Is it smart of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retaliate against Turkey across the border? Shouldn’t they retaliate against Turkish targets inside Syria, to circumvent the possibility that Turkey will use the retaliations as proof that the SDF attacks them? It’s yet another example of how the Kurdish struggle – armed and unarmed – is often expected to adjust to other peoples’ perceptions and lies. While that is exactly the game the Kurds refuse to join.
Earlier this month, the SDF started to retaliate against Turkish drone attacks and shellings of both civilians and fighters. The SDF targeted, among others, armoured vehicles in Mardin Province. This week, they retaliated again with actions against military targets in Mardin, Antep and Urfa Provinces. According to the SDF, several dozen Turkish soldiers died as a result. The Turkish press has, as far as I have seen, only reported one operation and declared that one soldier died.
This does not mean that the SDF is in any way a ‘threat’ to Turkey. What it means is that the SDF will defend itself and the people living under their protection against the war crimes of the Turkish army. In the ten years that the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) and Women’s Protection Forces (YPJ) and later the SDF have been functioning in north and northeast Syria, they have focused on exactly that: fighting assorted jihadist groups trying to occupy and terrorise the people. They only turn against Turkey when Turkey attacks, like in early 2018 in Afrin, and like now. If Russia and the US are not willing to stop Turkey from committing war crimes, and allow it to murder from a distance, then the SDF has no other option left than to act.
Why inside Turkey? Well, why not? Because it will give Turkey just what it needs to justify its attacks agains the SDF? Turkey has been lying about the SDF for many years, and you just can’t adjust any of your policies to Erdoğan’s manipulations. You also can’t adjust to what governments of assorted countries will think, or to the possible assessment of analysts abroad who never touch Kurdish soil. The only compass you can follow to defend your people and protect your democratic experiment, is your own.
This is totally in line with the way the non-armed Kurdish political movement in Turkey is functioning. They call it the ‘third way’. They don’t join this or that alliance, they don’t cosy up to one side or the other to manipulate a political opponent into doing this or that, they focus on their own political goals. Their goal is radically different than the goals of other political parties: getting into power is not their ultimate objective, but breaking down patriarchal structures of power so that real democracy, rooted in local communities, can start to blossom.
An excellent example of this was the general election of June 2015 in Turkey. In the months before the elections, there were wild speculations about the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) making some kind of deal with Erdoğan: if the HDP supported Erdoğan’s bid to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential system, the HDP would get concessions on Kurdish rights. The peace process was rapidly unraveling at the time and was basically already over by the spring of 2015, but assorted pundits thought the HDP would save the situation by making some kind of deal with Erdoğan.
Until the HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş spoke his now historic words, directed at Erdoğan: “We will not make you president,” and repeated them a couple of times. Then the HDP scored better than any party rooted in the Kurdish political movement had ever done, robbing the AKP of its majority in parliament. Erdoğan was angry, started a fully-fledged war again and jailed Demirtaş and many other HDP politicians. Should Demirtaş not have spoken those words? Should he have made some kind of a deal with Erdoğan and had he done so, would the situation be better now?
But of course, Demirtaş didn’t make a mistake. The HDP doesn’t want some kind of half-baked deal with a bloodthirsty authoritarian in exchange for some shallow rights that are not rooted in a new constitution and can easily be robbed from the people again when the political dynamics change. They want a real solution to the Kurdish issue, they want real democratisation for the whole of Turkey. Exchanging the parliamentary system for a few years of, say, bad Kurdish language education in only a handful of schools because there aren’t enough qualified teachers, would be a betrayal of everything they stand for.
Keep that in mind for next year’s general elections. And also keep that in mind when you watch the actions of the SDF, be they retaliations against Turkey or defence against a possible new Turkish incursion into Syrian lands. And it’s exactly because of their principled stance and clear vision that they have become an important factor to be reckoned with.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.