First published May 6
On March 18, Turkish troops supported by a 10,000-strong horde of Islamist militiamen stormed into the city of Afrîn in northern Syria. After an unequal eight-week struggle against the Middle East’s most powerful military force, the city’s lightly armed Kurdish defenders had little choice but to melt away and fight another day.
The city’s fall was inevitable. Afrîn is isolated from Kobanê and Jazira, the other predominantly Kurdish cantons to the east, and the Kurds had gambled unsuccessfully on international support against the illegal invasion. This was not unreasonable. The invasion was patently illegal, and the world also owes the Syrian Kurds a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices in ridding it of the cancer of ISIS.
Sadly, almost all of the world’s governments turned a blind eye to the aggression. Some of them directly or indirectly aided the Turkish aggressor.
Despite its ostensible commitment to No Fly Zone in northern Syria, Russia allowed Turkish jets free passage to bomb and strafe the city and surrounding villages. One of the jets’ first targets was the 3000 year-old Hittite temple of Ain Dara, famous for its images of lions and sphinxes, which was 60 per cent destroyed. The United States for its part wrung its hands and begged for “restraint”. Britain showed where it stands by signing a new contract to provide the Turkish military with new jet fighter technology—while the Turkish air force was pounding Afrîn. German Chancellor Angela Merkel belatedly and mildly condemned the invasion—even as German-built Leopard tanks blasted Afrîn’s defenders.
At the UN, the Australian government rightly condemned Russia and its Syrian client for atrocities in East Ghouta but remained utterly silent about the parallel invasion of Afrîn. The Labor Opposition, with the honourable exception of Peter Khalil, the MHR for Wills, issued not a peep of protest and ignored the pleas of the Australian Kurdish community for support. Informed sources believe there may have been a directive from the party’s leadership to steer clear of the issue. Even the Greens, except for prominent figures in the NSW branch, went quiet after some initial support for the Kurds.
In these dire circumstances, the fighters of the People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) decided that a last stand would be futile and would cause the civilian population great suffering.
Since the city’s fall, the fickle attentions of the world’s media have moved on and for governments and oppositions such as ours, it is as if nothing ever happened.
The people of Afrîn have no such luxury. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s myrmidons and their Islamist allies are committing grave crimes against Afrîn’s civilian population. Bloated with victory, the Turkish despot plans to extend military operations to the rest of Rojava and beyond. He sees himself as a new Sultan, re-adjusting the boundaries of the Turkish state that were set after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and imposing harsh authoritarian rule at home.
Afrîn today presents a dismal picture of totally unnecessary suffering. Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents fled the Turkish invaders. At least 137,000 of its people are still internally displaced and face an uncertain future without adequate food and shelter. Those who managed to make it to other parts of Rojava have been housed in rudimentary refugee camps, but many others are still living out in the open, sheltered only by bits of tarpaulin or tin. Diseases such as TB and leishmaniasis are spreading. Although the Kurdish Red Crescent does its best, it lacks the necessary resources for effective help. Dr Hawzhin Azeez, who is coordinating the international “I Love Afrîn” relief campaign from Kobanê, reports that western banks have been rejecting or refunding donations. In contrast, just days after Afrîn fell, the European Union provided a new €6bn package for refugee assistance in Turkey—at the very time that Erdoğan has created a new flood of displaced persons from Afrîn!
One of the first actions of the jihadi militiamen upon entering Afrin was to bulldoze a statue of Kawa, the legendary Kurdish hero, and to raise the Turkish flag in the city’s central square. Their anti-Kurdish agenda could not be clearer. Openly boasting that they would kill the Kurdish “infidels”, the Islamists went on a rampage of looting and destruction. Yazidis and Christians were also targeted by the thugs, who refuse to recognise anything but their own twisted brand of religion.
Many of the jihadis are recycled Al Qaida and ISIS members who have a particular hatred for the Kurds; a prejudice they share with the Kurdophobic Turkish President. Incredibly, Erdoğan claimed that the Kurds were in league with ISIS; an allegation too idiotic to bother arguing against given the indispensable part played by the YPG and YPJ in the defeat of Islamic State—and his own murky history of support for the jihadis.
Despite Turkish government denials, its operatives are implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing in Afrîn. Thousands of families from elsewhere in Syria have been brought to Afrîn and re-settled in the houses of Kurdish residents. Kurdish families who have attempted to return have been turned away. The officials on the ground in Afrîn are only carrying out what Erdoğan himself boasted he would do once he conquered the city. In late January, for instance, he told a rally in Turkey’s Bursa province that:
The whole issue is this: 55 per cent of Afrîn is Arab, 35 per cent are the Kurds who were later relocated, and about seven per cent are Turkmen. [We aim] to give Afrîn back to its rightful owners.
