The Importance of Afrîn
22nd January 2018
‘No friends but the mountains’ goes an old Kurdish saying, and as Turkey starts a ground incursion into Kurdish-controlled Afrîn in Syria, it seems to ring true. Sarah Glynn reports.
As this 21st century rolls out ever more political and economic brutality, some people turn for protection towards a strong-man leader, or the certainties of dogmatic religion; but others look for examples of a different way of doing things – of places and systems that can provide a glimmer of hope we all can learn from. The brightest glimmer of hope today is provided by the example of secular, grassroots, democracy being put into practice in the predominantly Kurdish autonomous region of Northern Syria. But this is under attack by a state presided over by an autocratic strongman, who has adopted an increasingly fascistic brand of nationalism buoyed up by religion. This state is a member of NATO; and, despite repeated warnings, those leaders who like to think of themselves as representing the international ‘community’ have done nothing to stop it. Even when official protests have been aired, the main concern appears to be the effectiveness of the war against Daesh/ISIS. Meanwhile media commentators debate the balance of forces of the great powers. No-one seems interested in the people at the receiving end of the Turkish military onslaught, who are desperately fighting to defend their homes and their dreams – and also our dreams. While Erdoğan’s speeches thunder from the TV, the voices of the Kurds are hardly heard. Their understandings are not sought.
Of course we shouldn’t expect our political and media establishment to show much support for what the Kurds and their neighbours in Northern Syria have achieved. They are hardly going to celebrate the establishing of a system that could provide a successful alternative to capitalism, and that is what is emerging. It is still very much a work in progress, and faces many hurdles along the way, but it has the potential to help humanity escape from its destructive spiral.
The Syrian war opened up space for the realisation of ideas about grass-roots democracy and community control that originated with Murray Bookchin in America, and were elaborated on by Abdullah Öcalan, as he moved away from nationalism to advocate peaceful autonomous co-existence. In Northern Syria, these ideas were spread by the main Kurdish political party, the PYD (Democratic Union Party). They have inspired the establishment of new autonomous structures, which were first set up in the predominantly Kurdish areas of Afrîn, Kobanî and Cizîre that together were known as Rojava, or West (Kurdistan). Kobanî reached a wider public consciousness when it came under attack from Daesh, and the Kurdish defence force – the YPG and female YPJ – defied all expectations in successfully defending their city. As the Kurds fought back against Daesh, further areas were brought into this autonomous democratic federation. Care was taken to ensure that all ethnic groups were represented, as well as women having an equal place. In recognition of these changes, the area now refers to itself as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, and to its soldiers as the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF). Kobanî and Cizîre were joined up in 2015 and now form part of a considerable autonomous area, but Turkey has already ensured that Afrîn has remained isolated, with the help of the so-called Free Syrian Army. Turkish nationalism has always been opposed to expressions of Kurdish identity, let alone Kurdish autonomy, and Erdoğan has clear strategic aims and imperial ambitions. He is also anxious to distract from the problems within his country by turning on an external ‘enemy’.
Ferhad (not his real name) now lives in Glasgow, but still has family in Afrîn. When he spoke to his brother over Whatsapp shortly after the assault started he was able to see for himself the fear of his toddler nephews. His brother told him about attacks on a village ten miles away that had hit a Sunday market, leaving civilians dead and wounded. But he also emphasised the beauty of the place: mountainous, like Scotland, but covered with fruit trees of all kinds. Although Afrîn town is similar in size to Dumbarton, the population has been more than doubled by refugees seeking a safe haven from other parts of Syria.
‘No friends but the mountains’ is an old Kurdish saying born from bitter experience. At different times the Syrian Kurds have had help from both the US and Russia, but they knew that these alliances were tactical and that they would be dropped as soon as they were no longer regarded as useful. Most recently, the US recognised the SDF as the most effective force against Daesh. They were happy to provide air cover while the SDF did the dangerous work on the ground. But now, as their NATO ally attacks their former SDF comrades, they are merely calling for Turkey to exercise ‘restraint’. Meanwhile Russia has simply ensured that its own troops have moved out of the way. And Germany continues to discuss upgrading Turkish tanks, while the EU as a whole is careful not to upset the guards of Fortress Europe.
Mainstream politicians may not be concerned about protecting alternative ways of running society, but they don’t want to look as though they are condoning invasions, and they should be very concerned about the even wider instability that Turkey’s actions are helping to fuel. We need to make it very clear to our elected ‘representatives’ that they cannot go on treating Turkey as though nothing untoward is happening, so effectively helping to keep Erdoğan in power; and that the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria must take part in any negotiations about Syria’s future. And we need to make sure that people know what is going on and why it is so important.
In Scotland, as elsewhere, support for the Kurds is growing.
There is a Cross Party Group on Kurdistan in the Scottish Parliament, and the group’s founder, Ross Greer MSP, told Bella,
“Turkey’s invasion of Afrîn shows what a farce NATO is. The YPG-led Syrian Democratic forces are not just the only serious secular, democratic force in Syria, they are a key ally of the UK and the US. Washington and London were more than happy to support the SDF when they alone took the fight to Daesh and liberated hundreds of thousands of people from their control but now they stand idle whilst another NATO member begins a vicious campaign to destroy the one group with a peaceful roadmap for Syria’s future.
Let’s make no mistake, this invasion is motivated by the Turkish government’s obsessive hatred of the Kurdish people and their fear of an autonomous, Kurdish-led administration on their border. The international community must stand against Turkey’s invasion of Afrîn and make clear our solidarity with the democratic, feminist revolution taking place in Northern Syria/Rojava.”
Alan Semo, the PYD’s representative in the UK, told me ‘it would be appreciated if the Scottish Parliament condemns the Turkish aggression and attacks on Afrîn canton and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.’
Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan (SSK) is working with the Edinburgh Kurdish community to organise two protests this week. Demonstrators will gather at noon outside the Turkish Consulate in George Street on Tuesday and Friday. And, as it is believed that Turkish bombing has been enabled by the Russian Government, there will be a delegation at the Russian Consulate too. SSK is also urging people to write to their MP and ask them to ‘ask the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson MP, to immediately lodge a protest with the Turkish government and halt any sales of arms to Turkey’.
SSK co-chair, Stephen Smellie, explained to Bella:
“Turkey’s claim that they are attacking to stop terrorists on their border is nonsense. Afrîn represents a small part of their border with Syria most of which is controlled by the Kurdish YPG. They want to attack Afrîn to bolster their claim for a seat at the table when deciding the fate of Syria. For years Turkey controlled the border and allowed ISIS, Al-Nusra and others to go back and forth at will and allowed the supply of weapons and trade with ISIS. In the past year or so Teresa May, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox have been visiting Turkey selling them arms and jet fighter technology. These very arms are now being used to attack Afrîn. Unless our government takes action to condemn Turkey’s action and stops supplying them with arms, May, Johnson and Fox will have civilian blood on their hands. SSK is calling on all Scottish MPs to put pressure on the government to take action to stop another humanitarian disaster in Syria and the displacement of thousands more refugees.”
SSK committee member, Honar Kobane, whose name describes his city of origin, adds, ‘We must defend Afrîn with the spirit of the Kobanî resistance!’
For those in Edinburgh there is also an opportunity to find out more about the YPJ at a film screening hosted by Edinburgh University Kurdish Society on Wednesday.
To keep up with what is happening from a Kurdish perspective, more here.