The Kurds in the Middle East are continually betrayed by the politics of aggressive states, and their plight has been largely ignored by the media.
It is up to independent writers, journalists and media outlets to attempt to rebalance the skewed and confusing view of Syrian affairs that has largely been communicated with us. Most urgently, the silence of the international press about the Turkish invasion of the Afrin canton in northern Syria, must be addressed. The resulting refugee crisis is ongoing.
In current times, the region of Afrin refers to an area that comes under the grassroots administration of the Kurdish-inspired ‘Rojava’ –now more commonly known as The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, to acknowledge the participation in the democratic processes of other ethnic groups, including Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrian Christians. The federation is comprised of the cantons of Afrin, Jazira and Kobani. This is the pioneering testing ground of a Kurdish-led experiment in radical, feminist and pluralist direct democracy –their version of ‘democratic confederalism’ –a system that has developed opportunistically during the so-called Syrian civil war which started in 2011.
‘Democratic confederalism’ as a theory of governance was developed by the American academic Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and adopted by Abdullah Ocalan, an ideological leader for Syrian Kurds and the founder of the controversial militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) who have been most active in Turkey and Iraq, fighting back against the cultural and military oppression by the governments of those countries.
‘Jin -Jiyan- Azadi!’ is one of the rallying cries of the Rojavan revolution. It is Kurmanji Kurdish for ‘Women -Life- Freedom!’ and refers to the three pillars of Kurdish-style democratic confederalism: women’s liberation or rather, equal gender representation in all quarters of politics and society; ecology (or ‘social ecology’, to use Bookchin’s term); and the freedom of direct democracy, working up from assemblies at the street level.
For centuries the Kurds have been oppressed in their homeland of ‘Kurdistan’ which has no internationally recognised legal boundaries. Kurdistan comprises areas of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Since the formation of these nation states, in their current incarnations less than a century old, their governments have ruthlessly targeted Kurds and their culture. Kurds have been denied the rights afforded to other citizens of these countries, and have even been persecuted for speaking Kurdish in an attempt to stamp out their culture entirely.
The Kurds and their rights to political and cultural self-governance across the regions of Kurdistan, have gained international support amongst leftist groups and human rights organisations over the years. Based in the UK, Peace In Kurdistan (PIK) is a prominent organisation which campaigns for a peaceful end to the so-called Kurdish Question; but simultaneously supports the prerogative of the Kurds for military self-defense. Amongst notable patrons of PIK are Jeremy Corbyn and Noam Chomsky. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is seen by some leftists as a creative and revolutionary response by the Kurds of that region to a long historical narrative of warring nation states that have used the Kurdish people as pawns in their power games.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has shown some tolerance of the Democratic Federation. He has been tied up elsewhere in Syria, fighting the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Besides, the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units of the Federation, the mixed YPG and all-female YPJ militia have been the most successful forces in Syria at defeating so-called Islamic State (IS), who are enemies of Assad although he has shown a ‘pragmatic’ approach towards them.
The USA have also recognised the effectiveness of the YPG and YPJ and the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of northern Syria which include a large Arab element; and have provided plenty of support to the units on the ground over the past few years of the so-called Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Assad ultimately seeks a unified Syria devoid of the Federation. Assad’s recent belated support of Afrin’s Kurds, using Syrian government forces against the invading Turkish forces who were in turn allied with the FSA and purportedly, ex-IS fighters, was wholly a strategic response to the breach of national boundaries, rather than a response to the breach of the Federation.
The Turkish invasion of Afrin
Why did Turkey invade Afrin in the north of Syria in January of 2018? There were many reasons, but ‘securing its borders against terrorists’ as president Erdogan and his NATO allies claimed was the justification, was surely the least of them. In fact, by far the most terroristic activities related to the Turkish invasion, misleadingly codenamed ‘Operation Olive Branch’, were carried out by Turkish-allied FSA forces and reputedly, ex-IS fighters recruited by Turkey. These militants have seized and looted houses and farms during the Afrin occupation, and have permanently set up residence in the region, as per Erdogan’s strategy.
According to the UN, as of March 2018 up to 167,000 people had been displaced by the invasion. Atrocities committed by Turkish-allied militants during the operation include the mutilation of a female corpse, accompanied by misogynistic language, and the propogation of this event on social media. Members of NATO, including the UK and the USA could in general rely on the mainstream international media not to jeopardise their strategic relationships with Turkey by telling the horrific truth of ‘Operation Olive Branch’. In the case of the UK, Theresa May and her government would not want lucrative arms deals with Turkey to be disturbed. Indeed, Turkey’s operation was partly armed by the UK.
