On November 20, 2023, The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) held a special panel on the impact of the Turkish bombardments around six weeks after they began. The panel was titled: ‘Rojava Under Siege: Analysis from the War Crime Scene’ and moderated by Co-Directors Dr. Hawzhin Azeez and Dr. Thoreau Redcrow. Both have spent extended time in Rojava and have written extensively on the geopolitical, security, and ideological aspects of the region.
The panel commenced with an introduction of the KCS as a research center, which was established in 2014 in Germany, publishing primarily in Arabic. However, since 2023, the center has begun publication in English and in Kurdish to reach a wider audience. While it began in Germany, the center now has a team of people in the Netherlands, Australia, and America, plus a newly added research team in Rojava itself. As part of its research, KCS focuses on issues that directly affect Greater Kurdistan (across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria) plus the Kurdish diaspora.
This specific panel was designed to raise awareness of the geopolitical challenges and struggles that the AANES (Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria) has faced recently, with a strong focus on the October bombardments and attacks by Turkey, which have been the worst and heaviest bombardments and strikes to date.
The KCS also sought to spotlight the issue of the attacks on Rojava to counter Turkey’s blatant hypocrisy on the international stage recently, with Co-Director Thoreau observing that: “For weeks we have heard Erdoğan go on and lecture the world about what is an appropriate target and how civilians are not appropriate targets vis-à-vis Gaza, meanwhile the Turkish state essentially considers every Kurd in Rojava a justifiable military target.”
Of course, in the discussions, the panelists and the ensuing discussion also involved a wider picture of the political, economic, humanitarian, and security issues on the ground. Issues such as the ongoing occupation of Afrin from 2018 by the Turkish state, the invasion of Sere Kaniye in October 2019, as well as the ongoing long-term impact of the Turkish regime’s state terrorism on the the region economically, socially, culturally, and politically.
“Anyone with a slight understanding of international laws and regulations, knows that according to the Geneva Conventions this is a war crime, by targeting infrastructure that is explicitly used for a civilian purposes.”
The first speaker was Lucas Chapman, who is an American freelance journalist who has spent many years in Rojava. He spent a year as chief editor of the English section at North Press Agency, and has contributed to Arab News, The Post Internazionale, and Zenith Magazine.
Lucas discussed the explicit and direct targeting of the civilian infrastructure, the extensive damages caused as a result, and the struggle of the communities to survive in the interim. He noted that for a minimum of ten days, there was no gas, water, or electricity in the whole region. Lucas also touched on recent interviews he conducted with civilians and journalists on the ground.
Some highlighted excerpts from Lucas’ remarks:
“The dozens of interviews that my colleague Ali Ali has carried out over the past month or so reveal quite intense human tragedy. We’ve heard stories of really intense mental trauma and anguish, with women and children forgetting their family members and basically going mute. Being completely unable to speak, not just on what they witnessed, but on really anything… it’s really a lot of horror stories.”
“These drone strikes take away the region’s natural right to defend itself, particularly because many of these [assassinated] officials have been members of anti-terror units who have carried out the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The second is the issue of collateral damage, as in the past couple of years, Turkey has become increasingly bold in its targeting of residential areas rather than military facilities.”
“There have been many instances of children being wounded or killed by these strikes and these bombings. Including recently, a drone strike in Derik… two children were actually wounded, one very seriously, when he was targeted outside his home by a drone strike in the middle of a residential neighborhood. One of the children was forced to actually carry his severely wounded friend several blocks to a passing motorcycle. Because everyone was too afraid to go out and help him. Which brings up another issue, which is the double-tap strikes that have become increasingly common. Where people are now too afraid in a society that is based on helping and assisting others that are in need or in pain, to go out and help them.”
“Having been on the ground in Rojava since 2016 in various capacities, I’ve noticed that it was the darling of all journalists in the world up until ISIS was defeated territorially, and then everyone just up and left. Cartoonishly, they just went… I would like to see the media in general have a bit better of an attention span and bit more follow-up on these conflicts.”
“These Kurdish fighters being hunted by [Turkish] drones are giving moral support for ISIS to attack.”
