What political choices can the United States make in the Middle East? Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria and subsequent attacks on Rojava—the three autonomous cantons set up by Syrian Kurds—raise this question, but so far the answer has been framed only in terms of military alliances and realpolitik. But as many have said, the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda has to be countered ideologically, not just militarily. This cannot happen without a compelling alternative model. Rojava, with its vision of egalitarian democratic inclusivity, is trying to establish a new paradigm for the Middle East—but so far Washington has seen the Syrian Kurds only in military terms and is short-changing future possibilities because of a misplaced deference to zero-sum ethnic rivalries and the so-called “moderate Islamism” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On August 24, Turkey invaded Jarabulus, a Syrian border town held by ISIS, with great fanfare: several hundred Turkish soldiers, twenty tanks, and 1,500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from Islamist militias. In reality, the whole battle was a fake. ISIS had quietly left town several days before, and the difference between this and their usual behavior convinced some observers, particularly the Kurds, that their exit was coordinated with Ankara.
While the mainstream media saw that Erdogan’s real purpose was to go after the Kurds, and noted that it is problematic for the United States to be allied with two parties that are fighting each other, US coverage of Syria has overwhelmingly focused on either the war or state politics. It has thus failed to look hard at the Erdogan government’s support of jihadis, or to ask what they have in common—whether or not Turkey is a NATO member.
A lot of the mainstream media covered “Operation Euphrates Shield” as if Turkey were actually fighting ISIS. Echoing Turkish press releases, CNN said, “Turkey sends tanks into Syria against ISIS; rebels reportedly capture town.” The made-for-TV battle had been scripted down to camera angles (pool reporters were confined to one hill): bombs dropping, puffs of smoke in the distance, even footage of scouts peering into living rooms, searching for the enemy. Few seemed to notice that not a shot was fired. Operation Euphrates Shield was thus a startling contrast to earlier battles fought by the Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kobane and Manbij, where combat went house to house, deadly and prolonged, and hundreds of lives were lost to ISIS snipers, booby traps, mines, incendiary bombs, and suicide attacks.
The BBC did say that the Turkish invaders met “little resistance,” but it was left to the Voice of America News to express surprise that ISIS had “essentially conceded one of its last strategic border towns,” quoting former intelligence officer Michael Pregent to the effect that the Turkish takeover had been too easy and would end up benefiting ISIS: “What Turkey has done is give ISIS the space to regroup. They basically halted the Kurdish forces from destroying ISIS.”
Meanwhile, from positions nearby, furious members of the Jarabulus Military Council of the SDF, who had wanted to capture Jarabulus themselves but had been put off by the United States, watched the charade. One of its officers, Muhammad Ahmed, told the ARA News, a Kurdish news service, “We are aware that ISIS militants have entered Turkey today after shaving their beards and dressing like Free Syrian Army.” ANF, another Kurdish news service, used similar terms: “The military operation act was nothing more than the handover of Jarabulus city according to the previous agreements with ISIS and other gangs against the gains of Kurdish people.”
While it is not possible to prove that Turkey let ISIS fighters slip back into Jarabulus in FSA uniforms, Turkey supports so many salafi-jihadi militias that ISIS members would not have stood out. Among groups listed by The New York Times as participating in the invasion are Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Furqa Murad, and Nour al-Din al-Zinki, which recently became notorious for filming its men beheading a young prisoner à la ISIS.
Martin Chulov of The Guardian also believes that Turkey has “openly supported other jihadi groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which espouses much of al-Qaida’s ideology, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is proscribed as a terror organisation by much of the US and Europe.” (Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, recently tried to sanitize itself by changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.)
In fact, Erdogan’s support of salafi-jihadi groups is an open secret despite extreme government censorship.
The first great scandal began in January 2014, when Turkish gendarmes in Adana stopped a convoy of trucks headed for Syria and guarded by officers from MIT, the Turkish intelligence agency. After saying the trucks contained medical supplies, the government moved forcefully into cover-up mode: The prosecutor who ordered the search was removed; 13 soldiers involved were arrested; reporting on the incident was forbidden; and online coverage was deleted. A year and a half later, Cumhuriyet, an opposition daily, released footage showing that the trucks were actually carrying mortar shells, grenade launchers, and ammunition. Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against the paper’s editor, Can Dundar, and his associate Erdem Gul, accusing them of espionage and leaking state secrets.
