The last few weeks have witnessed a catastrophic geopolitical development in Rojava, Northeast Syria.
On October 6, US President Donald Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of all remaining US troops, stationed there to fight Islamic State together with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Trump thereby opened the way for the ethnic cleansing of the region that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long openly planned, under the thin guise of ‘security concerns’.
Erdoğan’s stated aim is to eliminate the SDF’s military capability, and repopulate the Kurdish-majority region bordering Turkey with millions of refugees, the majority of whom are originally from other parts of Syria. (Even if those refugees have to be tricked or forced into the deal, as recently revealed by Amnesty International.) It’s a disgrace that the international community has so far done so little to thwart Erdoğan’s plans.
Trump’s announcement came right on the heels of an agreement that required the SDF to remove fortifications at the border, on the understanding that this would ease tensions with Turkey and decrease the risk of assault. Instead, on October 9, Turkey predictably launched a full-scale invasion of Rojava—also known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria—deploying ground troops and conducting air strikes on both civilian and military targets.
After a few days of intense fighting, a shaky temporary US-brokered ceasefire, desperate pleas to the international community by the SDF leadership, followed by a last-ditch pact with Damascus, and eventually a new Russian-brokered ceasefire which gives Erdoğan most of what he wants, the situation is beyond alarming. Around 300,000 civilians have already been forced to leave their homes, hundreds of civilians have been killed and countless wounded, and there are credible reports of war crimes by Turkey’s proxy-forces—including extrajudicial executions and torture, and targeting of medical facilities and staff—and of the use of white phosphorus-loaded munitions by Turkey in civilian areas.
Many of the new refugees are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and have nowhere safe to go. Moreover, this is most likely the end of the promising local governance system that’s been in place in Rojava since 2012: a decentralized system based on an ideology with gender-equality, environmental sustainability, direct democracy, and ethnic and religious tolerance at its core. Last, without the presence of the SDF it’s going to be very hard to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, or the emergence of new but similar powerful extremist movements, in Syria. Meanwhile Erdoğan is trying to blackmail the European Union into approving the invasion by threatening to send the refugees he intends to settle in Rojava to European countries. The overall scenario is absurd, incredibly disturbing, and dangerous.
In this article we won’t discuss in more detail what’s currently unfolding on the ground, but provide a little cultural and political context to Turkey’s aggression, and urge the EU to step up its actions to prevent further destabilization and support the Syrian Kurds.
After the fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003, many were hopeful that the Middle Eastern societies wouldn’t easily let dictators, or brazenly authoritarian politicians, gain power again. But the rise of Erdoğan suggests a short collective memory of what so recently went down in Iraq. Or, for that matter, of what went down in Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, political tactics and expansionist visions are frighteningly reminiscent of the rule of the ‘three Pashas’—the dictators who brought the Empire to collapse, masterminded the Armenian genocide, and created enormous lasting damage in the region.
Dictators aren’t built in a day. Nor are they ‘self-made’. They gain, and keep, their power with support of the public, the press, and, of course, those in the corporate class who are the direct or indirect beneficiaries of the dictator’s actions. Erdoğan and his government have been hard at work for years to secure that support, by taking near-absolute control of the Turkish media, firing and jailing dissenters at all levels of society—from laborers and journalists and college students, to teachers and judges and representatives of perfectly legitimate opposition-parties—playing all the monetary cards he had, and stoking the rising ethno-nationalist sentiment in Turkey by spreading and repeating lies about the Kurdish people and anyone who’s working to protect their rights. And those lies had a large and willing audience, since racism against and hatred of Kurds—fueled by lies by others before him—is deeply rooted in Turkish society.
Racism is on the rise in so many places now, so it’s worth pausing to highlight this manifestation in particular. Turkish oral culture and education, not just within Turkey but in large parts of the diaspora, embodies a severe antipathy and distrust of the Kurds. The research carried out by one of us (Latif Tas)—involving interviews with Turkish and Kurdish individuals in Turkey, Germany, the UK and Belgium, over the course of 11 years—has made this very clear.
