Afrîn and Manbij – a Tale of Two Cities
Earlier this year, the world learnt briefly about a place called Afrîn. There was even a discussion in the House of Commons, though with no motion and no vote. And the BBC was forced to interrupt its coverage of the fight between Assad’s government forces and militant Islamists in Eastern Ghouta to take note of what they termed ‘Syria’s other battle’. But once Afrîn city had been captured by the Turkish army and the jihadi militias with which it is aligned, Afrîn became old news, and quickly forgotten. Even Kurdish political activists, with their long experience of being betrayed by foreign powers, have been taken aback by the lack of response in international forums to this unprovoked invasion and occupation of a formerly peaceful region, to the accompanying ethnic cleansing, and to the replacement of secular democratic structures with a regime of terror and with constraints on women that echo those under Daesh.
I have just returned from a week in the, autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where I was part of a delegation invited by Kongreya Star, the umbrella group for the region’s women’s organisations. And everywhere we went we were reminded of the importance of Afrîn, and that the fight for Afrîn and for all that it stood for is far from over.
When the Kurds of Northern Syria took advantage of the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war to set up autonomous administrations in the area they call the West (as in Western Kurdistan), or Rojava, the district of Afrîn formed one of three autonomous cantons. Across Rojava new structures were set up to create an inclusive bottom-up democracy in accordance with the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, but we were told that in Afrîn the development of the new system was most advanced. The new forms of organisation were most widespread and embedded, women were most active in all spheres of life, and different ethnic groups were most fully integrated. The area had remained peaceful throughout the civil war and had provided a safe home to tens of thousands of displaced persons of various ethnic backgrounds from other parts of Syria.
But on the 20th January, after getting the green light from Russia who controlled the air space, Turkey began an all-out attack. Without air-power of their own, the defenders of Afrîn could not hold back the second biggest army in NATO. The war that Turkey’s President Erdoğan boasted would take just days, lasted for nearly two months, but by 18th March the flag of the Turkish invaders flew over the centre of Afrîn city. Attacks on civilian areas had been relentless, but much greater casualties were avoided by the mass evacuation of the civilian population just before the city fell. Now, thousands of Kurds and their former neighbours are struggling to survive as ‘internally displaced persons’, while Turkey moves Arab families – including families of the violent jihadi groups bussed out of Eastern Ghouta – into their former homes. But, as our hosts from Kongreya Star made clear to us, resistance in Afrîn is not over, it has taken on a new guerrilla formation.
One of our first meetings was with the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Just as the SDF brings together the Kurdish defence forces – the YPG and female YPJ – with allied forces, so the Council combines representatives from different parties and ethnicities. The Council’s co-president (every organisation has dual heads, male and female) is from Afrîn and has family among those displaced. She talked about the conditions being suffered by people left in Afrîn, where occupying Turkish and Jihadi soldiers rape and kidnap for ransom, and regard women as existing for the service of men. In contrast to Turkey’s pre-planned displacement of population by ethnicity, she stressed how the Kurds were bringing all ethnicities together in a system that they have put forward as a future solution for the whole of Syria. She had no illusions in any of the imperialist powers intervening in Syria – nor in Assad’s Baath party, with its history of Kurdish exclusion and suppression, and of Arab ethnic nationalism – and observed that foreign governments that should have been speaking up for the Kurds all shared interests with Turkey. The Kurds are aware that they are only valued for their crucial role in the fight against Daesh, and she observed, wryly, that those countries that were the quietest when the Kurds were under attack, are themselves the most subject to Islamist terrorism. The world’s silence on Afrîn and on Turkey’s previous intervention into Syria has given her strong grounds to believe that Turkey will act on its current election rhetoric and launch further attacks.
One of the other board members summed up the process that Northern Syria has been going through as parallel threads: resistance and struggle alongside creation and construction. They are establishing a community-based democracy, and the full participation of women is central to all that they do. This means not just changing the rules, but also changing people’s way of thinking in what is still a very patriarchal society.
All these points were to recur in future meetings during our intensely busy week.
We had hoped to be able to visit the Berxwedan camp in Shahba Canton to meet some of the displaced families from Afrîn, but Shahba has to be reached via a strip of land controlled by the Assad government, and we didn’t get the requisite permission. This was especially disappointing for the Kongreya Star member who was with us, who had hoped to be able to see some of her family. Her sister was killed in Afrîn and other family members are now distributed between different places in Syria – a situation that will be familiar to many Kurdish families. The Assad government has made it difficult for aid to get through too.
Conditions in Shahba are harsh. The massively overstretched administration has just produced a report that includes a census of over 100,000 displaced people from Afrîn. The area is badly damaged by war, and already accommodated people displaced from Turkey’s earlier incursions. As well as the camp, people are living in schools and mosques and whatever buildings could be found, including buildings that have been partially destroyed. Many lack electricity, sanitation, and even drinking water, and medical facilities are woefully inadequate. The local administration notes, ‘International relief organizations have so far provided no support to these displaced people, except for some aid from the Syrian Red Crescent’. The people in the camp have refused offers of help from Russia who they blame for their situation.
