Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

The Plight of Afrin Reverberates Across Europe


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — On March 18, the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) carried a bold banner headline: “Battle for Afrin Now Also in Germany.” That night, television news reporters announced the fall of Afrin. And the violence on German soil has not abated. Over recent years, German politicians have increased their warnings that the political conflict inside Turkey, between AKP loyalists and opposition groups, could spill over onto German soil. Now it is the warring parties in Syria whose proxies and sympathizers are clashing here.

Since Turkey began its military campaign, named “Operation Olive Branch,” targeting the Kurdish YPG on January 20, protests have spread across Germany, led by members of the Kurdish community, supported by Turkish and German opponents of the Ankara regime. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful and without incident; others have turned violent, as clashes have erupted between sympathizers of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and nationalist Turks. Whenever flags and posters of PKK leader Ocalan have been displayed, German police have intervened.

The closer Turkish tanks approached Afrin, the more exasperated the political confrontation in Germany became. Among the targets are not only Turkish institutions but also offices of German parties, seen as supporting the Erdogan campaign. According to the FAZ, acts of violence attributed to radical supporters of the Kurds have multiplied. These range from “balloons filled with paint being hurled at Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) offices, windows of bank branches being smashed, police and army vehicles attacked, and arson attacks against Turkish cultural associations and mosques.” An Internet site called “fight4afrin” has been identified as the transmitter of messages urging violence, and the German authorities believe that German left-wing extremists have been heavily involved. The blog reports on actions against “Turkish fascism” being organized not only here but throughout Europe. It has been mooted, at the same time, that Turkish nationalist elements have staged attacks, in an attempt to discredit the opposition. It also cannot be excluded that right-wing extremists are exploiting the situation to target Turks.

In Germany incidents have been reported in various cities and federal states, among them, Berlin, Lower Saxony, Hamburg, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and North Rhine Westfalia. According to the magazine Der Spiegel, the German authorities estimate that there are in Germany 14,000 supporters of the PKK, which has been outlawed since 1993.

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Yet, this does not mean that the Kurdish community in Germany is prone to violence. On the contrary, as Der Spiegel also documents, their umbrella organization, Nav-Dem, is committed to non-violent resistance. “Our protest must remain peaceful,” says Azad Yusuf Bingöl, who broadcasts on the Munich-based Radio Lora every week. “We have to exert more pressure on those politically responsible, but we will not leave the framework of legitimacy.”

Anti-Terrorism or Territorial Expansion?

On March 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was shown on television evening news celebrating the conquest of Afrin, which happened to coincide with the 103rd anniversary of the victory in Gallipoli in World War I. Erdogan praised the sacrifice of the Turkish soldiers, “martyrs” in the conflict, and appealed to mothers of the dead troops to be proud of their sons. Interspersed with coverage of Erdogan hailing the victory, were scenes of the conquered city: emptied of its inhabitants, and with Turkish and Syrian Free Army militants roaming the streets, or hoisting their flags atop central buildings.

Erdogan announced proudly that “many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away.” In fact, the Syrian Kurdish forces, the YPG, had decided to withdraw from the city, knowing full well that its fighters, who had been victorious against the Islamic State, would be no match for the second largest army in NATO. To avoid a massacre, they withdrew, and an estimated 200,000 civilians sought refuge elsewhere. There is no doubt that this was a rational decision; 1,400 YPG fighters had been reportedly killed (though Erdogan boasted that more than 3,000 had been “neutralized”) and vital facilities including a hospital had been bombed.

The YPG did not have a chance in Afrin. The American air cover it had enjoyed in its successful campaign to drive the IS out of Kobane, was nowhere to be seen. As the FAZ noted days before the siege, “Washington, forced by Ankara to decide between the guerillas and a NATO partner, did not intervene in Afrin.” And Russia, which controls the airspace in the region of Afrin, left it open to Turkish planes. The only humane choice for the YPG was to withdraw, to protect as many civilian lives as possible. Now, it will reportedly move into a “new phase” of “hit-and-run tactics” in an attempt to liberate the city from Turkish occupation.

