Rojava at WarWhy Did Turkey Attack an ISIS Detention Centre Guarded by Kurdish Fighters?
Angelo Calianno reports from northeastern Syria, where the former freedom fighters against Islamist terrorism have been abandoned and forgotten
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When when home-grown Kurdish defence fighters, the YPG, chased ISIS out of their cities in northeastern Syria, their new Rojava Autonomous State was widely extolled and praised. Photos of the fighters who have defeated the terrorists, mostly women, were being in newspapers around the world, and the Kurdish people were crowned the new champions of freedom against all dictatorships and extremism.
Since then, however, in just a few years, Rojava a region has been largely been forgotten, abandoned to a state of poverty and now faces, on a daily basis, new threats to its democracy.
In response to a bomb attack in Istanbul a week earlier, Turkish military forces attacked Rojava on 19 November, hitting targets in Kobane, Raqqa, Al-Hassakah, Al- Malikiyah and Darbasiya as part of operation Claw-Sword.
There is no evidence from current investigations that the Istanbul bombing was Kurdish in origin, and Rojava activists accuse the Turkish government of ‘engineering’ the bombing in order to have a pretext for a new invasion.
Operation Claw-Sword —which according to Turkish news agencies was supposed to focus on military targets — has hit grain silos, oil wells (one of Rojava’s main key resources) and killed several civilians including journalist Issam Abdullah, who was hit during an air raid while he was interviewing farmers in the countryside of Al-Malikiyah.
On the evening of 23 November, a new drone attack hit the Al-Hol Refugee Camp, a detention centre where families of the most radical members of ISIS are held, killing nine Kurdish guards. The camp contains 53,000 people, 80% of whom are women and children up to 12 years of age. The inhabitants of Al-Hol are not charged with anything but the Kurdish security forces consider them a security threat.
Byline Times visited Al-Hol to find out why Turkey had attacked this particular place.
Gihan, one of the camp management staff, thinks the attack on the guards was deliberate:
“The missiles did not hit the inside of the camp but the perimeter where the camp guards were,” he told Byline Times. “And this was no mistake. The target was our military. By attacking the guards they gave some people a chance to escape, just as happened in the Hassakah camp, also during a Turkish air raid. In this case the escapees were caught almost immediately. By letting potential terrorists escape, Turkey thinks it can destabilize our government from within.”
Inside the camp, the scene is dominated by women, all of them are wearing full burqas except for a few very small girls,. None of them want to reveal their names but all of them complain about the conditions under which they live.
“We are here as terrorists, but we haven’t done anything,” the women told Byline Times. ”Our husbands are in jail, we are alone raising our children. Often, for days there is no water, food is never enough. We are without diesel for heating and it is very cold at night in the tents.”
According to the women’s account, there is little to affiliate them with ISIS or terrorism. But Gihan says the camp staff regularly uncover security threats.
“We try to handle everything from a humanitarian point of view,” he told Byline Times, ” free medical care, food, but we ourselves are afraid for our safety. Last week, we discovered the bodies of two little girls, two sisters. So we searched the tents and found an arsenal: Kalashnikovs, RPGs, there were enough weapons to start a war. Weapons are smuggled in here in delivery trucks, like water-tank trucks.”
In Rojava, most the inhabitants put Turkey’s invasion down its leader President Erdogan and his hunger for expansion and his hatred of the Kurds. The territory also contains nearly 80% of the oil of all Syria. Turkey has been trying to dominate the region for some time, starting with the Afrin district around Aleppo in northern Syria, which was conquered in 2019. That occupation caused more than 300,000 to flee their homes and become internally displaced people.
More recently, Erdogan has massed weapons and troops in three bases on the Turkey-Rojava border, apparently ready to invade by land.
General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the KPG allied Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) warns of the regional and global consequences. “Should Turkey attack us, we will be ready, and we will fight,” he said in a recent press conference. ”What the world needs to understand, however, is that: if we are committed to fighting this war, we will not have the means to continue anti-ISIS operations and provide the security offered so far. Moreover, in the event of an attack, there will be thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict zones, creating a humanitarian disaster. A war in Rojava will not only be a problem in Rojava, but will involve all those states that have interests in the Middle East.”
The people of Rojava today find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it is fenced in by the Assad Regime, which has never recognised the state and surrounds it with dozens of check-points. Nothing — raw materials, money — can get here directly, (or legally) without first passing through Damascus. On the other side there are still Isis cells, especially around Raqqa, Kobane and Deir ez-Zor.
Caught in this squeeze, Rojava now threatened with a new invasion by Turkey. For years a bastion of democracy against Islamic extremism, is now left to fight its war on its own.