The second speaker was Khabat Abbas, an independent journalist, researcher, and consultant from Rojava. With over a decade of experience, she’s worked with several NGOs including UNHCR, Amnesty, and Conflict Armament Research Center. She has also written for many global news outlets including ABC, the Washington Post, and Der Spiegel.
Khabat, as a journalist on the ground, presented her findings following the October bombardment by Turkey, its impact on civilians, and perhaps most crucially, what this has meant concerning the re-emergence of ISIS in the region. As a journalist who lives in Qamişlo, she recounted terrifying personal experiences of hiding from the Turkish bombardments and the fear and terror that the uncertainty has caused. Her description of the situation on the ground for the civilians was one of bleak and terrifying prospects.
Khabat touched on the impact of the Turkish bombardments on re-empowering ISIS resurgence and the ISIS militants captured by the SDF cheering the bombardments and celebrating the murder of the Kurds. During a visit to Roj Camp which houses the families of ISIS and their wives, the women celebrated the bombardments, gleefully proclaiming that “Turkey is rescuing us!”
Khabat spoke of the heartbreaking ethical and moral dilemmas of needing to write about the bombardment of her community but being too traumatized to do so. She spoke of the unethical nature of interviewing her war-torn community about the impact of the bombardments when society is so deeply traumatized that they think such interviews are insulting and unnecessary. She also spoke of her struggle as a journalist and the hypocrisy of the international media’s lack of attention on the Rojava bombardments by Turkey and their ongoing silence.
Some highlighted excerpts from Khabat’s remarks:
“We could see during this attack the collaboration between ISIS, Iranian militia, and the Turkish attacks with warplanes all together simultaneously in different geographic locations, with the tactic of driving civilians out of north and eastern Syria. Which I think is clear evidence that there are new agreements between the different actors and big powers who are trying to push the population away. And the population that is living in Rojava are victims of those agreements, which are taking place in dark rooms.”
“The deeper aspect of these attacks is the psychological one; it’s the terror… the trauma that is left behind after these incidences. For example, I remember when the attack happened, we were just sitting in this dark black room with my niece, who is five years old, and she was asking why we were sitting there? Just waiting if we will be the next target or not. The silence during these hours where you are waiting to see if you will be killed or not. You cannot protect yourself and you can’t protect the people around you. There is no justification whatsoever for why you are even a target. You just have to accept it as it is. Beyond when the attack is over, it stays in our memories, it stays with us, it sleeps, and it kills something inside us to accept being in this position.”
“Now we are seeing ethnic cleansing in a different way. When Turkey is attacking this region and destabilizing in an intensive way in front of all the international actors, this is leading to instability in every single family… Kurds are leaving, and we have demographic changes in our own cities. Because everyone does not have faith or hope in the international actors, and they can’t believe anymore in this [Western] alliance that we are fighting ISIS or collaborating in specific operations while we are being killed in the dark by Turkey in front of international silence.”
“We see waves of people moving to Europe. Ironically, Turkey is playing the policemen that they are not allowing refugees to travel there when they are the ones who are coordinating all the smugglers to channel people from their occupied areas. They allow the people to go to Europe to change the demography against the original population of their occupied areas.”
“Turkey is always knocking on the door and there are going to be more waves of attacks; we all know that. Sooner or later, their intention is for this region to come under their control.”
The final speaker was Matt Broomfield, who is a UK freelance journalist focused on the Kurdish issue and co-founder of the Rojava Information Centre (RIC). RIC has been an integral source of up-to-date, on-the-ground information during the Turkish bombardments. Since its creation in 2019, RIC has become the most trusted source of English-based information about Rojava.
In his discussion, Matt highlighted some of the key findings through the Rojava Information Center and the Turkey/Iran/USA regional and geopolitical goals and aspirations and how this has affected the Rojava region, its stability, and development. Matt also touched on the recent conflicts that emerged in Deir ez-Zor and dispelled some of the common misconceptions promoted by the media that the clashes occurring were a result of discontent towards the AANES or that this was an Arab-Kurdish conflict. His experiences allowed for a nuanced presentation involving the reality on the ground, noting how much of the events in the region have been informed by Turkish interests, Iranian interference, and proxy organizations, all of which have been exacerbated further by the lack of a coherent US strategic policy.
