Afrin Under Siege — Syrian Kurdish Canton Faces Zero Hour

The United Nations Security Council met on Monday to discuss the situation in the Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta, on the Damascus outskirts, where there are emerging reports that Syrian government forces have used banned chemical weapons against anti-Assad rebels in a long siege. However, an item that was not on the agenda is an ongoing conflict 200 miles to the north, where the Turkish military and their mercenaries — allegedly comprised of Islamist fighters from Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and remnants of ISIS — are advancing their assault and siege on the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin.

In January, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is facing an election in 2019 (and may call snap elections this year), called for a military offensive against the Kurdish region (he’s calling it “Operation Olive Branch,” in an example of historical irony), claiming that it is a base of operations for groups that Ankara deems “terrorists” — the YPG and all-female YPJ People’s Protection Units — who Turkey claims are an offshoot of the PKK, or Kurdish Worker’s Party, which has been engaged in off-and-on conflict in Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish areas since the 1980s. Over the past 55 or so days, Turkish forces and their mercenaries have entirely encircled the canton, occupied terrified civilians’ homes, destroyed their shops while shouting Islamist slogans in videos posted to social media, and marched toward the city of Afrin in the center of the region, which, due to the operation, has swelled from its ordinary baseline of about 200,000 (as of 2004) to reportedly as many as 900,000 civilians, including up to 400,000 displaced Arabs, Assyrians, Yezidis, and Turkmens who have fled to Afrin from conflict elsewhere in Syria.

Afrin is a fertile agricultural region in the northwestern corner of Syria, and has been the traditional home of the Kurdish people and their Hittite and Assyrian ancestors since before Biblical times. Boasting millions of olive trees among scenic mountains and rivers, Afrin was long a vacation destination for Syrians before the civil war. As ISIS gained ground in eastern Syria and Iraq, and as anti-regime rebels battled the Assad government, Afrin and the other two Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Jazira remained relatively stable and peaceful (except for some ISIS expansionism fought back by the YPG and YPJ with U.S. help, and a critical 6-month battle in Kobani, which was a major turning point in the war against ISIS in 2014–2015). As a result, the region absorbed refugees and internally-displaced people from elsewhere in Syria.

Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira are three self-governing Kurdish-majority regions in northern Syria that identify under the name “Rojava,” which means “Western Kurdistan” in the Kurdish Kurmanji language. “Kurdistan” itself is a region dominated primarily by ethnic Kurds, that overlays the mountainous areas of the modern nation-states of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. When the western powers carved up the Middle East after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they failed to create a sovereign state for the Kurds, who have had to endure rule and subjugation by other capitals and use as pawns by foreign powers ever since. The Kurds have a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains,” and this is why.

In Western Kurdistan — Rojava — an exciting and pioneering experiment in a new form of governance has emerged. A Kurdish thinker named Abdullah Öcalan was a student of the American philosopher Murray Bookchin, who pioneered the field of “social ecology” and developed a decentralized political system he referred to as “libertarian municipalism,” or “Communalism,” which seeks to structure society around ecological and popular-democratic lines. Öcalan has expounded his governing philosophies in a number of works that have earned him the esteem of Kurds in all regions of greater Kurdistan. With the chaos that emerged in Syria in recent years, the Kurds in Rojava saw their chance to establish a new polity based upon his framework. Öcalan’s “Democratic Confederalism,” is built upon the pillars of secularism, pluralism, community self-defense, direct democracy, ecological sustainability, and feminism (a philosophy called Jineology, or “women’s science,” which holds that a society can only be as free as the women in it, and which calls for a series of women’s councils, who must affirm any policy about women). It is an inherently anti-authoritarian non-state form of decentralized autonomous governance with the seat of sovereign power resting not in elected representatives but in every adult man and woman in the society.

Incidentally, Öcalan is also Turkey’s Enemy Number 1, and he has sat as the sole prisoner in a Turkish island prison ever since his capture in Nairobi in 1999 in a joint CIA-Turkish intelligence rendition operation. The Turks wanted to execute him, but back when they were flirting with joining the EU in the early 2000s, they ended the death penalty to appease their European suitors, converting Öcalan’s death sentence to life in prison. The Turks’ beef with Öcalan is based in the fact that, as head of the PKK, he used to call for militant Kurdish rebellion against the Ankara government, which led to war-like conditions in southeastern Turkey that have killed over 50,000 people. However, over the years, Öcalan has called for political solutions to the issue of Kurdish integrity within Turkey, something Ankara was at one point receptive to, resulting in the formation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and Democratic Regions Party (DPB) in the Turkish parliament. Nevertheless, owing to complicated realities of Turkish internal politics and the need of President Erdogan to consolidate his influence, he has once again reverted to a relatively Islamist ethno-nationalist position of using the specter of Kurdish “terrorism” as a means of garnering domestic political support, which brings us back to his ongoing operation against the Kurds in Afrin.

At the moment, Turkey and their Islamist proxies have entered and entirely encircled the Afrin region, and, following ongoing airstrikes and bombing against civilian targets in the city, are advancing inward toward Afrin City and its reportedly 900,000 anxious civilians. There is only one road available to people who wish to flee, and there is rapidly increasing a great risk that NATO’s second-largest army, with the help of former ISIS fighters, could enter, massacre, and cleanse the Kurds, Yezidis, Assyrians, and internally-displaced Arabs in a gruesome spectacle of building-to-building urban warfare. Reports claim that Turkey has already shelled an Iron Age Neo-Hittite temple with no military value solely for the purpose of stripping Kurdish identity from their homelands, which, if true, could be a war crime under the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and, in addition to Islamist fighters, Turkey has also cultivated the support of pan-Turkist neo-fascists called “Grey Wolves” to help propagate an anti-Kurdish, ultranationalist ethos. (Erdogan was recently photographed making the Grey Wolves’ hand sign, and while interviewing Afrin supporters near the UN today, I watched as a livery driver menacingly flashed the hand sign at the assembled Kurds as he drove by.)

The Kurds I spoke with are scared for their relatives in Afrin City, watching as a collection of avowed Islamists and fascists bolstered by the Turkish military and western weapons march toward their city, with what they believe to be the intent to cleanse it of Kurdish influence. And they told me that they feel abandoned by the west and the United States — who incidentally has about 350 troops stationed in nearby Manbij, where they had been working closely with the Rojavan YPG and YPJ in their valiant efforts to repel and exterminate ISIS. They just want the United Nations and the West to speak up against the imminent cleansing they face, to take some kind of action, and to help ensure the survival of their Democratic Confederalist experiment, which observers have said presents one of the most promising models to ensure the stable, secular, democratic future of the Middle East. However, according to some of the activists I spoke with, they believe that Russia may be a guiding hand and nefarious influence, trying to pit NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. against one another as yet another part of their campaign to fracture the Western alliance.

Events have yet to fully unfold, but from the Kurdish perspective, they don’t look all that promising at the moment. The world will watch — one way or another — as the Kurds and their pluralist society face down the gun of an invading army, with nothing but the People’s Protection Units (and some Assad-backed forces) defending their sovereignty, identity, and way of life as they try to grow a new system some say is needed to help bolster democracy and ecological resilience in the age of systemic and institutional entropy. The outcome is uncertain, but this is an area that merits greater focus of western media and policymakers right now, as history unfolds in the days ahead.

James Carli is a writer and humanitarian fundraiser with a background in diplomacy, drug policy, and urbanism.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store