War and displacement in Syria

Against all borders

The “Kurdish question” is nothing less than the question of democracy and future in the Middle East. By Martin Glasenapp.

The pictures were shocking. Islamist fighters chanting “God is great” with a raised index finger, destroying statu es of Kurds. Turkish soldiers making fascist gestures and shouting Ottoman war slogans. A Turkish flag was unfurled on the town hall balcony, and German Leopard 2 tanks rolled through the city. The victorious com mander in Ankara called the day a “ work of Allah”. The Syrian-Kurdish city of Afrin had fallen. After more than a month, the Turkish air force with relentless bombard ments had succeeded in forcing the Kurdish YPG militia to retreat. Faced by the alternative of a bloody house to house struggle which would have led to the destruction of the city and thousands of dead civilians, the Afrin administration decided to evacuate the population. Up to 250,000 people left the region, and are now displaced.

The Mountain of the Kurds

Until its conquest, the Afrin region was a small island of peace and rationality in the midst of the Syrian civil war. For centuries the region has been known as “Kurd Dagh”, or the Mountain of the Kurds. Famous for the beauty of its summits and fertile valleys. There were said to be more than 13 million olive trees in Afrin. Kurds have lived in Afrin forever, together with numerous religious minorities – Christians and Yazidi, and also Alevites from Turkey. Claims to the contrary by Turkish premier Erdogan are pure wartime propaganda. He is obviously concerned to revive the old Arabisation project in Afrin with an Islamist component. Or is it merely a coincidence that Turkish fighter aircraft in Afrin started by destroying Ain Dara, a Syro-Hittite temple dating back to 13-800 BC? No, Erdogan wants to eradicate the religious and cultural di versity of the region. His thinking in this is not particularly different from the Taliban who dynamited the Buddahs of Bamiyan or the ISIS who destroyed the pre-Islamic buildings in Hatra and Palmyra.

There are some 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. If Turkey relocates some of these Arabic-Suni re fugees in newly-created “protected zones” like Afrin, as Erdogan has announced, this may also explain why the German Federal Government has been so strikingly silent in criticising Erdogan’s war. Because the dirty game could pay off for both Berlin and Ankara. The alleged pressure of migration to Europe could decline if Syrian refugees return “to Syria”, and from the Turkish point of view this would also decrease the share of the Kurdish population in this border region. Such “demographic engineering” by state enforced resettlement would be nothing new – the Syrian Kurds know this from the time of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present Syrian dictator. In the north-eastern Al-Hasaka Governorate a 350 km strip was compulsorily arabised from the early 1970s. Kurdish Afrin in Western Syria was able to largely retain the composition of its population. Now, Erdogan wants to force demographic reconstruction. In the whole of the canton Afrin there are some 360 Kurdish villages. The share of Kurds in the population is higher than anywhere else in Syria. Now, this cultural zone is threatened by forced Arabisation, and with it the destruction of the last contiguous Yezidi settlements.

The war in Afrin has no influence at all on life in Da mascus and has absolutely nothing to do with regime change. Turkey is aiming for imperialist expansion. All this is happening in public view to an extent rarely seen for a NATO member. The Turkish premier Erdogan talks about Afrin today in the same way that Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin talks about Crimea, speaking without any restraint of Afrin as part of the mythical “Red Apple”, a symbol of the imperialist drive under the Ottoman Em pire. The Turkish state-controlled media publish maps which not only incorporate parts of Greece into a future new Turkey but also include the entire Syrian north-west up to the border with Iraq, leaving the area free of Kurds. The USA, which has stationed its forces together with those of the Kurdish YPG some 120 km east of Afrin in the Arab city of Manbij, will be forced to choose between their NATO ally Turkey and their Kurdish allies in the YPG.

The history of the Kurds shows how depraved Middle East realpolitik can be. The victors of the First World War ig nored the Kurds as they drew new lines in the sand after the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, creating the nation state realities that have lasted to the present day. In a secret treaty in 1916, Great Britain and France not only divided up Kurdish areas but reached a colonia list agreement that would shape the history of the Middle East. To stabilise this new order, colonial regimes were installed or monarchies supported. This was followed by the model of an authoritarian, assimilating nation state committed to development policy, as in Iraq and Syria – and finally also in Turkey. The resulting regimes were never willing to make real democratic concessions.

The Arab Spring starting in 2011 was the first serious challenge to the traditional despotism in the Arab countries. Almost everywhere, protesters were struggling against socioeconomic misery such as unemployment, social inequality and universal corruption. At the same time they were objecting to arbitrary tyranny, police violence and decades of restriction of political rights. But there was more at stake. In many cases, demands went beyond civic freedoms to the right to internal self-de termination, and with it the right to cultural, ethnic or religious diversity.

The violent outbreaks in Syria and Iraq show that the res ponse to Arab nationalism can be not only the hoped-for democratic emancipation but also the reactionary back-lash of political Islam. Just as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad refuses to allow any challenge to himself as a political option, Islamic fundamentalism cannot accept either ethnic or cultural diversity. This is why the “Islamic state” destroyed pre-Islamic temples, tried to eliminate the Yezidi and is the enemy of the idea of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional local self-administration, such as the Kurds are attempting in north-west Syria.

The democratic experiment

The Kurds in Syria are the largest ethnic minority in the country. As a stateless population, their only choice has always been between assimilation and subjection in Tur key or Syria. They tried to take advantage of the retreat of Syrian central power for their own autonomy project. Kurdish Syrians, for decades the most excluded of all, formed an open society in the course of the Syrian civil war. They did things which contradicted all conventions. Afrin was the first administration unit in Arab history to recognise the Yezidi as a religious community. Not only Kurdish but all languages in north-west Syria became official languages. Municipal and district administrations are elected, and representation is proportional to the share of Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Arameans in the population. There is a 50-50 gender quota in all official positions.

The war in Afrin proves in the bitterest way the political hypocrisy of the free West when democracy and free dom are at stake. The Syrian Kurds were good enough to save the world and the Yezidi from ISIS. The West praised them for their courage in Kobanê and in saving the Yezidi of Mount Kurd in Iraq. But that does not mean by any means that the West defended any of the Kurds’ rights against the invasion by the Turkey army. And yet the “Kurdish question” in the Middle East is nothing less than the question of the future of democracy. The war in Syria has long been the ground zero of a multilateral world order whose failure is evident in the complete fiasco of the UN Security Council. The USA is present in Syria, but has de facto retreated from the negotiations into a new isolationism. The vacuum is being filled by Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf States. They are determining what will become of Syria on the basis of their geopolitical interests. If the old order is coming to an end, the crucial issues of protection, security and freedom need to be renegotiated. How can those seeking to overcome a nation-state, as the Syrian Kurds are trying to do, protect themselves against this nation-state and international powers which are seeking to discriminate against, assi milate or even destroy them?

However, Kurdish Syria will have a voice in deciding whether –at least in the Middle East – the whole issue of democracy can still be reopened away from religi ous and ethnic divisions and the European concept of “constitutive people” and nation states. If ultimately all that remains for the Kurds is subjugation or an endu ring struggle for national independence, the concept of democratic emancipation that emerged with the start of the Arab Spring will be back at its historical square one.


Published: 31. August 2018

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