Up to 60,000 civilians are fleeing the border area between Turkey and the autonomous region of Rojava in northeast Syria, where clashes between Kurdish militias and Turkish forces entered their third day on Friday. The Turkish invasion threatens the radically decentralized and democratic social revolution in Rojava, including women-led political movements and projects that have inspired activists across the globe, and stand in sharp contrast to the patriarchy and authoritarianism that defines much of the Middle East.
“It’s not just the [Syrian Democratic Forces] or the military groups that under threat, it’s civilian institutions that are potentially going to be attacked,” said Robin Fleming, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center (RIC), an activist media outlet on the ground in northeast Syria, in a phone interview with Truthout on Wednesday.
Kurdish militias and “civilian defense” groups have pledged to defend Rojava and its feminist experiment with decentralized, direct democracy against military forces under the command of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which invaded the autonomous region in northeast Syria on Wednesday after President Trump agreed to remove U.S. troops from observation posts along the border.
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While tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing the deadly violence unleashed by Turkey and its allies in various Syrian Islamic militias, others remained in cities such as Ras al-Ayn (Sari Kani or Serêkaniyê in Kurdish) and Qamishli (a.k.a Qamishlo), the autonomous region’s de facto capital and home to the University of Rojava. Some staged nonviolent marches and protests, forming human shields to defend autonomous democratic zones. Others have organized civilian “Civil Defense Forces” through local communes and pledged to defend the Rojava revolution.
“Yesterday they attacked Qamishlo,” said Bariye, a protester marching in Qamishlo on Thursday, in an interview with the RIC. “Today we are on the streets to let the invaders know that as youth, as mothers, as children, we are on our feet and that we won’t leave until the fascist Turkish state is defeated and the people are victorious.”
Many activists are Kurds, but the democratic revolution in Rojava is a distinctly multi-ethnic and secular project that advocates religious freedom, and activists say resistance to the invasion is diverse.
“Not only as Kurds, also as Assyrians and Arabs, as many democratic nations, we are ready and we will free our country together,” Bariye said.
Turkish airstrikes and shelling continued in and around border towns and outposts on Thursday and Friday morning. A civilian source told the RIC that Turkish artillery hit two civilian homes during street demonstrations against the invasion in the border town of Tel Abyad. “Lots of civilians” have been killed there, the source reported, including elders and children, an account that has yet to be confirmed by human rights observers by the time this story was published. The Turkish military is also using “psychological warfare” in an attempt to “create panic and chaos.”
At least 11 civilians are confirmed to have been killed by Turkish airstrikes and shelling near the border, including 11-year-old boy, according to the Kurdish Red Cross. A gunman with “Turkish-loyal factions” fatally shot an elderly man in the head near Afrin early Friday morning, according to SOHR and the Kurdish Red Crescent. SOHR has accused Islamist groups and “military police” that allied with Turkey during the Syrian civil war of human rights violations and clashes with civilians in the lead up to the invasion.
Heavy clashes between Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the pro-democracy coalition of Kurds and others that crushed the Islamic State’s brutal caliphate with backing from the United States, occurred in the Turkish border town of Derik and other areas, according to the RIC. Islamic extremists, some of them backed by Turkey, also staged attacks amid the chaos. The SDF rebuffed Turkey’s initial offensive Tal Abyad area, with a number of injuries and fatalities on both sides, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Thursday.
Kurdish activists and other revolutionaries across Turkey and Rojava consider Erdogan a fascist colonist and say Rojava’s autonomous experiments with “democratic confederalism” and women’s liberation have created a bastion of secular democracy in the Middle East that provides a potent alternative to global capitalism.
“As long as we have a drop of blood, we will resist,” Emine Mihemed Hesen, a member of Civil Defense Forces in Ras al-Ain, said in a statement to the media.
Turkey broadly views the Kurds and the SDF as “terrorists” due to decades of violent conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a longstanding leftist separatist group in Turkey, and wants to push their militias out of northern Syria so millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war currently residing in Turkey can be relocated there. Erdogan’s plans have raised fears of genocide and the reemergence of ISIS, the Islamic fascist group also known as Daesh, that established the now-defunct Islamic State. The SDF oversees several prison camps for ISIS fighters and their families that are reportedly on the verge of collapse.
However, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s symbolic leader, who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades, called for an end to armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state years ago. Instead, he laid out a vision for a stateless network of local communes and municipal councils that formed the political foundation of Rojava after Kurdish fighters carved out the autonomous territory during the Syrian civil war and the U.S.-backed fight against ISIS. Öcalan’s vision combines his own experience as a Marxist guerrilla with modern feminism and the writings of Murray Bookchin, the late American anarchist and theoretician who developed a radical environmentalist political model known as social ecology.
The experiment in decentralized democracy in Rojava requires equal gender representation in local councils and has fiercely challenged subjugation of women. Large women-led movements have formed as a result, including Kongreya Star, the Kurdish Women’s Union in Rojava. In recent statements, Kongreya Star said Turkey and its reactionary allies in Iran, Russia and the NATO alliance (which includes the U.S.) want to change the demographics in Rojava and eliminate a self-governing system rooted in women’s liberation:
In North-East Syria, women have been out in the streets for months with the slogan ‘Defend your dignity and land, destroy DAESH and occupation’. Because the values attacked by the Turkish state are the values of women’s revolution. These values were created with blood as thousands fell martyrs fighting ISIS on behalf of humanity and women. Today they have created an island of freedom for the region, Syria and all women in the world. Women can achieve their intellectual, physical and spiritual development on this island of freedom. The Turkish state, with its millennial tradition, is attacking women on this island of freedom with a dominant patriarchal mentality…. The aim is to destroy the free society that will develop under the leadership of free women.
Fleming said the RIC has reported on several radical and feminist projects that have grown out of revolution in Rojava, including local “reconciliation councils,” which resolve disputes between tribes and family clans, and hold people accountable for harming others through a democratic process and without an official court system. The councils are engaging in models of transformative and restorative justice that derive from Indigenous practices and have become popular among activists in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Ecological restoration projects are also underway in Rojava, where years of conflict and decades of colonial, centralized land ownership under the Syrian government have decimated forests and farms in Kurdish areas, according to the Make Rojava Green Again movement. Fleming said reforestation initiatives and efforts to revitalize watersheds and agricultural areas may come to a halt due to the Turkish invasion — along with broader efforts to build the dream of truly democratic and feminist society without a centralized government.
These projects have inspired activists the world over, some of whom have traveled to Rojava to document its democratic experiment and even fight alongside Kurdish and autonomous militias in their campaign against ISIS. Today, there is a growing movement of international solidarity with Rojava.
However, even as this movement builds in one of the world’s largest autonomous zones, the Turkish invasion threatens the survival of the Rojava project and its people.
“Everything is under threat,” Fleming said.