Joe Biden himself accused Turkey (and other US allies) of supporting jihadis in a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School on October 2, 2014: “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Biden later had to apologize to Erdogan, but that doesn’t mean what he said was untrue.
Turkey’s relationship with ISIS has also been scrutinized, though little of the research has been picked up by the US media. In November 2014, David Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights posted a research paper listing published allegations that Turkey was giving ISIS military equipment, transport, logistical assistance, military training, and medical care, as well as helping it recruit in Turkey and buying its oil. A year later, the website KurdishQuestion.com published an annotated selection from Turkish-language news sources called “The Love Affair Between ISIS and the Turkish Government.” A September 2016 compendium by the left-wing UK website The Canary is headed “Documents reveal Turkey’s collusion with ISIS.”
Some of the documents mentioned came to light when US Special Operations forces conducted an overnight raid on the Deir Ezzor compound in eastern Syria of Abu Sayyaf in May 2015. Abu Sayyaf was a top ISIS commander who oversaw oil-smuggling operations from Iraq into Turkey, estimated to bring in $1-4 million per day. Data captured in the raid—hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, DVDs, and papers—revealed details; after looking over the material, a senior intelligence officer told the Guardian’s Chulov he could no longer deny that Turkish officials were dealing directly with ISIS. Chulov also interviewed an unnamed ISIS member who said that Turkey and ISIS were mutually dependent because of oil, and that their shared interests would prevent Turkey from attacking ISIS very hard.
Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents the old secular opposition to Erdogan’s Islamist ruling party, the AKP, has been a bulldog about investigating government support for ISIS. In 2015, it organized an investigation of the town of Adiyaman that showed it was a recruiting center for ISIS, which used a chain of local coffeehouses and mosques that were left undisturbed by the police and MIT. When locals complained to the authorities that their sons were being recruited to fight in Syria, they were ignored. According to Turkey Wonk bloggers Noah Blaser and Aaron Stein, the ISIS suicide bombers who blew up the October 10, 2015, demonstration in Ankara came from Adiyaman.
The Rojava Kurds have now posted documents linking ISIS and the Turkish government, found when Kobane, Tal Abyad, Manbij, and other towns were liberated: foreign fighters’ passports stamped in Turkey; Turkish credit cards and driver’s licenses; state-issued travel documents for people from Indonesia, Tajikistan, and Egypt; and Turkish residence permits for the same foreign fighters. There is no possibility that all this was going on without significant government support.
Some believe that Erdogan’s own family is involved. In September 2014, a nurse at a private hospital near the Mediterranean wrote a letter to Parliament and the police saying she was sick and tired of taking care of jihadis, and giving names, dates, even hospital room numbers. Polat Can, a founder and spokesperson of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Rojava militia, said in a 2015 interview with Washington’s Kurdish Institute:
The Turkish government has imposed a tight blockade on our territory for years, but at the same time they opened their official and non-official border crossings with ISIS (in Tel Abyad before and in Jarabulus now) and with the al-Nusra Front in Idlib and Azaz…. Turkey is also the main gateway for the transit of terrorists to Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. According to reliable information that we have recently obtained, Erdogan’s daughter (Sümeyye Erdogan) oversees the committee handling the treatment of ISIS terrorists in Turkish hospitals. They are obstructing international efforts in the fight against ISIS.
Bilal Erdogan, the president’s son, has also been a focus of scrutiny. After Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, both Russia and Syria raised questions about oil smuggling with ISIS. The financial news site Zero Hedge reported that month, “Earlier today, Vladimir Putin explicitly accused Ankara of attempting to protect ISIS oil routes by shooting down Russian warplanes which have destroyed hundreds of Islamic State oil trucks in November. Erdogan of course denies the allegations, but as we’ve shown, it would be very easy for Turkish smugglers to commingle ISIS and KRG [the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq] crude…effectively using Kurdish oil to mask Turkey’s participation in the Islamic State oil trade.” The site then showed pictures of five oil tankers belonging to the BMZ group, a shipping company headquartered in Malta, of which Bilal Erdogan is a major shareholder.
