Serê Kaniyê: Four Years of Ankara’s Terrorizing Occupation

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Wherever Turkey occupies in the AANES region of north and eastern Syria (Rojava), allied jihadists, criminal gangs, and ruthless mercenaries soon follow; and wherever these occupying hoards go, so does indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings, murders, mutilations, lootings, gender based violence, occupation of homes, and destruction of farmlands, orchards, and livestock. In essence, wherever Turkey and its allied gangs have occupied in Rojava, life has come to a total standstill, made frozen and immobile in a permanent state of fear and terror. This is the story of the previously multicultural Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) which has now completed four years of occupation under Turkish forces and its jihadist sycophants. Over 300,000 civilians have been displaced and hundreds killed. This is also the story of Afrin occupied back in 2018 and the ensuing ethnic cleansing which reduced the Kurdish population from 96% to an astonishing 25%.

This week, Ankara launched yet another heavy bombardment of the Rojava region, in what has been called the worst Turkish airstrikes so far, with over 100 plus bombings over the course of 4 days. The systemic bombardments resulted in mass destruction of key infrastructure that is the literal lifeline of the people of Rojava, including power plants, water sanitation plants, two special Covid-19 hospitals, gas stations, grain silos, oilfields, pumping stations, and power transfer facilities. Currently three hospitals across the region are calling for urgent blood donations as the situation deteriorates rapidly.

The mass bombings were ostensibly in response to a PKK attack last week in front of Ankara’s Interior Ministry. However, observers have long noticed Turkey’s desire to annex, destabilize, ethnically cleanse and generally terrorize the Kurdish dominated region even during cease fires or where there were no direct clashes; an ongoing policy which has consistently gained greenlights from the international community despite the fact that the United States sees the SDF as its most important allies in the war against ISIS terror in the region.

A quick look over the occupation of Serê Kaniyê in the past two years presents a worrying vision of violence and ethnic cleansing that Turkey wishes to impose under its Islamist neo-Ottoman empire.

The Violent Annexation of Serê Kaniyê

Serê Kaniyê, despite having a population of only 30,000 (as of the 2004 census), is one of the oldest cities in upper Mesopotamia, and there is evidence the city was inhibited as far back as the Neolithic age (around 8,000 BC). Serê Kaniyê is the third largest city in the Hesekê Governorate and one of its most multicultural and resource rich sites.

When the Syrian Civil Conflict erupted, Serê Kaniyê became a site of intense clashes and ongoing conflict between the Syrian opposition forces and the newly formed People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2012. Initially al-Nusra Front rebels and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) clashed with the Syrian Army in the Battle for Serê Kaniyê and managed to expel them from the city proper.

Following intense initial clashes, the city eventually fell under the control of the YPG who formed alliances with non-jihadist factions of the FSA in 2013. As a result of this alliance, all jihadist groups were expelled from the city and surrounding provinces on July 21st, 2013 until the duel attack of the Syrian National Army and Turkish forces into north eastern Syria in 2019 in the Second Battle of Serê Kaniyê. Since then, Serê Kaniyê has fallen under direct Turkish occupation. Following intense clashes the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdrew from the city as part of a ceasefire agreement which not only directly benefited Turkey and its allied jihadists, but also essentially established a permanent occupation of the city and surrounding region, similar to the occupation of Afrin back in 2018.

Turkey launched its “Operation Spring Peace” on October, 9th and a fierce battle ensued between the Turkish forces and allied jihadists, in what observes have called “armed gangs and mercenaries”, which included the Hamzah Divisions, Sultan Murad Brigades, and Deir ez-Zor originated group Ahrar a-Sharqiyah. What ensued as a result of the occupation was labeled as “catastrophic” by human rights organizations including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Others accused the Turkish forces of engaging in a “soft” ethnic cleansing of the region.

The goal of the Turkish government in attacking the city was the open aspiration to “eliminate the Kurdish forces, impose a safe zone and resettle millions of Syrian refugees.” There was no doubt in the minds of the observers that the key objective of Ankara was the deliberate and ongoing continuation of ethnic cleansing which had commenced in the region following Afrin’s annexation. Despite this established objective, the US forces commenced withdrawal from the region before the start of the operation, in essence greenlighted the Turkish occupation.

Serê Kaniyê’s strategic influence is extensive, least of all for the fact that it houses the crucial Allouk water pumping station which provides water to the entire Hesekê Governorate. The Turkish occupation of Serê Kaniyê’s has placed immense pressure on the AANES and the civilians of the region as Turkey has consistently used the water supply and its deliberate reduction to impose a state of terror and instability. International organizations have noted that the Allouk station supplied over half a million people in Hesekê city, Tell Tamer and the al-Hole camp which houses detained ISIS terrorists and their families. However, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the occupation of Serê Kaniyê the water supply has been largely interrupted and cut off for extensive periods of time or flowing at an historically low rate that creates unbearable living conditions for the affected civilians.

One of the most insidious outcomes of the Turkish occupation of Serê Kaniyê has been demographic changes. The town was home to a multicultural mix of Kurdish, Armenian, Yazidi, Turkmen, Assyrian, and Chechens previous to the 2019 occupation. Since then there have been widespread demographic change and ethnic cleansing as the majority of Kurdish and Christian community has fled the occupied city and providences. There is also wide evidence that the Turkish occupying government has resettled Arab Syrian refugees in the city in the homes of the displaced people and families. Since the occupation of Afrin in 2018, Turkey has consistently attempted to openly and systemically ethnically cleanse the regions it has annexed from Rojava. So when a similar policy was implemented in Serê Kaniyê, no one was surprised. Strong evidence pointed to the use of illegal chemical weapons use in Serê Kaniyê’s occupation by the Turkish forces and allied groups.

Similar to the occupation of Afrin, as the occupying Turkish and allied jihadist forces invaded the city, an intense wave of looting, burning, and destruction soon followed. A number of other war crimes occurred against the remaining civilians including illegal and arbitrary detention, torture, killings and summary executions. As cries of terrorism and abuses mounted, Amnesty International reported that the Turkish military and its jihadist allies demonstrated “a shameful lack of respect for the lives of civilians.”

As part of its campaign of terror, Turkish forces and allied gangs repeatedly filmed their crimes against the terrified citizens and spread them widely and freely across social media outlets. According to the UK’s Independent, the Turkish backed SNA filmed themselves engaging in “summary executions, mutilation of corpses, threats against Kurds and widespread looting”, which have naturally, and as intended, “struck terror into the tens of thousands who [found] themselves in the path of the offensive.” Many of the civilians that fled ended up in AANES internally displaced camps and makeshift shelters, which Turkish drones and airstrikes terrorized again this week, especially around the Washokani camp.

Consequently, targeted killings were conducted in order to sow fear and terror in the hearts of the remaining civilians. For instance, in a horrifying act of gender based violence three nurses were shot in Suluk, near the city of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad), by the Turkish allied Syrian militias. Their mutilated bodies were found in the sewer system the next day.

The Yazidi communities in both Afrin and Serê Kaniyê have also been key targets of Turkish and allied jihadist occupiers attention. In Serê Kaniyê, the Yazidi villages of Shakariyah and Jan Tamir were looted and razed to the ground. Farmlands were similarly razed, machinery destroyed, fuel stolen and animals slaughtered. Such an approach is hardly designed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilians in the region.

A Kurdish YPJ defender checks her weapons in anticipation of Turkey’s jihadist mercenaries invading Serê Kaniyê (October 2019).

Berxwedan Jiyane (Resistance is Life)

Ankara’s increasingly hardline government is a creature of routine and has a tendency to commemorate dates it deems important. October is an important date for Turkey’s policy of historical oppression and terrorism of the Kurds in Rojava. These latest wave of attacks commenced in October 5th, while the occupation of Serê Kaniyê commenced on the 9th in 2019. October 9th, 1998 is also the date that the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced out of Syria as a result of diplomatic pressure by Turkey.

In a condemnation of the recent attacks by Turkey the YPJ General Commander Rojhilat Afrin stated that:

“It is for this reason that, every October, there are attacks on our land, on our people, and of course against the women. The attacks that are now happening aim to eradicate an identity, culture, and language. To alienate people from the revolution and their own cultural identity. To expel the people from their indigenous lands and put fear in their minds.”

Ankara celebrates its terrorism of the Kurds with regular intervals and for the Erdogan government October is an auspicious month to recommence drone attacks, targeted killings, and continue the ongoing policy of ethnic cleansing and outright genocide of the Kurds. With Afrin and Serê Kaniyê systemically cleansed of Kurds, with ceaselessly intense bombardments and drone strikes continuing unabated, observers have been left wondering how long before the Rojava Revolution with its radical model of democratic confederalism will collapse in on itself.

Yet, it is a mark of Rojava’s revolutionary credentials that it continues to resist, and struggle through despite of (and in spite of) intense global betrayal and apathy. Rojava’s resilience is seen through its staunch commitment to life, democracy, and humanity despite the ongoing pressures mounted by Turkey and the international community’s shameless betrayal of the heroic people who defeated ISIS. But this does not mean that the oppressed nations such as the Kurds do not deserve justice and peace either.

Will the international community allow Serê Kaniyê or Afrin to remain occupied by Turkish backed gangs and mercenaries? Most likely. But so long as a single tree is planted in the barren deserts of the region, so long as the young women of the region continue to hoist weapons in defense of themselves and fellow oppressed peoples, and so long as the revolutionary ideals of democratic confederalism are implemented for another second, another hour, or another day, then all the sacrifices and losses would have been worth it. The Kurdish dream of Rojava has evolved into a reality, and it now sits as a beacon of peace and humanity on a hill overlooking a Middle East region in turmoil and in flames. Turkey’s killer drones and cruel mercenaries will keep trying to extinguish the light, but every morning proves to us that the sun always rises again.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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