Commentary  To the Countless People Who Were Not Counted

Erdoğan's Victims in Northern Syria Deserve Justice

State institutions count many things. They analyze and assess everything: how many books an average citizen reads in a year, how many cars are sold per year, or how many students graduate with straight A’s every year. But there is one thing they always seem to lose track of, perhaps because bureaucrats in their armchairs find it unpleasant: war casualties. If you were to ask them how many people have been killed, or forced to flee their homes since October 9 of this year, their numbers oracle would be silent. Perhaps some would explain the dispatch of their army with a vague reference to “state security.” Those grey men in their khaki uniforms who claim to want safety and happiness at home have ensured dread and blood abroad. This venture does not have much to do with security. It knows no passion, no glory and no prosperity. It merely knows death – the death of all hope. Shortly after US troops pulled out of northern Syria on October 7, a brutal offensive was launched, instigated by Turkish President Erdoğan. People have fled their homes in thousands, dozens have lost their lives, further immiserating an already ravaged country. It is a dire humanitarian crisis. Since bureaucrats have stopped counting numbers, perhaps only one country in the Middle East is in an even more desperate situation: Yemen. Next comes northern Syria – specifically the people there, the Kurds, alongside many others. One of their uncounted names is Hevrin Khalaf, Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, killed by the Turkish-backed militia Ahrar al-Sharghiya on October 12.

On October 9, the Turkish Air Force launched multiple strikes on strategic border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad in Syria. Soon after, a land offensive was followed with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – an non-uniform collection of different paramilitary groups, Syrian army defectors and mercenaries backed by Turkey since late 2017. The aim, stated by Erdoğan, was to create a buffer or “safe area” in northeastern Syria, 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory and roughly 480 kilometers in length. An ambitious plan indeed. Their adversaries are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They came to life after the siege of Kobani by ISIL in 2014 where the Kurdish YPG (People’s Defense Units) allied with other local militias to spearhead a united SDF. Together with their compatriot allies, they succeeded in defeating ISIL and established a vast Autonomous Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria, referred to as “Rojava”, where they aspire to create an autonomous region within Syria.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, more than three million Syrian refugees have settled in Turkey. Following the creation of a “safe area,” Erdoğan voiced his intention of moving a million refugees back to this safe zone. In his endeavour, no Syrian refugees returned home, but Turkish forces and the FSA managed to displace 130,000 people out of their homes. This figure is increasing by the day. What makes this fantasy of a “safe area” implausible are the facts on the ground: over two million people live in SDF administered territory, 300,000 of which could be displaced after the Turkish offensive, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “Many of these people have already been displaced multiple times and suffered horribly under the brutal rule of [ISIL], only to be facing yet another crisis.” said Misty Buswell, IRC Middle East policy director. “We expect to see an increase in deaths from what are usually preventable diseases because of this, as there simply are not enough facilities to support those who have been displaced.” Water supplies have also been damaged, meaning 400,000 people are at risk of unclean water, increasing the possibility of infectious diseases.

Even before the offensive, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) were living in the SDF-administered “Rojava.” In the Al-Hawl camp alone there are 70,000 IDPs – 94 per cent of whom are women and children. Particularly worrisome are Kurdish claims that in seven camps, 12,000 ISIL fighters and affiliates are being held as prisoners. This is a serious concern. Since the Turkish FSA led invasion is an existential crisis for SDF, Kurdish forces have shifted their focus to defend the border. “The SDF can barely maintain its presence at the camps with [ISIL] detainees now, and a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria would make it impossible for the SDF to keep watch over them,” Nick Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes. As such, when the Ayn Issa camp area came under Turkish artillery fire on Sunday, more than 800 suspected ISIL detainees managed to escape. This is clearly another step towards further instability. In addition, during the past two weeks, Turkish troops and their allies have advanced into north eastern towns and villages, clashing with Kurdish fighters over the 200-kilometer stretch. More than 100 civilians have been reported dead on both sides. Evidently, Ankara’s dream of a “safe area” has become as unsafe as anyone could imagine.

The result is a dreadful humanitarian crisis coupled with freed ISIL prisoners. But it does not end here. The crisis brought President Assad of Syria into the game. In turn, the SDF and Syrian government forces agreed to join forces to resist Turkey’s invasion on October 13. Fighting from a position of weakness, fearing for survival, it is very likely that the Kurds would grant concessions to the Syrian government, who are approaching from a position of strength and stability. I do not blame them. The Kurdish fighters had few alternatives when the US abandoned them. The arrival of Assad’s forces to the region where Syrian Kurds had built up autonomy is a major transformative event of the Syrian civil war: it will certainly strengthen Assad’s grip on power. The absence of US troops – which has been called a betrayal of Kurds – brings further mayhem to the chaos in Syria where it is already susceptible to Russian and Iranian influence, and their affiliated proxies in the region.

What was going through the mind of Erdoğan and his friends when they made this decision? He claimed it was to fight the Kurdish “terrorists” in northern Syria – incidentally the very Kurds who had been fighting ISIL for years to ultimately manage a pyrrhic victory against them. Ironically, not only the SDF, but also various other Kurdish groups are terrorists in Erdoğan’s eyes. The ones who are not “terrorists”, for instance the People’s Democratic Party, are being oppressed back home in Turkey, with their leader Selahattin Demirtaş currently spending his days in prison. Perhaps this decision was made with the intent of bringing peace and prosperity to the region, or of aiding refugees, but the facts and figures demonstrate the exact opposite has taken effect. What I am certain of is that the notion of an autonomous region of “Rojava” right by Erdoğan’s doorstep was an unpleasant sight for him and went so far as to displace 130,000 people from their homes to stop that from happening.