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Turkey Is Waging a Brutal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan

In its latest assault against the Kurds, Erdoğan’s Turkey is targeting civilians and refugees along the Iraq border — a brutal campaign to stamp out democracy and self-determination in Kurdistan.

Syrian Kurds demonstrate on June 10 in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli against the Turkish offensive in northern Iraq. (Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images)

On April 24, 2021, the anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, the Turkish state launched a military attack in Iraqi territory against Kurdish forces.

For over a month, aerial bombardment has been carried out against civilian targets. Border villages have been targeted, alongside the Maxmur refugee camp, which is home to thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled the Turkish state’s village destruction campaign in North Kurdistan during the 1990s.

Since the early 2000s, the more than 10,000 people of Maxmur have been democratically self-organizing. Their assemblies were one of the first to practice democratic confederalism — known internationally from Rojava (an autonomous region in northeast Syria) — which is a system based on the principles of direct democracy, ecology, and women’s liberation.

Every woman in the camp is part of the autonomously organized women’s assembly and actively participates in the transformation of a society displaced by war and destruction. The Turkish state labels this terrorism, and governments such as the United States and the United Kingdom follow suit.

The Turkish military is simultaneously engaging in systematic ecological destruction, bombing and cutting down forests in South Kurdistan, attacking water infrastructure in Rojava, and blocking the water flow down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers into Northern Syria. Millions of people have been left without a reliable water source as a result.

This attack is a continuation of the Turkish state’s policy of illegal invasion, occupation, and expansion into Kurdistan. In fact, it’s only the latest of many attacks that in recent years have killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

We witnessed the Turkish state’s war crimes and human rights abuses in the city of Afrîn in 2018, and in Serê Kaniyê in 2019. These same methods are being employed in South Kurdistan at this very moment.

The Turkish state’s tactics are well known by now: torture, chemical weapons, bombing of hospitals and water infrastructure, and using rape as a weapon of war. These are actions widely reported in the invasions of both Afrîn and Serê Kaniyê. Since being occupied, Afrîn has one of the highest rates of kidnap, rape, and torture of women in the region.

The Turkish state plans to build military bases in Zap, Metina, and Avasin in Iraqi Kurdish-majority areas. In 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared before the United Nations General Assembly that Turkey intends to militarily enforce a border zone on its southern edge, replacing the existing majority-Kurdish population with Syrian refugees — essentially carrying out ethnic cleansing against Kurds in the region.

It is clear from both the statements and actions of the Turkish government that the aim of this military campaign is to bring back the borders set out in the National Pact at the end of the Ottoman Empire, under which areas of Iraq and Syria would be annexed.

Erdoğan proclaims that the borders allocated to Turkey after World War I — which left millions of Kurds stateless — were a serious compromise for Turkey, and one that must be resolved. It’s hard to know whether this is comic or tragic.

Developments in recent days show that Turkey is trying to stoke an intra-Kurdish war by escalating tensions between the Kurdish freedom movement and the KDP, the ruling Kurdish party of the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq. Only last week, the KDP prevented a peace delegation from Europe from entering Iraq, deporting them back to Europe. Meanwhile, police in Germany prevented another delegation of seventeen politicians and activists from traveling altogether.

These delegations were intending to observe the situation and report directly from the ground. Along with recent military clashes between the Kurdish freedom movement and the KRG Peshmerga, these are extremely worrying developments.

The Turkish state will continue its violence and ethnic cleansing in all regions of Kurdistan unless there is an appropriate, serious response from the international community. The aim of the Turkish state is to wipe out Kurdish culture, kill Kurdish people, and crush any attempts by Kurds to establish true self-determination.

It is not just Kurds who are the target, but the very attempt to build a peaceful and democratic society in the region, in collaboration across ethnic and religious communities such as Yazidis, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, and Turkmen. Just as these attempts have been under attack in Syria for years, so too are they now being targeted in Iraq.

What the Turkish state considers a great, existential threat is the realization of the political ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, a man who remains imprisoned on Imrali island, held in isolation by the Turkish state for over two decades. Denying a chance for peace and democracy in the Middle East is the Turkish state’s greatest political ambition.

All who believe in a just world must condemn this invasion, and take a stand for freedom and justice. The freedom of Abdullah Öcalan is paramount to a peaceful solution in Kurdistan and the wider region.