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Turkey conquers Afrin: Counterrevolution on the rise

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On March 18, the Turkish army and units of the Free Syrian Army, FSA, under the direction of the Turkish government, moved into the centre of Afrin; less than two months after launching their attack on the Kurdish canton of the same name, cynically named "Operation Olive Branch". As in other towns they have conquered, the triumphal entry of Turkish troops unleashed a wave of looting, demolition of Kurdish symbols and a mass exodus of the inhabitants. There is no doubt that the Turkish invasion is yet another counterrevolutionary blow in the Middle East, calling into question the future of Rojava.

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly stated that he will not stop at Afrin, but wants to "cleanse" the entire Turkish-Syrian border, and even northern Iraq, of Kurdish organisations. The situation reminds us once again, as did the fight against IS/Daesh, that none of the actors involved in the Middle East accepts Kurdish self-government and that all the existing states; Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran are guilty of the national oppression of the Kurdish people.

As Marx said, a nation which oppresses another nation forges its own chains. Erdoğan's cowardly victories are accompanied by wave after wave of repression against his political opponents and the mass arrests of journalists and will only accelerate the further dismantling of democratic rights in Turkey and the establishment of an openly dictatorial regime.

This proves, if proof were needed, that to defend Turkish democracy a workers' united front is necessary against Erdoğan's war against the Kurdish people on both sides of the Syrian border. In Syria, those anti-Assad forces who have made themselves his pawns will undoubtedly receive a harsh reward for their unprincipled actions from either the Syrian or the Turkish tyrants and their imperialist backers.

German weapons

The Turkish army has used German Leopard tanks in its offensive on Afrin. Contrary to the Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel's initial statement that the Turkish attack on Afrin would mean stopping arms exports to Erdoğan, a total of 20 arms export licences have been issued since the beginning of the offensive. The assault on Afrin, and its threatened continuation eastwards, obliges internationalists to aid Kurdish organisations resisting it. It also raises the question of what political strategy can best defend the political and socials gains made by the people of Rojava in recent years.

The Kurdish associations of the YPG/YPJ, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, have achieved great military successes against the reactionary IS/Daesh since 2015. Today, they control a large part of the region abandoned by the IS. The greatest military success was the conquest of Raqqa in October 2017. However, this was also based on US support for the SDF in the form of arms supplies, military advisers and air strikes and, to a lesser extent, Russian support. Thanks to the military success of the SDF, IS/Daesh now controls only a few rural areas in eastern Syria and along the Israeli border, and a part of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus.

The Kurdish organisations, on the other hand, control almost all areas east of the Euphrates, about a quarter of Syria. Since the beginning of Turkish intervention in northern Syria in 2016, Russia has provided troops in buffer zones in the respective areas, preventing a direct confrontation between the Turkish army and Kurdish units. However, before the attack on Afrin began, Russia withdrew these troops. Thus, the Turkish attack took place with Russia's tolerance, if not approval.

After the danger in 2014/2015 that Rojava could be crushed militarily by IS, it now seems to be facing new dangers precisely because of its recently acquired military strength: not only Turkey, but also the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers cannot accept an independent Kurdish state as part of a post-war order in Syria. Assad has repeatedly stated that he is not prepared to accept Rojava's break away. For the USA, PYD forces have been invaluable in the defeat of IS in Syria but, having used them, they will now cynically abandon them or treat them as small change in a deal with Russia and Assad or in a reconciliation with Turkey. Trump has already said on March 30; “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”

As a result of the Turkish attack, Kurdish units were withdrawn from the front against IS and transferred to Afrin. Turkey, on the other hand, withdrew tens of thousands of anti-Assad rebels from the province of Idlib for use in the fight against the Kurdish forces. On 25 January, the Kurdish leadership in Afrin called on the Syrian regime to send troops to defend it against the Turkish invasion. On February 19, Assad-loyal militias did arrive in Afrin but were fired upon by the Turkish army.

There are reports that the Syrian regime was prepared to send the regular army, but this was vetoed by Russia, which wants to prevent any escalation between the Syrian regime and Turkey. As part of an agreement between the PYD and the regime, on February 22, the PYD handed over control of the predominantly Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud and all other districts it controlled in Aleppo to the regime's troops and received permission from the regime to use its controlled supply routes to Afrin. On March 18, the fighters of the Kurdish associations withdrew from the city of Afrin after it had been surrounded by Turkish troops.
Defeats and other threats
The Turkish attack has led not only to the dismantling of self-government in Afrin, but also aided the restoration of control of the Aleppo region by the Assad regime and it has improved conditions for an offensive on the province of Idlib, now packed with refugees and fighters from the evacuated enclaves. Though the Syrian and Turkish regimes are pursuing opposite goals in the Syrian civil war, they have nevertheless a common interest in destroying Kurdish self-government in Rojava. In this respect, the Turkish attack is part of the overall counterrevolutionary development in the region and is in line with the criminal attacks by the Assad regime to restore its control over East Ghouta and Idlib.
The foreseeable defeat of the IS, and the possible defeat of the last rebel forces in Idlib province and the Damascus region, will put the question of the character of a post-war order on the agenda among the remaining powers. Russian imperialism and Iran, as Assad's protecting powers, plus Turkey and the USA, have no abiding commitment to an independent Rojava. Even the US, for whom the Syrian Kurds have proved a valuable asset, giving it a say in any carve up of the region, will use its temporary ally as a bargaining chip to be sacrificed for another of Trump's “marvelous deals” with Russia and/or Turkey.

There is, therefore, a real possibility that Rojava will be crushed militarily by Turkey or reintegrated into the Syrian state. For its part, the PYD has declared its willingness to respect Syria's existing national borders and to negotiate a post-war solution with the regime as part of an autonomous solution. However, if and when the present favourable conditions created by US air cover and supplies of weaponry are removed, both the Turkish and Syrian governments will impose harsh conditions on the Kurds. As the imperialist and regional thieves divide the booty, the right of the Kurds to self-determination will be trampled underfoot as it is being in Afrin.

International Perspectives

Such a development could only be prevented at the international level. Rojava's history is closely linked to the Syrian revolution and the Kurdish uprisings in Turkey. Developments in northern Iraq show that the people there want state independence. Ultimately, the working class in Turkey is the decisive force that can stop Erdoğan's military expansionist policy. Conversely, any military defeat of Erdoğan would also be a political defeat for the establishment of his presidential dictatorship. The national question of the Kurds is therefore connected with the democratic question and the class struggle in Turkey. Rojava's future will ultimately depend on its success in forming an alliance with the oppressed masses of the entire region.

Such an alliance would also be the only hope for an end to the advance of reaction, counterrevolution and imperialism in Syria or Iraq. The victories of the Assad and Erdoğan regimes will mean mass expulsions, looting, rape and misery for the population. The threat of the elimination of the Kurds and the defeat of the Syrian Revolution, however, does not automatically mean pacification of the country. Sooner or later it will lead to a further struggle between the various powers, which are today devastating entire countries.

Revolutionaries advocate the defeat and withdrawal of the Turkish army, the defence of existing self-government structures and the victory of the Kurds against the invaders. We demand a total halt to arms supplies to Turkey. We support the withdrawal of all imperialist troops and all regional powers from Syria and the surrounding states. We, as internationalists, should give all possible support to the Kurdish organisations for their struggle, but without defending the nationalist policy of their leadership, whose utopia of a "Third Way" via concessions to the US and Assad negates international solidarity and the spread of the struggle for liberation.