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The Kurds are suffering badly again
Under the cover of Covid-19, Turkey is attacking the Kurds. Again. Should we care? Vanessa Baird gives many good reasons why we should care.
Young Kurds try to stop a Turkish military vehicle in northern Syria after Turkey's invasion. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty
Almost exactly 100 years ago – 20 August 1920 – the victors of the First World War promised the Kurds a homeland. Within three years they broke that promise.
The new Turkey didn’t want to lose part of its land, and the Allies agreed with Turkey. Agreements between nation states are important. Kurdish independence was not.
Today the world faces the worst pandemic we can remember, and Turkey is attacking the Kurds within its own borders, and in Iraq, and in Syria. The UN called a ceasefire during the epidemic but Turkey is still attacking the Kurds in North and East Syria. It is cutting off water to people who need it and it is increasing the risk of Covid-19 in the refugee camps.
Turkish troops are burning Kurdish farmers’ fields and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kurds continues. Hassan Hassan is a teacher. He lives in Shahba, north of Aleppo. He tells me about the situation there. 150,000 Kurds are living in refugee camps and war-torn villages, ‘Here we come under attack non-stop from the north and the east. Inside the occupied areas in Afrin, Til Abyad, and Ras al Eyn, there are more than 50 pro-Turkey armed groups plus Turkish army and intelligence. There are now almost no Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. The Kurds are now a small minority compared with the Arab and Turkman settlers. They face violence every day. The remaining Kurdish residents say they face abuse from Turkish-backed rebels. There are kidnappings for ransom, armed robberies, homes lost, shops lost, businesses lost, and fields lost. And there is torture and killing.’
Here are the numbers after six months of Turkish occupation in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES, that is, Rojava): • 200,000 civilians moved from their homes • 288 killed by Turkish attacks • 600 settlements occupied • 127 homes destroyed • 460,000 people have no clean drinking water • 1.8 million need humanitarian aid • 86,000 children have no education
It’s difficult to believe that not long ago the Kurds were international victors and heroes. With international support they stopped Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Their women and men led the fight against IS and took back the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists’ ‘capital’. With the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and with the US, they drove IS militants out of Baghuz in early 2019.
Young female fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were the good face of the Kurdish struggle, and also the most interesting and for the media. Perhaps the military success of the Kurds would bring them closer to international recognition? Then, suddenly, on 6 October 2019, US president Donald Trump had a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Then he said that he was taking US troops out of North and East Syria. It was a green light for Turkey to invade Rojava. It invaded three days later.
There was international talk of stopping arms sales to Turkey. Faced with Turkish military power, Syria’s Kurdish officials even made a deal with Assad, their former enemy, for military help in the border area.
On 22 October Russia and Turkey made an agreement. Turkish troops to stay in the areas they took and Russian troops and the Syrian army to control the rest of the border. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) had 150 hours to leave. But the US would keep a small number of troops in the area after all. But it was too late. Turkey invaded and said it was ‘securing its border’ and made a 5,000-square-kilometre Kurd-free area in Syrian Kurdistan.
The Syrian Kurds are still under attack today. The great powers and their former partners did not tell the truth. Hassan says, ‘In every place they live, the Kurds face danger and world powers only see them as useful when needed and they forget them when they are not needed.’
The situation is complicated. Turkey has power. President Erdoğan has many possibilities.
One: refugees. Turkey has 3.5 million refugees. Many prefer to go to Europe. For Erdoğan they are a power he can use any time on the EU and its neighbours. The countries of Europe want most of all to keep migrants out.
Two: Turkey is a powerful member of NATO, with the second-largest army of all members and it has 50 US nuclear bombs. It’s the world’s fifth-largest buyer of arms, 60 per cent come from the US, and many from the UK, France, Spain, and Russia. Turkey also spent $6.6 million to influence the US government in 2018. It is a difficult but important ally in the US’s ‘war on terror’ – even though it supports jihadists with al-Qaeda connections.
Three: Turkey has nation-state power. Nation states can have their own armies, and no one can say they are terrorists. They can put journalists and political opponents in prison, and world democracies still welcome them. They can move thousands of people from their homes and other countries still welcome them for trade.
If you are not a nation state, you do not receive UN support, not in a pandemic. Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (Rojava) is almost a third of Syrian territory. But the international community does not recognise it. And so the United Nations and the WHO refuse to give it direct support and only through nation states. This means that help to Rojava has to go through the Assad government in Damascus. Anya Briy is a Kurdish movement researcher. He says, ‘And we know Assad is misusing funds and stopping support for AANES.’
Everyone agrees the region needs help. Years of conflict have made its healthcare weak. At least 600,000 have lost their homes or are refugees.
Anya Briy writes, ‘Only 2 of 11 hospitals are working 100%. There are only 40 ventilators for up to 5 million people. With so few beds and doctors, they can only treat fewer than 500 people. We would expect international support to help stop Covid-19 in the area.’
But there is no international support.
A challenge to the nation state
When Kurds are looking for independence, other countries see them as violent terrorists who want to break up the nation state, threaten national sovereignty and regional security. They see them as disturbing the 20th-century rearrangement of the Middle East into the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria. Most Kurds live Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Most countries show no interest or support even when things are truly genocidal.
