- Interview by
- Steve Hudson
The death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t the end of the Syrian bloodbath — even in the areas IS has long tyrannized. Over the last two years its territory has been radically reduced, including thanks to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) they lead. These Kurdish-led forces have not only resisted IS but created a new form of nonsectarian democracy across northern Syria, known as Rojava. Yet despite al-Baghdadi’s death, Rojava is today again endangered.
This renewed threat to the democratic project in northern Syria is not entirely surprising. In a theater of warfare involving powers such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf States, the survival of Rojava was always at the mercy of a precarious geopolitical balance. When, earlier this month, Donald Trump pulled out the small number of US forces from Syria, he also gave the green light for Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to launch an invasion of SDF-held territory.
The immediate impact of the Turkish invasion has been disastrous, forcing as many as 300,000 civilians to flee their homes. Today, the Turkish-led forces are continuing their attacks even beyond a nineteen-mile buffer zone negotiated with Russia last week, from which SDF fighters have withdrawn. At the same time, the invasion by Turkish and jihadist forces has also allowed the release of IS prisoners, who are now reestablishing their presence in the region.
In this interview, Steve Hudson spoke to the pro-Rojava activists Rosa Burç and Kerem Schamberger about the reasons for the invasion, the proliferation of jihadists, and the threat to Rojava.
Tell us what Rojava is, and what has been going on there over the last few years.
Rojava literally means “the land where the sun sets” in Kurdish and is used as a synonym for West Kurdistan. For seven years, amidst the wider war in Syria, Kurdish forces as well as the civilian population have been fighting for a new form of self-determination. Over the last years they built up their autonomy. They did not do this in a vacuum, but through the fight against the IS. Rojava is a symbol of self-determination for the peoples in the Middle East and especially in Syria.
I often read it discussed in terms of democratic self-government — a grassroots democracy that upholds the rights of women and minorities.
Rojava is the natural response to the rise and breakdown of nation states in the Middle East. The Kurds and other minorities in the region have been systematically excluded from political life for almost a century. So, Rojava is something new — and has something of a grassroots character, because it circumvents the suppressive hegemony of the dominant nations and their respective states. Rojava is essentially a project for self-determination by those who have been denied fundamental rights by the existing nation-states.
So why did Turkey invade now?
Rosa said something important: the foundation of the Turkish, Syrian, and later the Iraqi nation-states, did not pay attention to the multiethnic diversity in the region, but only to a dominant national identity: namely the Turkish, the Syrian-Arab, and the Iraqi-Arab identity in each respective country. Any project that affirms the opposite — that is, the diversity of cultures — poses a threat to this nation-state perspective. Therefore, Turkey has an interest in preventing any self-determination — and especially in putting a stop to what Rojava is trying to implement. We also saw this at work in September 2017 during the independence referendum in Southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), where all neighboring states also intervened massively.
Turkey has now invaded Rojava in an attempt to destroy this self-government and to resist all forms of Kurdish self-determination. But also, in order to serve their neo-Ottoman plans for the expansion of the Turkish state. As you can see, everywhere Turkey has invaded in recent years — in [March] 2018 in Afrin [a largely Kurdish city] and now in the western part of northern Syria — it has not allowed self-government but has instead built up a kind of colony, for instance by setting up Turkish post offices and universities. Refugees from Syria, who had to flee after the civil war, are to be settled in these same territories. That would mean an Arabization of the areas where most of the Kurds used to live.
Is Turkish now being taught in Afrin?
Yes, exactly — not like during the period of self-government, when lessons were adapted to the respective areas and their languages. Now Kurdish is not even one of the languages taught in the schools of Afrin.
One should not forget Turkish history, here. Turkey has a long history of “Turkification Wars” against the Kurds. For example, until 1991, the Kurdish language was banned. Today, even though the Kurdish language is allowed, Kurdish people do not have the right to instruction in their own language, which means they don’t enjoy the right to education in their mother tongue. Neither are Kurds provided with a Kurdish interpreter in court. But even worse, they are lynched — as we saw a few weeks ago — because they speak Kurdish.
What we saw in Afrin and are seeing again today is the continuation of a century-long Turkification policy, under occupation. Turkey talks about “security risks” to justify its operations in majority Kurdish regions. But this is in fact about crushing any form of Kurdish political expression and preventing its reemergence either within or outside Turkey.
What exactly is happening on the ground, especially against the civilian population? And how about in military terms?
Militarily, there was the agreement between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Army — that is, the army of the Assad regime — to defend certain border areas against Turkey. Nobody knows what this agreement really means, but we are seeing Turkey attacking nonetheless, in two places in particular: Girê Spî and Serê Kaniyê. And if we look at what role these cities have played historically, we can speak of a redivision of Kurdistan. There, despite the so-called “ceasefire,” the attacks by pro-Turkish jihadist militias are now continuing en masse. It also appears that there is agreement from Russia and the United States that Turkey can continue to attack these areas — indeed, nobody is talking about the ongoing attacks.
These two cities were central to the emergence of an Arab belt in the 1960s. Thousands of Arab families from the north were settled there, with the aim of breaking up the Kurdish majority of the population. But over the last few years, there was still a very diverse coexistence of different cultures. The attack now could mean re-Arabization.
