Washington Kurdish Institute
December 4, 2017
Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish city in Syria just south of the country’s border with Turkey and north of Aleppo, is facing renewed threats. Turkey and its militant Islamist proxies in Syria have continuously shelled the city of Afrin and the surrounding areas for over a year. The intensity of these attacks periodically changes depending on the political goals of the Turkish government at any point in time. However, since the agreement between Turkey, Iran, and Russia known as Astana talks this past summer, the Turkish state’s long-held animosity against the Kurds in Afrin has manifest itself more publicly. Recently Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed his plans to invade the Kurdish city of Afrin and clear it of fighters from the People’s Defense Units (YPG). The YPG, a predominantly Kurdish armed group in Syria, is considered to be the most effective force fighting against ISIS and other terror groups in Syria, and are major local allies of the US-led coalition against the ISIS terrorist group. Erdogan considers the YPG to be offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group that began its armed struggle against the Turkish state in 1984. The Astana talks did not include the US, and resulted in several agreements between Turkey, Iran and Syria under the auspices of Russia. The most notable agreements included establishing “de-escalation” zones administered variously by Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Syrian regime. The plan to establish these so-called de-escalation zones led the deployment of Turkish troops to the Syrian province of Idlib where the hardline Islamists hold power. In return for the deployment of Turkish troops, the Assad regime and Russia are to cease airstrikes against the these towns under the armed groups’ control.
The Astana talks undoubtedly brought Turkish government closer to the Syrian regime, nearly six years Erdogan initiated his failed strategy of support for jihadist groups to topple the Iran- and Russia-backed Assad dictatorship. The Turkeys’ convergence with yesterday’s enemies is motivated in no small part by hatred against the Kurdish people. The Turkish state’s top priority is the prevention of the establishment of any Kurdish entity, whether in Iran, Iraq, Syria or Turkey. Indeed, this is a longstanding pillar of Turkey’s foreign policy.
In Iraq, the Turkish government’s relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) gave rise to significant development in the diplomatic, economic, commercial, and security fields. Erdogan repeatedly conveyed that Turkey has no problem with the Kurds, but rather with the PKK. However, when the Kurds in Iraq decided to conduct an independence referendum, Turkey immediately downgraded its relationship with the KRG, and Erdogan immediately agreed with Iran and Iraq governments to thwart the Kurdish independence project and impose sanctions on the region, which was already struggling with a severe economic crisis due to disputes with the Iraqi central government, the ongoing war against ISIS, and the massive humanitarian crisis that had resulted in a flood of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis into Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Syria, the Turkish government failed to end the Assad regime after years of attempts and support for hardline Islamic groups. During this time, the Kurds of Syria managed to take control of their own areas and liberate many parts of the country from the control of ISIS and the Assad regime. Following the success of the YPG, the Kurds of Syria worked with other peoples of the country to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of armed groups in northern Syria, which has played a major role in combatting ISIS with the support of the US-led coalition. While continuing to battle terror or multiple fronts, the Kurds and their allies simultaneously established a democratic system of self-rule in northern Syria. These areas enjoy security and are focusing on reconstruction, while still awaiting formal international recognition.
Turkey’s significant support for various radical groups provides a stark contrast to the vision of the authorities in northern Syria, who have established a secular system based on the principles of direct democracy and gender equality.
The escalation of Turkey’s attacks on Afrin represent another attempt by the Turkish state to sabotage a free expression of Kurdish identity. Over the past two weeks, at least three civilians have been Killed by the Turkish attacks., and the YPG has released two statements denouncing Turkish aggression against Afrin. The YPG has repeatedly proclaimed that they will respond to attacks and defend their people’s lands. The most recent escalation by Turkey threatens to transform an island of calm within Syria, a country already devastated by years of civil war, into another theatre of warfare.
To better understand recent developments in Afrin, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) recently interviewed Rezan Heddo, a prominent Kurdish political writer and human rights activists from Afrin.
WKI: Can you inform us about the recent developments in Afrin?
Rezan Heddo: There is a huge Turkish military mobilization on several axes – from north of Afrin on the border of Turkey and from the west, the Turkish military have presence with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) [a Salafist militant group formed from a merger of groups including al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra] in Dar al-Azza and Jabal Sheikh Barakat. On the east side of Afrin, they are in Azaz, Kaljabrin, and Sheikh Aqeel. In any case, we are in Afrin in anticipation, and the Syrian crisis has taught us to work for the best and prepare for the worst. Several villages were hit by shelling, for example, the village of Bassoufan, which is inhabited by Yazidi Kurds, and there has also been shelling of Bilbil district of Afrin.
WKI: Recently Turkey’s President Erdogan threatened to invade Afrin. What do you think the people’s reaction will be?
Rezan Heddo: We, the people of Afrin, are people with ambitions in life – we eat, drink, play, we love life. But we reject Turkish presence in Afrin.
WKI: Assuming that there will conflict in Afrin, how would it affect northern Syria’s security? How would it effect the displaced persons from other areas in Syria?
Rezan Heddo: This would certainly affect the situation in the country. We will not allow the entry of the Turkish military to our city, especially when they are accompanied by the HTS terror group. With regards to the internally displaced persons (IDPs), we have currently host half a million IDPs in Afrin, 300,000 of whom are from Idlib, Hama, and Homs. Afrin is among the safest places in the entire country. If Turkish invasion occurs, what would be the fate of the hundreds of thousands of people there?
WKI: Who would benefit if Afrin is taken by Turkey?
Rezan Heddo: The primary beneficiaries of opening this new front would be the terrorist groups. A state of chaos and war suits the terrorist groups as it facilitates their expansion and movement. Afrin was the target of terrorist groups for seven years, who have tried to control the mountains of Afrin and turn them into a version of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan.
WKI: Do you think there will be an international reaction if Turkey attempts to take Afrin? Especially from Russia, given that they have the greater influence in western Syria.
Rezan Heddo: Moral and humanitarian imperative requires the international community to intervene to protect a safe city that contains a million civilians. Over the past few years, Afrin has suffered from war and siege from terrorist groups like [al-Qaida affiliate] Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The people of Afrin defended its mountains and prevented them from turning into terrorist strongholds. Moreover, the Kurds in Afrin moved to defend their Syrian brethren against ISIS terrorists in several areas such as Kobani, Minbij, and Raqqa.
WKI: Do you think the invasion of Afrin have anything to do with Astana talks and agreements?
Rezan Heddo: The states involved of the agreement should address this question. The escalation and the violence against Afrin is against the essence of Astana agreement, which calls for de-escalation. I personally think Russia does not have any interest in Turkey attacking Afrin.
WKI: How do you explain Afrin in few words?
Rezan Heddo: “The man is the son of his environment”. This saying reflects Afrin’s people. The olive trees that we have reflect the people of Afrin – simplicity, love for life, seekers of peace. Afrin deserves to be an icon of peace in Syria. Unfortunately, it has been neglected and ignored by everyone including Kurdish politicians. It is a place where you see Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Alawites, and Christians coexisting in peace. I hope that Afrin will not be a sacrificial lamb for the political equations of the east and west of the Euphrates. We hope that the international community honor their moral duty toward Afrin and not ignore it simply because it is located west of the Euphrates. We in Afrin fight terrorism and have fought terror groups throughout Syria. We expect that Syrians and the international community will reciprocate and stand by us by various means to prevent increased Turkish aggression on Afrin.