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Kurdish Activists Offer a Beacon to the World. Erdoğan Wants to Crush Them.

Turkish bombs continue to hit civilian and military targets in northern Syria on an almost daily basis.

Syrian-Kurdish demonstrators raise pictures of people killed during conflict as they protest against Turkey's attacks on their region, in the northeastern city of Qamishli, on November 27, 2022.

Detonations jolted people out of their sleep. Firelight illuminated the skies of northern and eastern Syria, and from time to time it glared brightly. The silence of the night was shattered by the engine noise of Turkish fighter jets and the loud explosions of their deadly cargo, which made the windowpanes and walls of nearby houses tremble. In wave after wave, dozens of Turkish fighter jets took off from their bases in eastern Turkey, as drones hovered with a low humming sound over areas along the border. Throughout the night of November 20, 2022, the attacks did not stop, and the uncertainty of what would happen next robbed people of sleep. Turkish television channels flickered with one breaking news story after another and excited anchors speculated about the imminent start of a ground offensive. On a bright red background, viewers heard reports of “terrorist nests” which were being “destroyed one by one” and proclamations of the “great achievements” of the Turkish air force.

The next morning, the Turkish Ministry of National Defense declared the start of a new offensive with the name “Claw Sword.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the aerial attacks were just the beginning and announced the imminent invasion of the Autonomous Administration North and East Syria. As Turkish bombs and artillery shells rained down on hundreds of villages and towns along the border and farther inland, targeted attacks from the air destroyed much of the infrastructure of northern and eastern Syria, devastating the water and electricity supply, oil production and fuel depots, substations, hospitals and schools. Thus began a period of intense anguish and hope for the people of northern Syria.

According to Zeynep Hesen from the northeastern Syrian town of Derik, the attacks targeted the economy and civilian infrastructure. “They bombed our silos and granaries, and they also attacked the power supply so that we would be cut off from electricity,” Hesen said in an interview a few days after the bombings. The mother of three children believes the Turkish army’s attacks are not “retaliation for the Istanbul attack” as the Turkish government claims, but politically motivated. “The only thing they want is that the Kurds in northern Syria cannot achieve anything for themselves.”

The legacy of Turkish aggression against the self-administered territories of northern and eastern Syria did not begin with the November 20 attacks, but has historical roots that go far beyond the Syrian civil war. The preamble to the Turkish constitution — which is still in force and was drawn up in 1982 by Turkey’s military junta after the military coup of September 12, 1980 — states that the constitution does not protect or tolerate any “activity contrary to Turkish national interests, Turkish existence and the principle of its indivisibility with its State and territory, historical and moral values of Turkishness.” The supreme concern is the “eternal existence of the Turkish Motherland and Nation and the indivisible unity of the Sublime Turkish State.”

Outside of the “Turkish language” and the “Turkish nation” the constitution has no mention of the numerous ethnic groups and diverse religious communities that inhabit the territory of today’s Turkey like a mosaic. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, these minority groups have been systematically suppressed and excluded from public life, especially the Kurdish population, which represents the largest national minority of Turkey with an estimated population of 15 to 20 million. The use of the Kurdish language has been punishable since the 1920s, as has the wearing of Kurdish costumes and clothing and the celebration of Kurdish festivals and customs. In order to “Turkify” the country, large-scale resettlement projects were begun in the 1930s, millions of people were forcibly displaced, and ethnic Turks were settled in Kurdish areas. Hundreds of thousands of people were systematically murdered by Turkish forces in a series of military operations between 1924 and 1938.

Moreover, the integration of the Turkish Republic into the West after 1945 did not stop the brutal persecution of the Kurdish language and culture, which ultimately aimed for cultural annihilation. The very mention of the word “Kurdistan,” a historical geographical term used centuries earlier on Ottoman maps to describe the “land of the Kurds,” could lead to long prison sentences, death and torture. It was this atmosphere of fear and terror in which young Kurds and Turks in the 1970s set out to fight the extermination of an entire people. The best known of the organizations that emerged at that time, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has now been armed and fighting for almost 40 years for the implementation of regional autonomy that can guarantee the Kurdish population and all other groups equal rights and cultural freedom. In doing so, the PKK is no longer concerned with the establishment of its own nation-state, but rather seeks a democratic solution to the Kurdish question within the borders of the existing states. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which led the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012, is also committed to this political model, which was labeled “democratic confederalism” by its creator, PKK co-founder Abdullah Öcalan.

