On the night of Thursday, January 20, ISIS mounted a fierce attack to free its prisoners, several thousand of whom were being held in Sina’a prison in Hasaka, a city in the autonomous, majority-Kurdish area of Syria often called Rojava. As a car bomb ripped into the prison gates, fighters from ISIS sleeper cells attacked with gunfire and a coordinated riot began inside the jail. In the battle that followed, prisoners took human shields and ISIS snipers occupied nearby buildings while the Rojava militia—the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF)—brought in as many as 10,000 soldiers, with air and ground support from the United States. After prematurely declaring the battle over on Wednesday, the SDF discovered 90 more ISIS fighters hidden in a basement, while sniper and suicide attacks continued in the surrounding neighborhood, from which thousands of residents had fled. The battle did not finally end until January 30.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, has repeatedly said it does not have the resources to hold thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families safely, much less bring them to trial. But the prisoners’ countries of origin do not want to repatriate them, so Rojava is stuck. Nor does it have the resources to rehabilitate and educate the children of ISIS families, including seven hundred teenage boys held in a separate prison whom ISIS used as pawns or hostages in the jailbreak. As an indignant press release from the Kurdistan National Congress says, “After benefitting from the sacrifices of the SDF in the war against ISIS, the world powers have left thousands of their citizens in North and East Syria as a ticking time bomb that can explode at any time, as we have just seen.”
It’s no accident that the time bomb exploded on the fourth anniversary of Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Afrin in 2018. Turkey’s support of ISIS and other jihadis is an open secret. A Turkish drone even bombed an SDF vehicle that was racing to Hasaka to help recapture ISIS prisoners. According to an October 2021 report on ISIS sleeper cells, raids resulting in the arrest of ISIS members brought to light documents showing links to Turkish intelligence, suggesting that the two coordinate closely. The SDF believes the Hasaka attack was organized by Turkish forces and their proxies in territories Turkey occupied in 2019, including Serekaniye and Tal Abyad, and the plan was for the ISIS prisoners to flee there and regroup.
Turkey has stepped up its attacks on Rojava in recent months. On Christmas Day 2021, a Turkish drone destroyed a Kurdish youth movement house in Kobane, killing five young activists and injuring many more. Kobane holds special significance as the first place in which ISIS was defeated. When the determined Kurdish resistance in 2014 convinced the Pentagon that its army was capable of leading a ground war against ISIS, the Obama administration began to give Rojava military and air support, despite Turkey’s objections. The SDF went on to liberate Raqqa, the home base of ISIS, expecting that, if they served as ground troops in this war, the United States would protect eastern Rojava from Turkey. Under US pressure, Rojava even withdrew its heavy weapons and filled in the tunnels on its border with Turkey. Then, in 2019, in a casual phone call, Trump gave Erdogan a green light to invade eastern Rojava.
In the peace treaty that ended that invasion, Russia and the United States agreed to jointly patrol the border and guarantee Rojava’s safety from further incursions, with the US responsible for the area east of the Euphrates, including Kobane. Turkey’s assassinations by drone are thus violations of the 2019 treaty, but Washington has barely lifted a finger to prevent them. Although there are still 700 US troops in Rojava, helping to end the Hasaka prison riot is the most active intervention they have made in the past three years.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers all activist Kurds “terrorists” and crosses national borders to kill them whenever he thinks he can get away with it. In April, Turkey held several pitched battles with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the mountains of Iraq, using forbidden chemical weapons. Turkey also sent drones into Rojava against civilians three times in October and November, continuing the low level war against the Kurdish freedom movement that has been going on for over 40 years.
Erdogan is particularly anxious to distract Turkish voters from domestic problems as the economy tanks, the lira sinks lower, and opposition to his party begins to coalesce. What better way than ethnic war? Meanwhile, the Assad government issued a statement calling the SDF operation against ISIS a war crime because it displaced civilians.
Both Erdogan and Assad have reason to attack Rojava, for it is an extraordinary example of what’s missing in a region made up of Syria, a war-torn dictatorship; Iran, a fundamentalist theocracy; the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, an authoritarian kleptocracy; and Turkey, a failed democracy. By contrast, the AANES is secular and pluralistic, treating all religions equally. Run on principles of direct democracy and feminism, it has more women in leadership than the rest of the Middle East nations combined. To autocratic leaders like Assad, Erdogan, and Khamenei, Rojava’s democratic, anti-nationalist politics and its goal of a Middle East made up of federal states with autonomous regions must be positively terrifying. Erdogan is attacking the AANES as enforcer for the status quo.
For the past 40 years, the United States has supported Turkey’s counterinsurgency approach to the Kurdish freedom movement, listing the PKK as terrorist and helping to capture Abdullah Öcalan, the party’s founding and ideological leader. But counterinsurgency does not solve real problems of injustice and, through all these attacks, the Kurdish movement has grown stronger. Forty years have demonstrated that stability and peace will not come about through war, fear, and ethnic oppression but require justice, democracy, and pluralism. Meanwhile, under the threat of ISIS, US policy in the region has become completely incoherent, with the State Department striving to placate Turkey as an important NATO member, and the Pentagon trying to support the SDF as the only reliable ground force against ISIS, despite knowing ISIS is supported by Turkey.
The Biden administration should protect the people of Rojava from Turkey by giving it political recognition, calling for a no-fly zone, and insisting that the Iraqi Kurds, also US allies, permanently reopen the Semelka border crossing, which is Rojava’s only entry and exit point; the United States should also pressure Erdogan to restart peace negotiations with the PKK. The Kurdish people have sacrificed 13,000 lives in the fight against ISIS, and progressives should support their effort to build a secure base for direct democracy, feminism, and pluralism. Our own political crisis demonstrates a need for the fresh ideas and new forms of democratic participation coming out of Rojava.