Since 2014, when it gave air support to the Kurdish armies fighting ISIS in Kobane, the U.S. military has worked closely with the Syrian Kurds. Together they developed and expanded the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the point where roughly half of its soldiers are Arabs. They agreed to fight far from the Kurdish homeland, as requested by the United States, on the understanding that if they gave their lives to defeat ISIS, the United States would in turn protect them from Turkey. But Turkey, which opposes and fears Rojava—the autonomous, majority Kurdish region in northeastern Syria that is home to the SDF—in August got the U.S. government to agree to a jointly patrolled “safe zone” of disputed size along the border. As SDF General Mazloum Abdi wrote on October 13:
At Washington’s request, we agreed to withdraw our heavy weapons from the border area with Turkey, destroy our defensive fortifications, and pull back our most seasoned fighters. Turkey would never attack us so long as the U.S. government was true to its word with us. We are now standing with our chests bare to face the Turkish knives.
The Kurds have lost nearly 11,000 soldiers fighting ISIS; they were the ground troops who sacrificed their lives so the United States would not have to put “boots on the ground.” With one careless phone call, Donald Trump destroyed an alliance that was fundamental to the defeat and continued containment of ISIS and handed Rojava to the wolves. This is a world‑class betrayal.
Turkey’s invasion of Rojava is not only a source of deep shame and disgust to many Americans, particularly those in the military, but a terrible defeat for the international left. The revolutionary system now in place in Rojava is an attempt at a new socialist paradigm, something the international left has been looking for since the end of the Cold War. As British feminist Rahila Gupta writes, the model Turkey wants to destroy is one we desperately need:
[Rojava’s] organizing principle is democratic confederalism: a system of direct democracy, ecological sustainability and ethnic inclusivity, where women have veto powers on new legislation and share all institutional positions with men. Within the short time since forming Rojava’s democratic experiment, child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy were banned; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women were criminalized. It is the only part of Syria where sharia councils have been abolished and religion has been consigned to the private sphere. This is a blueprint for the kind of society that many of us have been campaigning for all our lives—and yet it is the best kept secret in the world.
From this point of view, the real reason Turkey invaded Rojava is the same one that made the UK, France, and the United States invade Russia in 1918 at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution. There is nothing more threatening to a decaying system than an alternative, and to patriarchal conservatives like Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, the feminist democratic paradigm being developed in Rojava is intolerable.
Erdoğan has been threatening to invade Rojava for years, but a small contingent of 1,000 U.S. troops acted as a buffer to hold Turkey off—until October 6, when Trump told Erdoğan it was okay for Turkey to invade. He did this without informing either Rojava or the Pentagon in advance. Trump immediately issued orders to move U.S. troops. The next morning Turkey began to bomb Rojava.
Large numbers of officers were purged from the Turkish Army after the failed 2016 coup, and Erdoğan now relies on Free Syrian Army Islamist militias as ground troops, merging the two into what he calls the “Syrian National Army,” which he frames as defenders of the “real” Syria. Erdoğan loves Orwellian doublespeak: invaders are called defenders, the invasion itself is called “Peace Spring,” and the “Syrian National Army” is bankrolled by Turkey.
According to the Rojava Information Center, Turkey has sent in three militias notorious for their brutality: Jaysh al-Islam, which ruled Douma and Eastern Ghouta by torture and imprisonment until Turkey evacuated them; the Sultan Murad Brigade, accused by the UN of committing war crimes against Kurds in Aleppo; and Ahrar al-Sharqiya, made up of former al-Nusra members from Deir ez-Zor. (Al-Nusra is the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.) These militias will repeat what they have done in Afrin, which Turkey invaded and occupied last year: drive out as many Kurds as possible; kill, rape, and torture those who remain; kidnap and hold them for ransom; and steal their homes, businesses, and property. In short they will commit war crimes with impunity.
The war crimes have already begun. According to Doctors Without Borders, shelling has forced at least one hospital to close; there are also reports of ambulances and trauma units in Serekaniye being shelled. FSA units backed by Turkey are stopping cars on the M4 road, killing civilians, and video recording their crimes.
Rojava Faces Russia and Assad
For Rojava, the sudden U.S. withdrawal is a disaster; they knew this alliance couldn’t last forever, but hoped it would last long enough for them to become part of peace negotiations, where their presence is opposed by Turkey; get aid for their hundreds of thousands of refugees; and solve the problem of how to deal with the thousands of ISIS prisoners they hold.
Now, they face the kind of carpet bombing from Turkey that civilians in other parts of Syria got from Russia. With the United States unwilling to help, and no air force of their own, the leaders of Rojava felt they had no choice but to risk everything by appealing to Russia and Assad. They had tried to negotiate with both for a year to no avail; Russia wouldn’t deal with them unless they kicked out the United States, and, according to a report by Amberin Zaman and Jack Detsch in Al-Monitor, the U.S. State Department would not let them trade or engage politically with the Syrian regime: “The policy was to isolate the regime and they used the SDF as a pawn with no cover from Trump.”