While the Turkish government never tires of emphasizing that the PKK and the PYD are two congruent organizations, representatives of both parties deny any organic connection. For Turkey, the claim that the Syrian PYD is merely a front organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is crucial, as it serves to justify airstrikes and the occupation of northern Syrian areas. In fact, some of the leading party members who founded the PYD in 2003 as a regional Kurdish party are former cadres of the PKK. According to PYD officials they had left the party after 2003 to devote themselves to the struggle for the rights of the Kurdish population in northern Syria, while the PKK’s main areas of struggle were in northern and southern Kurdistan, i.e. eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Since then, the two parties have maintained a close exchange and friendly relationship. In the winter of 2014/2015, for example, the PKK sent hundreds of its experienced guerrilla fighters to combat the Islamic State in the city of Kobanê and provides political support for the democratic self-government project. Thus, both parties are more likely to be seen as parts of a broader and politically coordinated Kurdish movement than as congruent or subordinate organizations.

After anti-Kurdish riots by majority Arab soccer fans in the northern Syrian city of Qamişlo on March 12, 2004, and the subsequent suppression of Kurdish protests by the regime of Bashar al Assad, in which at least 32 people lost their lives, the PYD began to establish political structures in the underground. Its own educational institutions, future administrative structures and self-defense groups were formed in clandestinity. In 2011, when the uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party spread from the south of Syria to large parts of the country, the PYD stepped out of the shadows and went on the offensive. In the turmoil of the Syrian civil war, the majority Kurdish and Arab population in the north of the country managed to bring large areas under their own control. On July 19, 2012, protesters liberated the town of Kobanê on the Syrian-Turkish border. In the days that followed, numerous towns in the border region fell into the hands of the insurgent population and the Syrian army units were forced to evacuate their positions. The old regime was replaced by grassroots-elected councils that took over public administration and began a far-reaching transformation of social life. Women were encouraged to assume responsibility in politics and the economy, and the system of co-presidency of one woman and one man in all public offices brought about radical changes in social role models in the short 10 years after the revolution. In the fight against jihadist organizations and patriarchal social conditions, women formed their own fighting units and made a decisive contribution to the defeat of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State. The social contract of northern and eastern Syria guarantees all ethnic and religious components of the country equal rights, mother-tongue education and establishes equal representation of the various minorities in public administration.

The social project of self-government in northern and eastern Syria is the diametric opposite of Erdoğan’s autocratic regime. Although Erdoğan likes to cite the alleged danger posed by Kurdish fighters in the north of the country to legitimize his incursions into Syrian territory, the real motivations for the aggressive policy of annihilation are above all ideological. It is not the fear of militants infiltrating the border that drives Erdoğan and Turkey’s ruling power clique further and further into the neighboring country, but the knowledge of the enormous radiance emanating from the ideas of the revolution in northern Syria and the emerging social model it represents.

The awakening of Kurdish society and other democratic forces in Turkey between 2013 and 2015 cannot be considered separately from the social transformation processes on the other side of the border. The electoral success of the HDP, the People’s Democractic Party, posed an unprecedented threat to the old Turkey, which since its founding in 1923, has been built on the erasure of a variety of population groups, religious communities and social identities, most notably Kurdish society.

The HDP was founded in 2012 as an alliance of various leftist, socialist and democratic parties, organizations, trade unions and civil society associations.

The party, which is often simplified in foreign discourse as “pro-Kurdish,” is committed to a democratic solution to the Kurdish question within the framework of a constitutional reform to be worked out as a result of negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdish PKK and is fighting for the project of, as they name it, a “Democratic Republic of Turkey.” It advocates the fair distribution of the country’s wealth, the decentralization of public administration and the strengthening of the right of local societies to have a say. With their idea of Turkey as a “democratic nation,” a nation of unity in diversity, in which all nations, cultures and languages of Turkey should have a place, they are trying to develop a counter-model to the nationalistic and homogenizing model of the 100-year-old Turkish Republic.

In the 2015 elections, 80 HDP representatives entered the Turkish parliament, creating a governing body that for the first time represented all of Turkey’s ethnic and religious identities.

But the Kurdish society’s awakening was not limited to the parliamentary level. By the summer of 2015, hundreds of cooperatives, women’s shelters, cultural centers, language schools and issue-specific civil society organizations had emerged in northern Kurdistan and Turkey.

While Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed to be interested in finding a solution to the Kurdish question at the beginning of their rule in the 2000s, the Erdoğan government abruptly broke off any negotiations with the PKK and its imprisoned mastermind Öcalan in the spring of 2015. Negotiations began after a round of fierce military clashes between the People’s Defense Forces HPG, PKK guerrilla units and the Turkish army, beginning with a Kurdish offensive on June 1, 2010, and continuing into the winter months of 2012. When Kurdish units succeeded in creating a military stalemate in the fall of 2012, the Turkish government began negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, first in secret and later officially. With a declaration on the Kurdish New Year celebration of “Newroz” on March 21, 2013, Öcalan declared a unilateral ceasefire and a period commonly known in Turkey as the “solution process” began. From then on, representatives of the HDP regularly shuttled back and forth between the prison island of Imrali and the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq, attempting to mediate between the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement. The negotiations were accompanied by a massive mobilization of Kurdish and Turkish civil society organizations, which built up pressure on the Turkish government with their demand for a “just peace.” However, the Turkish government did not budge from its position and refused to make more far-reaching political concessions. From April 5, 2015, the political delegations of the HDP were denied access to the prison island of Imrali, where Öcalan is imprisoned in the Sea of Marmara, and the negotiations came to a halt. From the Kurdish side, the isolation imposed on Öcalan is often defined as the actual beginning of the war, because with the break-off of contact to Imrali, any approach to a solution seemed doomed to failure. Under the pretext of retaliation against an attack by the Islamic State, in which on July 20, 2015, 34 members of a socialist youth organization lost their lives, the Turkish government escalated the conflict and began attacking Kurdish associations. What is particularly cynical is that the attack was directed at the youth organization of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), which is the second largest member party of the HDP. With the start of Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish positions in northern Iraq and northern Syria on July 24, 2015, the period of relative stability between 2013 and 2015, also known as the “peace period,” ended. Erdoğan’s government obstructed demands for constitutional change in Turkey, which would also grant equal rights and limited self-government to the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. Erdoğan saw the awakening and mass political participation of the Kurdish population as a threat to his own power and the “unity of the country.”

With a brutal wave of repression against Kurdish and opposition politicians and the beginning of more extensive military operations in the majority Kurdish cities in the east of the country, a dark chapter of recent Turkish history began, which still holds the country in its clutches today. Thousands of HDP politicians and activists — including dozens of MPs and officials, HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, as well as trade unionists, representatives of the environmental movement and women’s rights activists — have since been arrested and are serving sentences in Turkish prisons, some of them for decades. The elected mayors of the Kurdish cities were disempowered and replaced by forced administrators, determined by decree from Ankara. The war that Erdoğan and his allies are waging is a war first and foremost against the ideas behind the democratic projects in the region. This war is being waged both at home and abroad with the utmost severity.

To date, the announced ground offensive in Syria has not materialized, but there is still no sign of the situation easing. Turkish bombs continue to hit civilian and military targets in northern Syria on an almost daily basis, and the Turkish army and its Islamist allies are ready to strike from behind the border wall. Since 2016, Turkey has had a total of four military ground operations in Syria and by all indications the Erdoğan government will do everything it can to launch a fifth invasion before the elections in the first half of 2023. “It is obvious that because of the elections in Turkey there is a great danger of a ground offensive, especially against the city of Kobanê,” explains Mike Rohat, who fights as an international volunteer in the ranks of the People’s Defense Units. For him, the connection between the increasing political repression in Turkey and attacks is apparent. “Erdoğan is losing more and more approval and he has done this before to stir up nationalist sentiments.”

So far, neither the U.S. nor the Russian Federation, both of which have a military presence in the small strip of Kurdish land and are pursuing their own interests, seem to have given the green light for a Turkish offensive. How far Erdoğan is willing to go, whether he could even push through an offensive against the will of the two superpowers, remains questionable. What is clear is that Erdoğan and his AKP need this invasion more urgently than ever. It seems that in view of the desolate economic situation at home and the falling polls for the ruling party, the president is hoping a military success can provide political cover.

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