In fact, until the invasion, Kurds made up some 90 per cent of Afrîn’s population, and they had stubbornly resisted attempts to make them anything else. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, some 300,000 Syrian Kurds were carrying “red cards”; classified since 1962 as “foreigners” in their own land. Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, carried out forced population transfers, settling Arab families on Kurdish lands, and prohibited the use of the Kurdish language and customs. He did not succeed. Erdoğan is carrying on where the Assads left off; the difference being that his aim appears to be the Turkification of Afrîn, rather than its Arabisation.
Erdoğan has form for an assimilationist, and even colonialist policy. In 2016, he launched “Operation Euphrates Shield”, penetrating deep into Syria to prevent the Kurds from linking Afrîn with the Kobanê and Jazira cantons east of the Euphrates River. Since then, under Turkish occupation, school classes in Jarablus and other centres are taught in Turkish and the Turkish curriculum is in force. The occupiers have appointed provincial and district governors and order is kept by Turkish-controlled police and gendarmerie.
A similar process appears to be under way in Afrîn. The Turkish authorities have admitted that “We have no intention nor do we think of giving it [Afrîn] back to the [Assad] regime.” Nor do they intend to withdraw and allow the Kurds back to their homes to choose their own form of government. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, a far-right party allied to Erdoğan’s AKP, declared that Turkey “will have the right to keep the lands that we gave away one hundred years ago at least until stability, peace and tranquillity returns.” That the invaders destroyed the “stability, peace and tranquillity” of Afrîn does not appear to have occurred to this fascist zealot. In the wider context, the invasion is a set-back to the hopes of an end to the vicious civil war that has devastated Syria.
It is unlikely that the conquest of Afrîn and the prior occupation of Jarablus will sate Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman appetites. He has repeatedly threatened to invade the rest of Rojava, a region that stretches nearly 400 kilometres to Iraq along Turkey’s southeast border, and which has been organised into the Northern Syrian Federation. He has also made similar threats against the Yazidi heartlands on Mt Sinjar. Previously, he stated his desire to create a cordon sanitaire extending 80 kilometres south of the border to exclude Kurds, whom he regards as terrorists.
He has repeatedly claimed that Turkey has a right to expand beyond its current boundaries, which were set in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne. He declared for instance in a speech on October 22, 2016 that Iraq, Bosnia and Syria—formerly parts of the Ottoman Empire—are “part of our national soul”. He has even staked a claim to the city of Salonika and parts of Western Thrace adjacent to European Turkey. Although this sounds as absurd as an Austrian revanchist dreaming of a return to the Hapsburg Empire, given Erdoğan’s Islamo-fascist ideology, military power and irascible nature, it might well become nightmarish reality. Whether he can achieve any of this remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that he harbours the dangerous dream of re-creating at least a portion of the Ottoman Empire with himself as Sultan and Caliph.
The Afrîn invasion appears to have boosted Erdoğan’s domestic popularity. Turkish casualties were relatively light because Turkish commanders used Islamist militias as cannon fodder. Opinion polls suggest that 70 to 80 per cent of the Turkish population supported the Afrîn invasion, although how accurate this can be in an authoritarian, even fascistic, state is debatable. Nevertheless, Erdoğan has milked his victory for all that it’s worth, stumping the country to deliver incendiary nationalistic tirades. He even renamed the thoroughfare running past the US embassy in Ankara “Olive Branch Street” in honour of the Orwellian name he gave the Afrîn invasion. In doing so, he also gave the finger to the US, which for the moment maintains Special Forces troops and military aircraft in Rojava, and thus acts as a brake on Erdoğan’s plans for a wider invasion of northern Syria.
By accident or design, Erdoğan’s Afrîn adventure also roughly coincided with the 102nd anniversary of the Ottoman Turkish victory over the Allied invaders at Gallipoli. In recent years, he has used the memory of Gallipoli as a tool to whip up nationalistic fervour. As I wrote in Arena Magazine, “enormous crowds have flocked to town squares across Turkey to hear grandiloquent speeches and watch images of Gallipoli beamed onto huge screens. These spectacles, reminiscent of Nazi rallies, have been crafted to stoke nationalist paranoia and bolster support for the autocratic president…” Erdoğan’s message is clear: Turkey can once again become a Great Power and regain what is rightfully hers. We are witnessing the rise of a rogue state that will only further de-stabilise an already volatile region.
The Turkish public, of course, know only what Erdoğan wants them to know about the invasion. Reporters Without Borders note that “Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists”.
Press freedom has been crushed and the Internet is heavily censored to exclude alternative viewpoints. In April last year, for instance, Erdoğan banned Wikipedia in all languages because it had drawn attention to the Turkish authorities’ past association with ISIS.