Backed into a corner, Rojava chose survival. As General Mazloum Abdi wrote, “We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
According to Saleh Muslim, a spokesperson for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava, the agreement with the Assad government is purely military: Syrian troops will guard the border to keep Turkey out, and the SDF will be solely responsible for fighting Turkey and its militias on the ground. Other negotiations are underway and will include “recognition of the Democratic Autonomous Administration, recognition of Kurds’ rights in the Constitution and securing of the rights of other peoples in the region.” Meanwhile, the battle against the Turkish invasion will continue.
ISIS Gets Another Chance
On October 6, the White House announced Turkey would take charge of ISIS prisoners. For years Kurds and American researchers like David Phillips and Anne Speckhard (who interviewed ISIS prisoners) have documented Turkey’s support for ISIS throughout the war. The Kurds, who after years of close fighting know many ISIS members by name and face, have even published a spreadsheet naming forty ISIS members in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. If Erdoğan really were given charge of ISIS prisoners, the first thing he would do is release them to fight the Kurds and blackmail Europe.
Given this history, it is no surprise that ISIS sleeper cells were activated in coordination with the Turkish offensive, or that Turkey bombed several prisons to help ISIS prisoners escape, including one in Quamisli and another in Ain Issa, which held families of ISIS fighters, at least 500 of whom escaped.
So in addition to responsibility for war crimes, the Trump administration must take credit for breathing new life into ISIS.
Erdoğan’s Long Game
Erdoğan claims that Turkey needs to protect itself against “terrorists.” But the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) renounced terrorism in 1995 and wants to renew peace negotiations that would help get its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, out of jail.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan has been bombing PKK mountain hideouts in Iraq and building Turkish bases there, without Baghdad’s permission. Ever since the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the electoral party he accuses of being a front for the PKK, cost him his majority in the election of 2015, Erdoğan has waged war on Turkey’s Kurds, leveling large parts of their cities, indicting their elected politicians, and handing out jail sentences to their defenders. Turkey’s economy is under water and last month several lawmakers resigned from Erdoğan’s “moderate Islamist” party, the AKP, because of its leader’s reckless authoritarianism. Will a war on the Kurds unite the country behind him? Perhaps this is his hope.
Turkey has taken in millions of Syrian refugees and, with the economy so bad, there is resentment; some have already been forced back across the Syrian border. But whatever his claims, Erdoğan cares nothing for the welfare of these refugees, whom he uses to extract money and concessions from Europe. They are just an excuse for a land grab he hopes will enable him to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border.
Erdoğan’s imperial ambitions go well beyond northern Syria. In 2016 he began to produce maps of a new Turkey that incorporates all of Cyprus, some of Crete and the Greek islands, and the oil-producing region of northern Iraq. Indeed, Turkey currently maintains 30,000 troops in Cyprus, where it has started to drill for oil in defiance of international law; it also has military bases in northern Iraq, Qatar, Somalia, and Sudan.
Still, this invasion might backfire. A number of European countries have banned selling weapons to Turkey, including France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. Spain has said it will join the embargo, though not the UK. While Trump dragged his feet on sanctioning Turkey, finally coming up with a slap on the hand, Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen are about to introduce a stiff sanctions bill in the Senate. Responding to intense criticism from Republicans, on October 14 the administration trotted out Vice President Mike Pence to give a press conference saying that Trump had just told Erdoğan he must withdraw his troops and by no means enter Kobane, and that Pence was going to Ankara to confer. Trump also offered to mediate between the SDF and Turkey, a prospect to delight comedians the world over.
More likely to scoop up most of the chips in this bloody game is not Erdoğan, and certainly not Trump, but Vladimir Putin, who now has the Kurds where he wants them and can look like he is stopping a war. Will he force Assad to give Rojava some measure of autonomy? We don’t yet know. But he and Assad need Kurds to fight; the Syrian army is famous for its incapacity. That at least gives the SDF a few chips.
While the U.S. government continues to flail, American progressives are finally beginning to grasp the importance of defending Rojava. In response to an international call for a no-fly zone, demonstrations took place all over the country this weekend. In New York City, where I have worked on this issue for years only to constantly find that most people on the left hadn’t even heard of Rojava, Trump’s appalling betrayal has brought new life and an influx of people to solidarity efforts. Along with protests, we are organizing demonstrations, emergency meetings, and visits to ask our Congressional representatives to do everything they can to stop Turkey.
It’s ironic that it took a betrayal by Washington to get the U.S. left to support the most visionary socialist experiment to take place in at least forty years. Let’s hope this is only the beginning.
Meredith Tax has been a writer and feminist organizer since the late Sixties. Her most recent book is A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State. She is a founder and steering committee member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava.