In the last few days, the eyes of the world have once again turned towards the Middle East, particularly, Rojava, in Syria. The Middle Eastern state has been trapped in a civil war since 2012, and in the past, it has seen the unexpected rise of the terrorist group ISIS, which in 2014 took control of some of the nation’s largest cities. However, after four years of fighting, ISIS was finally defeated thanks to a plethora of coalition forces, the most decisive ones being the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the USA and NATO troops.
The SDF are the official defence forces of Rojava, a region in northern Syria that seeks independent statehood. Rojava is also known as Western Kurdistan, as it’s inhabited mostly by Kurdish people, who for centuries have tried to create their own state between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, suffering harsh forms of repressions throughout history. During the Syrian Civil War, Rojava managed to gain de facto autonomy and has tried to stabilise the region ever since, fighting terrorism, promoting religious tolerance, and administering various refugee camps and prisons.
However, a few days ago, just as the population was starting to enjoy some kind of stability, the US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, thereby enabling Turkey to invade the North of the country. Through this military move, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan hopes to crush any possible collaboration between the Rojava administration and the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that seeks autonomy from Turkey and that has been fighting against Ankara for decades, often relying on the use of violence. Moreover, Erdogan seeks to create a ‘safe zone’ in Rojava for taking in refugees now reseeding in Turkey, which has recently seen a spike in xenophobic sentiments against displaced Syrians.
Despite these justifications, Erdogan’s decision goes against everything that is endorsed by the international order embedded by institutions such as the EU, the UN, NATO and its Security Council. Bringing together the most powerful nations in the world, these organisations have repeatedly identified themselves as promoters of peace and world stability, as well as supporters of the values of democracy and tolerance. Now, however, one of the most important actors in the international scheme is waging a war which goes against all of these beliefs.
Indeed, by bombing Kurdish cities, Turkey is effacing one of the most innovative and progressive administrations not only in the Middle East but in the whole world. The government of Rojava is guided by the principle of democratic confederalism, which preaches grassroots democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality, and even ecology. It is an extremely precious social experiment taking place in one of the most violent and divided regions in the world.
Moreover, Kurdish forces are currently the most apt barrier against the resurgence of terrorism, and in particular of ISIS, whose militants are either scattered through the country, imprisoned, or disguised as refugees between the thousands of displaced people. According to The Independent, Turkey’s shellings, which have caused multiple casualties amongst civilians, have already allowed ISIS militants to escape a prison in Northern Syria. Instability can only reinforce terrorist cells, who will seize the opportunity to strengthen and consolidate themselves once again.
Since the 2015 and 2016 attacks by ISIS throughout Europe, almost all members of major international organisations committed themselves to makaing an effort to stabilise the region and fight for security. That was the rationale behind the USA’s and other countries’ involvement in Syria, at least according to their declarations. Billions of euros have been invested in weapons and surveillance technologies, and many parties have built their consensus on the theme of ‘fighting terrorism’.
So how is it possible that NATO’s second biggest army is being allowed to attack a territory which represents both a progressive political experiment in the Middle East (and in the world), and a bastion against terrorism? It’s important to remember that, as part of a 2016 agreement with the EU, Turkey is responsible for playing a crucial role in discouraging the millions of migrants that it hosts from entering Europe. It is therefore plausible to assume that the EU members’ hesitation may be based on the fact that Erdogan has already threatened to ‘open the gates’ to Syrian refugees, allowing them to leave for Europe. The EU Member States would then be facing a situation similar to 2015, when the huge influx of migrants combined with poor cooperation threatened Europe’s unity.
The geopolitical environment in the region is changing quickly. The Kurds have recently made an alliance with Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad, a historic enemy, allowing his army to enter the region and defend civilians against Turkish militias. Moreover, Russia is becoming more and more influential in the region, acting as an intermediary between the Rojava administration and the Syrian Government, while cultivating positive diplomatic relations with Turkey’s as well. What remains constant, however, is the flow of displaced people fleeing Northern Syria — more than 70 000 according to the latest estimates — and the growing number of human rights violations. According to numerous news sources, Hevrin Khalaf, the leader of the Kurdish Future Syria Party, was killed in cold blood by Turkish–backed commandos.
It’s difficult to see these happenings as anything but the failure of an international order that was created to defend peace and that should work to promote non-violent resolutions of conflicts, as now unable (or unwilling) to take a firm stance against a country which is causing a humanitarian crisis and destabilising once again a territory plagued with violence. If the international community doesn’t act quickly to prevent the crisis from escalating, it will lose any credibility regarding its commitment to world peace. Moreover, it will become evident that its members are ready to take measures against violence only after suffering attacks inside their borders at the hands of terrorist groups, while closing their eyes when the same crimes are being perpetrated by a legitimate state, thousands of kilometres away.