The agitation I felt last night after hearing Erdoğan’s explicit threats against the Autonomous Region in North and East Syria wasn’t only triggered by that news in itself, but also by the long stream of disinformation and dangerous framing that is being spread. Either the local perspective is unknown or has not been taken into account. When you look from the perspective of people who are under threat, the situation can be better understood.
Let me focus on three insightful misperceptions.
Someone said there had been ‘relative calm’ ever since 2018 and 2019, that is, since Turkey’s previous invasion and occupations of Afrin in northwest Syria and then Girespî (Tell Abyad) and Serekaniye (Ras al-Ayn) and the land in between, east of the Euphrates. Relative calm, yes, for observers abroad who just focus on the geopolitical balances between the US and Turkey, Turkey and Russia, NATO, and Turkey, and maybe a pinch of the ISIS thread.
On the ground, there is no ‘relative calm’. Thousands of people, who had lived in genuine calm throughout most of the Syrian war because the Autonomous Administration (the AANES, or Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) provided it and the YPG and SDF (People’s Protection Units) protected it, have seen their lives unravel. They were displaced, their homes looted and confiscated, their olive groves destroyed, or their olives stolen, they were abducted, murdered, raped. Their hometowns ravaged by jihadist gangs, Turkey’s mercenaries who were fighting each other, making the lands they occupied bandit holes. The freedom to live your culture and abide by your religion curtailed.
Not their job
One ‘expert’ said that ‘both sides had escalated the conflict’. Although most people who know what they are talking about know very well that the aggression comes only from one side -just as the aggression in Ukraine comes from only one side, and not from the Ukrainians- there is still a perception that the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and YPG and YPJ are military forces that Turkey has ‘legitimate security concerns’ about. These concerns are not legitimate: these groups are not involved in attacks against Turkey and no cross-border operations are carried out from North and East Syria into Turkey. The YPG/J and SDF really have other things on their minds, and it’s not in their ‘kar’- not their job.
Their task is to protect the Autonomous Administration. It would be great if an international outlet pointed that out. They are not about grabbing territory, they are not about attacking, they are about defence. What they protect and defend is an experiment with grassroots democracy, a form of self-governance that evolves around respect for the diversity that defines the whole Middle East when it comes to ethnicities, religions, and languages. It is called democratic confederalism and it is a model that is not only aimed at giving freedom to Kurds, but freedom to all. When they implement that model in Arab-majority areas, like Raqqa or Minbij, the aim is not to impose Kurdish rule, but to set up self-rule for and by the locals.
An ideological father
A persistent misconception is also that the PKK and the YPG are the same, and the SDF along with it. But it’s not complicated: The PKK is at war with the Turkish state, is based in the mountains in the north of Iraq alongside the Turkish and Iranian border. The YPG and SDF are based in Syria and are defending the lands as mentioned above.
That they exchange fighters, doesn’t mean they are the same. When you are a fighter dedicated to the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan (who is the ideological father of democratic confederalism), you can have ‘kar’, a task, anywhere that those forces are active. When you are in Qandil along the Iranian border and are transferred to, say, Qamislo in Syria, your task changes with your relocation. You are no longer fighting Turkey, but defending the autonomous region, fighting ISIS, and helping defend the lands against the Turkish army when it invades.
Knowing all this helps you understand better what is going on, and what Erdoğan is planning. Erdoğan hates self-governance, Erdoğan hates democracy, Erdoğan is scared of forces that are deconstructing power. That he wants to implement a ‘safe zone’ is rhetoric that many international analysts repeat, but please, let’s not use that expression. Any land where the Turkish state appears, cannot be a ‘safe zone’, but only becomes a danger zone. Turkey (and not just Erdoğan; all parties except HDP support these policies) wants to relocate millions of Syrian refugees there.
‘Voluntarily’, he keeps repeating, but there is no such thing. Only a few days ago in The Hague I talked to some Syrians who had just arrived in Europe from Istanbul and let me tell you: Syrians in Turkey are scared to go out on the street, not just because of increasing violence against them, but also because it’s very hard for them to get residency papers and they could be transported back to their homeland if they are caught without the right documents. They are scared of returning to the land where dictator Assad reigns, and rightly so.
Turkish occupation is bad for Syrians in Syria, and for Syrians in Turkey. And for the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious fabric of societies living in the autonomous regions now. The Syrians in Turkey will be used to change the demography of the region, undermining the safety not just of Kurds, but of Armenians, Syriacs, Yezidis and Turkmen as well.
This is what’s at stake. NATO may want to appease Turkey to keep it on board in the war against Putin, but it forgets it has a Putin in its midst, a fascist, irredentist, militarist, blood thirsty dictator. And NATO is complicit. Those are the facts analysis need to be built on.