Kobanê holds a special place for Kurds and their supporters, and indeed for everyone who remembers the city’s pivotal role in turning the tide against ISIS. But this also makes it an especial target for Turkish aggression. There is no doubt that Turkey wants to invade and occupy this place that symbolises Kurdish resistance, however, for now, the US and Russia have made clear that they will not tolerate a further major attack. So, instead, President Erdoğan seems determined to test how far Turkey can go without these bigger imperial powers feeling the need to respond. Rene Tebel, in Geopolitical Monitor, has argued that Turkey “has developed ‘salami tactics,’ using negotiating skills, seesaw politics, pressure, and threats to obtain acquiescence, in little slices, from the United States and Russia to limited military operations in northern Syria.”
Last Saturday, Turkey and its mercenary militias shelled the Kobanê area, killing a villager and wounding twelve others, including a four-year-old boy who had to have his leg amputated.Three of the places targeted were in Kobanê city centre. This followed a Turkish drone strike on Christmas day that hit a civilian building in Kobanê, causing the deaths of six young people – members of the Revolutionary Youth Movement – who were actively involved in working for their community.
After Saturday’s attacks, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria described them, on Facebook, as a “clear message” that Turkey “will continue the extermination war against our people”. They explained that this provided a challenge to the US-led “Global Coalition” and to Russia, who have both signed agreements with Turkey and need to show a clear rejoinder or bear responsibility for what is happening.
While the targeting of Kobanê is clearly very deliberate, it is part of an unrelenting pattern of attacks that have made border villages too dangerous for their residents to remain, and have targeted essential services such as water supplies. On Wednesday, shells fired from Turkish occupied territory damaged Heisha water station, some way from the border front line. At the same time, the water that reaches the region via the Euphrates from Turkey has been reduced to less than half of normal flows for almost a year. As well as producing water shortages, these attacks cause vital resources to be diverted into constructing alternative infrastructure and repairs.
Turkey’s attacks are calculated to destroy the Autonomous Administration through undermining its ability to provide economic and physical security; and also to drive the displacement of the local population as part of its enforcement of demographic change. Their targeted attacks on key places and people, which must be helped by informers on the ground, are designed to send a message that nowhere and no one is safe from their reach. Many people in North and East Syria have responded by demonstrating a more determined resistance, expressed through marches and rallies, but some of those who are not engaged with the project to build a better society may be persuaded that the Administration cannot give them a future, and even be open to recruitment by ISIS, the Turkish security services, or one of the many mercenary gangs who compete for control under Turkish patronage.
ISIS cells thrive on this insecurity, and also under the protection afforded them by the Turkish occupied regions. Their attacks are also aimed at increasing insecurity and fear. ISIS cells in the surrounding areas work with ISIS members active in Al Hol Camp. Al Hol houses close to 60,000 displaced people, including families of ISIS fighters who have attempted to replicate ISIS rule within the camp. On Tuesday, Bassem Muhammad Muhammad, a nurse with Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Crescent, was murdered in the camp’s medical centre. Also on Tuesday, Abd al-Mufdi, a doctor in East Deir ez-Zor was assassinated by an unknown gunman. And the next day, Alachi, an Ethiopian doctor with the International Red Cross, was injured in another attack in the camp.
The Autonomous Authority has demanded that international powers intervene to prevent these constant attacks on the region and its people. They are demanding that other countries take back their nationals who joined ISIS, and that they help with prosecuting and caring for ISIS prisoners. They point out that not only have they sacrificed thousands of men and women in the fight to protect the world from ISIS, but they are now being expected to deal with these dangerous prisoners at the same time as rebuilding their war-shattered towns and villages and defending themselves against Turkey’s ongoing assault.
They are also demanding that the US and Russia act to enforce the ceasefire agreements they signed with Turkey and stop ignoring Turkey’s constant breaches, and they are calling for an internationally guaranteed no-fly zone to protect them from Turkish drones and bombs. A no-fly zone is not a simple request as it requires those enforcing it to be prepared to take action if the zone is breached, but this was the arrangement that helped protect what is now recognised as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s aggression through the 1990s. No-fly zones in Iraq were initially established by the US, Britain and France in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, though their humanitarian purpose was increasingly submerged in the ongoing low-level war against Saddam’s defence forces.
