Editor’s Note: Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her books include “Enslaved: The New British Slavery.” Follow her on Twitter: @RahilaG. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
We are only three weeks into the invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria by Turkey and their quislings in the Free Syrian Army, a dangerous turn for the Syrian civil war, and yet it no longer features on our front pages and television news.
The mounting daily death toll of civilians, pictures of wounded women and children, hollowed out buildings with their twisted iron spines, plumes of black smoke – fail to move people sufficiently. But compassion fatigue is not some inexplicable human condition; it is the result of being bombarded with images of devastation without proper context.
Syria, in particular, with its seven-year long civil war, a battleground for almost all the major world and regional powers with a seemingly invincible dictator, Bashar al-Assad, at the helm induces in us a very particular sense of powerlessness. Since the self-described caliphate of ISIS has been reduced to a thumbnail, Syria has further lost its fascination for us.
But the very people, the Kurds, who led the successful battle against ISIS are now under attack in Afrin. The United States, which provided air cover in that battle, has proved to be an unfaithful ally.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by refusing to condemn Turkey’s invasion, has given it carte blanche to bomb the United States’ own allies because Turkey has “legitimate” concerns about its borders, as long as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, shows restraint and avoids civilian casualties. A World Health Organization report emerging from that area indicates it is in fact civilians who have fallen victim to Turkey’s random bombing. So much for Turkey heeding the advice of its powerful NATO ally!
The same report goes on to say that the Syrian government troops have blocked all but one exit out of Afrin. The Turkish invasion from the north of Afrin is creating refugees while the Syrian government is kettling them from the south.
Instead of Syria feeling threatened by Turkey’s invasion, Assad appears to be letting Turkey do the dirty work on his behalf, cooperating implicitly with Turkey by creating a pincer movement to choke off their common enemy, the Kurds. This is a strategy that Assad has used with Syrian rebels across Syria, sealing them in to an area, then bombarding and starving them into submission.
Why we should care
So why should we care about this latest development in the Syrian war? Because Afrin, along with the cantons of Euphrates and Jazira, is experimenting with a form of bottom-up, direct democracy that is arguably more progressive than any other system in the West. When I visited Rojava – or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, as these cantons are collectively known – in March 2016, I witnessed a revolution unlike any other; women’s equality, with the end of patriarchy their avowed goal, is driving this revolution.
Is your hair standing on end yet? Every institution – local councils, schools, hospitals – is run on a co-presidency rule with a man and a woman sharing all posts, including the command of their defense forces.
Photos of the women of the YPJ in military fatigues and colorful scarves in the front line against ISIS have been the outside world’s only peek into this society. Parallel to an administration with equal quotas for men and women, there are women-only structures that have the power of veto on all policies relating to women.
After the fall of Raqqa, there were amusing reports from the refugee camps being run by the multiethnic, Kurdish-led, Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, that Arab men, recently escaped from ISIS, were complaining about SDF insistence on gender equality. One said, “They give a lot of rights to women. If I raise my voice at a woman, they might put me in jail.”
The DFNS is totally wedded to the idea of racial inclusivity. Dr. Alan Semo, UK representative of the Democratic Union Party, the main political party in DFNS, described the quota system in operation. The Kurdish people have voluntarily surrendered their majority status in their Parliament and taken a 10% stake alongside Arabs and Syriacs (Christians), even though there is a long history of discrimination by the Arabs against the Kurds.
A refreshing counter to sectarian strife
In a country torn apart by sectarian struggle, this secular society provides a refreshing countercurrent, a sanctuary to 2 million refugees from the rest of Syria and Iraq. Yet instead of seeking to replicate this model not just across Syria but across the Middle East and, I would argue, across the whole world, the powers that be are seeking to extinguish this flame.
Inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, imprisoned by Turkey since 1999, the Syrian Kurds are no longer demanding a nation-state of their own because they have developed a critique of the anti-democratic, militaristic and patriarchal nature of nation-states.
They are content to remain within the borders of Syria as an autonomous self-governing confederation. But we are so used to the idea of ownership, borders and territorial aggrandizement that we can understand the Kurdish enterprise only as a land grab. This is exactly how they are viewed by Syria and Turkey, which has been conducting a little known war against its own Kurdish population, worried that they will demand independence.
DFNS assertions are not helped by initiatives next door in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a referendum for independence was won in September 2017 and then crushed by the central government. The political ideology of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds is a million miles away from that of the Iraqi Kurds, a fact that is sometimes eclipsed by the Kurds themselves in an attempt to present a united front to the world as a people dispossessed.
For Turkey, Öcalan is a terrorist for representing the interests of the Kurdish people against forced assimilation and cultural obliteration by the state. While it may be a truism that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, it’s barely believable that the West is prepared to support Erdoğan’s concept of “terrorist” when Erdoğan has imposed a fierce crackdown and imprisoned dissenters, in a purge that some claim has affected hundreds of thousands.
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The Rojava (DFNS) revolution is midwife to the birth of another world. Erdoğan has declared that, “Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born.”
It has been born. It could spawn a more humane, rational, ethical and equal world. We should do everything in our power to keep the revolution alive. We could start by stopping the sale of arms to Turkey and demanding that they be booted out of NATO.