Afrin: Victory in Defeat

by Kamran Matin    


The Turkish army and its jihadist allies in the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) have reportedly entered the city of Afrin in the early hours of March 18.

At first sight this might be seen as an important victory for Turkey and its modern caliph Receb Tayyip Erdogan. But at closer inspection and from a broader perspective sensitive the battle of Afrin can, in fact, be seen as a victory for the Kurdish-led project of democratic confederalism in Syria.

Firstly, in even pure military terms the battle of Afrin ought to be seen in the context of the sheer inequality between the Turkish invading army and the resisting force. A few thousand SDF fighters, armed only with light and outdated weapons confronted NATO’s second largest army acting in utter disregard for international humanitarian law with legendary courage and determination.

Given this blatant asymmetry of forces what is in fact surprising is the fact that SDF was able to resist such an adversary for nearly two months. And even now there are still pockets of territory controlled by SDF in the hillier parts of the region. The significance of this circumstance will be clearer in light of SDF’s announcement that it will wage a guerrilla war against the Turkish army and FSA in the region.

The manner of SDF withdrawal from Afrin city and its agility as a disciplined military force apt in rapidly adjusting to different battlefield circumstances in a small territory more or less entirely encircled by hostile or unfriendly forces are also noteworthy.

Secondly, in strategic terms, Afrin was always Rojava’s soft geopolitical underbelly vulnerable to Turkish invasion. Those commentators who often speak of Afrin’s importance in terms of it being the territorial link between Rojava’s heartland, which lies to the East of Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea fail to appreciate that democratic confederalism is not a territorial nation-state formation project requiring a contiguous territory. And that is why any part of Syria with whatever ethno-linguistic make up can part of that project. The experience of Arab majority regions in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Manbij joining Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) demonstrate this circumstance.

Moreover, by more or less eliminating the Russian variable from the SDF’s military calculations with regards to the Western Euphrates, the battle of Afrin is likely to bring clarity to the strategic thinking of DFNS. Conversely, the battle of Afrin has seriously, if not fatally, undermined Russia’s influence over SDF in the rest of Syria. That is likely to complicate the quick, victorious exit that Putin has been arguably envisaging as the strategic denouement to Russia’s intervention in Syria.

Thirdly, in political terms, the battle of Afrin clearly demonstrated and is likely to reinforce, the political autonomy of SDF and DFNS. Russia, in coordination with Iran and the Assad regime, had offered to avert the Turkish invasion if SDF surrendered Afrin to the Syrian regime. SDF’s refusal to accept this deal is a clear refutation of the allegation often made by Rojava’s critics, including some Kurdish organisations, that SDF, and DFNS more generally, are Assad’s strategic political allies. The decision is therefore bound to strengthen the prestige and credibility of SDF/DFNS among the secular elements of Syrian opposition unconnected to Turkey.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a historical dimension to any battle or war whose long-term significance often overweighs its military, strategic or political effects.

Historically speaking military defeats following valiant defence have provided as much symbolic and discursive material for forging collective identities, generating political energy and fashioning of collective identities as great victories. Indeed, Kurdish freedom movement’s historical sinew is animated both politically and discursively with the symbolic legacy of such defeats. The fall of ‘Castle of DimDim’ to Iran’s Safavid forces following a prolonged siege (1609) to the destruction of the Ararat Republic by the newly born Turkish Republic (1930), to the chemical urbicide of Halabja by Iraqi Ba’ath regime (1988) are only few cases in point. 

The effects of this historical, and symbolic, dimension of the battle of Afrin is valorised by the actions of the invading Turkish army itself. Following weeks of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Afrin and upon entering Afrin city Turkish forces and their allies destroyed the statue of Kawa, the legendary Kurdish hero, in the central square of the city. Kawa’s overthrow of the monstrous king Zuhak is central to Kurds’ collective identity. The fact that Turkish army inaugurated its occupation of Afrin with the destruction of Kawa’s statue is bound to re-demonstrate to the Kurds, and all fair observers, the fundamental and racialised enmity of the Turkish state with any unsubordinated Kurdish existence.

The battle of Afrin has in fact already become a modern legend and is bound to further inspire and animate Kurdish struggle for cultural and political freedom and recognition. And this is a victory.