Ercan Ayboğa is an environmental engineer and activist who forms part of the project of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava. He is co-author of the book Revolution in Rojava. Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (Pluto Press, 2016).
Following Turkey’s attack on the mainly Kurdish region of North East Syria, Ercan Ayboga spoke to us about Turkey’s racist policies, direct democracy in Rojava and the international reaction.
Angelina Kussy and the other members of the collective (AK collective): On October 9, the world became aware Turkey was bombing Rojava after Donald Trump decided to withdraw troops from Syria. Could you explain what is going on in Rojava?
Ercan Ayboga (EA): Since October 9, the Turkish army has been attacking a 500 kilometre stretch along the border with Syria. They are supported by thousands, maybe tens of thousands of mercenaries including the so-called "Free Syrian Army" who mostly have backgrounds in organisations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. This attack is an illegitimate invasion. The Turkish army and jihadists have attacked not only military positions but also civilians with aircraft and tanks. They destroy hospitals, houses, electricity and water supplies. It is a terror campaign.
Civilians, together with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), [The SDF fights for a secular, democratic and decentralised Syria] are resisting with what they have, but they don’t even have anti-aircraft weapons. Given their resources, the resistance is strong and the maximum of what is achievable. So even though the people are organising, this is an unfair, uneven fight.
There are not many US soldiers in North East Syria, but they control the air so [by withdrawing] the US gave Turkey the opportunity to attack us with aircraft. They gave a green light to the dictator.
AK collective: Turkish president Erdogan says he is fighting against “terrorists”.
EA: The Turkish state says that the army forces that make up the YPG [People's Defense Units] and YPJ [Women's Defense Units] forming part of the SDF, and that have defended Kobane, Hesêke (Al-Hasakah) and the land around Aleppo from ISIS for the last five years – are terrorists and that they threaten the Turkish state.
That is a lie. They didn’t attack Turkey even once before the invasion. The defence forces of North East Syria did what was agreed [between SDF, Turkey and the US at beginning of August 2019] to provide a “security” mechanism along the Turkish-Syrian border. For Turkey that was not enough, because their plan is to control this area and to keep making demographic changes in the region, as they did in Afrîn.
The Turkish army attacked Afrîn [the westernmost canton of Rojava/Northeast Syria] in January 2018, backed by Russia, which gave the green light to Turkey. It was a similar situation. Despite heavy SDF resistance, the Turkish army alongside the jihadists occupied this area. When the Turkish army approached Afrin city, the SDF retreated in order to prevent a dreadful massacre. The invasion still led to the death of 300 civilians and 1,000 defenders of Afrîn. In the following period almost all Kurds left Afrîn – and that demographic change was completed when Turkey brought jihadist fighters and their families there. Now the same thing is happening in the occupied parts of North East Syria. As we speak, they are attacking this region with bombs.
AK collective: What was the role of the US in this Turkish invasion?
EA: On October 7 they retreated from military positions in Serekaniye and Tel Abyad (Kurdish: Grî Spî) directly on the border with Turkey. In both places, the Turkish army and proxies are now attacking. There are not many US soldiers in North East Syria, but they control the air so [by withdrawing] the US gave Turkey the opportunity to attack us with aircraft. They gave a green light to the dictator.
We can’t ignore the fact that Turkish state policy, not confined to only the current government, is deeply racist and also Islamist. People in Turkey criticising the invasion are under heavy attack. Nationalists and Islamists in Turkey are fearful of the Kurds because of the direct democracy processes they promote, and the political perspectives that Kurds share with other democratic opposition forces in Turkey and Syria. Many speak about betrayal because after the Kurds fought against Islamic State with US support, Trump opened the way for Turkey’s ethnic cleansing there.
Nationalists and Islamists in Turkey are fearful of the Kurds because of the direct democracy processes they promote, and the political perspectives that Kurds share with other democratic opposition forces in Turkey and Syria.
AK collective: And can Trump, and the rest of the world, see off the danger of ISIS?
EA: No. SDF are multi-ethnic forces, primarily Kurds but also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, Armenians and Turkmen. They were absolutely critical in the defeat of ISIS this year in Eastern Syria. Without them, ISIS could have not been beaten in the middle term – neither by the Syrian regime, nor by the global coalition led by the US. The threat for the whole world would have continued to grow.
The US supported them by air and with equipment, but thousands of SDF members died for this cause. Now over 10,000 ISIS members are in prison, and around 60,000 ISIS family members too. The SDF asked the governments of the world to take their citizens home [from these prisons] – most of them are not Syrian citizens – and only a few did. Now with Turkish bombing, hundreds have escaped. They can go anywhere, to reorganise themselves in the desert, and launch attacks in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. And Turkey has been supporting ISIS since the beginning. Arrested ISIS members have spoken openly in various interviews about how they cooperated with Turkey.
AK collective: Rojava is known for its implementation of direct democracy and women’s liberation. This is not only extremely progressive, taking into account the oppression of women by many authoritarian state governments in the Middle East, but even by western standards. Can you explain how “democratic confederalism” works?
