Political Aftershocks in Syria: Kurds Show Humanity with Aid
By Shoresh Darwish
In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, a considerable change has occurred amongst many civilians in Turkish occupied northwest Syria regarding the public perception of the Kurds. Previously, many of these Syrians cynically adhered to the xenophobic discourse and propaganda spread by Ankara in order to continue to receive Turkey’s support. However, the new shifting change in attitudes is owed in part to the humanitarianism displayed by Kurds in north and east Syria (Rojava), displayed through their truckloads of aid to northwestern Syrian areas devastated by the earthquake.
While it is true that the Syrian Interim Government and militias backed by Turkey initially rejected the aid provided by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – to maintain ethno-religious hostilities, the move still represented a new display of soft power by Rojava’s Kurds. Moreover, the fact that the AANES immediately voiced its readiness to send aid without any preconditions and then waited for more than a week on the road crossings to receive the okay, represents a moral victory over those forces who wanted to refuse the aid.
Alongside aid sent by Kurdish-majority areas in the Jazira Region in northeast Syria, the AANES also encouraged the collection of aid from Arab tribes in Deir Ezzor, Hasaka, and Raqqa. This mature stance which placed geopolitics aside in favor of humanity, stands in stark contrast to the unreasonableness of the Turkish-backed Syrian militias, who wanted to spitefully reject the assistance out of fear that it would show the AANES in a positive light. One could also speculate that there may have been a sense of shame involved, when you consider that many of these Syrian militias have been demonizing the very people who were now coming to their rescue.
Judge a Tree by its Fruit
One of the key factors in the collection of aid in AANES areas, was the strong civil society constructed there allowed for a popular mobilization of all the people towards such a collective cause. Because the people in northeast Syria enjoy freedoms not known in the rest of Syria, they had the ability and political agency to organize themselves in a non-centralized way, in order to save lives in the rest of Syria. When you consider that many of these NW Syrian areas they were helping had considered them sworn enemies and wanted their destruction, it makes the goodwill and decency of the AANES’s people all the more remarkable and unique.
Throughout Western Kurdistan (north Syria) and AANES areas, a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Armenians, Turkmen, and Circassians all united to aid in the relief effort. These efforts to save lives from beneath the rubble and ease the human misery of others was taken without consideration for nationalism or military advantage. In fact, it would have been easier (though less moral) for the AANES to have viewed the earthquake as an opportunity to capitalize on the plight of northwestern Syrian areas. Or even to view the tragedy as some form of “karma”, since many of these militias were living in the stolen homes of Kurds in Efrîn (Afrin) and other places when they collapsed. Yet, the AANES showed the entire world what true human solidarity is, and that yes, it even applies to the families of your enemies. After all, many of the children being pulled from beneath the rubble in northwest Syria had not made the decision to invade or occupy Efrîn, as they themselves were also innocent victims of a cruel neo-Ottoman Turkish policy to annex parts of Syria.
For their part, the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) in Southern Kurdistan (north Iraq) also sent humanitarian aid to Efrîn, primarily in Cindirêsê (Jindires). However, even in this instance, the cruelty of the Turkish-backed militias was on display, as they tried to keep this aid from reaching the Kurds living there as well. Unfortunately, most of these jihadist armed groups have centered their political position in Syria around hostility towards the indigenous Kurdish population of Efrîn. And despite the aid, some of these attitudes still prevailed, as honest and remorseful Arabs in Efrîn testified with regret of how rescue efforts and retrieval of bodies were still being weaponized against local Kurds.
Then, as intellectuals and activists shared footage and praise from northwest Syria on the position undertaken by the Kurds, the AANES, and the KRG—Turkey’s regime had to scramble to look for a way to stop the narrative. But it was too late, and a significant blow was struck against Turkish propaganda that had spent years defaming and demonizing the PYD (Democratic Union Party), and their defense forces of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units). Yet here the Administration that these forces defend against Turkish invasion and expansion, was reaching out their hand to Turkish-controlled Syrians in need.
This aid also pushed back against the unrelenting discourse against Kurds emanating from Erdoğan’s regime, which in the days following the earthquake continued to attack areas around Girê Xurma (Tal Tamr) in Rojava and around Şingal in Bashur. As Turkish artillery and attack drones sought to murder civilians in the aftermath of the earthquake, Kurdish parties came together to save lives and rescue people from the rubble. Consequently, rarely have two sides of a conflict ever been so clearly defined for the entire international community. It was also a bad look in Ankara that the KRG – whose 2017 independence referendum Turkey rejected – was now coming to help in areas that Turkey had invaded and terrorized for the past several years, based on the fear of a Greater Kurdistan emerging.
Of note, the Turkish regime and ruling AKP party sadly did not see these actions as an olive branch for reconciliation, as within Turkey they continued their campaign of hatred and criminalization against the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), while refusing aid to Kurds living in areas of Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) that support the HDP. As Kurds throughout the diaspora donated to Heyva Sor to help survivors in Bakur, the Turkish state was sending in the military to seize such aid meant for the Kurds. This is because the earthquake was merely a continuation of official AKP-MHP policy towards the 20+ million Kurds within Turkey’s borders, namely a means of causing intentional neglect and deprivation.
Past Cruelty, Present Reality
Historically, the image of occupied Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, had always been subject to extreme propaganda by the Turkish state. Which ironically coincided with the historical tendency to even deny the existence of the Kurds themselves. As Ankara simultaneously denied who Kurds were, while jailing, killing, and terrorizing them for being the thing they said they were not.
Over the past 100 years, two trends prevailed in this direction: the first denied the Kurds as an ethnicity, and as a group having political, social, and economic rights, while the second has always maintained the need to assimilate the Kurds and strip them of their identity. The converging point between the two trends is that both offer no solution to the Kurdish question. Hence, the Kurds have remained ensnared to this duality of denial and attempted extermination.
And although Turkey is not burning down thousands of Kurdish villages in the same way they did during the 1990s, the killing, repression, and demographic change continues (as displayed in Efrîn) – and the containment policy of forced assimilation is still in effect. For this end, Turkey spares no efforts to belittle and destroy Kurdish aspirations, while forcing their participation within a corrupt Turkish state “system” of abuse and torture, where Turkey’s regime can jail all Kurdish politicians, municipality heads, journalists, and civil activists who demand that Kurds receive their basic human rights.
Amid this current situation, Turkey has committed to a plan of social engineering, where they want to deny sovereignty to any Kurds in the region (even outside Turkey’s borders), annex Kurdish regions where possible, and ethnically cleanse Kurdish areas through demographic displacement (like in Efrîn and Serê Kaniyê). Turkey is able to maintain this neo-fascist aspiration by promoting a discourse against the Kurds that casts them as disloyal agents of foreign conspiracies against the Turkish state, rather than the reality that they are simply people desiring a free life.
In this way, the Kurds in Syria—who showed their true nature through their aid donations to Turkish-occupied areas—held a mirror up to the true reality. For years, Turkish propaganda had been painting the Kurds in Syria (Rojava) as “separatist terrorists” to the Arab militias that Turkey was relying on for their mercenary forces. And here those same Arab militias were watching waves of aid trucks coming over the horizon, from these same “Kurds” that Turkey had been vilifying.
As a result, Turkey’s media found it difficult to hide these unfortunate facts. Instead, they mostly ignored the goodwill gestures by the AANES and hoped that most of the people in their occupied areas of Syria would not notice who had remembered them (Kurds & their multi-ethnic allies) and forgotten them (Ankara).
Thankfully, significant footage soon appeared on social media outlets of Arabs in northwest Syria refuting the idea that Kurds were “terrorists”. In fact, many of these previous enemies of the AANES now found themselves repenting for having fallen for Turkey’s lies, as they watched the same Kurds who their Turkish-backed schools had told them were “terrorists”, now help dig their children out of the rubble.
And in that we now see the future battlefield for the hearts and minds of Syrians. It will be a battle between people’s eyes who saw the AANES send them assistance in their time in need, and their ears which have been listening to Turkey’s propaganda for several years, in the hopes that they would despise the system in north and east Syria where people live freer and more fulfilling lives and have political control over their own destiny. Now the question is on whether the people in northwest Syria will see better than they hear?