On 20 January, Turkey launched a brutal air and ground invasion of Afrin canton in Northern Syria. Turkey claims that the Orwellian-named ‘Operation Olive Branch’ is a fight against terrorism and an effort to secure Turkey’s borders. However, Afrin, one of the three founding cantons of the autonomous rural region in Northern Syria commonly called by the Kurdish name of Rojava, has been one of the most stable and peaceful regions in Syria since the state collapsed in 2012, and part of a radical experiment in decentralised democracy.
Seeing the invasion of Afrin in context
Some choose to see Turkey’s current aggression against Afrin as simply the next violent episode associated with the Syrian civil war, while others choose to take at face value Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s claims to be ridding regions bordering Turkey of their militant threats.
Instead, the attack on Afrin should be viewed in the context of the Turkish state’s long support of jihadist groups in opposition to the Assad regime in Syria and the intensification of a century of violent opposition towards any type of self-expression, self-rule or self-organization by Kurdish people; particularly the large Kurdish population living within Turkey who, the government fears, are emboldened by the existence of autonomous Kurdish regions on its borders.
The war in Afrin, viewed in this wider context, starkly highlights how the crises and contradictions of the current political conjuncture, including those arising from the dynamics of power and resource grabs by the US and Russia and their alliances in the region, have shaped contemporary struggles for life and democracy.
In this case putting forces that represent systems of neo-imperial and extractive ‘capitalism, authoritarian statism, religious fundamentalism and in some cases pure fascism… in charge of establishing democracy and peace’ has opened spaces for new forms and manifestations of authoritarian populism to emerge or deepen their hold on society.
Such spaces have fueled the rise of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, strengthened right-wing nationalism and given free-license to governments wishing to suppress dissent violently thereby consolidating collective self-expression within their borders in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’.
Opening spaces for radical democracy
The resulting contradictions can also open up spaces for new alliances, philosophies and praxes of emancipation and resistance. Despite being surrounded by enemies on all sides, including hostile state actors, state-backed jihadist groups and Al Qaeda, Rojava has maintained its autonomy since the Movement for a Democratic Society (now the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria), a multi-ethnic multiparty coalition, rose to prominence in 2012.
This period has offered the world the spectacle of a remarkable, radically democratic experiment amidst the wreckage wrought by the deadliest and most geopolitically complex war of the twenty-first century, and its lessons are influencing debates and movements around radical alternatives across the world. In 2014 Rojava’s three cantons, Afrin, Kobanî and Jazira, united under ‘The Charter of the Social Contract’. This formed the basis for the implementation of a new form of non-statist governance called democratic confederalism, based on ‘bottom-up’ confederated democracy, religious and ethnic pluralism, ecological society, and substantive women’s liberation.
So what has been accomplished in practice? In Afrin, as across Rojava, democratic confederalism is based on the idea that society can be run truly democratically when power rests with the people rather than with state bureaucracies. The basis of governance is a network of inclusive, community-level assemblies or communes that are the primary locus of decision-making across sectors from sanitation to economy to education.
Local assemblies, through elected representatives, form confederations across cities and regions that coordinate their actions to implement decisions. This system includes a mandated co-chairmanship at every level as a mechanism ensuring ethnic and gender pluralism in decision-making at the same time as preventing individuals from consolidating power over communes or at higher levels.
In Rojava and neighbouring Bakur (the part of Kurdistan located within the borders of Turkey) co-operatives are playing a key role in reshaping the ravaged economy of the region, with the immediate goals of meeting people’s basic household needs and controlling dramatic price fluctuations resulting from price-gouging and monopolies, and longer-term goals of attaining sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Foremost, what is often simply called the ‘Women’s Revolution’, which aims to restructure the ways that patriarchy has shaped society and individuals, is an overarching driving force behind democratic confederalism’s radical democratic transformations.
Defending autonomy and democracy
Self-defence has been crucial to the preservation of life and gradual institution and evolution of democratic confederalism in Rojava, because liberating the region from the brutal threat of Islamic State and defending populations against cross-border attacks by the Turkish military and Syrian- and Turkey-backed jihadist militias have all been necessary for survival. While the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) have played a key part in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), tactically allied with the US military to eliminate the Islamic State, defence against other threats have fallen exclusively to the YPG and YPJ.
It is this reality of the need for self-defence that is being twisted and mobilised by the Turkish state as justification for the bloody invasion of Afrin Canton. In Erdoğan’s framing, securing Turkey’s borders from ‘terrorism’ means carving out a 30-kilometer ‘safe zone’ across the border of a neighbouring country, which not only eradicates the YPG, YPJ and that which they defend, but puts countless civilians, including hundreds of thousands of refugees already displaced by violence elsewhere in Syria, at risk of further displacement, injury and death.
An autonomous ‘Kurdish’ experiment in revolutionary democracy is at stark odds with the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist and anti-Kurdish discourse that has intensified in Turkey since the last general elections in 2016. This has included a shocking constitutional referendum that transformed Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, with consolidated power in the executive; numerous acts of violence against ethnic minority groups in Turkey; the arrest and detention of elected MPs from the left-leaning and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the widespread suppression of journalists and academics critical of the state.
It is little surprise that the aggression against Afrin, and by association, Rojava, comes just in time to shore up popular support inside Turkey for Erdoğan’s re-election as president in 2019.
International calls for solidarity and a wave of demonstrations across the world have brought attention to the high stakes in Afrin, though the media has been slow to follow suit. Although the offensive has just begun, civilian deaths and injuries climb, and as many as 30,000 people have been displaced from border communities since the invasion began. As is always the case, the most vulnerable members of society are most at risk.
At stake, not least, and deserving of our attention and solidarity is a radical alternative to both violent authoritarian nationalism and the broader systemic violence now associated with the contradictory nexus of blind elite cosmopolitanism, neo-imperialism and intensifying militarization that drives uneven globalization.
As Dilar Dirik, an activist in the Kurdish Women’s Movement, recently wrote, the war in Afrin ‘symbolizes 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’.
Amber Huff is a Research Fellow in Resource Politics at the Institute of Development Studies, a member of the ESRC STEPS Centre, and a member of the UK Kurdistan Solidarity movement.
Salima Tasdemir is an activist and postdoctoral researcher in Gender Studies at the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. She is the Coordinator of the Sussex Kurdish Community.
Patrick Huff is an Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. He studies social movements with a focus on anarchism and other forms of radical politics. He is a member the UK Kurdistan Solidarity movement.