Showdown in Afrin: Turkey’s Attack on Syria’s Kurds Threatens That Country’s Most Democratic, Pluralist Force
Last week Turkey opened a new front in the Syrian war by using its air force against the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin—which had done absolutely nothing to provoke this attack—even while the battle against ISIS continues in Deir Ezzor, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG-YPJ, are fighting with US support. Turkey’s attack on the Syrian Kurds has opened up a new front in the war, jeopardized its already fragile relationship with the United States, and given a green light to jihadis to attack the Kurds.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who announced that his “Operation Olive Branch” would “destroy all terror nests” within days, launched a ground offensive on Sunday, January 21, that included tanks, special operations troops, and militias of the Free Syrian Army. Though the ground offensive was stalled, Turkey is still heavily bombing; so far at least 24 civilians have been killed and an estimated 5,000 have lost their homes. The displaced have nowhere to run, since Turkey has built a wall along the border and those who reach Aleppo are turned back at Syrian government checkpoints. Meanwhile, at home Erdogan is arresting any journalist or politician who dares criticize the offensive on social media—91 and counting.
Afrin is the westernmost canton of what is often called by the Kurdish name Rojava; the other two cantons, Cizire and Kobane, were originally separated by ISIS-controlled territory, but by spring of 2016 they were linked; that August, Kurdish and Arab fighters in the SDF drove ISIS out of Manbij. The cantons are under the ideological leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), but are run by a diverse, multiparty umbrella body known as TEV-DEM. In December 2016, to highlight its commitment to pluralism rather than Kurdish identity politics, Rojava changed its name to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Until now, Afrin, which is famous mainly for olive-oil soap, has been one of the more stable parts of Syria; for this reason, despite a Turkish embargo, it became the destination of hundreds of thousands of refugees, who increased its population from 400,000 before the war to roughly 750,000 now. Afrin borders Turkey on the north and is surrounded on its other sides by Syrian government forces and rebel forces, including Al Qaeda. Like other parts of Rojava, Afrin is run democratically, with an emphasis on religious and ethnic pluralism, restorative justice, the liberation of women, ecology, and economic cooperatives.