Some highlighted excerpts from Matt’s remarks:
“This [AANES] project has survived and been able to survive for the past ten years through so many attacks, principally from Turkey and from ISIS, but from other forces as well. So, what is Turkey’s intentions with these strikes? It wants to create divisions between Kurds and Arabs living in north and eastern Syria. Perhaps most of all, it wants to create divides between ordinary people living in north and eastern Syria and the Autonomous Administration. And then it also wants to create division between the United States and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and Autonomous Administration. And [Turkey] also wants to create divisions between different wings of the Kurdish movement.”
“When people cannot get enough to eat, when they’re struggling for fuel, when they’re struggling for power, this can turn people against the Administration as they feel like, ‘Ok, they can’t protest us from this hell that we’re living in. Why should we stay with them.’ And I think that’s Turkey’s key aim: to make life unlivable. Principally with one aim that people leave the region.”
“In Deir ez-Zor, a majority Arab region… Turkey, certainly ISIS, and particularly the Syrian regime and Iran have been trying to turn locals against the Administration… But this is a region where, contrary to a lot of narratives, most ordinary people still see the Administration as their best alternative and certainly highly preferable to the Syrian regime, highly preferable to Turkey, and highly preferable of course to ISIS.”
“The United States strategy against ISIS is a very shortsighted policy; it doesn’t make any sense. Even if the intention in the region is just to defeat ISIS and nothing else… defeating ISIS means maintaining stability and preventing further attacks from Turkey in the north and also in the south preventing this pressure from the Assad regime. But the US has made it very clear they are not going to do that. They have told the administration, ‘We will literally hold off a physical ground invasion’ (from Turkey), but anything up to that you are just going to have to deal with.’”
“Turkey knows America has this weak position; America’s policy is confused in the region and they are sort of holding on to complete their own anti-Iranian objectives, but they are not really committed to that either and Turkey is going to continue to profit from that. They know they can continue to push and push, particularly now as US eyes are elsewhere.”
Following the panelists’ presentations, discussions were held involving questions from the participants, which included concern about US support and loyalty to the anti-terror campaign, mechanisms of legitimization and status for Rojava, and the issue of ongoing instability in Deir ez-Zor. Other issues discussed were parallels between Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus since 1974 with the current one in Syria, the US incoherence with regards to geopolitically denying Iran influence in the region, and how Turkey and Syria both deploy psychological projection by accusing the AANES of committing the very ethnic supremacy that they themselves deploy.
Co-Director Thoreau critiqued US policy in Rojava remarking:
“For the West to say that they are serious about a so-called war on terror, while their NATO ally (Turkey) is arming and supporting all of these jihadist groups in Syria against their very partners in the SDF, and YPG, and YPJ is insulting to the AANES in Rojava and the work that they are doing… At a time when the United States and NATO say they are fighting ISIS, their NATO partner (Turkey) is murdering the people who helped defeat ISIS.”
Thoreau contended that the solution is for the US to implement a no-fly zone, stating:
“The United States has said ‘We will stop a land invasion, so Turkey cannot literally roll in tanks into Kobanê, but we will not stop any air attacks’. So, Turkey basically has a free pass to murder and kill any person aerially from a drone or a jet that they wish in all of northeastern Syria. Russia will not close the airspace, and the United States will not close the airspace. But really, there should be a ‘no-fly’ zone over this area if the United States is truly concerned about protecting civilians and their allies against ISIS.”
Co-Director Hawzhin responded to the discussion around hypocrisy with foreign policies and accusations of Western betrayal by stating:
“I think we have to generally acknowledge that there is no ethics or morality in international relations. And I think we have to stop promoting this narrative that these states, which are these institutions of violence and terror, which is what states are, [are better than that], they are designed towards terror and violence… we should be expecting this.”
In response to the idea that the international media was failing Rojava, Hawzhin suggested that the solution was solidarity from the international left, remarking:
“We have to look at the sphere of international and global media as being an extension really of the capitalist system, and everything is driven by what sells and makes money. So when we have a leftist revolution and a radical feminist revolution occurring on the ground, there is going to be very little interest in that… So we really need the leftists, institutions, journalists, organisations, and publishers to fill that gap for us.”
The Facebook live video of the full panel can be → viewed here.