Rojava’s suspended future

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Since 9 October 2019, the Turkish army has been present in northeast Syria, where it controls a strip of land 150 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide, between the towns of Tell Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn (Serekaniyé in Kurdish) (1). Turkish troops were already present further west since Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and its surroundings in January 2018. Their presence has prevented territorial continuity in this Kurdish region, known as Rojava (‘the West’ in Kurdish) or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which has been politically autonomous since 2013.

From there, Ankara directly threatens the practical and military alliance put in place by the (Kurdish) PYD and the two other principal groups in Rojava’s population, the Arabs and the Syrian Christians. This alliance — the Syrian Democratic Forces (whose political branch is the Syrian Democratic Council) — must also reckon with Bashar al-Assad’s troops, who haven’t given up on regaining control of the whole region, which they retreated from in 2012.

‘Turkey is killing us with European weapons’

Seven years after it first emerged, what is left of the PYD’s dream of a pluralist, democratic project (2)? Our journey began in the east, at the Nowruz refugee camp in Derik, not far from the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Leila M told us about her six exoduses since 2018: ‘My family and I are from Afrin. When the Turks arrived, we fled east, and then to Aleppo. From there we reached Kobane. Then my son found a job in Ras Al-Ayn. After the Turkish attack, we had to flee barefoot to Tell Tamer, and now we’re in this camp.’ Derwich F, a small farmer in Tell Abyad, also recounted his escape last autumn: ‘We were living happily. The political system worked very well. And then the Turkish president bombed us with his planes. All the Kurds are gone.’

On 22 October, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin signed a 10-point agreement in Sochi confirming the Turkish presence in northeastern Syria and forcing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s military arm, to withdraw from the strip of land occupied by Turkey. Ankara has since been accused of carrying out an ethnic cleansing operation by replacing the Kurdish populations with two million Sunni Arabs who had taken refuge in Turkey after fleeing the fighting in other parts of Syria. ‘Erdoğan wants to change the ethnic composition of the territories that his army controls,’ declared Abdelkarim Omar, Rojava’s autonomous government’s ‘foreign minister’. ‘Before the Turkish invasion of 2018, 85% of Afrin’s population was Kurdish; today it’s just 20%.’

Rojava’s uncertain situation

Do these upheavals signal the end of Rojava’s political project? The situation is uncertain. When the Turkish army and its Syrian militias — known as the çete or ‘gangsters’ — attempted to expand their territory, they met with fierce resistance.

We left Qamishli for Kobane, which in January 2015 was the scene of the first major defeat of ISIS at the hands of Kurdish troops. At a large checkpoint manned by Rojava’s security forces, our vehicle was forced to change to an alternative route. Taking the M4 motorway through the region from east to west was too dangerous: the pro-Turkish militias are only 400 metres away and make regular incursions, and Turkish army drones fly overhead. it was on the M4, in Tirwazi near Ayn Issa, that Hevrin Khalaf, a charismatic and influential Kurdish politician, was savagely murdered on 12 October 2019 by militiamen from an armed group supported by Turkey (3).

After the US announced its military withdrawal from the region on 6 October — paving the way for the Turkish invasion — the SDF had no choice but to call on forces in Damascus to back it up. Following the Sochi agreement, the Syrian army was deployed from Kobane to Qamishli, with the exception of the Turkish-occupied enclave. Its presence consists of small military posts positioned every ten kilometres. According to local people we spoke to, its role is above all preventive: it is tasked with warding off the Turkish army from further territorial expansion.

‘It is above all a symbolic political presence,’ said Mazloum ‘Kobane’ Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF. Abdi, for whose capture Turkey has offered a reward, added that there was no other Syrian military presence in the areas controlled by the SDF. Throughout our journey, we noticed that it is still the Asayish, the Arab-Kurdish SDF police, which controls the roads.

‘Requirements we won’t compromise on’

We asked Abdi about the future of relations between the Federation of Rojava and Damascus. First there needs to be a political agreement, he replied: ‘We want political autonomy to be enshrined in the Syrian constitution and for the SDF to be part of the defence of all of Syria. These are requirements on which we will not compromise. Under this agreement, defending the north of the country would be the responsibility of the SDF.’

Would the Syrian government be ready to accept such a change, which would break with decades of central rule and unanimity derived from the claim to a single Arab identity? So far, Damascus has not made the slightest move in this direction. We put the question to Polat Can, another veteran of the wars waged by the Kurdish forces. Can, an SDF commander and writer, was in charge of operations for the liberation of the region of Deir Ez-Zor, long in ISIS hands. He warned, ‘Rojava will not see a return to the situation before 2010. We will not let the Kurds lose their rights and we will not destroy the relationship that we have built with the Arabs and the Syriac Christians.’ He made it clear that everything else was negotiable, including the name of the autonomous entity or the details of border control.