On June 29, Eren Erdem of the CHP made a speech in the Turkish Parliament detailing evidence contained in 400 pages of documents about the government’s dealings with ISIS. He said ISIS had sleeper cells in fourteen Turkish towns and that the man behind the 2015 Ankara bombing was known to MIT, which had tapped his phones and watched as he facilitated the entrance of nearly 2,000 jihadis into Syria without arresting him even once.
Two months after Erdem’s speech, Turkey marched into Jarabulus to replace ISIS with FSA jihadis, who immediately began to attack the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish government has already been at war with the Kurds in its own southeast since last year, killing civilians and leveling towns on such a scale that a war crimes lawsuit has been filed in Germany. Why would they want to open a second front in Syria?
Because the Syrian Kurds were making too much progress.
On August 13, two weeks before the Turkish invasion, the SDF finally drove ISIS out of Manbij after a ferocious battle that lasted months. Residents of Manbij, mostly women and children, were ecstatic at being freed from ISIS, and soon pictures spread over the Internet of women burning their burqas and men cutting off their beards. The Rojava women’s liberation movement’s umbrella organization, Kongreya Star, collected stories of ISIS mistreatment and rushed to publish a report calling for support from world feminists.
This was not the kind of liberation that Turkey and the FSA had in mind.
So on August 24, Turkey invaded Syria with its favorite FSA factions. The same day, at a joint press conference, Joe Biden ordered the Kurds to retreat from Manbij and stay out of Jarabulus or lose American military aid. No wonder they feel betrayed.
Biden was in Istanbul to patch up the Turkey-US relationship and explain why the United States couldn’t immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s old enemy, on whom he blames the July 15 failed military coup. The static around Gulen has affected US use of Incirlik Air Base, which holds NATO nukes. After arresting the Turkish base commander for involvement in the coup, Turkey cut off electric power to the US base, surrounded it with police, refused to let any of the 1,800 US military personnel and their families leave, and effectively stopped US bombing flights against ISIS for almost a week.
But if US relations with Turkey were so bad, why did Washington support its invasion of Syria? According to The Wall Street Journal, it didn’t. The White House was supposed to discuss a Turkish attack on Jarabulus on August 24, but Turkey jumped the gun. Since the Pentagon had been trying to get Turkey to fight ISIS for years and didn’t want them to do it alone, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CentCom, gave them air cover. At first.
Under American pressure, the YPG-YPJ moved east of the Euphrates River just as Biden had told them to. General Votel said on August 30, “They have lived up to their commitment to us,” though that doesn’t mean the Kurds were happy about it. The YPG issued a statement saying that, having completed their mission of liberating Manbij, they had withdrawn their troops, leaving the city in the hands of the Manbij Military Council, which is largely Arab. This fact was confirmed by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Nevertheless, Erdogan continued to claim that the Kurds still held Manbij. With this excuse, Turkish-supported FSA forces attacked villages south of Jarabulus and, on August 31, Turkey began bombing YPG-YPJ headquarters in Afrin.
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While many Western commentators see the conflict in ethnic or religious terms—Arab versus Kurd, Sunni versus secularist—clearly Erdogan sees no significant difference between the Rojava Kurds and any Arabs who support their paradigm of autonomy, pluralism, and feminism. Both are a threat to his dreams of regional Islamist hegemony. For this reason if no other, the Rojava revolution deserves the attention of anyone in the region looking for a way to move past wars, ethnic cleansing campaigns, theocracies, and dictatorships.