Many left-wing observers criticise these calls for outside help, pointing out that other nations only ever act in their own interests – that foreign policy is not guided by moral imperatives and that support can vanish as soon as it no longer suits the strategy of the powers providing it. This is all true, but if, without help, the people of North and East Syria find themselves overwhelmed by Turkish forces, as in Afrîn and in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Girê Spî (Tell Abyad), then they don’t really have much choice. They have no air force, and they are under attack from the second biggest army in NATO.
What they can do, though – as well as also working with movements for change within Turkey – is make it clear to other countries who have supported the fight against ISIS that their help now is an essential continuation of that support: that it is very much in their own interests. Although there remains pressure within Congress for the Biden Administration to take a hard line against President Assad, US officials claim that their focus in Syria is simply on humanitarian assistance, monitoring ceasefires, and ensuring the departure of ISIS;policy however, their actions fall woefully short in all those areas.
North and East Syria’s relations with Russia are theoretically more conflicted, but also simpler in that it is clear what Russia wants. President Putin would like to ensure a settlement that leaves Russia’s client, President Assad, in a commanding position. Russia welcomes disruptions to North and East Syria’s stability, and therefore to the Autonomous Administration’s bargaining power, including disruption promoted by the Syrian Government, but they don’t like Turkish occupation.
Finding political allies is never simple. North and East Syria has just held a conference of representatives of different religions to discuss how they can work together to promote peaceful coexistence. One of the speakers was Nadine Maenza, President of the US Committee for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Maenza, who was appointed to head USCIRF by Donald Trump, is also president of Patriot Voices, which was established by former Republican Senator, Rick Santorum. This organisation promotes the usual range of right-wing policies, including cuts in social spending and in protective regulations, and support for the development of the oil and gas industries. While Maenza posts about the importance of gender equality, her organisation campaigns against abortion. They are also passionate supporters of religious freedom – except for the freedom to support radical Islam, which they “encourage moderate Muslims to denounce” – and, as a consequence, incongruously, in the middle of their website, is a tab labelled “save NE Syria”.
The political values of North East Syria could hardly be more different from those of Patriot Voices, yet Maenza has provided one of the most consistent and conspicuous voices calling on the US to show support for the Autonomous Administration. Commenting on the strikes on Kobanê, she stated in a well-shared Twitter video, “It is important for the US and the global community to stand up against these strikes and to push Turkey to stop.” In a press statement given alongside the Administration’s foreign relations co-chair, she noted that USCIRF’s report recommended that the US give political support to the Administration, recognising it as a regional local government, and that the US lift their sanctions from the region.
The Autonomous Administration is used to working with conservative leaders closer to home too. In the Arab areas that they liberated from ISIS, tribal sheikhs still play a dominant role, and the Administration works with them, rather than attempting to replace them. This is clearly a decision born of necessity, but it sits uncomfortably with ideals of grass-roots democracy and women’s equality.
Since November, the Assad regime has been attempting to persuade people to recommit to the Syrian Government and to military service with the Syrian Arab Army. The Autonomous Administration is strongly opposed to this, and their Deir ez-Zor Council will sack any civil servant who signs the government settlement. Both sides have claimed the support of local sheikhs.
Pressure on the people and authorities of North and East Syria has been increased by the closure of the border crossing from Iraq, imposed by the Kurdistan Regional Government since mid-December.
As Iraq’s politicians concentrate on the unedifying negotiations to decide on a new government in Baghdad, more stories are appearing that expose the rottenness within the Kurdistan Region’s ruling elite.
A new report has detailed the involvement of the Barzani family, which controls the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in massive projects and developments that have commandeered public organisations and land and disregarded building regulations.
There are also alarming accounts of disappearances. A peshmerga commander who expressed criticism of the peshmerga forces linked to Masoud Barzani and the KDP has been uncontactable since visiting the force headquarters on Tuesday. And the two young Kurds whose abduction by the Turkish military I noted last week, are now being held by the KDP, with no explanation or information given to their families.
