On Jan. 20, the Turkish state began conducting air raids in the Afrin Canton in Syria—an enclave near the Turkish border that is home to over a million people. By the next day, the Turkish armed forces had launched a ground invasion with tanks and mercenaries, while Islamic jihadists on the ground aided Turkey’s air strikes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims these attacks are necessary to defeat the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG, or People’s Protection Units) and the all-female Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units), the most powerful militias in the region, which he falsely claims are providing aid to terrorists.
The YPG and YPJ are the paramilitary armed wings of the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD, or Democratic Union Party)—a socialist and feminist political party inspired by the writings of the libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. The party forms a part of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK, or Kurdish Communities Union), a collection of Kurdish political parties in countries with large Kurdish populations—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their ideologies are based on democratic confederalism, a political system based on direct democracy while also maintaining local autonomy. The militias are composed mostly of Kurdish fighters but also include Arabs, Assyrians, and foreign volunteers among their ranks. They have fought valiantly against the armies of the Islamic State, or ISIS, for years now.
When ISIS drove Yezidi villagers to the Sinjar mountains in Iraq to force them to renounce their religion or face death by thirst and heat exhaustion, it was the YPG and YPJ that broke the siege and led the villagers to safety. That offensive cut ISIS’s supply routes to Mosul and turned the tide of the war against ISIS in Iraq.
When the porous Turkish Syrian border allowed waves of suicide bombers and other terrorists to attack the city of Kobane (Kobani), it was the YPG and YPJ that weathered the storm, defeating ISIS and turning the tide of the war in Syria. They have moreover proven themselves invaluable in the fight against terrorism and in the liberation and defense of the cities of Hasakah, Tell Abyad, and Manbij. They have been on the frontlines during the entirety of the battle to liberate Raqqa.
As they free cities and villages, grateful civilians are joining their cause. Under their banner, an autonomous federation run by general assemblies has flourished in Northern Syria, espousing the ideals of humanity, feminism, democracy, and plurality of religions and peoples. Many foreigners, inspired by their message of equality, have made the treacherous trip to Syria to defend the revolution, even that might mean never seeing their loved ones again.
The YPG and YPJ are not terrorists and they pose no threat to any nation or state. To suggest otherwise would be to contradict the very definition of terrorism. Which terrorist groups have practiced direct democracy as in Rojava, letting the people of the community dictate how to live their lives? Which terrorist groups invite members of all religions and ethnicities to live and work on the same land? Which terrorist groups build societies where women are treated equal to men?
Before President Erdoğan decided to invade Afrin, the YPG and YPJ did not even engage any state armies. Where was Turkey’s military force when Kobane was being attacked by ISIS? Or when the people of Sinjar were besieged and massacred? No state or international organization (aside from Turkey) even deems the YPG and YPJ as terrorist organizations, and no state has come out in explicit support for Turkey’s operation. Turkey’s decision to attack the Kurds at a time when ISIS is no longer a threat clearly proves what its true intentions are.
Erdoğan’s mad quest for power and Neo-Ottoman expansionism has made his position on the issue very clear. He cannot allow the Kurds in Syria to show the world that the Rojava experiment of a feminist, egalitarian, pluralist society of many peoples, many languages, and many religions is a strong success and lays bare how truly racist and oppressive Erdoğan’s vision of Turkish society truly is. These attacks against the Kurds and peace-loving people in Syria are a continuation of 500 years of Turkish colonialism and imperialism. Turkey’s attacks not only threaten human lives but also constitute an attempt to erase the entire Kurdish region from the map.
Just a few of days ago, Turkish fighter jets completely destroyed parts of the ancient city of Ain Dara—including the Ain Dara temple, which was built over 3,000 years ago by Arameans. That is a continuation of the destruction of Syria’s ancient history and heritage, including the destruction the Old City of Aleppo and Palmyra at the hands of ISIS.
Armenians especially know the pain of losing the physical evidence of culture, as ancient buildings and historical sites in Western Armenia are completely destroyed by the Turkish government or lie in dire need of repair and restoration. In another case, beginning in the 1990s, Azerbaijani government, in a notorious attempt to destroy Armenian cultural heritage, destroyed the cemetery of Julfa in Nakhichevan. They systematically obliterated thousands of khatchkars (cross-stones) to erase the historical presence of Armenians. This is an age-old tactic used by imperialists to remove a group of people—along with any traces of them—from their homeland
At present, the situation in Afrin is very serious as the city is facing heavy fighting. Kurds around the world have been trying to pressure governments to implement a no fly zone over Afrin to stop Erdoğan from unleashing air strikes. So far, the governments of the United States and Russia have taken no real steps to stop the bombardment, however. The Kurds in the region have been the U.S.’s most sincere ally in the region: They provide invaluable tactical and strategic support; Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq were critical in finding Saddam Hussein; and it was the Kurds in Syria who bore the brunt of the fighting against ISIS. Without the Kurds, tens thousands of American soldiers would have had to deploy to carry the fight.
The latest heinous crimes by the Turkish state must be condemned, and the international community must demand a stop to the assaults on Afrin, which are indiscriminately killing civilians and violating the territorial integrity of the Syrian Republic.
Those of us who live in the safest and most comfortable areas of the world should do more for the people of Rojava. The sacrifices these people have made to the altar of freedom have made the world a more peaceful place. Their fight has been a fight for common decency. How can we as human beings witness such atrocities and stay silent? To be silent is to be complicit and to lose our humanity. We must stand with the Kurds against these attacks by Turkish imperialist forces.
Let’s be clear, if the defenses of Afrin are breached, then the world will witness yet another genocide at the hands of Turkey. The international community cannot turn its back on the people of Afrin.