The Afrîn family we visited in Kobanê – one of 300 who have been found homes in the city – was relatively lucky. They had been sent on from Shahba because they needed medical help that wasn’t available there. The father had an injured leg, and he and his mother-in-law both needed surgery. The mother had given birth to twins the day after they arrived in the city. They told us that when the autonomous administration had taken over control of Afrîn in 2012 they had been very happy. They could use their own Kurdish language and live the way they wanted. When Turkey attacked they had moved from their village into Afrîn city, only leaving for Shahba when the SDF told all civilians that they should evacuate. With the mother heavily pregnant, the grandmother unable to walk, the father injured, and a young child in tow, that was not easy.
Despite their own troubles, when this family learnt that one of the members of our group was the aunt of Anna Campbell, the English woman who died fighting in the YPJ in the defence of Afrîn, they were immediately solicitous over her loss. They told her that when they get their home back they will hang a picture of Anna on the wall. Respect for those who have given their lives, and support for their families, are central tenets of this revolution.
The SDF’s decision to evacuate Afrîn must have been especially hard when they knew that removal of the Kurds was Turkey’s declared aim, but the invading forces were threatening genocide; and, dreadful as life is in Shahba, for those who remained in Afrîn, or who went back to recover their land and animals, the situation is worse. There have been detailed accounts in Kurdish news sources such as ANF News – not that we could read these when we were in Syria as the internet connections came from Turkey, and these, along with much other material including Wikipedia, are blocked by Turkish censorship. The Information Centre of Afrin Resistance compiles weekly bulletins of what is happening: abductions and disappearances, torture, kidnapping for ransom, looting, women forced to cover their heads and only go out accompanied by a man, Yazidi parents forced to teach Islamic prayers, the killing of a folksinger and his son.
While Turkey was exulting in displacing the Kurds, persecuting Yazidis, and making women prisoners in their homes, we learnt more about the Democratic Federation’s completely opposite and inclusive approach when we visited Manbij. Manbij was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in August 2016, after 2 ½ years under Daesh control. Unlike the Rojava cantons, Manbij is not majority Kurdish. At the Manbij Women’s Council we met with women from different ethnic communities: Arabs, Turkmen and Circassians, as well as Kurds. An important part of the council’s activity consists of reminding people how different ethnicities have lived together in the past, and encouraging people to acknowledge the ethnic mix within their own families. Members told us how they go round from house to house knocking on people’s doors to find women from all ethnic groups who may never go outside their homes. They try to get them involved in public life and help them to find paid work that gives them a measure of independence, and they also help them to resolve the inevitable conflicts within their families. This is not easy work and requires patience and persistence. They explained that although many of the women they visit know what they want, they are afraid to act. Living under Daesh control has made them fearful and suspicious of public activity; and, unlike in the Kurdish areas where Öcalan’s ideas had inspired a strong underground movement that was ready to break free, they were not used to challenging patriarchal cultural traditions.
One of the Arab women told us that she had been inspired by the way the Kurdish women worked together when they were living under Daesh, and had resolved to continue with this activity after liberation. Another wanted to express her thanks to the YPJ and SDF for liberating them from what felt like the end of life. In order to change social attitudes, the activists try and talk with all members of a family, including the men. A third Arab woman acknowledged the support she got from her own family, who shared her thinking, but not all families are sympathetic. We were told that there is a lot of educational work to be done before it will be possible to bring in even such a basic rule as outlawing polygamy. It was noticeable that the only women we saw in Manbij with uncovered heads – outwith the strangely anachronistic mannequins in the shop windows – were the Kurdish Women’s Council members. For society to change, a lot of hard work has to take place on the ground, and the women of Manbij have already set up three mala jin, or women’s houses, where women can go for support and to try and get family disputes resolved.
During our week’s visit we went to places where the new democratic structures are much more fully established, such as Kobanê, where we met with one of the sixty-five local women’s organisations, and Qamishlo, where we discussed the steps they are taking to develop an economy based on community need – but Manbij is important because it demonstrates how the ideas developed by the Kurds can be taken up in other places and form an effective counter to the dominant Middle-Eastern narrative of ethnic strife, patriarchal oppression, and religious intolerance. Manbij is also the next place in Turkey’s sights, though what happens here is complicated by the presence of US troops. Afrîn demonstrated that none of the foreign powers who are happy to see the Kurds attack Daesh will lift a finger when the Kurds themselves are under attack. And these powers certainly won’t want to promote a system that sees itself as an alternative to capitalist modernity. Manbij’s future will depend on what the US sees as its strategic interests – and talks between the US and Turkey are coming to the crunch.
As we were flying home, UK Prime Arms Dealer, Teresa May, was abasing herself in front of Erdoğan, and mentioning the Kurds only as ‘terrorists’. Our government will not be forced to change tack unless the Kurds can be seen to have wide popular support. Building this will be a major task, but, as the experiences of Afrîn and Manbij demonstrate, history is at a crossroads, and the different paths lead to very different futures.
Sarah Glynn is a committee member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, whose website can be found at www.sskonline.org.uk. There will be an opportunity to show support for the Kurds and protest British arms sales to Turkey at the demonstration against the Glasgow arms fair at the end of June.