When Cities of Hope are Surrounded: Turkey’s Desire to Destroy Syria’s Kurds
Since the sudden announcement made by Trump to withdraw US troops from Rojava / Northern Syria, the Kurds have faced a period of intense uncertainty. We have watched political events unfold with mounting confusion, anger, and shock, as the international community continues to pay lip service to protecting the Kurds from Turkish incursion. Trump justified his increased links to Turkey and the sudden announcement to withdraw from Syria by stating that ISIS was essentially defeated. This was despite the fact that many of the young Kurdish men and women within the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were still engaged in fierce clashes against ISIS in Syria.
As Kurds we were haunted once again by the Kurdish saying “we have no friends but the mountains”. The US decision to withdraw from Syria is made all the more painful as more dead young bodies return from the front lines against ISIS and fill our graveyards.
Worse, so soon after the traumatic loss of Afrin to Turkish terrorism and its allied jihadists, Rojava now faces another existential threat with Turkey making loud calls for an invasion to eradicate the Kurds. To do this, Turkey has collected thousands of jihadists, including ex-ISIS members and al-Qaeda, as was the case in the January 2018 invasion and occupation of the Afrin canton.
The threat of the invasion and massacre of the people of Rojava by Turkey and allied jihadists is more than the loss of a city. It represents an attempt to destroy a nascent radical democracy, dismantle its ground-breaking gender liberation ideology, and is an effort to continue to promote the same old, tribal mentality of decades-long inter-ethnic and religious hatred. As Kurds we have made specific efforts to promote peace and stability along ethnic and religious lines. The promotion of the concept of Democratic Confederalism, created by the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been taken seriously in Rojava, and new institutions, laws, and systems have been implemented along with a heavy emphasis on promotion of civil society organization, communes, and grassroots democratic practices.
But these academic terms do not truly capture the nature of what has occurred in Rojava since 2012. It does not capture the scope of immense sacrifices. It does not tell you of the brave revolutionary commander Abu Layla and his final loving letter to his 6 year old daughter shortly before he was killed fighting to liberate Manbij from ISIS and his wish for her to live in a better, more peaceful world.
It does not capture the hope-filled cries of liberation and freedom by the car loads of young YPJ fighters going to the frontlines and how a nation’s heart beats with the drum of their revolutionary songs.
It does not show the faces of the people who died fighting, not on the frontlines, but in the civilian areas building democratic mechanisms, holding council meetings, educating society about civic responsibility, while also ensuring women’s right to be free from honor killings, polygamy, and forced marriages.
They do not capture the heart of a people who have a chance to live peacefully, to build their homes, live on their land and plant pomegranate, olive and pistachio trees, have their children educated without fear, or to access healthcare without discrimination based on ethnic or religious lines.
This week it emerged that Turkey has made Turkish the main language to be taught in schools around Afrin.
All of this and more is being threatened by a Turkish invasion, carried out by local and international jihadists armed and supplied by Turkish weapons bought from NATO and EU members.
If the 2018 invasion of the Afrin region is any indicator, Turkey will flood Rojava’s peaceful cities currently engaging in post-war reconstruction with lootings, killings, rapes and kidnappings of women along the same ideological line as that of ISIS. It will engage in land grabs, ethnic cleansing of Kurds and other minorities, alongside Turkification processes. This week it emerged that Turkey has made Turkish the main language to be taught in schools around Afrin. This along with changing of Kurdish place names to Turkish, coincides with Turkey’s goal of removing Kurdish historical sites and monuments.
I reflect on these threats, as I receive messages from friends in Kobane, Manbij and Qamishli expressing fears of a Turkish invasion. I think of all the work we conducted in the Kobane Reconstruction Board rebuilding cities like Kobane, so that the displaced people and refugees could return to their homes. I reflect, often painfully, on the sacrifices made to rebuild Kobane. The weeks people went without water, the months without electricity, the hand removal of rubble littered with mines and dead booby-trapped ISIS bodies, the risks taken by fellow Kurds across the border in occupied Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey) to provide us with heavy machinery to rebuild a city in the image of hope and courage. I think of the children who died or were permanently maimed due to Turkey closing the border and imposing a humanitarian embargo so Rojava couldn’t receive lifesaving vaccinations. I think of the children who suffered malnutrition because we couldn’t import baby formula. The risks taken by hevals (comrades) to run across the border to bring in small parts of the machines that would break down during the years we were rebuilding.
They mock our sacred connection with the land by naming their invasions “operation olive branch”, while hinting at the idea that an olive branch will never be extended to the Kurds.
So many risks, sacrifices, and lives lost, so that others may have a chance at peace.
