The all-out war against the peoples of Kurdistan can be illustrated by what is happening in the small canton of Afrin in Rojava (the Kurdish region of Syria). After the beginning of the massive protests against the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the framework of the so-called Arab Spring, the Kurdish people in the area, who have a long tradition of struggle in defence of their rights denied by the state, declared the autonomy of their land in 2012.
This happened because of several factors. Firstly, because of the clandestine but constant work of the militants of the Kurdistan Liberation Movement in the area, who kept the flame of struggle burning despite the repression of the regime. Secondly, because the most organised sectors of Rojava quickly and concretely formed the YPG/YPJ (People’s and Women’s Protection Units) self-defence militias to protect their lands. Thirdly, because in the face of the crisis caused by the emergence of various jihadist and terrorist groups throughout Syria (especially Al-Qaeda), the armed forces under the control of the Syrian state practically withdrew from Rojava to defend other parts of the country’s geography, This allowed the YPG/YPJ to advance and liberate towns and villages, while a self-government began to take shape that from the outset sought to bring together all the components of the area, be they Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians or Turkmen, and of different religions, such as Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis.
Afrin is one of the seven cantons that make up the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES). The region consists of around 380 villages and towns and is located 40 kilometres from the city of Aleppo, Syria’s economic capital. The canton is divided into seven districts and the area has large olive plantations due to its mountainous and valley geography. The land is also fertile for fruit and vegetable production, making it a small granary within Rojava.
The illegal occupation of Afrin took place between 16 and 18 March. Two months earlier, Turkish planes began massive bombing raids on the region. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – made up of the YPG/YPJ and other militias – initially resisted the attacks, but their military capabilities were too weak to withstand the air raids.
Russia and the US, which control the area’s airspace, did nothing. Moscow, because of its loose but always profitable alliance with Ankara. The US, which has troops in the area, justified itself by saying that its forces were only fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
Since the Turkish-backed jihadist and mercenary groups invaded Afrin, they have been responsible for a series of crimes of all kinds: the rape and murder of women, the kidnapping of villagers for ransom, the usurpation of property, the forcible expulsion of the original inhabitants, the plundering of cultural and archaeological heritage, the illegal construction of buildings and infrastructure, and the “Turkification” of education. This last point, added to the above list, forms a systematic plan denounced by AANES as the implementation of a profound “demographic change” in Afrin.
It is estimated that at least 300,000 people were forcibly displaced during the two months of bombing and subsequent illegal occupation of the region. In response to this situation, AANES set up refugee camps to receive the contingents of people who had fled.
In August 2018, the news agency Firat News published an extensive report on the situation in Afrin, where some 500,000 people displaced from across Syria during nearly seven years of civil war have taken refuge. The investigation, entitled “Cultural Annihilation and Demographic Change in Afrin”, confirmed that “a tragedy of Dantesque proportions is unfolding in this region, rich in agriculture and fresh water, before the silence of the world”.
“Torture, murder, rape, destruction of cultural heritage and annihilation of villages are part of the strategies of the Turkish occupiers and their terrorist allies,” the report said. It also detailed that the demographic change in the region is one of the main objectives of the occupiers. “Instead of the population that had to flee Afrin, FSA (Free Syrian Army, an ally of Ankara) militiamen and their families from Eastern Ghouta were settled in the region thanks to an agreement with Russia. There are about 41,000 people who are part of this agreement and have been settled in Afrin, although the process is not yet complete”.
Four years into the illegal occupation of Afrin, the Afrin Human Rights Organisation (ODHA) revealed that the Kurdish population in the canton has shrunk from 95 per cent to 15-25 per cent since the invasion began. This is the result of a ‘systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and demographic change’, they denounced.
Other ODHA figures show what the Turkish invasion of Afrin means: by 2022, a total of 676 civilians had been killed and more than 700 injured by mercenary shelling and torture. The latter include 303 children and 210 women. ODHA also recorded a systematic increase in femicides: 84 women were killed by the mercenaries, six of whom died after being raped.
One of the big businesses of the occupiers is kidnapping: since 20 January 2018, when the Turkish bombardment began, 8,328 people have been kidnapped. According to ODHA, the whereabouts of 35% of the kidnapped are unknown. In these four years, 1,000 women have been abducted by the occupying forces. Regarding the demographic change, ODHA noted that from the time of the Turkish invasion until last year, between 400,000 and 500,000 people were transferred from other countries to settle in Afrin.
By 2023, the situation in Afrin was no different. A simple example illustrates this: between 3 and 31 October, the Turkish state and its mercenary groups were responsible for at least 275 attacks on 55 localities in the Kurdish canton and in Shehba, an area in the north of Aleppo province where many of the displaced people from Afrin are located.
Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is not unique. In Rojava, Ankara-backed mercenary forces also control the areas of Al Bab, Gire Spî and Serêkaniye, all of which have been taken from their original peoples and governed by AANES.