The President has also brought forward the general election to June 24, a year and a half before they were due, clearly hoping to capitalise on the euphoria generated by the seizure of Afrîn. Although popular wisdom believes dictators seize power in coups d’état, the world is replete with examples of despots who use elections—often rigged—to give a patina of legitimacy. Viktor Orban, Hun Sen, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Vladimir Putin, are current examples. Significantly, Erdoğan sees Adolf Hitler as a role model for the constitutional changes he has put in place to grasp power.
The Afrîn victory will also deflect attention from the massive corruption of the president and his family and cronies. Erdoğan may also fear that the voters may turn on him over the economic malaise that has gripped Turkey. Lezgin Botan, who is an MP from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), points out that “The Turkish lira is one of the fastest falling currencies in the world. Diesel and gasoline are very expensive and inflation is high. Recently, some people set themselves on fire because of economic problems”. The official unemployment rate is currently running at almost eleven per cent and one in five young people are jobless. One suspects, however, that the Sultan will stop at nothing to ensure that he wins the election. If he does, there will be nothing to stop him from further entrenching himself in power and advancing his neo-Ottoman agenda for regional hegemony.
Operation Olive Branch was a terrible crime. When Syria’s civil war began, the dictator Bashar al- Assad withdrew his troops from Afrîn and the other northern Syrian cantons of Kobanê and Jazira and the resulting power vacuum allowed the region’s people to reclaim their democratic and cultural rights. Although it was not perfect, Afrîn was an oasis of peace, gender equality, multiculturalism, grass roots democracy and stability in a region beset by war, religious sectarianism, ethnic intolerance and extreme patriarchy. The cantons served as a model for the rest of the ethnic and religious mosaic of Syria and the Middle East. As the writers Güney Işkara and Alp Kayserioğlu have observed, the Syrian Kurds showed that “it’s feasible to build a democratic federation which solves the issue of national oppression, founded on principles of gender equality and socialism”.
That vision is anathema to the Islamist Erdoğan, who marked International Women’s Day in 2016 by declaring that “a woman is above all else a mother”. Turkish women, he insisted, should bear at least three children, and the promotion of birth control is “treason”. Women, he declares, are not equal to men. Using the failed 2016 military coup as a pretext, he has steadily eroded democratic rights and carried out massive purges of the civil service, the judiciary, academia and the professions, replacing real and imagined oppositionists with pliant Islamist stooges. He has imprisoned thousands of democrats, feminists, trade unionists and socialists, often on trumped up charges of supporting terrorism. In particular, since 2015 he has targeted Turkey’s huge Kurdish population for savage repression, bombarding Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast and imprisoning the leaders of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The world has allowed him to get away with all of this, but as the French saying goes, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. The world has always looked the other way when the successor states of the Ottoman Empire have abused the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. When Kurdish tribesmen rose in revolt against the British mandate in Syria in 1920, they were brutally suppressed. Winston Churchill even argued (unsuccessfully) for the use of poison gas against “the uncivilised tribes” as it would “spread a lively terror” among them. In 1988, Saddam Hussein took his advice, and bombarded the Kurds at Halabja with it. In 1991, when the Kurds responded to appeals by the West to revolt against the Iraqi dictator, they were left in the lurch.
Unfortunately, we see the same story repeating itself today when the Syrian Kurds, who gave their blood to crush the barbarians of the so-called Islamic State, are left to face the despot of Ankara alone. One further suspects that the governments of Australia, Russia, Britain, along with NATO and the European Union, were relieved to see Erdoğan land heavy blows against the radical alternative model that Rojava has provided. When and if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan carries out his threat to invade the remaining Rojava cantons, he will find the Kurdish fighters a tougher nut to crack there than in Afrîn. But they cannot stand alone. They need and deserve our support and we need to crack the wall of silence that has allowed the Turkish autocrat to operate with impunity.
*John Tully is an honorary professor in the College of Arts and Education at Victoria University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of VU.
• Guardian: ‘I’ll continue writing the truth’: the editor taking on Erdoğan Şener Leven has made his tiny Turkish Cypriot newspaper an enemy of Turkey’s president. Şener Levent is on a mission. He has survived being set on by mob and two gun attacks and has had a dead dog left at his door, but none has not stopped the editor taking Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to task.With evident pride, he says his Turkish Cypriot newspaper, Afrika, is the only Turkish-language daily to denounce Ankara’s military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. “I’ll continue writing the truth,” insisted Levent, who narrowly escaped being lynched in January when a mob of ultranationalists, incited by Erdoğan, attacked the publication’s premises in the Turkish-run north of Cyprus. “The Turkish army went into Syria and the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to commit a massacre and occupy the country, just as they did here …”