Reading the news daily, scanning the pages with concerned tired eyes, and constantly being confronted with the reasons why Turkey wishes to attack the Kurds in Rojava adds to our trauma. We are well aware of the hypocrisy of the international community to blame the Kurds of Rojava for daring to democratize and build institutions of peace, while they refuse to condemn and hold Turkey, NATO’s second largest army, from consistently refusing Kurdish rights, breaking peace accords, openly bombing Kurdish cities, invading, and massacring cowering civilians in basements, murdering old men, and traumatizing our children. They mock our sacred connection with the land by naming their invasions “operation olive branch”, while hinting at the idea that an olive branch will never be extended to the Kurds. We Kurds were born in an international system built on the blood and cries of the oppressed, victim-blaming the displaced, the raped, the murdered, while praising the oppressors, wearing the mantle of fascist xenophobia proudly, even as it uses double-speak to tell the oppressed that fascism is democracy and democracy is terrorism.
I remember visiting the city of Manbij shortly after it was liberated by YPG and YPJ. In the center roundabout of Manbij is a replica of a boat that was used by ISIS to behead dissenters who were widely seen as behaving un-Islamically. If the world only knew the rivers of blood that this boat had floated over and the lost spirits of the dead who still roam around it, forsaken in a world devoid of justice. Manbij, a city reeking of the putrid scent of unrefined oil, with hundreds of semi-trailers clogging her narrow streets. Manbij, that city whose women were so oppressed for years under ISIS, that they stared at my uncovered hair and tight jeans with awe and shock, as their facial expressions made my privileged body shrivel inside.
Manbij, the home of my friend Dineh, a 14 year-old girl who worked at a restaurant to support her family after being liberated from ISIS. Dineh, with the spring in her step and the sparkle in her eye, whose worth, if she only knew, should be a thousand Manbij’s. Dinah, who now faces hordes of ISIS jihadists backed, armed, and supported by Turkey—NATO’s rabid, diseased canine, forever hounding the Kurds in whichever miserable corner they should choose to seek safety.
Then there is Tel Abyad—called Gire Sipi (the white hill) by Kurds—with its large cage in the town square. A cage used by ISIS to terrorize and punish people who were not fasting during the month of Ramadan or smoking in public. The city is also lined with spiked gates, which had been impaling perches for the beheaded victims of ISIS. But Tel Abyad holds another crucial jewel within her wide-pathed streets: a border gate into Turkey. A border which, during the period of ISIS control had been left constantly open, allowing many merchants and ISIS militants from the small city to travel freely to and from Turkey. The open border policy had allowed many ISIS supporters within the city to become extremely wealthy, while others lived in a virtual prison within the city.
Later there was heval Azad, with his soft spoken and refined manner, who softened a city filled with potential terrorists and ISIS supporters into a prosperous, peaceful city filled with friendly faces. Heval Azad, who would pick us up from the Tel Abyad city center and make a 10 minute car ride last 30 minutes, because he would stop to say hello to every man, woman, and child, many whom would beam at the sight of him and adamantly insist on inviting him over for coffee or lunch. Azad, who inherited a war-torn city, riveted with more ethno-religious divisions than the bullet holes in the city walls used to liberate it. Azad took a city under attack by ISIS motorbike suicide attacks from Turkey, and turned it into one of the most peaceful and democratic parts of Rojava. Azad who after a year and a half of being in Tel Abyad left for another post in Qamishli, leaving dozens of sobbing Shiekhs and heads of tribes at the battered faded green door of the security office—as if this much younger man was the father of orphaned children who had experienced paternal love for the first time.
In occupied Afrin, Turkey and its allied jihadists are currently under investigation for the looting of Afrin olive oil used to fund terrorist activities and ethnic cleansing of people across the Northern Syria region. Like the destruction that Turkey and its allied jihadists wish to impose on Manbij, Tel Abyad and other areas of Northern Syria, the looting of the sacred Afrin groves is a reflection of the very denial of the existence of Kurdishness.
For the freedom loving Kurd, the cries of the sacred olive trees mingles with the sorrows of long oppressed minorities. Cries which seek a peace built on the drumbeat of love. A loving ideology that allows heval Azad to change an entire city and its mentality. A liberatory ideology that allows young Dinah to imagine and dream up a better world in which to grow into a young woman. An ideology that replaces their monuments of hatred into monuments of peace, multiculturalism and inclusiveness. Perhaps in the future that boat in Manbij will carry laughing children over clear blue waters, but that will depend on whether Turkey is allowed to spread death upon those who defeated ISIS and saved the West from ever having to pull their relatives heads off of fences.