A Protest in Solidarity with Rojava in Berlin after Turkey’s 2019 invasion of North Syria. Oct. 2019, Berlin, Germany.
On June 1, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his intentions to launch a renewed invasion into northern Syria. Turkey has invaded northern Syria at least three times since 2016. These invasions were launched under the pretense of carving out a “safe zone” to resettle Syrian refugees, of which 3.7 million reside in Turkey. However, Turkey’s long conflict with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has also been a hardly kept secret motivation for them. These invasions threaten to destroy the bordering Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava, an anarchic democratic autonomous zone formed by the PKK’s chapter in Syria alongside other pro-democracy oppositional factions during the ongoing civil war.
Tensions have boiled between Turkey and the Bashar al-Assad led Syrian government over the last few years, fearful of Turkey’s intentions to annex the borderlands in the north. However, in an unlikely development, recent events have seen the two countries move closer to resetting positive diplomatic relations, a development that further threatens Rojava’s continued existence.
On August 5, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Assad government. Putin reportedly suggested Turkey reset relations with Syria and support the government’s restoration of control over the country to more effectively deal with their concerns regarding the return of refugees and Rojava’s presence on their border. This comes shortly after the two heads of state’s diplomatic meeting with Iranian officials in July, where the issue of Turkish aggression toward Syria was also addressed. However, Turkey stressed its desire to guarantee the dismantling of the Kurdish-led autonomous zone in any potential restoration of relations with the Syrian state.
“One of the conditions on the Turkish side [toward reconciliation] would be that the Syrian government establishes full authority over that territory,” said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish Foreign Ministry official now policy analyst at Carnegie Europe, “and it guarantees that that piece of territory is not used against Turkey and does not threaten Turkey’s security.”
It appears Erdogan has been receptive to Putin’s advice. Soon after his meeting with him, on Aug. 19, Erdogan stressed to media officials that “we do not have eyes on the territory of Syria because the people of Syria are our brothers. The regime must be aware of this”, expressing that “there is a need to take further steps” toward restoring “unseverable” diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Should this unlikely alliance between Turkey and Syria form, Rojava will be surrounded by the two hostile modern state militaries, now working in tandem rather than in opposition. This would effectively number the days of the democratic autonomous region the Kurds and the people of Rojava have carved out for themselves.
Once backed by US troops on the ground in the fight against ISIS, Rojava finds itself alone in facing this existential threat. In this tense bleak moment for the AANES and the Kurdish independence movement, it is worth reflecting on how their international allies failed to support their democratic project in a region that has been repeatedly invaded in democracy’s name.
The Kurdish Plight
While Turkey’s invasion of Rojava appears on the surface to be a consequence of geopolitics and the refugee crisis, there are also historical factors behind the Turkish military’s desire to destroy the autonomous zone. Among its main organizers are the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of Turkey’s left-wing Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) who have been engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish government since the 1980s.
The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the European Union, was organized in the 1970s to push for Democratic confederalism across the Middle East, a grassroots system of democratic self-government adjacent to anarchist thought. Democratic confederalism was seen by the PKK as a solution to the political and cultural marginalization faced by not only the Kurdish minority in Turkey but across the region, who were not given a state in the colonial division of the Middle East between France and England in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Developing off shots such as the Syrian YPG across the region, the PPK’s politics went beyond the issue of Kurdish independence, seeing Democratic confederalism as a solution to the dictatorships that were appointed or developed in the post-colonial period after World War II, hence AANES’ popularity among non-Kurdish opposition to the Syrian presidency during the civil war.
Stemming from the YPG’s commitment to Democratic confederalism, AANES was established in the North Syrian region of Rojava in 2015 following the partnership of the YGP with smaller Kurdish and non-Kurdish pro-democracy parties amid the civil war, creating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDP).
Having an organized political and military presence of the PKK/YPG along its borders has longed irked Turkey; however, intervention in Syria at the high point of the Civil War was not as politically and militarily viable due to the presence of roughly 1,000 US military troops in Rojava supporting the SDF.
The West’s Abandonment of Rojava
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, US foreign policy has turned its head toward the country, which has long decoupled itself from global financial markets and has diplomatically allied itself with China, Iran and Russia. Wary of direct intervention following the prolonged fall-outs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US has instead supported proxy factions looking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fight far-right religious groups.
Among these proxies has been the SDF, which has received political, military, and financial support not only from the US, but also from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, and other Western countries. Despite declaring opposition to the AANES’ goal of establishing a federal region, the US particularly has long militarily supported the SDF, providing air support and sending a contingency of 1,000 US military troops into Rojava. The SDF was receptive to this foreign backing, particularly to the US military support on the ground, due to guarantees they diplomatically stave off Turkish aggression.
