Turkey makes ready to destroy Rojava

Erdogan’s proposed occupation zone cuts across North and East Syria (NES).

President Erdoğan has announced that Turkey is about to begin another invasion into northern Syria. The hope that is Rojava – and now also the wider, multi-ethnic, Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria – found a footing in the cracks that opened up in the chaos of the Syrian civil war; but none of the international or regional powers now trampling over Syria want to see this survive. The immediate threat comes from Turkey, but it is a threat that could only be realised due to the callous self-interest of other powers. 

After Turkey’s last invasion, in October 2019, Turkey signed ceasefire agreements with both the United States and Russia, who have set up bases all along the front lines. But these foreign powers have turned a blind eye to Turkey’s daily breaches of the ceasefires, and cannot be relied on to prevent another major attack. On their own, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ), and the rest of the units that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), face an uphill struggle against the second biggest army in NATO and its accompanying air force. 

Since the foundation of the Turkish republic, 99 years ago, the Turkish government has prevented Turkey’s large Kurdish minority from expressing their Kurdish identity. Today, Erdoğan regards the Kurds, and their organised resistance, as the biggest block in his road to greater power. He also sees them as an opportunity for boosting popular support through aggressive anti-Kurdish ethnic-nationalism. His attack on everything Kurdish extends even to the landscape, where he has burnt forests and flooded ancient sites. Within Turkey, he is attempting to destroy all Kurdish political and cultural organisations; and, as the world is witnessing in his response to Sweden and Finland’s requests to join NATO, he wants to force others to help in this persecution. In Iraq, he is taking over increasing areas of the Kurdistan Region and covering them with military bases – and being accused of multiple deployments of chemical weapons in the process. And, in Syria, where the Kurds and their neighbours are attempting to establish a region organised around grassroots democracy, women’s rights, and multicultural coexistence, he has carried out policies of Turkification and ethnic cleansing, targeted civilian areas and vital infrastructure, and succoured an array of mercenary militants that meld extreme violence with a brutal interpretation of Islam. 

All of this has elicited the minimum of international comment, leaving Erdoğan free to act with impunity. Indeed, his latest threat is a continuation of a plan that he announced publicly to the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, which can be summed up as invasion, occupation, and ethnic cleansing. He showed the world a map in which a thick red line cut off a 30km strip of northern Syria, along the Turkish border. The YPG and YPJ operate only in Syria and pose no threat to Turkey, but Erdoğan regards them as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, and he regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation. This is the basis of his claim that expulsion of the YPG/YPJ from this strip is necessary for Turkish security. He told the UN that he intended to create a ‘safe zone’ and use it to settle refugees currently in Turkey. He did not mention that although these refugees are Syrian, they are not from this area so this would not be a return home; nor that in making room for the refugees he would create a new group of displaced people; nor that the parts of Syria occupied by Turkey, very far from being safe, are some of the most dangerous and brutal places on earth. 

Turkey’s 2019 invasion into Syria was carried out shortly after that UN announcement, and following a phone call with President Trump, who assured Erdoğan that American troops in the region would not stand in the way. On that occasion, Turkey took control of a section of that 30km strip, running between Serekaniyê and Girê Spî, before agreeing to the ceasefires. This was 19 months after Russia, which controlled the airspace over western Syria, allowed Turkey to attack and occupy Afrîn. These two invasions displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Last October, Erdoğan announced that he would carry out a further invasion, but that time neither Russia nor America was prepared to clear their bases and make way. Now, as he again threatens to finish remaking the map, the response from the international powers gives major cause for concern. And, as in so many other areas, the war in Ukraine has added another dangerous factor into the equation.

The 30km strip that Erdoğan wants to occupy not only covers a substantial area. This strip includes most of North and East Syria’s major cities, more than half the region’s population, most of the area in which there is a Kurdish majority, nearly all the region’s main Christian settlements, major ISIS prisons, the crossing into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and much of the region’s most fertile land. Turkish occupation would be a catastrophic blow to all the people of the region and their hopes of controlling their own future, and also to the hopes that their new social paradigm has brought to people across the world. 

For Erdoğan, it would not only allow him to inflict another blow against the Kurds, but also bring him closer to his dream of retaking core parts of the former Ottoman empire – specifically those areas that were claimed in the National Pact made by the Kemalists in 1920 but were not included in the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the borders of the Turkish Republic three years later. The upcoming centenary of the Lausanne treaty gives this special significance. 

The author meeting women from different ethnic groups in Manbij, 2018

Erdoğan’s military adventures have acquired a new urgency as he faces the possibility of electoral defeat.  Presidential and general elections must take place by June next year, but the falling Lira and rising prices have left a large proportion of the population in financial difficulties. Erdoğan is looking to eclipse their concerns with a galvanizing victory – which he has not been able to achieve in Iraq – but even the nationalist drums of a Khaki election could be enough to outpace an uncoordinated opposition. His refugee settlement programme is also his answer to rising anti-refugee sentiment and to the opposition politicians who exploit it. His belligerent approach to international relations plays to a domestic audience, and has gained impact from the possibilities opened up by Ukraine. Turkey’s strategic position between the West and Russia has long encouraged other NATO members to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s other activities, and allowed Turkey to attempt to play NATO and Russia off against each other. Ukraine has given Turkey even greater importance, and more possibilities for tactical pressure on both sides – including the leverage that comes with being able to veto NATO membership.