For it is now an occupied city. If remarks made by Turkish politicians are any indication, their aim is to move from occupation to annexation. It is not only the presence of Turkish flags, alongside those of the FSA, on public buildings that hints in this direction. In response to a European Parliament resolution demanding Turkey stop the offensive, Erdogan was quoted as saying, “We will stay until our work is done.” There was “nothing the European Parliament could tell Turkey,” and whatever that body said, would “go in one ear and out the other.”

Today Afrin, Tomorrow Manbij…

There is good reason to believe that Erdogan intends to annex Afrin, as well as Manbij, also held by the YPG. Michael Martens, writing in the FAZ on March 17, quoted a former high-ranking Turkish diplomat to the effect that Erdogan intended to keep Afrin, as well as territory around Idlib. And Manbij. Martens also reported that Erdogan’s speaker and leading foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, had spoken of an agreement struck with Rex Tillerson, who was the then US Secretary of State. The deal would have the US and Turkey setting up a “security zone” in and around Manbij, which implies the ethnic cleansing of the area, through expulsion of the Kurds.

And for whom are these zones to provide security? It may well be that Erdogan plans to resettle Syrian refugees from their current homes in camps to the areas cleansed of the native Kurdish population. Turkey, as Erdogan never fails to stress, has been hosting 3.5 million Syrians in refugee camps, financed largely by the European Union. There is good reason to believe this is the plan. Erdogan and other government officials have often spoken of their intention to repatriate the refugee “guests” to Syria, whenever possible. Ibrahim Kalin and Erdogan have both stated that they have no intention of handing Afrin (and presumably other conquered territories) back to the Assad regime. They have suggested that such a resettlement program might be in Europe’s interest, as it would alleviate pressure from refugee flows. Not only: reportedly, the Turkish agency responsible for disaster control, AFAD, has announced it wants to set up nine new refugee camps in the Idlib province and nearby areas that came under Turkish control during the “Euphrates Protective Shield” operation. Martens reports that the Red Crescent and AFAD are already preparing to receive 3,000 internally displaced persons.

The Erdogan project may involve even greater ambitions. Rainer Hermann, an area specialist who was a correspondent in Turkey for many years, suggested in an article on March 20, that the precedent for Turkey’s current military campaign may be the “National Pact” of 1919. In autumn of that year, he writes, Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” and his companions agreed on a set of demands for their national resistance movement, accompanied by a map. The demands were then endorsed by the last Ottoman parliament on January 20, 1920. According to the document, which distinguished between Arabs and Turks, but not between Kurds and Turks, the jurisdiction over some areas inhabited by Arabs was to be decided by referendum. Other areas, however, were claimed as territory for the new Turkish republic. These included northern Syrian, with Aleppo and Afrin, as well as northern Iraq, with Mosul, certain Aegean islands and western Thrace.

The map, writes Hermann, fell into oblivion for decades, until the coup attempt in 2016 and the recent military campaigns, which seem to express “great empire phantasies.” Does Erdogan plan to annex these territories?

100 Years Later

“Never again”: more than a slogan, the phrase is a pledge, a commitment on the part of the survivors of genocide, that such crime shall never be repeated. A precondition for the prevention of such crimes is the recognition that they have occurred, and the acknowledgement on the part of those successor states of what their predecessors had perpetrated. Thus, the crucial significance of the recognition of the Holocaust on the part of the post-war German political class. Turkey has thus far refused to take similar steps in recognizing the genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk regime during World War I. One should not lose sight of the fact that, following the expulsion of the Armenians from their historical homelands, as they were deported and sent on death marches to concentration camps in Der el Zor (Syria), many of their homes were handed over to ethnic Turks, resettled from the Balkans (or to Kurds who had collaborated with the regime).

At the time, the Great Powers let it happen. Can it be that today entire populations can be shoved from one place to the next, expelling the lawful inhabitants? Azad Yusuf Bingöl, broadcasting from Munich, recently read out a statement of the Kurdish umbrella group Nav-Dem, which said, “The Western governments are silent. This makes the EU, the USA, Russia and the UN accomplices in this murder of the children of Afrin.” And, one might add, accomplices in the next, planned “population exchange.”

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is a regular contributor to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. She is based in Germany.)

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