Against Whom Is Ankara Waging War in Syria: The Kurds or The Kurdish Workers’ Party?
On March 11, 2021, the European Parliament called for Turkey to withdraw from Syria, describing Ankara’s military presence as an “occupation,” weeks after Human Rights Watch's release described the Turkish presence in northwestern and eastern Syria in the same way. In its report at the time, the international human rights organization documented the cases of dozens of Syrians, Kurds among them, being held in Turkish prisons. Human Rights Watch called on Ankara to fulfill its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention, especially after armed Syrians affiliated with Turkey detained at least 63 Syrians and transferred them to Turkey, where they are subject to prosecution despite not having Turkish citizenship. It is possible that they could face life sentences.
Such violations began with the first Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds. In early January 2018, Ankara launched a large-scale offensive in Afrin canton, a major Kurdish enclave located in northwestern Aleppo governorate. The offensive forced 320,000 residents to flee from their neighborhoods. These people have not yet been able to return to their homes, as Turkish forces took control of their city in March 2018 in cooperation with Syrian armed opposition groups.
This intervention has resulted in the departure of more than half of Afrin’s inhabitants, changing the city’s demographics as documented by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s (IICI) mid-September 2020 report. The report also revealed gross violations perpetrated against Kurdish inhabitants, especially in Syrian regions under the control of the Turkish army and armed opposition fighters. Afrin is among these areas, in addition to the cities Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in northeastern Syria, that have been controlled by Ankara and the armed opposition since late October 2019, after most of their Kurdish inhabitants fled. It is the same for Assyrians and Armenians. The Public Radio of Armenia quoted Zareh Sinanyan, Armenia’s Chief Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, asserting “Turkey has created impossible conditions for Armenians to return to their homes in Tel Abyad.” According to the IICI’s 2020 report, “The Kurds are afraid of returning to their homes, fearing ethnic cleansing carried out against them by Ankara and its allies, the armed opposition fighters.”
The long histories of Assyrian, Armenian, and Kurdish conflicts with Turkey continues today. Just as Afrin was emptied of its Kurds approximately three years ago, the same scenario unfolded in late October 2019 in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, which the Kurds call “Serê Kaniyê,” and most of the Kurds who fled these cities during the Turkish military incursions have been unable to return. In Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, persecution from the Turkish army and opposition forces also prevents an Arab minority—on the basis of connection with the Syrian Democratic Forces—from returning to their homes.
Despite the gross violations and displacement Kurds suffer at the hands of Ankara, Turkish state media still deny these events, using the presence of millions of Kurds in Turkey and Ankara’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to deny any ethnocentrism in Turkish-Syrian engagement. Kurds’ living conditions in Turkey, however, tell a different story. Although Kurds in Turkey make up between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s total population, they do not enjoy basic rights as their identity is constantly under attack. Kurds still cannot study or discuss their native language, against which Ankara is officially waging war; for example. Turkish authorities have removed Kurdish words that were written on signs in municipalities where a pro-Kurdish party won. Earlier, Ankara called for a Norwegian city to remove a painting depicting Kurdish female fighters from Syria. Furthermore, in early June 2020, a young Kurdish man, Barış Çakan, was murdered in Ankara by Turkish extremists for listening to Kurdish music, underscoring the societal hatred against Kurds in Turkey. This hatred is fueled by state media, especially those supported and funded by the far-right National Movement Party (MHP), which strives to wipe out the Kurds. MHP supports the international Turkish military operations against Kurds, like in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to its repeated calls to ban the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and penalize its voters.
Turkish hostility towards the Kurdish language is not new. In 1991, the authorities arrested Leyla Zana, the famous parliamentarian, and imprisoned her for ten years; one of the charges was speaking Kurdish in Parliament. Today, the language is still banned, and Ankara now prohibits using the word “Kurdistan,” despite temporarily lifting the ban on usage during negotiations with PKK in 2013--until negotiations failed in the summer of 2015.
Politically, Kurdish parties in Turkey have suffered from unmistakable marginalization, suppression, and targeting of their leadership, to the extent that not one Kurdish party is represented in Parliament. There is only one pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), named for its calls to peacefully resolve the Kurdish question in Turkey. Nevertheless, most of its leaders are still held behind bars today. Some of them were even imprisoned by the authorities at a time when they had parliamentary immunity; Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdag, for example, were imprisoned more than four years ago with dozens of former and current HDP mayors and deputies. All Kurdish detainees were subjected to investigations and security interrogations to determine their sentiments and leanings, as well as whether they had engaged in “terrorist” attacks before entering elections. Although investigations showed they had not engaged in illegal activities, after they were elected and voiced support for Kurdish rights they were accused of being terrorists and thrown into prison. Likewise, the authorities suppressed hundreds of Kurdish media outlets and language centers, including Armenian ones as the HDP was believed to enjoy Armenian support.
Turkey continues to take an extreme position, not only against establishing an independent Kurdish entity as it did when it opposed the results of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017, but also against Kurds’ legal rights in Turkey and Syria. Turkey has rejected the Autonomous Administration of North and Northeast Syria, which the Kurds founded with other actors in the region, and has restricted the activities of the “Peoples' Democratic Party” inside Turkey even though these are legitimate groups. International organizations and actors should prevent Ankara from expanding further into Syria, help those displaced return to their homes, and press Turkey to allow neutral institutions in the Syrian regions under its control to monitor violations perpetrated against the Kurds and other groups in the region.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).