'Islamophobes, terrorists': The war of words behind Turkey’s invasion

While Turkish-backed militias fight the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Arab Army, their supporters fight online about the terms to use for each group

Turkish and Russian military vehicles return following a joint patrol in northeast Syria, as they are pictured near the Turkish border town of Kiziltepe in Mardin province, Turkey, November 1, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KEMAL ASLAN)
Turkish and Russian military vehicles return following a joint patrol in northeast Syria, as they are pictured near the Turkish border town of Kiziltepe in Mardin province, Turkey, November 1, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEMAL ASLAN)
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups have been seen on video calling for murdering “infidels” and calling Kurdish minorities “pigs” and “atheists.” Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces has described the groups attacking Kurds as jihadists using “ISIS chants.”
In war, words matter and the videos depicting Turkish-backed groups vowing to kill and pillage, while those opposing them have accused them of being linked to ISIS, has inflamed tensions online between supporters of both sides. The videos and allegations have hardened attitudes on the ground as thousands fled and fear to return to their homes.
Even before Turkey’s offensive began on October 9, after the US withdrew from a part of northeast Syria, there were already concerns that Turkey would conduct an operation similar to the one in Afrin in January 2018. In Afrin, a Kurdish area in northwest Syria, Turkey unleashed 10,000 Syrian rebel fighters it backed, and they looted and destroyed the homes of 180,000 Kurds who were forced to flee. The graves and temples of minorities were attacked. Archaeological sites were destroyed. Monuments were blown up.
But the attack on areas around Sere Kaniye and Tal Abyad in Syria was supposed to be under the guise of Ankara’s “security concerns” and got approval from NATO, with only the caveat that Turkey show restraint. In Washington, the US was informed that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups, known as the Syrian National Army, were ill-disciplined and had begun executing people and killing civilians. Soon, they were looting homes.
US forces apparently saw some of this on video while monitoring it, and the rebels themselves made videos. They would shout “God is great” as they executed people. They kidnapped a woman they claimed was a Kurdish fighter and said she should be “slaughtered.” They called another dead woman’s body, that they desecrated on camera, a “w***e.”
The SDF, a group the US supported the creation of 2015 and which the US has helped train up to 100,000 members of, including internal security forces in eastern Syria, has spoken out against the atrocities carried out by Turkish-backed units. A US State Department spokesman has called these Turkish backed groups as having an “ideology [that] is essentially Islamic ideology.” Another US diplomat named William Roebuck called them “jihadi mercenaries” in a private memo that was leaked. He also called them “Islamist groups.”
BUT CRITICS say the SDF and its supporters are exaggerating by terming these groups and their chants similar to ISIS. The SDF sometimes says “ISIS jihadists.” Calling Turkish-backed groups that is “Islamophobia,” others say. Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman, responded on Twitter that when someone chants “Allahu akhbar,” or “God is great,” while threatening to attack a Christian or Kurdish minority town like Tel Tamir in eastern Syria, as happened recently, then the chant is extremist.
“Not everyone who says Allahu akhbar is a terrorist,” many pointed out in response. More than a billion Muslims who pray say this phrase, so to claim it is linked to ISIS is wrong, is the line of critique. The SDF supports say context matters. If you chant religious slogans in war and vow to kill “infidels,” it sounds like ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
There are some oddities in this discussion. Many of those who are angry at the pro-SDF supporters for linking the Turkish-backed groups to ISIS are also supporters of Turkey. In their narrative, it is the SDF that is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and it is therefore the SDF that are “terrorists.”
One man responded to Bali by arguing that while not everyone saying “God is great” is a terrorist; it is Bali who is a “terrorist.” Another man pointed out that some members of the SDF, which includes Arabs, Kurds and others, have been seen on video saying “Allahu akhbar” in various contexts. Everyone on all sides calls the others “terrorists,” it seems.
Are SDF supporters who tend to view Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies as extremists “Islamophobic”? Almost all members of the SDF are Muslims, how can they be “Islamophobic”? Are the Syrian rebels that Turkey backs “jihadists”? Like many things in war, there is not always a clear answer because the words are infused with different meanings by whoever is saying them and it is in the eye of the beholder. In addition, different governments and groups use terms such as “terrorist” in different ways, sometimes as part of propaganda, labeling every dissident or everyone who they view as a “enemy” as a “terrorist.”
The controversy has real-world implications because when the Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was pulled from her car, dragged by her hair and executed by Turkish-backed militias on October 12. One far-right nationalist media in Turkey called it a “successful neutralization.” Meanwhile, Turkish-backed groups and their supporters often label the Kurds in eastern Syria as “atheists,” or “Marxists,” alleging they support the PKK. Yet the Turkish government claims it is wrong to link Kurds to the PKK, because many Kurds do not support the PKK.
So then why do supporters of the operation often label Kurds in eastern Syria as “PKK.” There is no evidence that most average people who joined the SDF, many of them to fight ISIS, were “Marxists,” or even that they are “atheists.” But this doesn’t really matter to the groups who use the terms to dehumanize and other them and create excuses to loot their homes and expropriate their property. Just as Jews were once called “Bolsheviks” by Nazi supporters to excuse antisemitism, terminology has real effects in the harm meted out to civilians.
THE ISSUE in eastern Syria is that there are several wars going on at the same time. One war is on social media and is largely in English. Yet the groups fighting on the ground speak mostly Arabic, with some speaking Kurdish or Turkish. For policy-makers in the West the attempt to find words that can be used to describe far-right religious extremists in the Middle East has been a search and a debate about using terms such as “Islamists” or “Islamic” lest it lead to anti-Muslim views. Some administrations have erred on the side of caution, preferring “violent extremism” as a way to describe ISIS supporters. Other regimes have other terms.
Iran and some of those who are closer to Shi’ite movements and others describe these extremists as “takfiri.” The term relates to one Muslim calling another an apostate. It is used generally to describe Sunni extremists. More obscure, but used in Egypt and some places to castigate the Muslim Brotherhood, is the term “Ikhwan,” used to describe the Brotherhood. That term is also used to critique Turkey’s ruling Party, Pakistan, Hamas, Qatar and others that are allegedly or openly linked to the Brotherhood.
Another word that shows up in discussions, sometimes about the recent Syria crises, is “sectarian.” Sometimes used to describe the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, it has also been used against Kurds, accusing them of being “sectarian,” for apparently being interested in Kurdish issues and rights. In this debate each side accuses the other of being sectarian. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units are “sectarian,” as are the mostly Syrian Arab militias backed by Turkey, and the Assad regime, and Iranian-backed groups. Oddly when Shi’ite militias were described as “sectarian,” similar Sunni groups didn’t get the label. They get called “jihadists.”
This mosaic of terms is designed to bend ears that are already attuned to them. It creates a world view, the way Communists once spoke of “fascists” or the way “hard left” and “far right” are used. It conjures up past eras such as the era of “right wing death squads” in Latin America or “Marxist revolutionaries” or “right wing Christian militias” in Lebanon. Each conflict has its terms that mean “bad” and “good.” Kurds are called “separatists” and the rebels were called “revolutionaries.” For some “atheists” are bad, for others it is those shouting “God is great.”
In the end, these terms find themselves into official discussions and documents. When Russia and Turkey sat down to discuss a ceasefire on October 22, they spoke about “disrupting separatist agendas.” The YPG were called “YPG elements,” and the discussion referenced “infiltrations of terrorist elements,” without specifying which. In September 2018, when Turkey and Russia discussed Idlib, the Russians pushed for the withdrawal of “radical terrorist groups.”
Which ones? The document doesn’t say.