northwestern Syria is presented by Turkey’s state-driven propaganda machine as a heroic act of self-defense and a historic mission to re-establish the country’s sphere of influence in the region.
In reality, Turkey’s attack on Afrin is nothing less than a wanton act of aggression; an illegal invasion of a neighboring country backed by a military strategy based upon war crimes, a dangerous ploy that risks destabilizing the region’s security even further, and the umpteenth expression of the Turkish state’s deep-seated, century-old hatred of the Kurdish people.
While Turkey has claimed to have launched the operation to protect its borders and to combat terrorism, the so-called “terrorists” in this narrative are none less than the internationally acclaimed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—led by the Kurdish Women’s and People’s Defense Forces (YPJ and YPG)—who have played a key role in combating the jihadist militants of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
For several years, when ISIS was controlling large swaths of territory in northern Syria, including long stretches of the border region with Turkey, Ankara seemed scarcely bothered by the fascist movement setting up shop on its doorstep. President Erdoğan even seemed to gloat over the possibility that the Kurdish town of Kobane would fall in ISIS’ hands back in 2014—a potential disaster that was only averted by the historic resistance of the brave men of women of the town.
For the Turkish state, Kurdish attempts at democratic self-governance, whether at home or abroad, are viewed as a threat to the republic and an insult to the Turkish nation, and need to be dealt with in a ruthless and uncompromising manner. Socio-political developments at home and geopolitical developments in the region have created an opportunity for Turkey to lash out at the Kurds in Syria. The question is whether Turkey will triumph or tremble when faced with the resistance of the Kurds and their allies defending the cities, towns and villages that are home to the democratic revolution Turkey fears so much.
Operation “Olive Branch”—one could hardly think of a less fitting reference—was launched this past Saturday, January 20, when after months of artillery shelling from across the border Turkish military operations were extended with air strikes by Turkish jets and ground operations by several thousand Turkish-trained and armed Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants. Before long, Turkish tanks were crossing the border into Syria from the north and the west.
Despite President Erdoğan vowing to “complete the operation in a very short time,” by Monday the Turkish army and its FSA allies—whose members were seen in videos shared on social media praising the Turkish president and threatening to kill every single Kurd in Afrin—had managed to penetrate only a few kilometers into the canton. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate use of air strikes hitting civilian targets across the region led to the deaths of around twenty civilians and left many more injured. One specific air strike reportedly killed eight members—seven of whom children—from a single family of poultry farmers outside the city of Afrin.
The YPG and YPJ forces in Afrin have been preparing for this type of Turkish aggression for a long time. Already three years ago, after the victory in Kobane, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish movement Abdullah Öcalan warned that Afrin would be targeted next, and that “today is not the day to build textile workshops, it is the day to build workshops for arms and ammunition, to create war communism and to root it in society.”
Up to this point, Afrin had escaped most of the violence that has rocked the rest of Syria for the past six years. The Syrian regime lost control over Afrin in 2012, after which the district became one of three founding cantons of Rojava, together with Kobane and Jazira cantons. Although predominantly Kurdish, the region is home to many ethnic groups such as Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians, Yezidis, Armenians, Arameans and Chechens. In the past years thousands of Syrian IDPs from all ethnic backgrounds have sought refuge in the relatively peaceful environment of the Afrin region.
Ever since the adoption of the Rojava Charter back in 2014, Afrin has been officially governed by an autonomous self-administration, organized from the bottom up by people’s councils at different levels of society. This model of democratic autonomy is based upon the principles of gender equality, horizontal democracy and ecological sustainability. It is this peaceful safe haven, where local people have taken the initiative to implement a radically democratic system of self-governance, that is now being accused by Turkey of being a “terrorist stronghold.”
Peaceful movement under attack
To justify its illegal and unprovoked attack on Afrin, Turkey has claimed that like any other country it has the right to self-defense, but as a justification for its war against the Syrian Kurds this explanation simply won’t hold. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political force in northern Syria, has for many years maintained the position that that they are open to talks with Turkey and wish to pursue a peaceful relationship with Ankara.
No attacks have been launched on Turkey from any of the pre-dominantly Kurdish cantons in Rojava, and the only exchanges of fire have been in response to provocations from the Turkish army or Turkey-backed jihadist groups, who in the past have repeatedly launched attacks on Rojava from across the Turkish border. The SDF have made clear in a statement that they are a “peaceful movement focused on defeating ISIS and bringing stability to Syria,” and that they “harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey and would only take measures in our own defense in the event of hostile operations against our people.”
Another justification Turkey has provided for launching the attack on Afrin is the suggestion that the operation is in part directed against ISIS—and thus legitimated within the international coalition’s operational framework in Syria. In an official statement marking the launch of Operation Olive Branch on Saturday, the Turkish Armed Forces stated that they had launched the attack on Afrin “to clear terrorist groups such as the PKK … and Daesh,” using ISIS’ Arabic name to refer to the extremist organization.