EA: The Democratic Federation of North East Syria [commonly known as Rojava] is an autonomous region in Syria, which has been developed during recent years. It is not connected to the Syrian government, the Islamist opposition or any other reactionary or anti-democratic resistance. Around five million people lived in this region – after the invasion around 300,000 had already been displaced. It is by far the most democratic and peaceful region of Syria, always open for refugees from Syria and even Iraq.
Since the beginning of the [Syrian civil] war, the Kurdish freedom movement started to self-organise in Rojava. They established a democratic autonomous administration in 2012, then reorganized it at the beginning of 2014. We call this process a revolution because it started to change mindsets and social relations. People in this movement started to reorganise all the spheres of life: politically, culturally and economically. They also joined the armed forces, the YPG, and created the YPJ, based only on women, which became famous when ISIS attacked Kobane in September 2014.
People in this movement… joined the armed forces, the YPG, and created the YPJ, based only on women, which became famous when ISIS attacked Kobane in September 2014.
It was only later that the media got interested in the nature of this movement in all the other spheres of life. Wherever journalists went, there were women. We have a gender quota of 40% in every public position and a system of co-chaired (women and men) high representatives. This has changed the anti-democratic and patriarchal mentality of the people over the years. Of course there was and remains a certain opposition to this, but it's small.
This was a process in which women, by organising themselves and achieving voice and agency, emancipated themselves from oppression and unequal treatment. The democratic aspect has to be understood like this: not like the parliamentary system present all over the world, but a system of direct involvement, we say "radical democracy". Democracy is when the majority of the society discusses and takes decisions continuously. And what this means is that there are communes at ground level: up to 200 households form a commune and they meet regularly for purposes of coordination, organising many things in their daily life, economy, politics, education, health... Everywhere you go in North East Syria you can find around 4000 multi-ethnic communes which organize lives on the ground.
Then there are people's councils at higher levels. These are, let's say, a combination of parliamentarism and direct democracy: 60% are elected and 40% come from different social movements, sectors and ethnic-religious minorities. The structure allows for the participation and involvement of different groups and organisations, so that democracy means the continuous participation of all people.
In the communes, most decisions are made by reaching consensus in these assemblies so that everybody has an opportunity to join in, and the majority do so. Not all, but the majority.
AK collective: Isolated by the US and Europe, you were forced to make an agreement with the Syrian government. What kind of things have you agreed on? Will Rojava have to resign its autonomy in order to protect people’s lives?
EA: The agreement made by the self-administration of North East Syria has been done under very difficult and risky conditions, caused by the Turkish invasion. There were always talks with the Syrian central government. Since 2017 there have been serious negotiations looking for a political solution. Progress was achieved, but the Syrian government has not been interested in finalising this agreement. Of course its position relies on the Russian government which is the main force maintaining the Baath party in power in Syria. Russia moderated the past negotiations and also the latest agreement.
There were always talks with the Syrian central government. Since 2017 there have been serious negotiations looking for a political solution.
The current agreement covers only military aspects and foresees that the Syrian government will sends troops to the border and places, like Ain Issa, that are under threat from Turkish troops. This agreement does not affect democratic self-rule in the liberated territories. If the Syrian government is crucial in defending North East Syria from Turkish aggression, then also agreements on internal affairs including local security, health, education, economy and so on will probably be reached. At the moment, it is very difficult to predict.
If North East Syria is successful in defending itself and international solidarity increases, then the Syrian government will not be able to undermine our democratic autonomy. If the Syrian troops in North East Syria don’t contribute to stopping the Turkish invasion and Turkey is able to occupy big parts of North East Syria in a criminal war, not much will remain for Rojava’s self-administration to negotiate. But if the Syrian government – and Russia – are crucial to halting the Turkish invasion, the Syrian government can dominate the content of further agreements. It is risky to make agreements with the Syrian government under disadvantageous conditions, because the old mentality of the Syrian government has not changed. It is authoritarian.
AK collective: But the Syrian regime is Russia’s ally and Russia is an ally of Turkey… Could you explain the role of Russia in the region?
EA: Russia now tries to benefit from the situation through pressuring North East Syria to make agreements with the Syrian government. Russia and the US have many geostrategic interests in Syria and around Syria in the Middle East, so it is not only connected to Syria. Russia's interest is firstly to maintain the power of the Baath regime in Syria. Only active Russian support in recent years has enabled the Assad regime to survive.
For Russia, it is not so much the economic interest in the long term, rather the military presence on the Syrian coast. This gives them a base for pursuing their geostrategic interests. Also, it is designed to counter the political and military pressure by the US and the European Union developed over the last one or two decades.
Russia has two faces in the Syrian war, like all other states involved in this biggest conflict of our time.
Russia has two faces in the Syrian war, like all other states involved in this biggest conflict of our time. All of them are against a strong democratic movement with important elements of direct democracy and women’s liberation in Syria and the Middle East. Russia on one hand speaks to Kurds and all other actors from North East Syria, saying that without the Kurds a political solution is not possible. On the other hand, it seeks to control North East Syria together with the Syrian government and Iran. As long as the Islamist-reactionary armed groups were strong in Syria, the Syrian government and Russia did not want the Kurds to became weak. Since those groups have been weakened significantly and the Kurds initiated new successful alliances with Assyrians and especially Arabs in North East Syria, the situation has changed.