The Turkish attacks in Serê Kaniyê were particularly violent, but Kurdish forces defended the city for more than ten days. This, against the second-largest NATO army in the world. There are tens of thousands of jihadist mercenaries on the payroll of the Turkish army. Every day, dozens of deaths are reported in this area, including civilians, as it is subject to targeted bombing by the Turkish forces. Currently, up to 300,000 people are fleeing. About 300–500 civilians have been killed so far. It’s a dramatic situation.
We also learned about the execution of the Kurdish politician Hevrîn Xelef …
Yes, there have been confirmed reports and video footage from the Syrian Observatory showing this execution. She was thirty-five years old — after her studies she had come back to Rojava to contribute to the social change that was happening. That’s exactly what I meant before: people have made all possible efforts to build a new system in Rojava. She was actively involved in building a women’s council and was the co-chair of the Future Syria Party.
Talking about her execution is painful, because she stood personally for all that Rojava had imagined for the future — for the Kurds and all other peoples. She was well-known for her achievements in terms of diplomatic ties between various Kurdish, ethnic, and religious groups. She fostered Kurdish-Arabic friendship and was actively working on a joint future in a postwar Syria.
It is important not to forget that the jihadist militias — who are paid and backed by NATO’s second-largest army — executed her in cold blood and that a newspaper friendly to Turkey’s ruling AKP was triumphant about this “neutralization” of a “terrorist.” There is an extreme and racist nationalism in Turkey, constructed around anti-Kurdish hatred, in politics as in the media. When I heard the news about her, my thoughts turned to the Turkish interior minister. A few days before he had said in an interview with CNN Turkish that they were not fighting a conventional “terrorist organization,” but a “women’s terrorist organization.” And then, of course, the question arises, of whether this women-hate is in fact symbolic of what’s being done to Rojava.
This attack against Hevrîn could be a premonition of the future in Turkey, if the mercenaries succeed in conquering these areas. That would mean a reign of terror for women and for all who stand for a different form of coexistence.
The AKP tries to paint every attempt of self-determination as “terrorism.” At the same time, there is this alliance with jihadist groups and even IS. For a long time, it was said that Turkey had tolerated or even helped build the IS in northern Syria — what is happening to them now, especially the prisoners from the Kurdish-controlled areas?
Turkey’s support for the IS goes back very far indeed. Not just since we saw recently Turkish air bombers attack prisons and liberate IS soldiers, but even in the fight over Kobanê in 2015. At that time, Erdogan spoke of the IS’s near capture of the city as a victory. Much similar evidence has been accumulated in recent years, such as how the Turkish border corps have allowed IS to cross borders or supported them. The IS was simply a proxy, which fought for Turkish interests in northern Syria.
Turkey euphemistically calls its attack “Operation Peace Spring,” but actually I would baptize it the “revival of the Islamic State.” For one of the first Turkish actions was to bombard the prisons where IS fighters had been held, allowing hundreds off them to escape. There are also unconfirmed reports that guns have been dropped to equip them. And there are also reports of IS flags flying again. This is really unbelievable: The Kurds lost 11,000 fighters in the fight against the Islamic State, 24,000 were seriously injured, and now this NATO ally is making bombing raids against these Kurds. I’ve been in politics for twenty years, but I’ve rarely experienced such blatant injustice.
And how does the West react to such a blatant injustice?
At the moment, I think the whole Western reaction is hypocritical. Today, the German government has prevented there being any European Union arms embargoes. There are embargoes by individual states such as Spain, the Netherlands, or the Scandinavian countries — and Germany could follow suit. But the weapons stores of Turkey are full of Western arms — indeed, the German federal government has delivered about 500 Leopard tanks to Turkey. Any embargo would really have an effect only in months or years’ time.
Second, over the past fifteen years, the AKP has largely succeeded in putting the Turkish arms industry on its own footing. This means that 80 percent of Turkish weapons are produced there, as they are also attentive to knowledge transfer and can now produce German rapid-fire rifles themselves. So, there is no longer any dependence on foreign weapons.
The sanctions which Trump is talking about are ridiculous — they will do nothing. I think the sanctions and the verbal condemnations serve to appease the global public and say: the European Union condemns this, Trump, too, so they can claim they’re “doing something” even though it was them who made the war possible. That is clearly their strategy. We, for our part, have to take to the streets, demonstrating and mounting civil disobedience, rather than relying on governments. For the West itself has no interest in the Rojava project.
We should look to Rojava and be inspired by it. What the people have done there is to demand their own right to codetermination, for human liberation. If, in our outrage, we simply look to the international community and trust in the ineffective sanctions imposed by foreign governments, that will just mean more people will die, Kurds will be displaced, Turkey will deepen its authoritarianism, and Rojava will not survive. This will mean the death of a project through which many people across the world retrieved their hope for a better future.
On the streets, and wherever we are, we have to show how interconnected the injustices of our times are. We should be clear that a defeat for the Rojavan “utopia” would be a defeat for all defenders of peoples’ democracy around the world. There are also more practical things one can do, like boycotts. In the end it’s about standing up for an egalitarian society — in Rojava and beyond.