At the fourth anniversary of the Turkish attack on Afrin and the subsequent occupation, Syrian president Assad has paid his first official visit to an Arab state in a decade and was welcomed by the United Arab Emirates. The dictator is slowly getting connected to the outside world again, eleven years after the uprising against him started. This may be the beginning of the end of Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, but cynically enough, that’s hardly reason to be optimistic.
For a couple of years now, I have been saying that Assad and Erdoğan are allies. They have been since before the Syrian war started, the countries having enjoyed fine relations ever since Hafez Assad, the current president’s father, forced PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan out of the country to prevent a war between Syria and Turkey, eventually leading to the capture of Öcalan in Kenya in 1999.
In the earlier years of the Syrian war, Erdoğan vehemently campaigned for Assad’s removal from power. It would have been a further boost for Erdogan’s image in the Middle East if that had happened. Remember how Erdoğan was seen as an example by many people in the countries who rose up against their dictators during the Arab Spring, who believed that he combined Islam with democracy? Now, Erdoğan doesn’t really mind anymore that Assad stays in power. The time of supporting popular uprisings is over. Assad and Erdoğan can be of use to each other again.
Afrin is a grim example. This weekend, I was a guest in a Dutch current-affairs radio show to talk about the situation in Afrin, four years after Turkey’s attack began. The presenter reminded the listeners that the attack received a whole lot of media attention at the time and wondered what the situation was now. Peshmerge, a young man from Afrin who had fled Syria before Turkey attacked but whose parents still live there, also joined the conversation. First, I was asked to explain what exactly happened in March 2018, then Peshmerge and I sketched the war crimes Turkey has been committing ever since. That Peshmerge never uses his last name in order to protect his family from Turkey’s wrath is exemplary of the dire situation Afrin is in.
There is ethnic cleansing: from being an almost homogenous Kurdish area before the occupation, only some 30% of the population is Kurdish now. Those who fled are either in refugee camps or abroad. Those who stayed can not express their Kurdish identity because if they do, they will be seen as ‘PKK-sympathizers’ and get arrested, kidnapped or killed. No Kurdish language, no Kurdish music, no Kurdish education, clothes, celebrations, commemorations, not even Kurdish colours.
This is horrific in itself, but even more painful when you realize that in the years that the Kurds built their autonomous administration in Afrin between 2011 and 2018, they were more free than they had ever been. And not only they, but the Yezidis were too: their religion was no longer suppressed but could be freely observed. Also, women enjoyed a lot of freedom, taking up positions in the administration and working to eradicate long-standing problems like child marriages, domestic violence, femicide.
People who were active in the autonomous administration have been on the top of Turkey’s arrest and torture list – especially women. Many men and women are still missing, and it has been documented that the ‘disappeared’ are often brought to jails in Turkey, where they serve lengthy prison sentences and are subject to torture.
And then I haven’t even mentioned the destruction and looting of property, the desecration of religious sites of Yezidis and Christians, the violation of graves of Kurdish fighters, the robbing of Afrin’s olives and selling them abroad as ‘product of Turkey’, the levelling of forests. And the infighting between the bunch of militias that are under Turkey’s command often makes it dangerous to go out into the streets. Afrin has turned into hell.
The presenter asked what the future prospect for Afrin was. Was there a way out? I hadn’t heard yet that Assad had paid his first visit to another Arab country in more than a decade, and now that I do know, my answer is even more pessimistic. My answer was that if the Kurdish groups who want autonomy inside Syria are not at the table where the future of Syria is discussed, it is very likely that Assad will take over again. That’s basically a switch from being under foreign occupation to being under domestic occupation: no freedom, no self-rule, no democracy, but suppression, violence, prison, torture.
Now that I do know about Assad’s visit to the UAE, and especially now that it is clear that absolutely nobody in the world objects to it, I feel even more pessimistic. Not only Arab countries but also the US and EU are fine with this outcome – after all, their goal throughout the Syrian war was to keep Syria together as one country, and that is likely to happen now. That it is happening without a new, democratic constitution, without decentralization and with no accountability for the horrific crimes that Assad has committed against his own people is an absolute and utter disgrace. Erdoğan will, of course, not object either. He may eventually have to withdraw from Afrin, but he won’t mind. Who cares who exactly suppresses freedom-loving Kurds, as long as they are suppressed?
The final question of the presenter of the Dutch radio show was for Peshmerge. “Do you think you will ever be able to return to Afrin?” Peshmerge wanted to speak but couldn’t. His throat tightened, his eyes turned wet.