(CN) — Anger over Turkey’s assault on Kurds in northern Syria has sparked protests in Europe and demands that Western powers stop Turkey from crushing part of a self-declared autonomous region in the war-torn country.
Many on the political left describe the Kurds’ semiautonomous state as a Middle Eastern version of Barcelona’s experiment with anarchism in the 1930s.
Protests small and large erupted in European cities this week —including Barcelona, Berlin, Paris and Helsinki — and more demonstrations have been called for this weekend. A demonstration is expected Sunday in London at the headquarters of the BBC.
The protests seek to put pressure on European leaders and inform the world that the region under assault is a collection of communities adhering to principles of direct democracy, freedom of expression, secularism, women’s rights, ecology, socialism and libertarianism. As such, supporters say, it is a rare beacon of hope in the Middle East — now at risk of being destroyed by a NATO power.
Turkey has NATO’s second-largest military and is supported by allies who provide it with weapons and technical support.
“This is one of the most exciting political experiments, really, since the anarchists in Spain in the 1930s,” David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist at the London School of Economics, said in a recent interview on Novara Media, a British left-wing news outlet. He has made visits to the region.
The region’s Kurds rose up in 2012 after the “Arab Spring” and created an autonomous state in what is referred to as the “Rojava Revolution.” Rojava means “west” in the Kurdish language. The region is considered a relatively stable de facto autonomous region, home to about 3 million Kurds and 2 million others from different ethnic and religious groups, including Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis, Arameans, Armenians and others.
The region is run by citizens’ assemblies and locally elected councils, where different ethnic groups and communities run their own affairs, often organized around collectives and communes. This system is called “confederalism” and gives sovereign power to local units rather than a central government.
The region’s political structure is based on the libertarian socialist principles of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish politician imprisoned in Turkey. Numerous Europeans, attracted by the region’s experiment in self-government, joined Kurdish forces during the Syrian civil war and fight against the Islamic State.
“It is a society that is really unparalleled right now in the 21st century,” said Debbie Bookchin, co-founder of Emergency Committee for Rojava, in an interview on Democracy Now, a U.S.-based progressive news outlet. “It is a society focused on the ideals of grassroots democracy, feminism and ecology.”
Western leaders, including Democratic presidential candidates in the United States, have largely been silent about the region’s development as a cauldron of socialist and democratic systems of self-government.
The United States used the Kurds in Syria as allies in the fight against the Islamic State. About 11,000 Kurds died in the conflict. President Donald Trump’s decision on Oct. 6 to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria essentially gave Turkey the green light to invade the region.
Turkey says its invasion is meant to wipe out the Kurdish YPG, a militia group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU and the U.S. The group has fought a nearly four-decade-long war for Kurdish rights against the Turkish state.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the region and its experiment in democratic autonomy as an ideological and political threat to Turkey, according to analysts. Turkey fears Syrian Kurdish gains will embolden its own Kurdish population.
Until now, the autonomous Rojava region has not been given a seat at the table on Syrian peace negotiations. The region is calling for recognition of Kurdish rights and the decentralization of state power. Turkey opposes these aims.
In invading the oil-rich region, Turkey says it wants to create a safe zone where it can resettle about 1 million of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Turkey launched two previous military incursions against Kurds inside Syria in 2016 and 2018.
After the 2016 operation, Turkey resettled Syrian refugees in an area it seized from Jarabulus on the Euphrates River to Azaz in the west near Afrin, a city held by the Kurds. In 2018, Turkey attacked Afrin and displaced nearly half of the enclave’s population of about 300,000.
Turkish-backed forces have been accused by human rights groups of serious violations, including forcible displacement, confiscation of property, pillaging, arbitrary arrest, torture, kidnapping and extortion.
There are 25 million to 35 million Kurds spread across an area that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a homeland of their own.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)