By Kamran Fareedi
Syria has had the world’s eyes on it for many years. In the midst of being torn apart by Civil War since 2011 and turned into a geopolitical football that’s tossed around by world powers, the country has found a success story.
Surrounded by the Assad Regime, Syrian Rebels, and Turkey, lies Rojava; an autonomous region in Northern Syria that also happens to be home to the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, and the Middle East’s youngest Democracy.
The Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) set up three small, self-governed states, or ‘cantons’ called Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira in Northern Syria to fill a vacuum left by Bashar al-Assad after he relocated his military from the region. As the Assad regime’s forces were busy trying to tackle unrest in places like Syria’s capital Damascus and Latakia in the southern and western parts of the country, Rojava transformed into a radical experiment in democracy.
In an area that was then the size of Connecticut, the Syrian Kurds implemented the vision of society of a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan was inspired by an obscure anarchist-ecologist philosopher from Vermont named Murray Bookchin. Bookchin believed in an alternative to the modern nation-state known as “libertarian municipalism,” which resurrected the Hellenic model of direct democracy from Ancient Greece. After guerrilla fighters were instructed to read his work, they eventually built a society whose social contract guarantees gender equality and freedom of religion as rights and enshrines the defense of the environment into the law. Rojavans say that it became a place where “all people, all minorities, and all genders are equally represented.” Municipal assemblies were created, united by a common set of values. Every government position has a female counterpart of equal authority. 2015 cantonwide elections in Jazeera drew 565 candidates, out of which 237 were women, 39 were Assyrian, and 28 were Arabs. All police recruits only receive weapons after “two weeks of feminist instruction.” Rojava brought the Middle East a progressive, advanced utopia that foreign invaders never could, all on its own.
While the Syrian Government was focused on fighting the Rebels, Rojava set its sight on the Islamic State, before proving to be “one of the most effective forces in Syria” and the “only effective fighters” against the self-proclaimed Caliphate. The Syrian Kurds greatly expanded their territory, driving ISIS from important strategic areas including Al-Hawl, Shaddadi, Tishrin Dam, Manbij, and al-Taqbah. As Rojava grew, it integrated new populations into its federalist democracy and received increasing military support from the United States, before renaming itself “The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” and merging Kurdish fighters with non-Kurdish militias to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015 to reflect their diverse makeup. The SDF went on to play a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State, capturing its capital city, Raqqah.
Now that ISIS is gone, why is the United States considering pulling support from the youngest democracy in the Middle East, and facing a military standoff against a NATO-member country?
The answer is Turkey.
As Rojava expanded during the fight against ISIS, Turkey began to set its sights on it as a target. Turkey claims that the Syrian Kurds are linked to the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that’s been at war with it for decades and is designated by both them and the United States as a terrorist organization.
Under the pretext of the linking the Syrian Kurds to terrorists, Turkey has made its primary strategic objective in Syria to prevent Rojava from becoming a Kurdish safe-haven. In August 2016, Turkey launched a ground invasion of northern Syria, containing Kurdish expansion and preventing unity. Turkey captured the ISIS-held town of Jarabulus, which was at the time the only territory separating Afrin from the rest of Rojavan territory, effectively isolating the Syrian Kurdish canton.
Now that the Syrian Kurds have nearly defeated the Islamic State, the United States is beginning to pull its support, leaving them to the mercy of Turkey.
Following the fall of ISIS’ capital, Raqqa, Turkey has launched Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, an all-out invasion of Rojava’s Afrin enclave. The NATO member’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that the United States end its relationship with the Syrian Kurds. He threatened on February 14th that US soldiers that stood in Turkey’s way would receive an “Ottoman slap” — referring to a historical open-handed strike that can supposedly kill with one blow.
“The international coalition let us down,” said Aldar Xelil, a senior Syrian Kurdish official to The Washington Post on March 6, 2018. “They did not do what we expected them to do for us after a very long partnership. We are allies. The Americans should have helped us. We were allies for a very long time,” he continued, adding “for one and a half months we have been under attack by Turkey. Turkey is using NATO weapons to attack an American ally. We were partners in the fight against [the Islamic State], and they did not do anything to help us.”
After a two month-long offensive, Turkey captured the entirety of Afrin on March 17th, 2018. By the time that Turkish tanks entered the main city, 289 civilians died and more than 200,000 fled from the ex-Syrian Kurdish enclave.
With Turkey now setting its sights on the rest of Rojava, Washington has a choice to make. Will the United States allow a NATO-member authoritarian country whose human rights abuses stack up to dozens of pages, and for years allowed ISIS personnel and weapons to travel across its border, to destroy a democratic utopia that was our most effective counterterrorism partner?
Given the fact that the Syrian Kurds are a key ally and strategic asset, and that Turkey has consistently undermined our security objectives by enabling ISIS to grow in the past while attacking Rojava, the choice between the two may se em like a no-brainer.
However, critics will argue that backing the Syrian Kurds is not worth antagonizing Turkey because we can’t afford to risk it leaving NATO. They’ll say that the United States needs to try to fix its broken relationship with the country. I say that it’s already too late.
Let’s remember that one of the only things still binding the United States and Turkey is an American air base and that the CATO Institute has said that “it would be foolish to assume that Turkey would live up to its alliance commitments if Russia ended up at war with America or Europe.”
We can no longer afford to take orders from Turkey to undermine our own interests while it pursues its own. The United States’ credibility is on the line.
Kamran Fareedi is a student at Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn.