Rojava and the EU response to a freedom fight in Syria
Updated: Mar 9
by Chris Howdle
Rojava, the self governing region in the primarily Kurdish North Eastern region of Syria, is developing a polyethnic and feminist democracy build on the libertarian socialist ideology of Abdullah Öcalan. The people of Rojava call for autonomy of their land within a federalised Syria but the government in Rojava faces an existential crisis.
To the north, an aggressive Turkish government, who accuse Rojava of having links with the terrorist organisation PKK, are trying to push the Kurds back from the Turkish border and have negotiated a deal with the US to that effect. Already dissatisfied with this deal, Turkey are massing forces and are on the brink of another invasion into Kurdish areas.
To the South the civil war rages on, while remnant ISIS fighters remain a threat, despite the Kurds liberating Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS.
Rojava also suffers from a lack of basic resources due to a draconian trade embargo imposed by Turkey to the north and Iraq (or the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq) to the east, who are opposed to the political green shoots in Kurdish Syria with whom they have ideological differences.
But the fledgling democracy at the heartbeat of hope in the Syrian civil war receives little favour from the international community, including the EU. This despite its fighters leading the vanguard against ISIS, most notably in the defence of Kobane in 2014/2015 and the liberation of Raqqa in 2017. For a time the Rojava defence forces (YPG & YPJ) and the Syrian Defence Force (a composite force bolstered by YPG/YPJ forces) received aid from the US, but this has since dwindled to a "small US footprint", following the ostensible defeat of ISIS. In 2018 President Macron signalled that France would send troops to the north Syrian city of Manbij to curb Turkish aggression in the area.
In the fight against terrorism and authoritarianism the response of the EU has been timid but predictable. The EU is unlikely to take a lead in the volatile game of foreign affairs. As the foreign affairs competence is not yet entirely under the EU acquis, the codified troika ambles its way to cautionary positions on foreign policy, while the member states independently consider their own strategies. Considering the above, the likelihood of the EU becoming enchanted by legitimate emancipation movements worldwide is practically non existent. Even within its own borders, the febrile independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland are stifled by counter-movements and debate about EU re-integration.
So what can the EU achieve? Let’s have a look at the 3 major branches of the EU. The European Council is made up of the leaders of the EU member states. It sets the framework of policy and agenda. The conclusions, or summaries, of European Council meetings usually discuss matters of pan-European or world wide scope; climate change, financial stability, Brexit etc. There are though, occasional rebukes of Turkey with vague censures of general practices, presumably which Turkey can easily ignore or forget.
The European Commission is the “guardian of the treaties” dealing with law making and the day to day running of the EU and therefore unlikely to make any impact on the position in Rojava. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs (member of the Commission) is however, said to be in regular dialogue with the Turkish Foreign Minister reiterating that the EU “expects the Turkish authorities to refrain from any unilateral action likely to risk further instability in Syria”. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs can not generate foreign policy for the EU rather represent its limited consensus on specific issues.
The final branch of the troika is the EU Parliament and occasionally its MEPs will issue statements condemning Turkey for its aggression in Rojava. Parliamentarians can also submit written questions for the Commission to answer. The most relevant recent questions answered by the Commission came from Julie Ward, Labour MEP for North West England. The questions, dated 20 December 2018, call on the EU to denounce Turkey for its invasion of Afrin (Western Rojava), an invasion conducted with German tanks and British helicopters, while asking if the EU intends to send a delegation to meet the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava).
Despite the polite rebuke by the European Council already noted above, the European Commission was not able to provide any substantive responses in their reply dated 28 March 2019, instead regurgitating lines from UN resolutions and communiques dated from 2012 and 2015 respectively. A lot has changed since 2015, not least the United States President and Secretary of State. Mike Pompeo, the incumbent Secretary of State, is from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which generally supports cutting foreign aid and withdrawing US troops from Syria.
It is a mere romantic fantasy that the EU Council would stand up for a self-generating democracy, burgeoning in the heart of the conflict ridden desert landscapes of the Middle East, where European power plays, centuries old, have ripped and torn at borders, people and life itself. In reality, the EU focuses on aid and housing refugees in countries neighbouring the Syrian conflict, while supporting the glacial UN political process. However, Rojava has largely been left out of talks due to Turkish opposition.
The EU could endeavour not to abandon the free people of Northern Syria by enacting a suspension of arms sales to Turkey and condemning the blockade of Rojava as inhumane.
Following the “migrant crisis” of 2015 the EU has been careful not to inflame brittle political mindsets within member states, by negotiating with Turkey to prevent refugees from Syria reaching EU member states. Although this prevents more migrants from making the often treacherous journey further into Europe, it leaves the EU in a questionable arrangement with Turkey.
Turkey has used this delicate agreement as an opportunity for a Great Game land grab in North Syria, masquerading as the arbiter of the EU’s immigration policy. It can be easy to forget that Turkey is a member of NATO and candidate member of the EU. Although Turkish EU accession talks are as dead as a dodo, having been suspended in 2016. All this despite brexit supporting “Vote Leave” in the UK suggesting that 76 million Turks will soon be free to migrate to the UK when Turkey joins the EU. The likelihood of Greece or Cyprus ratifying Turkish membership any time soon is ludicrous, especially while Turkey continues to engage in combative territorial disputes with their neighbours, not to mention its incongruent stance on the Armenian genocide compared with the rest of the world.
In relation to the Turkish machinations, some of their objectives in Northern Syria might, however unlikely it seems, ally with the objectives of France, namely the creation of a Kurdish state in Northern Syria, in which Turkey “could attempt to expel its Kurds”. Although France may have a humanitarian element to their objective, Turkey stands accused of exploiting not only the Kurdish people, but their resources, since the occupation of Afrin.
While Turkey remains the obvious threat to Rojava, the Assad regime and Russia are potential assailants lurking in the fog of war. Historically, the majority of Kurds have identified as Sunni Muslims, which would prima facie ally them with Iran. Although in the geopolitics of today’s middle east, how much support from Iran, or any other regional actor, they would accept or receive, is anyone's guess.
In Rojava there is a tangible and laudable effort to democratise institutions from grassroots initiatives and imbue them with equality and humanitarianism, if the EU can’t support these noble tenets, clinging for survival in this most ravaged of democratic badlands, how can we take its intentions seriously at home.
Syria remains a farrago of geopolitical power plays but for the Syrian people, despair and misery still reign supreme. In a time when democracy in Europe is under siege from facebook algorithms, attacks on the judiciary and billionaire lobbyists, Elisa Stowe reminds us that Rojava remain an “enclave of hope”.