The abandonment of the enclave from Tell Abyad to Ras Al-Ain generated much bitterness and anger among the Kurds, fuelled above all by the lack of aerial protection. ‘The Russians let Turkish planes shell our civilians, our children and our defence forces. They broke their promises. So did the United States,’ said Abdi. Can made even harsher claims: ‘Turkey is killing the Kurds with European weapons. The drones are from Italy, the Leopard tank is German. If we had a no-fly zone to prevent the bombardment of our troops, the SDF would kick the Turks out of Rojava within a week.’

On to war-torn Raqqa

The journey to Kobane requires passing through Raqqa — a six-hour detour over bumpy roads. The emissions from oil tankers make the air almost impossible to breathe. While some of the crude oil — which is mined in the northeast of the country and cheap but of poor quality — is used to meet the needs of the population in the Autonomous Federation, some is sold through intermediaries in Damascus. With oil revenues and taxes on imports and exports at the Iraqi border, the autonomous government has enough to run public services and pay for infrastructure works. But oil manufacturing is slowing down. ‘Only 25% of the wells in northeastern Syria are working. The rest are at a standstill because of the war and the Syrian oil embargo,’ said Ziad Rustem, an engineer and member of the autonomous government’s energy commission.

Raqqa, the ephemeral ‘capital’ of the ISIS ‘caliphate’ from 2014 to 2017, is now under SDF control. The scene of terrible fighting, the city is still devastated, though reconstruction has begun. In the city centre, giant lettering reading ‘I love Raqqa’ welcomes visitors. Here, ISIS once put severed heads on spikes to frighten the population. ISIS still has a base of sympathisers in this predominantly Arab region, and sleeper cells regularly carry out suicide attacks. Nevertheless, there is relative calm. By invading the north of the country, Erdoğan bet unsuccessfully on an Arab uprising against the Kurds.

When we mentioned the Turkish strategy, Can smiled: ‘The Arab clans of Deir Ez-Zor told us, “Don’t bring the regime back here! You are Kurds, we don’t like you, but at the end of the day you are Sunnis, we will work with you.” In the past, the regime stuffed the heads of the Arabs with scare stories about Kurds, saying we were Zionists, atheists and capitalists. But, in these areas almost 100% populated by Arabs, there was no uprising against the SDF.’

The recent Turkish invasion even brought in Kurdish groups that opposed PYD rule. Nari Mattini, a longtime opponent of the CDS, has now joined. Mohsen Tahir, a member of the Kurdish National Council — which was created by the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), and is on good terms with Ankara, to reduce the influence of the PYD in the region — now admits wanting to prioritise Kurdish unity, because he fears ethnic cleansing. Unity will nevertheless depend on the progress of relations between the PYD and the PDK: the PYD will not tolerate the presence of another Kurdish military force in Rojava.

In Kobane, fear of a new invasion

In Ayn Issa, on the road from Raqqa to Kobane, a Russian patrol comes out of a military base at high speed. Here Russia has replaced the US. Further east, near Al-Hasaké, we had already passed a Russian patrol, not far from the front line of Tell Tamer — and an American patrol, in the east, near the oil fields. It was difficult to see clearly in the confusion.

Is Russia considered more reliable than the United States? Abdi told us that, for now, ‘Moscow is working on a solution between the Kurds and the Syrian powers’. But he and other figures acknowledge that the territory of Rojava is being bargained over by Moscow and Ankara, which benefits the Syrian regime. ‘First Russia “gave” Afrin to Turkey in exchange for Homs, Ghouta and a small part of Idlib for the regime. Then it “ceded” Ras Al-Ain and Tell Abyad to Ankara in exchange for another part of Idlib,’ Abdi summed up. In these negotiations, the Kurds could ultimately be the biggest losers.

Freezing cold and rain greeted us in Kobane. In and around the city, life and reconstruction are suspended amid constant fears of another invasion. In 2014, it was ISIS. This time, the threat comes from the Turkish military and allied militia — some of which have taken in former jihadist fighters. Convinced that war is imminent, the population is frantically digging tunnels to resist attack. Five years after the January 2015 victory, will the fate of Kobane once more determine Rojava’s future?

By: Mireille Court & Chris Den Hond

Translated by Lucie Elven.

Source: Le Monde

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