This week, two prominent media outlets were banned from a press conference given by the Kurdistan Regional Government that discussed, among other things, human rights and press freedom in the wake of a highly critical UN report. One of these outlets was NRT, which is linked to the opposition New Generation party and has long been a victim of government attacks. The other was Rudaw, which is linked to Kurdistan president, Nechirvan Barzani. Their exclusion raises questions about tensions within the Barzani family and their KDP.
As usual, this week’s stories from Turkey portray a society where violence is both led and encouraged by the state.
On 10 January, Working Journalists Day, the Journalists Union of Turkey released a statement on the condition of their profession. As well as noting fines issued to TV channels and newspapers that ran foul of the government, they recorded that in Turkey in 2021 “In at least 130 court cases, 250 journalists were put on trial over their news. At least 50 journalists were taken into custody due to their journalistic activities.”
Last Sunday, three Ankara law students were injured when they were attacked with knives and machetes by a racist mob. Prominent among the attackers was Isa Kök who had been convicted after a similar incident in the past, but had had his sentence reduced and now practises as a lawyer.
Tuesday saw an attack by another racist mob, which entered an Istanbul flat used by Syrian refugees and left one of them fatally wounded. While anti-refugee rhetoric has largely been the province of the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), the government also promotes ethnic nationalism.
There has been renewed anger and concern about a lack of public student accommodation, which is forcing students to rely on growing numbers of unregulated hostels run by religious cults. This anger has been triggered by the suicide of a medical student a month after he posted a video in which he talked about being made to pray and attend religious classes despite not being a Muslim, and having lost his enthusiasm for life.
Widespread protests at the release of the man who attempted an armed attack in a district office of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), appear to have persuaded the authorities to change their minds, and this supporter of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves is now remanded in custody. At the same time, the trial for the murder, in 2015, of human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, who is widely believed to have been killed by a police bullet, continued to throw up anomalies. At the last session, in July, a key witness claimed that they had no knowledge about the murder, but had been guided by a prosecutor, with the aid of torture, to blame the PKK. Now a key video recording has gone missing, with the disk found to be blank.
Last week, I commented on the municipal employees who have been caught up in the government’s attempt to discredit the CHP-run Istanbul municipality. They have been accused of terrorist links and hounded by pro-government media. Now, one one of those employees has been forced to resign in the face of death threats.
Erdoğan’s most recent rhetoric aims to paint the PKK, the HDP and the CHP as conspiring together in terrorist activities. This week he also tried to sow doubt within the HDP with suggestions of political conflict between their imprisoned former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, and Abdullah Öcalan, who has not been allowed to speak to anyone outside his own prison for nearly ten months.
Erdoğan’s representation of Turkey to the rest of the world is equally divorced from reality. Turkish attacks on Syrian villages he portrays as defence against aggression, and, after speaking to European Union representatives on Thursday, he claimed that Turkey’s brutal invasion, occupation, and ethnic cleansing of parts of Northern Syria “has been contributing to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity, while averting new migration waves”.
Erdoğan also appears to find it unproblematic to appoint, as Turkey’s commercial attaché in Germany, a man who was filmed in 2014 kicking a protestor following the Soma mine disaster. The appointment has been condemned by Turkish workers in Germany, who came out in mass protest. The German government has yet to respond, but they have a history of indulging Turkey.
This week, a planned European tour of a Kurdish play based on Don Quixote had to be cancelled when four cast members were not granted visas. The excuse given was the usual one – that the people refused entry might not return home – but this is particularly cruel as this play also met with restrictions in Turkey enforced by anti-Kurdish authorities.
To end on a more positive note, the François Mitterrand Institute in Paris has awarded their annual prize to Selahattin Demirtaş, in recognition of “the struggle of an exemplary personality who seeks tirelessly – and now at the price of his freedom – to peacefully bring together all progressive forces in the practical defence of democracy and minority rights, in Turkey as elsewhere in the world.”
And, lest we might be tempted to give up in the face of so much oppression, we can take inspiration from the teachers of Sine in Iranian Kurdistan. The recent world report by Human Rights Watch observed for Iran, “It appears that over the past year, authorities have increased the crackdown against Kurdish political activists”, but this could not prevent hundreds of teachers gathering in the city to protest the five-year imprisonment of Zara Muhammed for the crime of teaching Kurdish.