The United States, which has bases in the Eastern part of the 30km strip, has made clear its opposition to another Turkish invasion, and President Biden knows that a repeat of Trump’s betrayal of their SDF allies would be deeply unpopular in Congress and with the American public. However, they have given no explicit commitment to defend the SDF in the case of Turkish attack. The US/SDF alliance is itself an accident of history that only came about after the jihadi groups that the US first tried to back became a liability, and they realised that the JPG/YPJ were the only fighters able to take on the rising forces of the Islamic State. America supports Turkey’s attacks on the left-wing guerrillas of the PKK and has no sympathy for the Autonomous Administration’s attempts to remould society, but this alliance makes it harder for them to appease Turkey, as they always used to do.  

After Trump’s partial withdrawal of US forces, the SDF had little alternative but to call on Assad’s, Russian-backed, Syrian army to help protect the towns of Kobanê and Manbîj, and after the ceasefires, Russian bases were built along the western and central part of the front line. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has called Turkey’s involvement in Syria ‘understandable’, but Russia has also been carrying out air manoeuvres in these areas.  Russia has no wish to see Turkey occupy more of Syria, however, they welcome any opportunity to aggravate disagreements between NATO countries, and they hope that Turkish pressure will force the Autonomous Administration to seek a rapprochement with the Assad regime that would extinguish their autonomy.

Of the other main players in Syria, the Syrian government does not want to lose more territory, and has called on the UN to intervene; and Iran, which also supports the Syrian government, does not want to see more land under the control of its Turkish rival.

The 2019 ceasefire agreements stipulated the withdrawal of the YPG and YPJ from the 30km border strip, while allowing for Turkish involvement in border patrols. Although America and Russia are meant to act as guarantors, local people complain that Turkey breaches the ceasefire every day without this eliciting a response from their bases. Turkey has never stopped carrying out its war of attrition in northern Syria, which is aimed at the incremental destruction of all that the autonomous authority is trying to create. They shell civilian areas and vital infrastructure, use their drones for targeted assassinations, and put hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods at risk through cutting the water flow in the Euphrates. 

Erdoğan has announced that Turkey’s first targets will be Manbij and Tel Rifaat, both taken by the SDF in 2016, and now run and defended by local people as part of the Autonomous Administration. (Their defence forces are part of the SDF, but are not YPG/YPJ.) Manbij was taken from ISIS and is a multi-ethnic Arab-majority city where the administration brings together people of all backgrounds. Tel Rifaat was taken from another Islamist rebel group, after a heavy Russian bombardment. It was an Arab majority area but now also accommodates a large proportion of the population displaced from Afrîn, who continue to suffer with blockades from the surrounding Syrian regime, as well as from Turkish attacks. The SDF reports that, even before the threatened ground invasion, Turkey and its mercenaries shelled this region 4,855 times in May alone. This Wednesday a drone hit a gynaecology clinic. Other parts of the 30km strip are targeted too, and every time his aggressions pass without significant international backlash, Erdoğan is encouraged to go further. Turkey’s mainstream ‘opposition’ parties are already falling in line behind his planned war, and Erdoğan has announced that after Manbij and Tel Rifaat ‘we will do the same to other regions step-by-step.’

Anyone in doubt as to what this would mean for these regions need only look at the many reports of the rule of terror suffered by those who remain in the parts of Syria now under Turkish occupation. Here, armed militias compete for plunder and extortion, and indulge the whims of their most sadistic members, while women and non-Muslims suffer further oppression in the name of a harsh and self-serving interpretation of Islam, and ISIS cells find a safe haven. Just in May in Afrîn, at least 44 civilians were reported to have been abducted.

With the current balance of international forces, it is hard to envisage a positive future for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, but they need every piece of support and solidarity we can give them to protect as much as they can of the achievements of the Rojava revolution. This is important not just for the people of the region itself, but also for the Middle East and the rest of the world. Solidarity means building wider knowledge and support, and pressuring political leaders – and their establishment media – not to succumb to Turkish blackmail. 

International organisations need to do more than react to Turkey’s latest threat. They can take a proactive stance and end the listings of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, which Turkey uses as ‘justification’ for every oppression against the Kurds everywhere. As recognised in a landmark case by the Belgian courts, the PKK is a party to a civil war and should not be treated as a criminal organisation. https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/12/21/scottish-politicians-and-writers-in-call-to-remove-the-pkk-from-the-terrorism-list/ They are committed to the Geneva Convention, pose no threat to other countries, and have long been demanding a political settlement. International organisations should be pushing for a return to peace negotiations that could bring a just and dignified future for Kurds in Turkey and beyond.


If you want to show solidarity with the Kurds and with all those seeking a peaceful and democratic future for the region, you can:

Join the Defend Kurdistan Global Day of Action on Saturday 11th June. Scotland’s march and demonstration – called by Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan and Edinburgh Kurdish Community – will be gathering outside the Sottish Parliament at 11 am, and marching at 11.30 to the Wellington monument on Princes Street (opposite the station) for a demonstration and speeches.


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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Thanks for the update Sarah. A hopeless situation.

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