Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict:  What is behind Operation Olive Branch?

By Noelle Iati
Noelle is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

In all likelihood, the person reading this could not point to Rojava on a map, and has probably never even heard that name. You would be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava, this place of which you have never heard, were among America’s most important allies in the struggle against the Islamic State. You might also be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava have been under an unprovoked attack by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed jihadist auxiliaries for nearly two years. What, you might wonder, is so offensive about the people of Rojava? The answer: they’re Kurdish.

Formally known as the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, Rojava has existed independently of Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical rule since its three cantons declared independence in 2014, growing to encompass all of the Al-Hasakah governorate and the better parts of the Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, and Deir ez-Zor governorates of Syria, including the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, Qamishli, Al-Hasakah, Kobane, and Afrin. The region has historically made up the western part of Kurdistan, and today represents the hope of self-determination for the Kurdish people. Despite its emphasis on democracy, human rights, and gender equality—Rojava has already outlawed torture and the death penalty (leagues ahead of neighboring states), and it would be an understatement to say that women play an important role in Rojava’s government and judicial system—Rojava is not formally recognized as a state by any democratic world power for fear of the political repercussions of the move, and therefore has no power on the world stage and little access to foreign aid. While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that act as the military arms of the region have been able to protect it from the Islamic State and the administration has also for the most part been able to stave off al-Assad’s government, its invasion by Turkey–that one you’ve never heard of–could defeat the fledgling democratic utopia.

The Republic of Turkey also contains the northern portion of Kurdistan, and has done its best to suppress Turkish Kurds (Kurdish language in Turkey is heavily restricted, Kurdish schools and cultural institutions have been shut down, and Turkey has removed scores of Kurdish intellectuals, reporters, authors, and other professionals). Like so many of the ethnic conflicts plaguing the Middle East, the “Kurdish problem” in Turkey can be traced back to the Treaty of Sèvres and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Before World War I, the Kurdish people were allowed to move around their ancestral homeland with relative freedom as one of many cultural groups living under Ottoman rule. After the war, the Allies divided the Ottoman Empire into several sections, attempting to diminish Ottoman power (and further European imperialist interests). While a unified Kurdistan was envisioned in treaty negotiations, the Allies were entirely unequipped to be making such complicated identity-based decisions for former subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and though they kept most of Kurdistan together, they placed it inside the new state of Turkey and excluded the parts of Kurdistan in what became Syria, Iran, and Iraq

Since then, the independence movement among Kurdish people has been strong, while they have remained a mistreated minority group in each state of which they are a part. Recent independence movements in Iraq and Syria have been successful, with the Kurdistan region of Iraq operating almost entirely autonomously within the Iraqi state and Rojava developing as an autonomous Kurdish region. This puts Turkey in a difficult position as the pro-Kurdish militia group connected to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK, considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and much but not all of the West) fights a guerrilla war against Turkish forces and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, gains seats in Turkey’s parliament. The existence of Rojava right across Turkey’s southern border threatens Turkish hegemony while emboldening the PKK and Kurdish nationalist movements. 

Enter: Operation Olive Branch. Following the American proposal to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border with soldiers Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG and YPJ, the Turkish military launched an unprovoked attack on the district of Afrin, Rojava’s northwesternmost enclave. Turkey, contrary to its NATO allies, considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization with connections to the PKK in Turkey as a Kurdish nationalist militia. Therefore, the mere idea of such an organization patrolling its border as a protective measure against the Islamic State is, to Turkey, completely unacceptable. Ultimately, though, Turkey’s explanations for its assault on Afrin amount to misrepresentations of the truth at best, and at worst outright lies that many believe are intended to mask Turkey’s true motivation of destroying the autonomous Kurdish region of Syria.

This post is part one of two on the situation in the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. In the next post, Turkey’s deplorable human rights violations in Afrin and beyond will be exposed and the world response to these violations analyzed.

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