The Kurds present in the administration of the northern Syrian Federation, the governing body known as TEV-DEM, are democratically elected by the people of the region. In general these Kurds have strong ideological links to the PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been locked up in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison since 1999. Despite some association which is likely between some PKK members in Turkey and members of the YPG in Syria, historically the PKK has not been active in Syria. The wholesale identification of the PKK with the YPG, partly used by president Erdogan as an excuse to attack the YPG in Afrin, is unjustified. Since the beginning of the internal conflicts in Syria in 2011, the region of Afrin has been comparatively peaceful. The invasion of earlier this year is best summarised as imperialist expansion and the transference of domestic problems to nearby foreign territories. Kurdish-majority Afrin has been publicly redefined by president Erdogan as (mainly Sunni) ‘Arab-majority Afrin’, which includes the resettlement of non-Turkish fighters loyal to Turkey.
To reiterate and expand, there is no reason to trust the Turkish government’s stated motivations regarding policies towards Syria and indeed towards the people of Kurdistan in all four nation states of that region. Likewise, ‘TRT World’, the Turkish TV channel which has a presence on YouTube is widely regarded by independent observers to be a propaganda channel. This is despite its glossy presentation which can catch the average YouTube surfer unawares. Inside Turkey, the Turkish government has restricted press coverage of the Afrin invasion unless it is supportive. The France-based non-profit Reporters without Borders noted that the press was expected to be in ‘service of the government and its war goals’. According to Wikipedia:
‘hundreds of individuals have been detained for demonstrating against the operation. Over 800 social media users and nearly 100 politicians and journalists have been detained for criticizing the operation. Turkish authorities have also arrested numerous leaders and high-ranking members of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political parties.’
The silence of the international press
The international press has remained relatively silent about the invasion of Afrin. Indeed, I would not have been inspired to write this piece had I not read the online Independent article ‘While the world looks to Eastern Ghouta, civilians in Afrin are being slaughtered in their hundreds by Turkish forces’ (9 March 2018).
President Assad’s attacks on Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, during February and April of 2018 received significant international press attention and were condemned by most member states of the UN, including the USA and the UK. This was apparently because of the sheer horror of the Syrian government offensive. The attacks targeted civilian infrastructures, including hospitals, and resulted in a death toll of over 1700, including many children, and living conditions for besieged residents resembling ‘hell on Earth’ according to the UN Secretary General.
The invasion of Afrin was similarly marked by atrocity and the bombing of civilian families, not just Kurds but Arab refugees. Atrocities included the indiscriminate shooting by Turkish border guards of refugees trying to escape into Turkey. Although the civilian death toll has been less than in Ghouta –reportedly between 300 and 500- the stark contrast in attitude of the ‘international community’ of nation states is clear. The attitude has been silence, or even support, with Theresa May the UK premier saying that she supported ‘Turkey’s rights to secure its borders.’
The Independent notes, ‘the greatest difference between the two situations is that the atrocities in Damascus are publicised by the media across the world, while in the Kurdish case they are regarded as scarcely worth a mention.’ Media corporations such as the BBC failed monumentally. Although it was clearly politically inconvenient for UN member states to criticise the Turkish invasion, it is worth speculating that there was a deeper tacit support from all nation states, precisely because the Kurdish model of Democratic Confederalism ideologically challenges the authority of centralised governments.
The Independent concludes its article with ‘in many respects, the role of the international media in the Syrian war has been as partial and misleading as the warring parties inside the country or their foreign sponsors without.’ I would go further and suggest that the general hypocrisy of the mainstream media, both national and international, is and always has been a key feature of national and international politics, and is necessary for nation states to maintain and justify their territories and competition with other nation states –perhaps even to justify their very existence. I do not argue for the erasing of all national borders here, but simply describe the forces at play. This nation state hypocrisy is precisely why Abdullah Ocalan developed the anti-state ideas of Murray Bookchin as a potential solution to ‘The Kurdish Question’. However, as long as there are independent and democratic media outlets, especially those open to independent reporters and writers, there is hope that the perspectives of the mainstream media can be corrected and challenged.
The ongoing crisis in Afrin district and surrounding areas
As I write in mid-May 2018, the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion of Afrin is ongoing. Of course, the official end of the military operation in late March was not the end of the suffering of the people of Afrin. Accessibility of the displaced people of Afrin to international aid agencies is improving, but tens of thousands remain displaced. Their movement is restricted by lack of accommodation, lack of medicinal supplies and the continuation of kidnappings and purportedly, killings of Afrin citizens. These are carried out by armed insurgents broadly affiliated with Turkey, reportedly for ‘crimes’ of being either associated with the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of the Democratic Federation, or being associated with the national Syrian government.
We can thank a relatively democratic internet –although that is under threat- and web-based independent media outlets, for continuing to address a great deal of confused, imbalanced or skewed information, whether in Syria or elsewhere. This age of the internet may be the time of the best opportunity that humanity has yet had during its civilizational history, to overcome the interests of powerful political and media elites, for citizens themselves to represent this world of citizens.
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