Turkey and Rojava: The clash of two projects

Erdogan is aware of the fact that the only reason the PKK is passive now is that it is awaiting a peaceful solution to the Syrian issue and Rojava.

A MEMBER of the Syrian Democratic Forces mourns at the grave of a fallen comrade. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMBER of the Syrian Democratic Forces mourns at the grave of a fallen comrade.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Syrian civil war is entering a new phase. France has become more involved. French President Emmanuel Macron met with a Rojava (Kurdish-Syrian) delegation at the end of March, and it was reported that Macron promised military support to Rojava in the face of a Turkish attack on Manbij. The chemical attacks in Douma was another episode in six-year-long bloodbath committed by the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. After the US-led strike against Syria, Turkey openly supported the attacks despite its close cooperation with Russia during its “Operation Olive Branch” to take control over Afrin.
The Afrin operation by Turkey an its allies, mainly Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition, was the manifestation of a war between autocracy and a democratic experiment with limited military capacity left at the mercy of a big NATO partner. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been partially successful in establishing himself as an autocrat. Turkey is on its way toward an Islamist-nationalist dictatorship, for which Erdogan needs an enemy to fight in order to rally the nationalist and fascist forces around his project, a purpose for which Afrin can serve nicely. On the other side is Rojava, an attempt at gender equality and democratic confederalism moving beyond ethnic and religious politics.
The attack on Afrin was not an independent event. It was a clear extension of a long-lasting phenomenon in Turkey, namely the Turkish state’s oppression of Kurds. One of the main pillars of Turkey’s Middle East is the idea of preventing the Kurds achieving political independence.
After Erdogan’s AKP party came to power in 2002, it initiated a rapprochement to resolve the Kurdish issue. It began secret talks with the Kurdish PKK, which led to the democratic opening process in 2013. Both the PKK, at the request of Kurdish nationalist leader and founding member of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan, and the Turkish state declared a bilateral cease-fire. In 2015 elections, the AKP lost. Erdogan ended the peace process and hardened the crackdown on the Kurds in Turkey and Rojava as well, to win right-wing votes.
This oppression was not contained in Turkey; Erdogan moved into Syria by supporting the radical Islamist groups to control the cities of Azaz and Idlib to prevent the Kurds from connecting all three cantons of Rojava. The main focus of Turkey’s Syrian policy is to extend its anti-Kurdish politics into Syria, which is a weakness recognized and used by most of the regional and international powers against Turkey.
In the case of Afrin, Russia used this in a sophisticated way to break Turkey’s bond with NATO partners and convince Erdogan to agree to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s staying in power. Successive Turkish governments have done a lot of damage and weakened their country by not solving the Kurdish issue. They have made concession after concession to other regional and international powers, but failed to resolve the Kurdish issue peacefully. They have experienced a four-decade with a heavy human and economic cost.
This side of Turkey’s Kurdish policy is clearly at play in Rojava. Turkey has been ready for any compromise to end the Kurdish freedom struggle in Syria.
Erdogan is aware of the fact that the only reason the PKK is passive now is that it is awaiting a peaceful solution to the Syrian issue and Rojava. The PKK does not want to resume guerrilla warfare and does not want to give Erdogan justification to attack Rojava further. The PKK recognizes that Turkey treats the Kurdish movement in Syria and Turkey as one and wants to avoid giving Erdogan any reason to go into Rojava, irrespective of international law.
In this regard, the status quo is in Turkey’s interest, and Turkey has been doing everything in its power to defend it. Erdogan’s politics of war prolongation comes at the cost of the Syrian people. In fact, Erdogan is one of the reasons the hellish Syrian conflict keeps dragging on.
BUT FASCIST regimes’ paranoia is social movements more than anything. In this regard, the Kurdish women’s liberation movement is a major threat to Turkish dictatorship. The Kurdish women’s liberation movement grew out of a larger Kurdish resistance movement during the Syrian war. It’s fighting patriarchy alongside fighting terrorist groups and oppression. YPJ, the armed unit of the women’s resistance in Rojava, has fought shoulder to shoulder with its brother organization YPG to safeguard democratic confederalism in Kurdish-controlled territories in Syria.
Turkey recognizes the influence the revolution next door has regionally and internationally, and the threat it represents to traditional gender roles – or what Erdogan would himself refer to as women’s “duties.”
In the battle against Islamic State (ISIS) in Kobane in September 2014, the women’s participation shed a new light on the Kurdish movement in Syria. Within a short period, the movement gained tremendous support worldwide from democratic groups. The victory in Kobane hindered Turkey’s agendas in Syria and Turkey as its support of Islamist militias only encouraged violence and further instability. While the Kurdish movement fights for minority rights as well, Turkey’s foreign policy of suppressing the Kurds in Syria is extending the war in Syria to peaceful areas in the name of protecting its borders.
While the AKP regime has aimed at building religious and nationalist discourse in Turkey and in the region, the Kurdish women’s movement in Syria is joining the Turkish women’s movement in Turkey, and both together proved that minorities will not be silenced. The best expression of this common struggle of women was women’s march on March 8 in Turkey. In comparison with previous years, this year’s march was considerably smaller. The women’s movement in Turkey poses a threat to the nationalistic Islamic-religious agenda. While the women’s march ended in tear gas and the detaining of many activists, the women’s part in the battle against Turkey’s invasion of Afrin continued. The solidarity of these movements has peaked in Turkey, where in the march, there were multiple slogans that naturally provoked AKP’s regime.
Democracy in the Middle East alongside nationalism has a history of brutality. The main project of the Kurdish struggle in Syria is to build a democracy based on democratic confederalism in all three of its cantons. The objective is to build a society that is active in all its polities. On the other hand, dictatorship in Turkey is on the rise. Erdogan’s referendum and a religious nationalism have altered Turkey’s political atmosphere and has resulted in jails filled with journalists and potential “enemies of the state.” While its neighbor’s aspiration for democracy is on the rise, state violence and repression in Turkey seems to be taking over the country like a fatal sandstorm.
In fact, Rojava is a democratic project that poses a threat to Middle Eastern dictatorships, most of which are about to collapse. It is, therefore, not in the interest of Putin’s Russia or Iran’s theocracy for a democratic project like Rojava to survive. There are three factions in Syria today: the regime, the opposition, and Rojava. If it were not for Russia and Iran, the regime would not have survived, and if it were not for Turkey and some other regional actors, the opposition would not have survived this long. It is only the Kurdish movement that is left alone at the mercy of regional dictators.
Darya Najim is a master’s student of Middle Eastern studies at Lund University in Sweden. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on the women’s movement in Rojava, Northern Syria. You can contact Darya at: darya.ak@gmail.com.
Krekar Mustafa has graduated from the political science department of Free University of Berlin. He has written his master’s thesis on the failure of the Iraqi state. He is a prospective PhD student at Free University of Berlin. You can contact Krekar at: Krekar.mustafa90@gmail.com.