With this backing, the SDF received international attention and acclaim for its instrumental role in countering ISIS throughout the mid to late 2010s. 11,000 members of the SDF lost their lives pushing back the terrorist organization’s presence in the civil war to the near non-factor they are today. Following their role in the defeat of ISIS, the military backing Rojava received from the US would quickly disappear. Seeking to appease Turkey, a NATO ally, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw US troops from Rojava in 2019 in the lead-up to an invasion.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,’” the White House said in a statement on Oct. 7, 2019. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
Turkey would then launch the infamous “Operation Peace Spring”, where nearly 700 civilians were killed and over 300,000 were displaced. Turkey would then military occupy a 3,800 km² strip of land in Rojava in violation of international law containing a crucial connecting highway, breaking up the territory of the autonomous zone and isolating them from transport.
“At Washington’s request, we agreed to withdraw our heavy weapons from the border area with Turkey, destroy our defensive fortifications, and pull back our most seasoned fighters. Turkey would never attack us so long as the U.S. government was true to its word with us. We are now standing with our chests bare to face the Turkish knives.” wrote SDF General Mazloum Abd
Despite this occupation, Rojava has managed to persist with its democratic project into 2022. However, the conflict with the Turkish military presence has forced them to cooperate with the Assad government, allowing the Syrian military into certain regions of Rojava to counter Turkey. This compromise makes a potential alliance between Syria and Turkey all the more concerning for the SDF.
While these events have been unfolding since 2019, Rojava’s international allies have offered lukewarm military and economic support at best or have ditched the democratic autonomous zone for its geopolitical interests similar to the Trump administration in 2019.
The US continues to claim to support the SDF at a reduced capacity, with some US troops remaining in the area to fight back against ISIS remnants and limit Iranian influence in Syria, although the SDF’s expectation for unconditional support is out the window.
Where Rojava forged some diplomatic relations with European countries throughout the 2010s, praising the autonomous zone government for their commitment to secular and democratic values, many have been silent on, if not indirectly supporting, Turkey’s violation of international law in their military occupation and the human rights abuses that occur under it.
Most recently, Rojava and the SDF were thrown under the bus by Finland and Sweden in their application to join NATO following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Finland has long cooperated with the AANES government on developing infrastructure, while Sweden hosts an embassy-like representation office of the autonomous region. Both Scandinavian countries had placed an arms embargo on Turkey following their illegal invasion in 2019, however, this has seen their application to join NATO rejected by Turkey, where all member states must agree to admit another member into the military coalition.
Turkey demanded Finland and Sweden lift the embargo, deport Kurdish refugees with supposed links to the SDF and pledge to not provide support to any organizations in Rojava, military or otherwise. Finland and Sweden agreed, signing a security pact to ensure their commitment to Turkey’s demands before being admitted into NATO. However, this could mean refugees who have applied for asylum in Finland or Sweden from Syria might be at risk of being sent back as Turkey angles to invade it, contrary to the standards of UN treaties signed to protect political asylees and refugees.
It appears then that support for Rojava from the US and EU member states had been a matter of convenience and geopolitical interest disposable at the nearest convenience, rather than a shared commitment to secularism and democracy as was portrayed.
Diplomacy for Dictators, but not Democracies
Calls for Western interventionism in the Middle East have long stood on a proclaimed desire to support democracy and counter dictatorships in the region. However, the people of Rojava, actively forming and fighting for democracy of their own, have had little to show for that support.
Rather than appeasing Turkey, an autocratic government continued support from the US and the international community could have allowed the AANES to further develop their civil and governmental institutions to provide an inclusive, democratic alternative in Syria to the military dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Instead, their abandonment has led the Assad government toward a potential alliance with Turkey, based on joint diplomatic interests shared with their mutual allies in Russia and Iran, strengthening not only the Assad government’s position but other dictatorships in the world.
The international community failed a burgeoning democracy in Rojava; it did so not as a mistake, but as a conscious foreign policy decision — from the US’s greenlighting of Erdogan’sinvasion to Sweden and Finland’s agreement to Turkey’s unethical demands to join NATO. As Turkey gears up for another invasion of Rojava with potential Syrian government support this time around, the autonomous region will struggle to survive a mutually coordinated effort. With the people of Rojava needing the support and intervention of the international community more than ever in preventing this violence, more publically funded foreign policy decisions favoring the interests of dictatorships rather than peoples’ democratic will cannot be tolerated by the citizens of countries that can make a difference.
Edited by Majeed Malhas