As Kurds in Rojava (northeast Syria) continue to face a genocidal campaign openly carried out by the Turkish Army and its jihadi mercenaries, Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has been welcomed by Western heads of state for the 2019 NATO Summit. On December 2, the day Erdogan landed in London, Turkish forces killed 11 Kurdish civilians, including eight children, in an artillery attack on a school in Tal Rifaat. This seems to be Erdogan’s sultanist way of delivering a clear message of defiance to other NATO members, in response to a few shy complaints voiced within the alliance about Turkish aggressions toward Syrian Kurds.
The European failure to confront Erdogan, particularly in view of his blatant support over the last seven years for jihadis against Kurds, Yazidis and other minorities, has only emboldened him. Erdogan has also fully exploited the vulnerabilities of a flailing American president, as evidenced by the timing of the launch of Turkey’s latest military invasion of Rojava almost immediately following Erdogan’s mysterious phone call with Donald Trump in early October. There is no reason to hope that Trump and his administration will take a principled stance. In the absence of American leadership, the need for European intervention is more urgent than ever.
Although European leaders continue to pay lip service to the sacrifices of the Kurdish forces in Rojava, they refuse to do anything substantial to stop Erdogan while simultaneously stressing the need for Kurds to continue fighting in Syria on the West’s behalf. Kurds have even been left to care for the thousands of European ISIS prisoners and their families, whose countries of origin refuse to take them back. However, the problem is not just Europe’s indifference to the plight of Kurds. It is Europe’s complicity in Turkey’s genocidal campaign against Kurds that is the main source of public outrage in Rojava, for this 21st century colonialist enterprise is being waged by a NATO member with Western weapons and funds.
Of course, this is not to say that European leaders are conspiring with Erdogan against Kurds, but they have knowingly compromised everything the European project stands for in the interest of short-term political ends. In short, European countries have shamelessly paid off Erdogan to guard Europe’s southeast gate against what they consider an existential threat: refugees from the Middle East. The rise of neofascism within Europe is clearly a pressing concern, but the most fatal threat of all is the fallout from the conservative liberals’ fear of the non-white “Other.”
THAT FEAR now envelops Europe and spurs the tribalist, chauvinist and exclusionary outlook epitomized in the European relationship with Erdogan. The irony is that while politicians have long lost sight of what Europe once stood for, that vision is precisely what draws refugees to its borders.
Making deals with Erdogan to control the “crisis” of refugees is a disastrous political miscalculation that will have global implications. It overlooks the fact that Erdogan, as the world’s most powerful Islamist leader, presents himself to millions of jihadis as the caliph who will revive the Ottoman caliphate. Just as the Roman Empire made a similar fatal mistake when it relied on the European barbarians to guard its gates, Europe’s alliance with Erdogan may well destroy the European project once and for all.
Those who will sack Europe are not refugees fleeing the persecution of nationalist and religious fascism. On the contrary, the same fascist forces that have forced so many millions of people to become refugees will turn on Europe as soon as they have the chance.
Kurds have long been one of the most disadvantaged peoples in the Middle Eastern states created by European colonizers, and the latest campaign by Turkey is just a continuation of the genocidal politics that have been ongoing for the last 100 years. Ultimately, though, it is not just the lives of thousands of Kurds that are stake; the very values of cosmopolitan humanism upon which the European project was founded are in peril.
Indeed, those values are far more alive in the besieged areas of Rojava than they are in the centers of Europe. It is on the streets of Rojava where YPJ and YPG fighters dodge Turkish artillery and jihadist snipers that the last vestiges of the legacy of the Enlightenment are being defended. In Slavoj Zizek’s words, “If Europe turns its eyes away from the Kurds, it will betray itself.”
The legacy of the European project is one of cosmopolitanism and inclusivity, and yet Europe’s leaders continue to enable Erdogan’s imperialist Islamist ambitions. At this point, the next fascist chapter in world history is well underway, and it will take much more than a few measured comments in a press conference and many more voices than just French President Emmanuel Macron’s to prevent it from spreading. While Rojava may be the next victim of Erdogan’s destructive vision, it will certainly not be the last.
The writer is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, New York.