Scores of Turkish children are still raised by Kemal Atatürk’s dictum that ‘one Turk is worth the entire world’, and taught that everyone else—including Turkish citizens who don’t primarily identify as Turkish—are their enemies. The Kurdish people is perceived as the closest, weakest and most visible such enemy. Predictably, a significant number of Kurds, in Turkey and beyond, have internalized this culture—becoming afraid to claim that they’re Kurdish, or even hating their Kurdish-ness.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, many Turkish elders, even in modern and contemporary times, have told their children and grandchildren that ‘there might be some good Kurds, who identify as Turks rather than Kurds—but in general, Kurds are dark, bad and have a tail.’ This, preposterous as it sounds, is not fiction. (And the parallel with certain propaganda in pre-Holocaust Europe should be obvious.) Many Turkish individuals interviewed by Tas—in Turkish cities, Berlin, London and Brussels—shared that at least one of their relatives or neighbors had told them that Kurds are dark, bad and have tails.
These pre-existing, ethno-nationalist and racist, cultural traditions have clearly facilitated Erdoğan’s rise to power. Dictatorships feed on tribalism and fear. And the recent media take-over and elimination of real political opposition have served their intended purpose effectively. Public ‘debate’ in Turkey is now a blur of government-friendly indoctrination and fear-mongering. And the supposedly democratic ‘multi-party’ system in Turkey is looking more like that of the Ba’athist Iraqi regime every day—certainly so, when it comes to attitudes and policies regarding Kurdish people.
All but one of the remaining opposition-parties in the parliament—e.g. the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement (MHP), and the Good Party (IYI)—supported this month’s invasion of Northeast Syria, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, just like they did the previous invasion, ‘Operation Olive Branch’, in early 2018. Religious leaders all over Turkey have joined the carol of support, together with scores of university presidents, heads of corporations, bar associations and non-governmental organizations, as well as the majority of voting members of the public—at least according to official domestic polls.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no active opposition left in Turkey. But it’s been, and continues to be, brutally silenced. For instance, nearly 200 people were detained over social media posts criticizing this month’s invasion. 24 were later formally arrested, on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda and ‘provoking the public to hatred and animosity’. 9 members of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were arrested on similar charges, for using the slogan ‘No to War, Peace Now’ at a meeting. Even light criticism of Erdoğan or his party receives punishment, and, conversely, loyalty is systematically rewarded.
In this kind of climate, it’s extremely hard—and for many outright dangerous—to speak out against the regime. And we don’t wish to blame those who stay silent because their physical safety, livelihood, or freedom (or that of their kin) is directly in danger. But nor do we wish to excuse those who aren’t willing to take any risks to their own comfort—certainly not those, in Turkey or elsewhere, who are content to comply with the persecution and oppression of others, as long as it improves their own status or wealth. Those who do are indirectly responsibility for the crimes committed by the leader they’re giving a pass.
Powerful inter-governmental actors, like the United Nations and the European Union, have the capacity to not just speak out, but to put serious diplomatic pressure on Turkey, and intervene in other ways. The UN is hampered by the veto-rights of US and Russia, but fortunately the EU is not.
The EU Foreign Affairs Council has condemned Turkey’s incursion, and severe financial and other sanctions are being discussed. Some EU countries have suspended all arms sales to Turkey. This is a good start. It’s also crucial that the EU not budge to Erdoğan’s blackmail regarding refugees. This a fallout from the perilous EU-Turkey refugee agreement that was signed in 2016. That agreement cannot be unsigned. And we don’t mean to underestimate the refugee-crisis in Europe—but the EU must respond responsibly now. It likely means a problematic uptick in migration. But that uptick might occur anyway: it’s reasonable to expect that many of the Syrian refugees now held up in Turkey would prefer heading to Europe, over being resettled in a new part of the country they fled. And, however that may be, it’s imperative that the EU—and the rest of the international community—stop yielding to Erdoğan’s expansionist ethno-nationalist ambitions, and unrelenting aggression against the Kurds.
Latif Tas and Anna-Sara Malmgren
Dr. Latif Tas is a research fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. His current research on ‘Transnationalism and Unofficial Law’ has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. He is the author of ‘Legal Pluralism in Action: Dispute Resolution and Kurdish Peace Committee’ (Routledge, 2014).
Dr. Anna-Sara Malmgren is assistant professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Her research lies in epistemology and philosophy of mind.