While no one would blame Turkey for targeting ISIS—in fact, many would be happily surprised to see that Turkey finally views ISIS as the enemy—the problem with this excuse is that ISIS has no known presence in Afrin. When the Associated Press blindly repeated the Turkish army’s propaganda line to this effect, the news agency later actually had to correct itself and admitted that it had “deleted two tweets that referred to Turkish airstrikes on Islamic State forces in Afrin, Syria. Turkey’s prime minister said the strikes targeted IS along with Kurdish forces, but ISIS is not known to have a presence in the city.”
Betrayal, betrayal, betrayal
Without the open or tacit approval of its international allies, Turkey would never have dared to launch its operation against Afrin. The fact that Turkish jets were able to partake in the operation is a sign that Russia—which nominally controls the airspace over northwestern Syria—has at least tacitly green-lighted the attack, despite warnings by the Assad regime that it would shoot down any Turkish aircraft violating Syrian airspace. In a recent interview, PKK Executive Committee Member Murat Karayilan explained how this Russian position would be perceived by the Kurds: “If Turkish planes fly over Afrin, even [with] Turkish flags on them, it will mean that Russia sent in those planes. Kurdish people will see it like this.”
In a blatant—though not entirely unexpected—betrayal of the Kurdish forces in Syria, the United States has urged Turkey to “exercise restraint” during its military operations in Afrin, but failed to take any conclusive measures that would aid or protect their most important allies on the ground in the fight against ISIS. The US has only limited influence in Afrin, the region being part of Russia’s sphere of influence in Syria, but if it refuses to make a more serious effort to protect its allies against Turkish aggression this could have significant consequences for the working relations between the SDF and the US elsewhere in Syria.
Turkey’s plans for Afrin gained momentum when the US recently announced plans to establish a border security force of 30,000 fighters, with a significant share of the fighters to be recruited from the Kurdish-led SDF. In response, Turkey condemned these plans and accused the US of forming a “terror army” on its borders, immediately announcing that it would launch its Afrin operation “in the days ahead.” Turkey has long accused the US of abetting terror on its borders because of the latter’s support for and arming of the SDF in northeastern Syria.
The beginning of the end?
At this point, it is impossible to predict what will happen over the coming days, weeks and months. Will the Kurdish forces in Afrin be able to resist the Turkish army and its jihadist proxies of the FSA? How much money, manpower, equipment and time is Turkey willing to sacrifice in its attempt to conquer Afrin? Will the international community exert pressure on Turkey to limit the operation, or even withdraw its troops? How will Russia, the United States, Iran and the Syrian regime respond as soon as Turkey’s actions start to pose a threat to these countries’ respective interests and objectives in the region? There are too many unknown factors to provide answers to any of these questions at this point.
What is clear, though, is that Turkey’s attack on Afrin should be viewed within the long tradition of the Turkish state’s strong animosity towards any type of self-expression, self-rule or self-organization of the Kurdish people. Turkey’s AKP-led government launched a war against the Kurdish movement in Turkey—destroying entire cities in the process and forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee their homes—when it became clear that at the local level the Kurdish initiative to establish democratic autonomy became a threat to authority of the central government.
Following that, the state of emergency that followed the failed coup attempt of July 2016 provided the AKP government with the necessary excuse to crack down on Kurdish politicians and their allies, arresting many thousands of party officials, mayors and activists and locking up the leadership of the leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that has its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement.
In this regard, we can understand the ultimate motivation behind the Afrin offensive. The state-orchestrated nationalist frenzy that has erupted across Turkey since the start of military operations this past weekend follows right on the announcement that the state of emergency that was implemented in the wake of the failed coup attempt will be extended for the sixth time. This extension provides President Erdoğan with more time and nearly unlimited powers to shape Turkey’s economy, society and politics in ways that serve his agenda for staying in power indefinitely.
The framing of the PYD, YPG and YPJ as terrorist organizations posing a grave threat to Turkey’s national security not only serves to deflect attention from the heavy-handed crackdown on dissidents and critics that is still continuing across Turkey; it also provides legitimization for the extension of the state of emergency and an excuse to sweep up ultra-nationalist sentiments among the AKP’s constituency in Turkey. The extraordinary heavy-handed oppression of all things Kurdish following the elections of the summer of 2015 has left the movement in shambles. Now the AKP fears that a flourishing, Kurdish-dominated and self-governed region across its southern border might serve as a dangerous revolutionary beacon for Turkey’s own Kurdish population.
Commenting on Turkey’s attacks on Afrin, the canton’s commander of the YPJ Sosin Berhat stated that “Turkey and those who applaud its policies are digging their own graves.” Let’s hope that the defenders of Afrin will follow in the footsteps of their heroic comrades of Kobane and turn the battle for their homeland into the beginning of the end for their fascist attackers.
The ROAR Collective publishes ROAR Magazine, a quarterly journal of the radical imagination providing grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.