The best way to weaken the democratic self-administration of North East Syria is to let the Turkish state, which is obsessed with destroying this democratic project, attack them. So Russia let Turkey attack Afrin in January 2018. This was possible after Russia and Turkey developed a new political alliance in 2016 – one that is economically and politically very beneficial for Russia.
Additionally – this is also crucial – Russia want to draw Turkey further away from NATO and the EU, and create contradictions in that alliance. Through such an approach, Russia has glimpsed the potential for many economic benefits and investments in Turkey. Turkey buys weapons and sells cheap fruit to Russia. The first nuclear plant in Turkey is built by a Russian state-owned company. There is a lot of scope for business.
AK collective: You have received massive international support from demonstrations in major cities all over the world. People were touched by this war crime not only because of the deaths of innocent people, but also because, as they say, Rojava represents for them “the rest of their hope in humanity”.
EA: Rojava is truly a unique place. In the middle of war and in the region of strong ethnic conflicts, we had a peaceful society of Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds and so on living together. An ecological society that makes an effort not to depend on oil, and to revive nature and its biodiversity. People have thrown themselves into projects, with plants, seeds, parks to make Rojava green again. With time, people all over Syria have started to understand that this is not what the government claims. This is not about Kurdish nationalism. This really is a different way of organizing society.
People all over Syria have started to understand that this is not what the government claims. This is not about Kurdish nationalism. This really is a different way of organizing society.
Because we don’t say “we want our own state", but that we want a new, democratic Syria: non-nationalist, federative, decentralised, with a new constitution. People from all over Syria and all over the world, tens of thousands of people, have come and seen this for themselves. Thousands have stayed for months. You hear of [international volunteers] who fight and defend Rojava, but many more people have joined the political social processes, then gone back and informed their people what happens in Rojava.
The society is organised in a different way – democratic, participatory – and this is not only the alternative with respect to Syria and the Middle East. It has the potential to create new democratic paradigm. That's why we're speaking of the democratic revolution. Most states don't want it, of course, because they consider it a threat. But people everywhere should say: “this is what we really want", and put pressure on their governments. It is difficult because the states become so hostile. Thousands of people have come from Europe, excited by seeing that an alternative is really realisable. This is why we have received so much international support – but always from people, not governments.
This is why we have received so much international support – but always from people, not governments.
AK collective: What do you think about Europe's reaction? France, Germany, Norway and Finland stopped sending arms to Turkey, and they are talking about sanctions. Do you think it's enough? What do you think about their reaction? What more should be done?
EA: Turkey said “if you criticise our invasion we will open the gates and 3.6 million of Syrians will come”. So the criticism is muted. The EU is negotiating with Turkey whether to renew or cancel their agreement on refugees [whereby Turkey prevents them from arriving in Europe]. The fear is big among the governments of Europe.
In the medium-term, the EU should pressure Turkey to change its policies on the Kurds and democrats, to find a solution to this conflict. This is the only real way: the European Union putting pressure on the Turkish state to find a way of peace with the Kurds in Turkey and Syria.
The first thing the EU should do is of course to sell no more weapons and use economic sanctions. The European Union has a lot of economic power in Turkey, and Turkey would not resist real sanctions for more than a few months. The EU has this opportunity, but it doesn’t use it. They don’t care about democracy in Turkey and Syria. They only look to their narrow interest. But there are many democrats in Europe who should raise their voice and put pressure on governments.
Government reactions have been very weak: statements that condemn the invasion do not speak of invasion and war crimes. They speak of "concerns" like more refugees, the growing influence of Russia and Iran in Syria, and the escaping ISIS members.
Stopping arms sales to Turkey is not very effective – usually those pauses last only some months, and Turkey has enough weaponry for several years of war. If the EU decided to implement a comprehensive arms sales embargo for a long time, this would indeed send a signal. However, economic sanctions are needed. 55% of Turkey’s business is done with the EU. Turkey is in an economic crisis and vulnerable.
We understand [the lack of sanctions] in the following way: [European] governments want to present themselves to their publics as political actors who were against this criminal war, but the fact is that they didn’t prevent it when they could.
Social movements, NGOs and political parties should request a full arms sales embargo coupled with effective economic sanctions on Turkey, and continue to protest for this.
Social movements, NGOs and political parties should request a full arms sales embargo coupled with effective economic sanctions on Turkey, and continue to protest for this. This war may continue for a long time, and solidarity is necessary for the people of North East Syria who have a real chance to stop the invasion by the Turkish state. A big anti-war movement all around the world is crucial in these coming days and weeks. Turkey is not only a threat to the Kurds. The Turkish state is the biggest threat to democratic movements in the entire Middle East, because the Kurds are the motor of democracy in Turkey and Syria.
And ISIS is a threat to the whole world, including Europe and the US. Europe must do more to understand the situation and act in the interests of all of us who struggle for democracy, freedom, for the liberation of women, for ecology, for direct democracy and against nationalism. It is important that we stay in solidarity with each other in a world today where authoritarian regimes and movements are so strong.