Funeral for police cadets and trainers killed in a Turkish airstrike in Derik, north east Syria, October 2023. Photo: Rojava Information Center
On 5 October 2023, a major western ally began a ferocious air campaign against a small Middle Eastern territory, destroying vital infrastructure and sparking a humanitarian crisis unlike anything experienced in the region’s decades-long liberation struggle. This wasn’t Israel’s assault on Gaza, but that of Turkey on Rojava: the self-governing part of Syria famous for its role in the defeat of Isis and the implementation of a radically democratic, pluralistic society predicated on the liberation of women.
Rojava last made headlines in October 2019, when the withdrawal of US forces from the region led to a major Turkish military offensive and the loss of two major cities to the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). Since then, it has largely gone unnoticed by the world’s press, despite almost daily drone strikes and sporadic shelling of its two million citizens. Twice since the establishment of a fragile ceasefire, Turkey’s seemingly never-ending air campaign has crescendoed into attacks on buildings and infrastructure: first in August 2021, as the media’s attention was occupied by the fall of Kabul, and again in late 2022, culminating in widespread (but ultimately limited) destruction of the region’s gas and electrical infrastructure.
These attacks have been set against a backdrop of a long economic squeeze on the region. Each year, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are further choked by Turkish dams and irrigation projects north of the border, reducing Syrians’ access to vital hydro-electric power and water for agriculture. At the same time, the Alouk pumping station – the primary freshwater source for more than a million people in Rojava – has been repeatedly cut off by the SNA militants that captured it during their offensive four years ago.
Despite regular threats, another ground invasion hasn’t yet taken place due to the presence of both US and Russian troops and, no doubt, the work of US diplomats behind the scenes. As such, Turkey views air power as its most effective tool for dismantling Rojava’s autonomy – something it sees as an existential threat.
On 4 October 2023, Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s ethnically Kurdish foreign minister and the former head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), announced infrastructure and energy facilities in Iraq and Syria would be considered military targets. This came as a response to a suicide attack on the police headquarters in Ankara by members of the far-left Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which largely operates in the mountainous region between Iraq and Turkey and which Turkey claims is indistinguishable from Kurdish forces in Rojava.
Despite the protestations of numerous groups in Syria that the perpetrators of the attack had no link to the region, just a few days later Turkey took to the skies above Rojava to conduct a week-long campaign of destruction that has all but wiped out the fledgling democracy’s electrical grid, oil wells and natural gas supply. Estimates by the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) have put the damage at a staggering $1bn – a figure greater than Rojava’s entire annual public expenditure, more than 75% of which is dependent on the petroleum infrastructure that has been destroyed.
In the wake of previous air strikes, the US-led international coalition’s response has rarely strayed from a ‘both-sides’ de-escalation script. But on 5 October, US forces shocked the region by shooting down a Turkish drone after its operators ignored American demands to avoid one of their bases north-west of Rojava’s largest city, Al-Hasakah. Then came another shock: a direct indictment from Washington of Turkey’s actions by way of an executive order from President Biden describing Turkey’s actions as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” and the extension of national emergency powers with regards to US involvement in Syria for another year. This is by far the largest US vote of confidence in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration since the deployment of dozens of armoured vehicles in 2020 by the then newly-elected Biden, and came just days before the US took quite the opposite position on Gaza, steadfastly supporting the Israeli state in its bombing campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the Kurdish and Palestinian struggles have a long shared history. Rojava would likely not exist today if it hadn’t been for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (DFLP) harbouring of Abdullah Öcalan, the then-leader of the PKK who would go on to conceptualise ‘democratic confederalism’, the philosophy on which Rojava is based. He, along with several hundred militants, trained at camps in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa valley during the 1980s and forged links with Fattah and a number of other Palestinian parties and militias. When it emerged that Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) had played a part in Öcalan’s arrest and imprisonment in 1999, Kurdish support for Palestine and opposition to Israel grew yet stronger.
But while leftwing factions in Palestine have lent their support to the Kurdish struggle, the predominantly Arab-nationalist groups and their major supporters (like the Ba’ath movement) have not. As the Kurdistan National Council (KNK) – an alliance of leftwing parties across the four parts of Kurdistan – were drafting their letter of support for the Palestinian struggle last Friday, new arrivals were settling into their homes built by the Palestinian Ihveder Foundation on occupied Kurdish territory in Afrin, north-west Syria. This development is the latest in a series of Palestinian-backed settlements in the region, captured by Turkey in early 2018. The settlements have garnered little international attention, despite many Kurds crying foul at the apparent hypocrisy.
But why has this latest Turkish offensive against Rojava failed to make the headlines, while Palestinians have witnessed a wave of international solidarity – including one of the largest demonstrations in British history? The sheer scale and immediate toll on Gaza’s population is far beyond that recently witnessed in Syria, certainly – but Israel’s occupation of Palestine has always garnered more attention than Kurdistan.
While both peoples have a relatively large diaspora, the Kurdish diaspora is younger than its Palestinian counterpart. The majority of Kurds residing in Europe and the US left during the 1990s and 2000s as result of the Gulf Wars, oppression by the Turkish state, and the ongoing Syrian civil war. So while many Palestinians have risen to prominence across the West, there’s not yet been a Kurdish Edward Saïd. There’s no Kurdish equivalent to Al Jazeera, nor have Kurds received the kind of political and military support from regional powers in the same way that Palestine has. Similarly, grassroots and internationalist support for the Kurdish struggle is much less mature; the Kurdistan Solidarity Network in the UK, for instance, is a much younger, smaller, and less well-funded organisation than the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
The Kurdish struggle – particularly in Syria – also finds itself squeezed between the West’s opposing geopolitical goals. The US and Europe rely on Turkey both for trade (particularly arms sales, in the case of the UK) and its position as the EU’s eastern gate (and therefore as a bulwark against millions of refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan). Turkey ultimately controls the maritime passage to the Black Sea, and is the site of one of the US’s largest overseas air bases. At same time, Kurdish-held territory in Syria cuts right across one of Iran’s land routes to Syria, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the military alliance in Rojava of which the YPJ and YPG are components – are by far the most effective regional force in the fight against Isis and Iranian-backed militias, both of which threaten US influence in the region. Western powers neither want to anger Ankara nor let north-east Syria slip into yet another quagmire, and so are muted in both their responses to Turkey’s attacks and their own support for Syria’s Kurds.
Rojava therefore finds itself both without a voice and without decisive international support. Indeed, the Kurds’ oft-quoted mantra of having no friends but the mountains continues to ring true. While Biden resides in the White House, Rojava’s existence as a political project seems assured. But whether it continues to play a role in the international struggle for a more democratic future depends on how the region can rebuild and adapt in the aftermath of Turkey’s most devastating assault since the fall of Isis.
Dani Ellis is an engineer working in north-east Syria and a founding member of the Rojava Information Center.