“Every attack (war) is a gesture of appropriation, the clearest sense of which is conquest, which immediately unleashes a new territorial dynamic, reorganises society, arranges for the suppression of some social relations and the installation of others. War produces and installs the dispossession of the majorities. It is a founding dispossession,” writes the Chilean anthropologist Rodrigo Ruiz Encina in his text La guerra contra los pobres (y los pobres contra la guerra) [The war against the poor (and the poor against the war)]. In just a few lines, Ruiz Encina’s reflection sums up the ultimate objective that the Turkish state is pursuing not only in Afrin, but in the whole of Kurdistan, a territory inhabited by more than 40 million people who have been denied their rights for (at least) 100 years.
Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the “new state”, heir to the Ottoman Empire, has had as its official policy the denial of minorities. The Armenian genocide is the most concrete historical fact, but the massacres of Assyrians and Kurds also became the cornerstone of a state that, over the decades, continues to reproduce a repressive policy that seems to matter to very few.
In this systematic plan of denial and repression, Turkey reinforces its actions against Kurdish women. For the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, revolution, independence, democracy and autonomy for the Kurdish people must come hand in hand with women, as they consider women to be the subject of change. This was made clear by the movement’s top leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned on the island prison of İmralı in Turkey’s Sea of Marmara since 1999. Öcalan was the driving force behind the liberation of Kurdish women and coined the saying “kill the dominant male” that all men carry inside them. In his reflections, writings and books, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) considered that without the liberation of women, the liberation of society is not possible.
Öcalan’s thinking – who in his Manifesto for a Democratic Society (divided into five volumes) analyses history from the creation of Sumerian civilisation to a present day controlled by what he calls “capitalist modernity” – has points of contact with the praxis of the Italian writer Silvia Federici.
In the book Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women, Federici notes that “there seems to be a particular relationship between the dismantling of community regimes and the demonisation of some members of the communities concerned that turns witch-hunting into an effective instrument of social and economic privatisation”. If we change the term “witches” to “Kurdish women”, the horror scenario that Turkey turned Afrin into could be extrapolated to Europe centuries ago. Federici adds that in the war against all forms of popular power, women were a danger to the local and national power structure. In the book, the feminist writer researches and reflects on “English enclosures and, in general, the development of agrarian capitalism from the late 15th century onwards in Europe”, although the relevance of her descriptions and analysis could be extrapolated to Afrin and the other areas occupied by Turkey in Rojava. Federici talks about enclosing land, but also knowledge, bodies and relationships with other people and with nature. And that is what is happening in Afrin.
Not only were the women who inhabited the Kurdish canton expelled from their land, but the Turkish state applied (and still applies) a policy of massive tree felling and theft of olive production, which it then markets to Europe. In addition to the murder and rape of women, the jihadists and mercenaries who answer to Ankara (many of whom are ex-ISIS) have decreed the wearing of clothing according to their orthodox interpretation of Islam, as well as changing the names of institutions and the signage of the place – which was in Kurdish and Arabic before the occupation – to Turkish.
Today, Rojava is under continuous attack by Turkey. Bombs fall daily on towns and villages. The Turkish state is strengthening its war policy in Kurdistan, whether in the southeast of the country (Bakur, Turkish Kurdistan), in northern Iraq (Bashur, Iraqi Kurdistan) or in the autonomous region of northern Syria. At the same time, the Turkish government, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, extends its armed arms to Libya (where it sends mercenaries) and to embrace its partner Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
The deep Turkish state has had a demarcated plan for decades: on the one hand, to return to the splendour of the Ottoman Empire, extending its territorial and political control; on the other hand, to intensify repression against ethnic minorities inside and outside Turkey. In this case, the Kurdish people are the main target due to their long history of resistance, especially that led by the broad Kurdistan Liberation Movement, which brings together political-military organisations, legal political parties, civil associations, women’s groups, cultural spaces and the defence of the mother tongue.
Rodrigo Ruiz Encina writes: “How to stop this war against the poor? To think from below is, here, to think the war beyond the war, to destabilise the verticalist concepts that organise its understanding and to ask ourselves about the production of the actors of history, those that classical ideas assume to be pre-constituted”. In Rojava, despite the war of aggression that the territory is suffering, “from below” is a utopia that is being built day by day: From the constitution of AANES, through the system of co-presidencies in all leadership positions (one man and one woman) and autonomous women’s spaces to armed self-defence and education in native languages (Kurdish, Arabic, Aramaic and Armenian), the political and social project in Rojava is developing between the pain of the beloved dead and the hopes of total liberation.
In 1984, Kurdish filmmaker Yılmaz Güney gave a speech at the Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebration on 21 March in Paris, France, in which he summed up the journey of his people. His words resonate today in every breast of the men and women of Kurdistan: “Our hands must know how to handle the pen, the machine and the weapon. We know well that if we use the best songs and the right words in the right way, they will speak like a bullet. Our mountains, plains and rivers are waiting for us. We do not want to spend our lives abroad singing songs of exile. We are a people whose bravery has created epics and we have the determination and strength to overcome all the difficulties before us. The Turkish, Persian and Arab revolutionary democrats are part of this struggle and fight against the common enemy as firm defenders of the Kurdish nation’s right to self-determination. The solidarity of the oppressed classes is one of the most powerful weapons we have. Let friends and enemies alike know that we will win; we will certainly win.”
*Leandro Albani is an Argentinean journalist with a specialisation in the Middle East and Maghreb. He is the author of several books, among them Revolution in Kurdistan (2014) and ISIS: The Army of Terror (2016).