Turkish Army officers block the outskirts of the village of Sugedigi, Turkey, on the border with Syria. Russia nominally controls Afrin’s airspace and has done nothing to prevent Turkey's action against the Kurds, says the writer. Picture: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
The Syrian Kurds have been among those on the front lines fighting the Islamic State (IS) for most of the civil war in Syria, and they have played an important role in combating the IS militants in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the YPJ and YPG have often been filmed taking on IS militants and winning battles. Given their military effectiveness, the US had armed them to ensure success against IS. The bulk of the fight against IS, however, was borne by the Syrian national army, supported by Hizbollah, who sacrificed thousands of combatants.

But it is not only the military success of Kurdish militias that has brought them fame, but the democratic and inclusive governance the Kurds have established in Northern Syria since 2014, in Rojava. After the Syrian regime lost control of Afrin in 2012, it became one of three founding cantons of Rojava, together with Kobane and Jazira.

Although Rojava is predominantly Kurdish, the region is home to many ethnic groups such as Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians, Yezidis, Armenians, Arameans, and Chechens. In the past, thousands of Syrian internally displaced people (IDPs) from all ethnic backgrounds have sought refuge in the region, which has been one of the most stable in Syria for five years. Afrin alone has taken in as much as its original population in IDPs.

Since the adoption of the Rojava Charter in 2014, Afrin has been governed by an autonomous self-administration, organised by people’s councils, in a model of democratic autonomy. The Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurdish fighters, have made it clear they are a peaceful movement, focused on defeating IS and bringing stability to Syria, and are not hostile to Turkey.

But Turkey has accused the Kurdish forces of being terrorists and a threat to their national security. Even though Afrin had not attacked anyone, last Saturday Turkey launched a military operation against Afrin. Turkish military operations were extended to indiscriminate airstrikes and bombardment, as well as a ground invasion. According to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim, 300 have been killed in the first week of the Turkish operation in Afrin.

What may have provoked the sudden escalation of Turkey’s military assault on the area was the announcement by the US-led coalition of plans to establish a border security force of 30 000 fighters, with many of the fighters to be recruited from the SDF. The objective of the border force is supposedly to prevent the resurgence of IS. Turkey has always opposed US support for the Kurdish militias, and deems any such border force as a threat to its security, hence its bombardment which started days later.

But what is going on goes far deeper. Any Kurdish attempts at democratic self-governance either in the region or in Turkey itself have been viewed by Turkey as a threat to the nation, which must be dealt with ruthlessly. What lies at the heart of Turkey’s military action is that a democratic and peaceful Kurdish-dominated self-governing region across Turkey’s southern border sets a dangerous precedent for Turkey’s own Kurdish population (from the perspective of the Turkish government). There has also been the long-standing concern that the Western agenda may be to turn the region into ethno-religious weak statelets.

But the Kurds feel betrayed by the big powers. Russia and the US seem to have turned a blind eye to Turkey’s military offensive against them. Russia nominally controls Afrin’s air space, and while it did not give Turkey a green light for its military offensive, it has done nothing to prevent its action against the Kurds. As for the US, it urged Turkey to exercise restraint, but has also said that it is easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds. The Assad government had warned that it would shoot down any Turkish aircraft violating Syrian airspace, but has done nothing to intercept Turkish jets bombing Afrin.

In the end, the Kurds are left to defend themselves against Turkey’s bombs, after having been heroes and heroines in the fight against IS. The dilemma of what to do about the Kurds remains for both the region and the international community. As an ethnic group, the Kurds have faced genocidal policies in parts of the region since the 20th century, and their objective is to ensure the right to govern themselves with autonomy. But demands for autonomy have also impeded a settlement of the Syrian conflict proposed by Russia, Turkey and Iran. There will need to be a solution which protects the Kurdish people through some type of autonomy, while ensuring the territorial integrity of existing nation states.

* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor