Rojava, north and eastern Syria, a region already ravaged by years of conflict and instability brought on by ISIS, Assad regime attacks, and Turkish invasions plus occupations, has now been plunged into a deeper humanitarian crisis as Turkey’s Air Force sets out to systematically leave all civilian infrastructure in ruins. Water, gas, and electricity stations that were once lifelines for local communities already battered by over a decade of war and displacement, have been obliterated, exacerbating the suffering of an already vulnerable population. The aftermath of the latest Turkish airstrikes which commenced on October 5th, has had dire consequences and exacerbated the already formidable challenges faced by those living in the midst of this devastation. At the time of this writing Turkish airstrikes have hit the Makhmour refugee camp in Basur (Northern Iraq), which marks the second time this week the camp has been targeted by Turkish airplanes contributing to a tense atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
According to Bedran Ciya Kurd, co-chair of the Department of External Affairs in the governing AANES, 180 civilian infrastructure sites have been targeted by Turkey since October 5th. The destruction comprises 14 oil stations, 9 power stations, 8 water stations, and 48 schools completely destroyed. The result has been devastating for the civilians, with more than 10,000 children unable to attend school. Disruptions to electricity supplies also cripples essential services such as hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure.
The persistent threat of Turkish attacks and military operations has created a climate of uncertainty and fear in Rojava, preventing the region from being able to progress or retain a semblance of stability. This atmosphere of fear is designed to pressure Kurdish populations towards displacement and a mass exodus out of the region. With no water, gas and electricity now available, the situation is set to become exponentially worse and devolve into a humanitarian crisis in following days.
For their part, Turkey has openly stated its intention to commit war crimes by specifically targeting critical civilian infrastructure in their recent barrage of air strikes. A week ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan openly declared that “All infrastructure and energy facilities operated by the PKK/YPG in Iraq and Syria are legitimate target of our security forces.” There are a number of problematic aspects in Fidan’s pronouncement. For starters, the PKK and YPG are different organizations, despite Turkey’s insistence that they are one in the same. Secondly, the YPG is a defensive military force, and does not operate any energy facilities or infrastructure in Rojava. The civilian infrastructure in Rojava is managed by the civilian AANES and hundreds of local councils who administer daily life there. However, Fidan is intentionally utilizing such wording, so that he can justify bombing any single target in Rojava under the false pretense that they are all run by the YPG.
In an apparent warning to the US troops, the Turkish Minister went on to caution that “I recommend third parties stay away from PKK, YPG facilities and individuals.” An issue which may have led to the US shooting down of an armed Turkish drone a few days ago, which came too close to one of their bases.
Hypocrisy as Turkish Foreign Policy
In response to the recent wave of illegal air strikes against civilian targets, Mazlum Abdi, the General Commander of the SDF, pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of Turkey’s stance towards the Israeli attacks on Gaza, by stating:
“Turkish president’s statement naming the war that leads to cutting off water, electricity and roads, and destroying infrastructure, places of worship and schools as “massacres” is exactly what his government doing in NE Syria. Turkish occupation commits “massacres” and war crimes everyday.”
Likewise, Ilham Ahmad, the Syrian Democratic Council Executive President, remarked that:
“Erdogan made a statement about what is happening in Gaza, saying targeting water, electricity, hospitals, mosques, schools, is a crime, but when he is targets the same facilities in NES he considers it fighting terrorism.”
Such statements highlight the Turkish dictator Erdoğan’s selective policy when it comes to Kurdish rights in the region. Nevertheless, the international community shocked by the escalation of the Israeli-Gaza conflict has conveniently turned a blind eye to Turkey’s mass human rights violations in the region. It seems that the international community has yet to learn that it can focus on multiple issues concurrently; and that no particular group’s suffering should erase or delegitimize the suffering of another oppressed group. As the suffering of the Kurds is consistently pushed towards the backburner when it comes to international relations and global media attention.
Turkish State Terrorism
Turkey has already conducted multiple military operations in northern Syria (Rojava), including Operation Olive Branch (2018) and Operation Peace Spring (2019). These operations involved airstrikes, ground incursions, and hostilities, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people especially in Afrin in 2018 and then later in Serê Kaniyê in 2019. These military actions have persistently promoted an atmosphere of insecurity and fear, pressuring civilians to flee or find shelter in IDP camps or make shift emergency shelters across the region.
The result is overcrowded humanitarian camps and strained resources for some of the most vulnerable and war-affected people. However, even within camps the displaced people face ongoing Turkish violence as the airstrikes surrounding the Washukani IDP camp which holds over 15,000 displaced people from the 2019 Serê Kaniyê invasion highlight. The Turkish message is clear: no one is safe in their homes, in their place of work, in refugee camps, or anywhere within the Rojava region. Every man, woman, and child is a “legitimate” military target in the eyes of Ankara.
Previously, Turkey’s seizure of key water stations, such as the Allouk water station, located in Serê Kaniyê following its invasion of the city in 2019 and its damming of the Euphrates River have cut off water supplies to millions of people in Rojava, especially in the Hesekê region; exacerbating a water crisis in the region and leading to diseases like cholera. The Atatürk Dam, Keban Dam, and Ilısu Dam, located on the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers upstream have also been used as a source of resource wars against the people of north and eastern Syria and is another, ongoing source of fear imposed on the people of the region.
These actions by Turkey have severely limited the water supply to the region, which has resulted in acute water scarcity, making it difficult for people in the area to access clean and safe drinking water for their daily needs. Additionally, limited access to water affects agriculture, which is a crucial source of livelihood for many in the region. Crops and livestock suffer due to the water shortage, contributing to food insecurity and economic hardship.
Consequently, these latest round of airstrikes are part of an ongoing policy of making life in the region uninhabitable and causing as much human misery and suffering as possible. According to the World Bank, the destruction of infrastructure, including utilities, costs conflict-affected countries billions of dollars and since the AANES is a de-facto autonomous region that relies solely on its natural resources such as wheat and oil to finance itself, it appears that the damage will have significant long-term impact on the civilian population. Further, since there is no guarantee that Turkish attacks in their multifaceted from will cease any time soon, this economic recovery appears to be extended or derailed indefinitely.
Targeting infrastructure can make post-conflict reconstruction more difficult and costly. Destroying bridges, roads, and utilities is also designed to slow down efforts to rebuild and stabilize the region. Of course, considering the historical trajectory of Turkey’s ongoing invasions, land annexations, and airstrikes it seems unlikely that Erdoğan will cease its persistent and ongoing terrorization of the region.
Such deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure is designed to instill fear and despair among the civilian population, and to erode public support for the AANES. The psychological impact on Rojava’s population is a significant component of Turkey’s ongoing strategic warfare on the Kurds.
According to research, disrupting key economic infrastructure, including factories, ports, and trade routes, can impose economic pressure on the opposition group. This can limit the opposition’s ability to finance and sustain its military operations and can weaken its overall position in the conflict. However, it must be noted that since the creation of Rojava and the rise of the YPG, YPJ and the SDF, not a single attack has been launched from Rojava into sovereign Turkish territory.
Giving Life Support to ISIS?
In the chaos resulting from Turkish operations, there are concerns about the possible escape of ISIS detainees held in Kurdish-controlled areas. Such escapes could potentially allow former ISIS members to rejoin the fight or engage in terrorist activities.
Turkish military actions have created instability in the region, leaving a security vacuum in many areas. This instability allowed various armed groups, including ISIS remnants, to exploit the situation, regroup, and launch attacks. According to AANES officials:
“Thousands of former ISIS prisoners are held in our camps and Turkey’s attacks undermine the security in these areas. These bombings will also bring a new wave of displacement in the region. But both of these are goals of Ankara.”
Turkish military operations in northern Syria, such as Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring, diverted Kurdish forces, specifically the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), away from the fight against ISIS. The SDF remains a key partner in the international coalition’s efforts to defeat ISIS. By engaging in conflicts with Turkish forces, the SDF had to reallocate resources and manpower, potentially weakening their ability to maintain security and anti-ISIS operations.
Another example of Turkey’s pro-ISIS policies in the region includes the recent attack on the Internal Security Academy in Derik, which resulted in 29 anti-narcotic forces being killed. In response, General Abdi condemned the murder of the security forces as “a brutal crime and blatant violation of human rights that cannot be disregarded. [the] Internal Security Forces is a civil institution supported by Global Coalition to enhance stability and safety in the region.” As a result the General issued a warning in response stating that: “We won’t hesitate in confronting Turkish occupation assaults and attacks on our land and people, and it’s our legitimate right to face them.”
Nevertheless, history and especially the invasions and annexations of Afrin and Serê Kaniyê demonstrates that the Kurds are often the losers in Turkey’s ingoing campaign of terror, destabilization, and ethnic cleansing in the region, with the international community remaining largely mute in response.
Besides Kurdish populations, other minority groups living in the region, including Assyrians and Yazidis, have also experienced displacement due to Turkey’s illegal actions. The Kurdish regions in Syria near the Turkish border have been particularly affected. Residents of towns and villages near the border have faced the brunt of the violence and have been more likely to be displaced.
The Grim Outlook
The Kurdish regions of Syria, under the banner of the AANES / Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava), aimed to establish self-governance and autonomy. Turkey’s actions have posed a significant challenge to these aspirations and have undermined efforts to establish a stable and functioning administration, despite the fact that Rojava has not engaged in a single act of aggression towards Ankara. Indeed, it has been Turkey which has consistently invaded and annexed land and launched cross border strikes, drone attacks, assassinations and bombings with terrifying impunity and regularity.
Despite facing numerous challenges, including attacks from Turkey and the Assad regime, the people of Rojava continue to build a progressive society based on principles of direct democracy, women’s autonomy, minority rights, and social ecology. Rojava as a unique experiment in the region, where utopian political ideals are tested in a harsh environment which consists of near daily Turkish attacks, airstrikes, and bombings.
As the destruction caused by the Turkish airstrikes are being collated and the civilian population is left holding the bodies of dozens of murdered and mutilated family members, the world has yet to ask why Rojava is consistently the target of Turkish state terror? Why is it that despite numerous concrete examples of Turkish illegal invasions, war crimes and their subsequent and documented human rights violations against the Kurdish population, Rojava has not yielded a single retaliatory attack on the part of the Kurdish forces?
Indeed, despite the intense bombardments and outright terror that Turkey wishes to instill in the hearts of the people, the communities there continue to hold on to radical democratic practices, establish and promote economic cooperatives, promote women’s liberation, and decolonize society by dismantling decades of statist imposed racist and anti-multicultural mindsets. But in light of the seemingly ceaseless Turkish attacks on civilians in Rojava, one must ask how much suffering a community can endure before they reach an irrevocable point of no return?