The Rojava revolution began in 2011, during the Syrian uprising, when 5,000 members of the People’s Democratic Union (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party allied with Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), came home. They quickly consolidated a liberated area on the Syria-Turkey border consisting of three cantons: Cizire, Kobane, and Afrin. There they set up local councils and began to put into practice the feminist, democratic, and pluralist ideas advanced by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Founded in the 1970s as a classic Marxist national liberation movement with a strategy of people’s war, since the 1990s the PKK has transformed itself into a leading component of a Kurdish liberation movement able to combine self-defense with civil resistance, parliamentary work, and community organizing. It has also renounced its earlier goal of a separate Kurdish state, saying that it prefers regional autonomy in a democratic system. Its vision of social revolution is a powerfully democratic and pluralistic one in which women play a leading role, as they do in the Kurdish militias—every organization in Rojava must be at least 40 percent women, and all administration is led by co-chairs, one male and one female.
When Assad withdrew most of his troops from northern Syria in 2012, Rojava effectively became autonomous. It was still three little islands—Cizire, Kobane, and Afrin —separated by territory increasingly infiltrated by Islamist fighting groups, but when German freelancer Benjamin Hiller visited in the summer of 2012, the Rojava cantons were at peace, not participating in the Syrian civil war but instead trying to establish a liberated territory of their own. Over the next two years, however, ISIS was founded and grew strong, and in the summer of 2014 launched a blitzkrieg across Iraq and Syria. One of its main targets was Kobane.
Nobody was willing to arm the YPG-YPJ at that point; ISIS had captured huge supplies of US military equipment in the northwestern Iraqi city of Mosul, while the Kurds had nothing but ancient black-market Kalashnikovs, homemade grenades, and tractors converted to tanks. Outnumbered and outgunned, with desperate determination and taking hundreds of losses, the YPG-YPJ fought on even after ISIS took the city in October 2014. Finally, in November, they began to get US air support. When they retook Kobane in January 2015, the supposedly invincible ISIS was handed its first defeat.
By this time, the Pentagon had decided the Kurds were their only hope of a reliable ally in Syria, and decided to enlist them in building a new army to fight ISIS: the Syrian Democratic Forces, which united the YPG-YPJ with Arab militias, principally the “Euphrates Volcano,” made up of fighters who had escaped Raqqa after it was seized by ISIS. When the SDF liberated Tal Abyad in June 2015, it became possible to connect the two eastern Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Cizire, but the smallest canton, Afrin, far to the west, is still cut off by a strip of land controlled by ISIS—a strip containing both Manbij and Jarabulus. And Afrin is now under attack not only by ISIS but also by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and Turkey.
In addition, since the battle of Kobane, all three cantons have been starved of food, medical supplies, and building materials by a Turkish embargo on one border and an Iraqi Kurdish embargo by Massoud Barzani’s forces—which are Turkey’s allies and economic dependents—on the other. They have also been under constant attack by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamist militias. And Turkey is now trying to build a wall to isolate them further.
Very little about any of this has appeared in US mainstream media. One reason is the complexity and unfamiliarity of the story and the difficulty of access in a war zone—particularly since the Iraqi Kurds won’t let freelance reporters through their border checkpoint into Syria. A larger problem is that most commentators see the story through the lens of great-power politics and do not focus on changes happening on the ground in Rojava—particularly changes in ethnic relations and the position of women—and what these could mean for the region.
The United States is now being pressed by Turkey to disavow its alliance with the Kurds, but as General Votel said in an August 30 press conference, Kurdish fighters are too valuable. They are the only ground troops who have been able to defeat ISIS. But even if the Pentagon is committed to a military alliance with the Syrian Kurds, military support is not enough. Rojava is caring for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees despite an embargo that prevents food and supplies from coming in. Its people deserve political, economic, and humanitarian support.
Military supporters of the Syrian Kurds should ask themselves, How much of their success is due to the fact that they do not lock women up or push them to the back? Rojava and PKK women not only have their own militias, some even lead units that include men. Since ISIS enslaves women, these units are highly motivated.
In the long term, wouldn’t it make sense for the United States, for once, to help a project that is actually progressive and democratic? Turkey is supporting the jihadis Washington says it wants to fight. So why should Washington keep bowing to Turkey’s hatred and fear of the Kurds? A strong and united Rojava could not only help defeat ISIS but could become an experimental model of pluralistic, democratic, and feminist policies for the entire Middle East.
That’s just what Turkey is afraid of.