Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict: Cultural Genocide in Afrin and International Silence

By Noelle Iati

Noelle is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

In my last post, I explained the reasons for the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Turkish interest in destroying the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. In this post, I explore the gross human rights violations committed by Turkish forces and their jihadist allies pursuing a cultural genocide in Afrin, the northwesternmost region of Rojava which borders Turkey, and the international response to these violations.

Turkey attacked the Rojava district of Afrin on January 20, 2018. After two months of fighting, Turkish forces captured Afrin city on March 23, 2018, officially concluding the “combat phase” of the operation. From the beginning of the attack, Turkish forces and their jihadist auxiliaries were accused of violating international humanitarian law protecting civilians in armed conflict. In the report from its February 25 to March 22, 2018 session, the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic highlighted potential war crimes committed by Turkish forces and their allies in Afrin, including the arbitrary killings of civilians by car bombs, landmines, and IEDs, kidnappings for ransom, pillaging of property, sexual harassment, and torture. The report also states concerns over Afrin residents’ reports of a lack of rule of law. Turkey, as an occupying power, was obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention to do everything in its power to prevent civilians from being caught in the crossfire during the conflict, and certainly was obligated to prevent the blatant abuse of civilians in the war zone. It has also been alleged that Turkey intentionally destroyed hospitals, religious buildings, and cultural heritage sites.

Unfortunately, the abuse did not end after Turkey captured Afrin. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey and Syria, and news outlets such as Kurdistan 24 and Politurco have all alleged the continued random killings of civilians, the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals (mostly Kurdish), the seizing, looting, and destruction of property belonging to Kurdish residents, and the arbitrary arrest, detention, forcible disappearance, and torture of Kurdish civilians. Following Afrin’s capture, roadblocks and checkpoints were instituted preventing humanitarian aid from reaching affected areas, while the only humanitarian services allowed in the area at all were those registered in Turkey. Meanwhile, the same roadblocks and checkpoints prevented many from leaving the war zone to access necessary medical care. Kurdish refugees were also blocked from receiving aid at the Serdem refugee camp.

While all of these abuses have targeted the Kurdish population of Afrin, perhaps the most telling indicators of Turkish intentions in the region have involved intentional demographic change and “Arabization” or “Turkification” of the area. Kurdish refugees returning home after the fighting in many cases found their homes occupied by Arab refugees from Eastern Ghouta or by soldiers and their families, while Turkish-backed jihadist rebel groups controlling Afrin have pushed for the forced displacement of the remaining Kurdish population. In the city of Afrin, road and place names have been changed from Kurdish to Arabic, including one square renamed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has already appointed its own teachers and civil servants and installed Turkish-language schools and mosques. In some cases, children have been exposed to the ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist Turkish “Grey Wolves” propaganda in their schools. In April of this year, Turkey started to build a concrete wall separating Afrin from the rest of Rojava.

Incredibly, despite extensive documentation of all of these abuses by international human rights and humanitarian organizations including the United Nations, the international community has remained mostly silent to these attacks on the peaceful and democratic Kurdish enclave. Despite Rojava’s focus on gender equality, human rights, and the democratic principles the West claims to stand on, it has utterly refused to defend Rojava from Turkey’s illegal attack, and most nations have not publicly condemned Turkey’s actions. Western media, especially the American press, has, for the most part, stayed silent on the issue has well. As President Donald Trump plans to pull American troops out of Syria entirely, Turkish-backed rebels have prepared to advance eastward toward the city of Manbij and to use the hefty advantage American withdrawal would give them to advance further east into Rojava. While President Trump has promised economic repercussions should Turkey attack Manbij and National Security Advisor John Bolton has claimed (independently of the President) that Americans would not pull out of Syria without assurances from Turkey that it would leave northern Syria to its Kurdish allies, Syrian Kurds worry about their ability to defend their home. As one of the most democratic regions in the war-torn Middle East, Kurds in Rojava wonder why the West, which claims to have gone to war in the Middle East to protect democracy for all, has refused to recognize Rojava or commit to protecting it from Turkey.

Western military presence in the Middle East is a complex issue mired in difficult questions about capitalist imperialism. But if the West claims to support self-determination, democracy, and human rights, then it cannot continue to stay silent on the issue of Kurdish independence or the efforts of the Turkish government to destroy the Kurdish political project.

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.