Erdogan should wake up to the reality that only the Kurds' ideology is future proof
The Kurdish fighters in Syria, with whom I have been spending my time as a journalist the last couple of weeks, are ready for whichever reaction the Turkish government will deem fit after the decision of president Trump to arm them with heavy weapons. Even Turkey’s president Erdogan’s threat to invade the Kurds’ de-facto autonomous lands in the north of Syria, doesn’t scare the fighters. They know that eventually, their ideology will prevail. For Erdogan there is only one thing left to do: wake up to this reality.
Turkey’s president Erdogan has tried close to everything to steer the US government away from supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab army currently closing in on Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The SDF is lead by the Kurdish YPG, which Erdogan considers to be the same as the PKK, the Kurdish armed group that has been fighting the Turkish state since the early 1980s. The PKK demands autonomy for the Kurds in the southeast of the country – a demand the Turkish state has always categorally rejected.
But with his latest attempt to try to paint the picture of the YPG as a blood thirsty terrorist group, he may have overplayed his hand. The attack at a YPG base in northeast Syria on 25 April in which twenty YPG fighters and media-activists died, drew nothing but international rejection. Erdogan raged that the YPG is carrying out attacks on Turkish soil from the north of Syria and this ‘terrorism’ has to stop, but there is no proof of such attacks, simply because they never happened. Erdogan brags about his own attacks though, and promises for more to come.
Destruction at Qerecox mountain after Turkey's attack on 25 april. (Photo: Fréderike Geerdink)
Some Kurdish fighters in Syria lamented that it was not in the first place weapons that they needed in the fight against IS, but for Turkey to stop its agression against them so they could concentrate on liberating Raqqa. But as the news of Trump’s decision to arm the SDF came in, regional commander Fidan Zinar said with a smile: ‘US weapons will both strengthen our fight against IS and protect our lands against Turkish attacks. I think it is exactly the message Trump wanted to give: stop these attacks.’
But will the message be heard? As a precaution against Erdogan’s unpredictability, ever since the attack on 25 April the military bases of the SDF and YPG are empty at night. After sunset and tea, fighters at the Raqqa front and in the Kurdish lands in north-Syria roll themselves up in their blankets on matrasses folded out in the fields.
Domestically, Erdogan’s attacks against the Kurds in Syria are supported, since most Turks hate the PKK and believe the YPG is the same. ‘What people don’t understand’, commander Sewin, high up in the command structure of the YPJ, the women’s forces of the YPG, explained to me when I arrived in northern Syria weeks ago, ‘is that sharing an ideology with the PKK doesn’t mean that we are the same. The system we promote is decentralised. We don’t take orders from the PKK or any other group. We are independent.’
Coordination center of operations to liberate Raqqa, April 2017, near Ain Issa. (Photo: Fréderike Geerdink)
The ideology commander Sewin refers to, becomes visible in the towns north of Syria that have already been cleared of IS: neighbourhood and village councils appear, where locals take control of their own affairs. Every group is represented according to its size. In Kurdish towns, the Kurds have most seats, in Arab towns the Arabs. Minorities like Armenians and Turkmen have guaranteed seats as well, and everybody’s cultural, religious and linguistic rights are being respected. The details of the system, that has been gradually introduced in much of north-Syria since 2012, are laid down in a ‘social contract’, say, a constitution. Recently, the first council for Raqqa was set up, to prepare for the tough job that lies ahead: governing Raqqa after IS. Raqqa’s first council is co-chaired by a Kurdish woman and an Arab man.
The further brigade commander Silan Afrin drives away from the frontline north of Raqqa, the more of these again inhabited villages she passes. Children play on the dusty roads, women sit by their houses, men hang around cars being repaired and petrol being sold. Laundry fluttering on roofs and on lines between houses colours the scene.
As she stops her car to buy some cookies and cans of energy drinks from a tiny village shop, commander Afrin says that it is only natural that this ideology of respecting people’s identities and giving them a real say over their lives, has emerged in the Middle-East: ‘People of different ethnicities and religions have always lived here. For lasting peace, we will have to live together again. It’s the only solution for Syria.’
Villagers who fled their homes before SDF-Daesh fighting would start are being checked at a YPG checkpoint, May 2017, close to the town of Kabsh Sharqi. (Photo: Fréderike Geerdink)
She and her fighters sometimes encounter surprise among Arabs that a Kurdish majority force liberates Arab towns and that fighters give their lives for the freedom of Raqqa, a city with only a small Kurdish population. ‘There is nothing strange about it’, commander Afrin says. ‘We don’t fight for any particular group. We fight for the people and for humanity because this is what we believe in, until we die.’
And this is the reality that Erdogan needs to wake up to. The republic he rules is part of the Middle-East that commander Afrin is talking about: a geography that has been the cradle of many civilisations and where Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Alevis and others have survived, despite Turkey’s destructive Sunni Islamic nationalism. Suppressing these groups’ natural right to live their identities and determine their own fate – a right also laid down in international law – will only make it, one day, burst out in violence.
Attacks like the one on 25 April, which intensify the anger and determination of the growing group of Kurds in the Middle-East who support the ideology of the PKK and YPG, increase the risk that Turkey will be plunged into a bloody civil war. The outcome of it would be the same as the inevitable outcome of the Syrian war: a federal system that reflects and respects the richness of these lands. The sooner Erdogan realizes this and dares to let go of European invented nationalism and embraces the ideology that roots in the history of the region he lives in, the better it will be for Turkey’s future and, above all, for the future of the people that give it its beauty.