Residents of Manbij and Tell Rifaat can now go to bed at night with less fear of waking to a full-scale Turkish invasion, but the alternative society that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is trying to create remains under existential threat. At the beginning of last week, a journalist close to the Turkish government was writing about a planned invasion in July, after Eid-al-Adha; but at the eighteenth meeting on the future of Syria held by Russia, Turkey and Iran, which took place last Wednesday and Thursday, it became clear that Russia would not be clearing their bases to make way for the promised Turkish attack.
The joint statement put out by the meeting also reiterated opposition to what it termed “illegitimate self-rule initiatives” – meaning the Autonomous Administration – and “separatist agendas in the east of the Euphrates aimed at undermining the unity of Syria as well as threatening the national security of neighbouring countries”. This wording makes a nod to Turkey’s unsubstantiated claim that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are a threat to Turkey. If Turkey’s aim was really, as they state, simply to protect themselves from this imagined danger, then they would be content with the prospect of the area returning under Syrian government control, and even be able to spin this as a victory. However, this would mean giving up on their neo-Ottoman dreams of a greater Turkey.
And the joint statement conveniently ignores Turkey’s previous invasions, and doesn’t address the problem of the areas under Turkish occupation and under control of brutal and competing mercenary militias. There have been reports of clashes between rival groups, with civilian casualties, and of Al-Qaeda-derived Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) taking over territory in occupied Afrîn.
On its part, the Autonomous Administration has always stressed that it is not, in fact, demanding separation – rather setting a democratic model that could be extended to the whole of Syria. However, this is not the sort of Syria envisaged by President Assad and his Russian backers. The joint Russian/Turkish/Iranian statement also condemns the role of the United States, without explicitly naming them. Ultimately, the Autonomous Administration will have to come to an agreement with Damascus and will need to use the support they get from the US to strengthen their bargaining position, but the US has done little to help them in this. They have not even enabled them to get official recognition and a seat at international talks in Geneva on their own future.
Turkey’s assassinations in Iraq
Meanwhile, Turkey continues with their invasion operations in the Iraqi mountains and their low-level war of attrition in Syria and in other parts of Iraq. On Wednesday, the Yazidis in Şengal, in northwest Iraq, again found themselves in Turkey’s crosshairs, when a drone targeted a local council building, killing a twelve-year-old boy and his grandfather in his father’s shop and seriously injuring other family members. Turkey aims to destroy the self-administration that has been painstakingly built up by the Yazidis who survived the ISIS genocide of 2014. The Turkish military have carried out targeted assassinations of leading figures and generated a level of insecurity that makes other Yazidi survivors afraid to return to their homeland.
The Yazidi self-administration follows the political philosophy of Abdulla Öcalan, and Turkey claims that this makes them terrorists. When civilians get hit, Turkey attempts to shift the blame to the Yazidi leaders, arguing that without their “terrorism” Turkey would not need to bomb. Foreign governments have no sympathy for what the self-administration is trying to achieve, and NATO members won’t criticise Turkey. Both the United States and the United Nations condemned the killing of a child without mentioning that this was done by Turkey. UNICEF made a vague appeal to “all parties” to protect children, though no other “party” was involved. The US State Department simply tweeted about “Yezidi civilian casualties” – casualties of what?
On Friday, a Turkish drone carried out a targeted assassination in another part of Iraq, near Slemani. The target this time was a member of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, who was there for medical treatment and talks. He was killed along with three comrades, and another person in their car was injured. Although there is no possible legal justification for such an attack, international organisations have been silent – as have the governments of Iraq and of Iraqi Kurdistan. Firat News Agency points out that the airspace is controlled by the United States, which must have given their consent – despite calling the Autonomous Administration their allies.
NATO and the Turkish veto
Other international talks continue over Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications, where Turkey continues to try and force the Nordic countries to imitate the Turkish treatment of Kurdish “terrorists” in exchange for allowing them to join. NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, has reiterated his uncritical support for Turkey and what he calls Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns”. At a joint press conference with the Swedish Prime Minister on Monday we learnt that Sweden is changing its terrorism legislation and rules for arms export. For its part, Turkey seems determined to hold out for maximum concessions – even for a year if necessary.
Suppression of Turkish opposition
At home in Turkey, President Erdoğan continues to prepare for the forthcoming elections by hobbling the opposition. On Sunday 12 June, people attempted to join a march to Gemlik to protest against Öcalan’s isolation in prison. Gemlik is the place where the boat leaves for Imrali, the prison island on which he is held, but no one was allowed to reach there. In Istanbul, fifty people were detained, and two of these were remanded in custody on Monday. MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) tried to protest to the police over the blocking of the Istanbul march, and one, Saliha Aydeniz, now faces charges of “resisting the police” and “insulting and injuring a public official”. Erdoğan, who clearly doesn’t feel the need to pretend to non-interference in the judiciary, has stated, “She will pay the price of this action in front of the law. We will quickly remove her [parliamentary] immunity and show that people like her can’t live under this roof.”
Last Tuesday, pro-government demonstrators outside the HDP headquarters in Ankara were protected by the police as they threatened HDP members. That morning had also seen more house raids and detentions of HDP members and journalists. Of the twenty journalists arrested on 8th June, sixteen have been remanded in custody – after spending eight days in limbo. The investigation against them is said to be based on a “secret witness”. And the university professor who established an independent research group to calculate Turkey’s inflation – and showed it to be more than twice the official figure – is facing disciplinary proceedings from his university.
The oppression of dissident voices is expected to get even worse. On Wednesday, the Turkish Parliament’s Justice Committee passed a bill that will bring in three-year prison sentences for “spreading disinformation.” This vaguely defined law will make it easier for the government to silence and punish its critics.
The resistance goes on
Despite the repression and despite the risks, the resistance goes on, and protestors refuse to be silent. Last week 775 lawyers from 29 bar associations applied to visit Öcalan and the three other prisoners held on Imrali Island, where, against domestic and international law, there has been an almost total ban on lawyer’s visits since 2011. The last time Öcalan met his lawyers was after a massive hunger strike of prisoners and others in 2019, and there has been no communication allowed at all since March 2021. European lawyers have also put in visitor applications in solidarity.
International demonstrations on Saturday 11 June against Turkeys invasions included a march in Slemani, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, by opposition activists determined to show resistance to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s compliance in Turkeys invasion of their region. The protestors were met with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The campaign for delisting the PKK
As a counter to Turkey’s bullying anti-Kurd diplomacy, campaigners continue to gather support for the removal of the PKK from terrorism lists and for a negotiated response to the Kurdish Question. Millions of Kurds across the world demand a peaceful political solution and give their full support to the PKK as the organisation that is fighting for this. In Sweden, Rojava Solidarity Committees projected PKK symbols on key buildings in Stockholm in defence of freedom of expression and in protest at Erdoğan’s attempt to force Sweden to criminalise free speech in line with Turkish rules. The call to delist the PKK is supported by international politicians and lawyers, and it was good to see it raised by Tommy Sheppard MP at the 11 June demonstration in Edinburgh. In Finland, the Left Alliance – a small party but part of the ruling coalition – has responded to Turkey’s bullying with its own call for delisting. For any politician who does not want to be complicit in Turkish oppression and aggression, this is the answer.