Over the years, the Kurdish have generally accepted the ideas of human and cultural rights and a kind of self-rule. One example of this is the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) after the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Ba’athist regime of Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has a reputation as the most democratic and stable part of Iraq. But its good reputation suffered recently when its government stopped protests against corruption and unpaid public-sector salaries. But still, it is seen as quite successful.
More impressive for leftists and progressives, the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (Rojava) is more successful. It came from a state torn by civil war.
Countries see Rojava as a democracy with ideas of feminism, ecology, different cultures, democratic politics involving the people, and people sharing the economy. Since 2012 it has been a very different possibility from the nation state. Abdullah Öcalan is the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, And he is in prison. He calls Rojava a ‘democratic confederalism’.
It has inspired people around the world.
Protesters are against Kurdish mayors losing their jobs to government people. Here they help each other after a water-canon attack by Turkish police in Diyarbakir. Sertac Kayar/Reuters
Inside Turkey – worse day by day
15 million Kurds live in Turkey. What’s happening inside Turkey affects other Kurds in the region, too. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the March 2019 local elections. But the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a pro-peace, pro-Kurdish, Left alliance, did very well. They did well in in the east of the country where most people are Kurdish. Erdoğan’s answer was to start more trials against party members, officials, and politicians. He accused them of working with the outlawed PKK, which the government sees as terrorist. They arrested mayors belonging to the HDP, took away their jobs, and gave them to government people. Human Rights Watch said this was like cancelling the 2019 election. In one day in May this year, they arrested five more mayors and gave their jobs to government people. And so they took away 52 from the 64 municipalities the HDP won last year. The HDP calls this a ‘coup’.
Ayse Gokkan is an activist with the Free Women’s Movement of Kurdistan and she was an HDP mayor. She said that the action against Kurds in Turkey gets ‘worse day by day’.They are destroying local democracy and giving power to paramilitary forces. There are ‘neighbourhood guards’ in Kurdish-majority cities. They are armed and can search and harass local people. She said, ‘There is a so-called NGO, People Special Forces (HÖH). It gives people arms to “protect” the state from its enemies. They are a paramilitary force trained to attack opposition groups.’ The plan is to build fear and anxiety, she said. The paramilitary forces support attacks on women activists and their organizations, including shelters. ‘They want to make women desperate, helpless, and dependent on the state and the males.’
Erdoğan got more power when he called PKK a terrorist organization, and the US, the EU, Australia, and Japan agreed. The PKK is armed and active. Mostly it attacks Turkish military targets. In 2015 it was in conflict with government forces in the Kurdish-majority east. The PKK says it is acting in self-defence against a state that is using force to stop democratic rights.
Some countries want to take the PKK off the terrorist list. Some people say that this would increase stability and help peace talks with the Turkish government. Others say it is unfair to call PKK terrorists and it makes it easier for Turkey to attack Kurds everywhere.
People before states
Dreams of a greater Kurdistan seem not very possible today; different kinds of regional or democratic autonomy are more possible.
Rojava’s revolutionary system is doing well in a difficult situation. It is helping people with their economic needs during lockdown in a way that rich nations are not. But it faces dangers from all sides – including, again, IS. The Turkish invasion stopped the Kurdish-international military pressure against IS. IS has been regrouping and making attacks in Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are weaker but still have the problem of holding tens of thousands of IS captives and their families, including at least 2,000 foreign national fighters, including many Europeans.
There was a big humanitarian need in the region before Operation Peace Spring and Covid-19. Today, a few international NGOs are working with local NGOs and getting emergency food and medicines into Rojava,. The Kurdish Red Crescent runs health centres. But the aid is not enough. In January, under Russian pressure, the UN closed its last aid route between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. And because the WHO and UN are not in the region, NGOs there cannot get the $2 billion UN fund for Covid-19.
The Kurds need to decide their own future, but there are things that others can do.
If countries recognised Rojava, it would allow aid to get through. There are fears that Turkey is planning another big attack. The UN and its member governments should put pressure on Turkey to move out from Rojava. Arms sales to Turkey must stop.
There should be pressure on Turkey to release its 50,000 political prisoners, including PKK leader Öcalan. He has served 20 years. A Brussels court recently found the PKK was not a terrorist organization. The EU, US, Australia, and Japan could stop agreeing with Turkey, take the PKK from their list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and ask both sides to have peace talks.
If the nations of the EU took more refugees, Erdoğan’s blackmailing would be less successful. Kurdish freedom is a complicated problem. But it is also about simple, human things. One man had to run away with his family from Turkish attacks. He said, ‘Pro-Turkey Fayalaq al Sham fighters are living in my beautiful village home. Former IS fighters from Deir Ezzor have my olive fields and pomegranate orchards.’ A Kurdish grandmother is living in exile. Her family home is full of happy memories. She learned that Turkish authorities are using it as a torture centre.
Kurdish freedom is now about a lot more than making a Kurdish state. It’s also about putting people before states. That’s one of the many reasons why we should care.
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)