The images coming out of Afrin are difficult to stomach. It’s a tough pill to swallow to know that this northern Syrian city which has been a bastion of stability and peace for the majority of this century’s most apocalyptic war has fallen to fascist forces.
The sleek rebranding of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups under the more ‘acceptable’ and ‘free for all’ label of the Free Syrian Army was a well-executed public relations stunt pulled by the Turkish state. Now these ‘rebel’ flags fly over Afrin, a city that appears virtually empty. Its inhabitants – many of whom were displaced from other Syrian cities over the past seven years – have been forced to flee from the barbarity of airstrikes and promises of massacres.
It isn’t only flags representative of the so-called FSA that flutter in Afrin today. Banners of the occupying Turkish state that provided the military backbone for the misnamed ‘Operation Olive Branch’ hang from buildings that once proudly housed the self-administration of Rojava’s Afrin canton. This is a colonial occupation under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism’, a state of affairs that can aptly be described as ethnic cleansing.
Who Has Facilitated this Ethnic Cleansing?
Turkey’s incursion into Syria would have been impossible without the support – either explicit or implicit – of the so-called international community. The forces who claimed to have intervened in Syria for reasons of ‘fighting terrorism’ in the form of the Islamic State over the past several years have been revealed as frauds.
It is undoubtedly true that without Russia opening up the airspace over Afrin for Turkey, this heinous series of crimes against humanity that have materialized would never have been possible. Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 on behalf of the Syrian state was initiated under the guise of fighting the same ideologically inclined ‘rebel’ groups that Turkey has backed in Afrin. Moscow’s claims of having the best interests of the Syrian people at heart appear utterly hollow in light of the Salafist occupation they not only turned a blind eye to, but actively facilitated.
Russia’s preference has clearly been for advancing its own geopolitical motivations, including playing on the frosty and ever declining Turkey-U.S. relationship for its own advantage in the region. The Erdogan-Putin rapprochement moves forward, making the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in late 2015 appear as ancient history.
At the start of Turkey’s invasion in late January, Alexander Venediktov, an aide to Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, blamed the United States for the new front in the Syrian war. Speaking with RIA Novosti, he said “The Kurds have been given a boost with advanced weaponry. The delivery of modern weapons and encouragement of separatist sentiments among the Kurds provoked Turkey into carrying out the military operation in Syria’s northern Afrin region.”
While it is not exactly far-fetched to imagine that the United States would like to see the balkanization of Syria and to provoke whatever strand of separatism they can manage to, Venediktov’s words were disingenuous for refusing to acknowledge the most basic fact, which is that the Kurdish forces of Rojava in the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have never advocated separatism or independence. In statement after statement, the self-administration has been consistent in calling for the territorial integrity of the county to be maintained. The fact that this was omitted in the Russian statement was far more than an oversight – it was done to explicitly side with Turkish objectives.
German Tanks & Former Members of ISIS
In recent days, as reports of looting by the so-called Free Syrian Army forces in Afrin have gone viral, and as the extent of the humanitarian catastrophe has become obvious, faux tears have started to emerge from the western countries who passively watched the unfolding nightmare in Afrin over the past two months.
Everything one needs to know about the motivations of the Turkish state and their proxy forces in Afrin was encapsulated in the first act of these fascists in the city centre– the destruction of the statue of Kawa, the legend behind the story of Newroz. This act of cultural humiliation showed the explicitly anti-Kurdish nature of the occupation. Had these forces limited themselves to simply removing photos of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Afrin, their claims of fighting simply the ‘PKK-PYD’ would have been slightly more convincing.
One of the most disgusting images from Afrin for myself – as I sit here in Berlin – is the sight of German-made tanks parading through the streets of the ghost town draped in Turkish flags. These Leopard tanks played a key role in Erdogan’s invasion, and has revealed just how essential Turkey-German military cooperation and arms sales from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has been for Ankara.
Now that the damage has been done for the people of Afrin, the German government is sounding a belated alarm bell over the humanitarian situation. Merkel told Parliament on Wednesday that “what is happening in Afrin, where thousands and thousands of civilians are persecuted, are dying or having to flee, is unacceptable no matter what security interests Turkey has. We also condemn this in the strongest terms."
However, will Merkel’s words turn to deeds on behalf of the new grand coalition government that has just assumed power? It seems unlikely. We have seen this script play out far too many times in recent history, in which a toned down condemnation of the brutal actions of a key ally are seen as necessary due to the obvious inhumanity at play – but at the end of the day, it’s the Euros to be made from weapons sales that will have the final word.
British Imperialism’s Crocodile Tears for Afrin
It’s not only Germany that as muttered a few unconvincing words about the unfolding catastrophe in Afrin.
Britain's foreign secretary Boris Johnson said in recent days, “I’m all too aware of the suffering going on in Afrin and elsewhere. We do worry a great deal about what is happening and certainly, I have made representations to my Turkish colleague. We are urging our Turkish allies to use every possible restraint in what they are doing because this is one of the most worrying developments in the whole Syrian war.”
If indeed, as Johnson says, Afrin is one of the most ‘worrying developments’ of the war for the British government, shouldn’t we expect much stronger language to be used rather than to simply ask Turkey to show ‘restraint’? The message here is a simple one: in the eyes of the British government, Turkey is justified in its cross-border operation. Erdogan just needs to keep the worst excesses and consequences of it at bay. Failure to do so will embarrass its NATO allies. That, of course, can’t be had.
However, when the state in question is an enemy of the government of Theresa May, the statements made by Johnson show much greater resolve and clarity. Assad, of course, is a butcher for his government’s actions in Ghouta, according to Johnson. It’s safe to say that Erdogan would never be condemned in such terms even as the heinous nature of his government’s policies within and outside of Turkey’s borders would warrant such a description.
British Internationalism: The Example of Anna Campbell
Although Britain stands by its NATO ally, the people of this country don’t necessarily take their government’s view. The most dignified example of this is to be found in the martyrdom of Anna Campbell, a 26-year old British internationalist volunteer who was killed by a Turkish airstrike in Afrin while serving with the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Campbell’s body has been unable to be retrieved, and her family is pushing the British government to call for a ceasefire so that she can be brought home for burial.
Campbell not only travelled to Rojava to serve the women’s revolution and to fight against the brutality of the Islamic State, but was drawn to the struggle to defend Afrin from Turkish occupation. Although her YPJ comrades attempted to convince her against going to the frontline in Afrin, her will to put her body on the line to defend her principles was too strong to resist. As YPJ spokeswoman Nesrin Abdullah said in the aftermath of her death, "We discussed with her a lot, but she gave us an ultimatum: either I quit the revolution or I go to Afrin."
Campbell’s death reveals a lesson that can be seen within every country in which the capitalist system’s tentacles affect every facet of life: that despite the omnipresence of such perverted ideology and selfishness, of warmongering and greed, there exists a bountiful resistance within society which continues to provide the world with beautiful examples of what could be.
Rojava is today’s most glaring example of an entire society that embodies this vision; yet glimmers of it also exist within Britain, Germany, the United States, and the other NATO countries which have backed Turkey’s genocidal war.
The crocodile tears of the ruling class politicians of these countries are ultimately useless. It is the spirit of the people’s internationalism which is invaluable to the ongoing battle for Afrin, one which in some ways is only just beginning.