Five years ago western media was abuzz with the heroic actions of the Kurdish forces who had saved the Yazidi people from being wiped out by the so-called Islamic State (Isis). At the same time, Turkey was the key transit, trade and logistical hub for Isis, with tens of thousands of foreign fighters and their families moving back and forth across the border.
Today, long after the world has forgotten about the Yazidi people and the heroism of the Kurdish freedom movement, Turkey is being given carte blanche by world powers to bombard Rojava and northern Syria, leaving its people to choose between ethnic cleansing or cutting a deal with the Assad regime. It is the latter option that they have chosen and regime forces have begun entering key border areas under an agreement for integration, reconciliation and common defence of Syria against Turkey.
In the prelude to the current Turkish invasion, the world witnessed some of the most brazen duplicity ever conducted by the United States. The people of Rojava and northern Syria have lost over 11,000 martyrs in the fight against Isis where western powers offered air support, limited special forces participation and low-grade military equipment. From generals to National Guard reservists, the US military has been well aware of the skill and sacrifice of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with many US military personnel expressing their admiration.
But once Raqqa was liberated and Isis no longer held territory the countdown to betrayal began. A deal to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border was agreed by Turkey and the US in August this year which saw the destruction of defence structures and the removal of heavy arms and SDF troops from the area in order to guarantee peace. For the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this was not enough. He promptly went to the UN General Assembly, map in hand, showing that he was set on invading and changing the demographic makeup of northern Syria. Donald Trump relented, withdrawing US forces 30 miles south and opening the air space to US-made Turkish fighter jets.
With limited arms and having destroyed their own defences in good faith, the Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs and Yazidis of Rojava and northern Syria were left to defend their communities against Nato’s second largest army and repackaged Al-Qaeda and Isis auxiliaries.
It is not hard to see why Britain, following the United States, would abandon the Kurdish people. Firstly, the British state and its armed forces has a strategic priority of containing and limiting Russian influence whilst maintaining a western stranglehold in the Middle East with an eye to crush any independent state actor, specifically Iran and Yemen. Turkey, not Saudi Arabia, is the most important lynchpin of this strategy, with long-established Nato bases, missile defence weapons and nuclear weapons batteries guarding Nato’s eastern flank. Erdoğan’s flirtation with Vladimir Putin and purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft system, whilst threatening to ‘flood’ Europe with refugees, has reminded leaders in Nato states of their strategic interests, to the detriment of Kurds and minorities within and outside of Turkey.
Secondly, Turkey imported some £6bn worth of goods and services from the UK last year, whilst Turkish exports to Britain were worth over £8.5bn. With a falling lira and Brexit chaos damaging the pound, both states will be keen to strengthen economic ties. Nowhere is this clearer than in British arms sales to Turkey. Since 2016, licences worth £843m have been approved by ministers and mandarins who have ambitions for Britain to become the key European supplier of arms to Turkey. Whilst these sales often break UK law and export controls, the view of the British state remains, to paraphrase an old dead Roman: for the sale of arms, the laws fall mute.
Thirdly, the women-led democratic project in Rojava represents a genuine challenge to the regional order of dictators, theocrats and warlords that the UK, US and Europe rely on. As we saw with the ‘Arab spring’, the West prefers strongmen and autocrats over the possibility of political change in which the masses gain rights and freedoms. The revolution in Rojava has sought to place power in the hands of those who have never wielded it: women, ethnic and religious minorities and the popular masses in the towns and the countryside. Many millions have engaged in building a different kind of society, a democratic revolution spearheaded by the Kurdish women’s movement. Defying all common stereotypes of the region found in the West, Rojava’s very existence has pierced the notion that there is no alternative to the status quo.
Despite the violence and political setbacks, Rojava should remain a bright light of hope, reason and solidarity. If we cannot trust the government to support the democratic forces, we should strike at the invasion by undermining the close relationship between the UK and Turkey. While the British state sells arms, we should be blockading the factories where they are made and challenging their sale in parliament and on the streets. Our unions could even refuse to load them for transit. While the British government seeks to strengthen economic ties, our movement ought to establish boycotts of Turkish tourist resorts, products and airlines. Boris Johnson might look the other way so that refugees are kept out of Europe by Erdoğan, but we can challenge Fortress Europe by arguing for open and welcoming societies, and demanding the abolition of detention centres.
The Turkish onslaught has long been expected and at the time of writing some 150,000 people have fled the border area with casualties mounting. Erdoğan and Assad are a reactionary double act who have laid waste to communities across Syria and Kurdistan. There is a desperate need to end – or at the very least blunt – the Turkish assault, which means trusting the communities on the ground to decide their own fate. Those activists, fighters and organisers who laid the groundwork for a new society in Rojava and northern Syria are once again facing uncertainty and violence. We must not look away now – we have a job to do in Britain to ensure the isolation is broken, their voices are heard and the Turkish war machine is taken off its Nato life support. Let’s get to work.
Chris Strafford is a member of Friends of Kurdistan Manchester.