The Invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria | Interview with Argesh, an American YPG fighter

Azaden Rahmani

The Beginning of the International State-Systems Complicity against a Non-State Local System 

 

We all remember Kobani as the historic resistance of a non-existent people, a people who were not seen and have not been taken into account until that moment. The resistance of these people forced the world to turn its head and take a look. These people insisted on staying in their land and defend it instead of submitting to their fate. They were determined and did not accept being captured by the so-called Caliphate. At that moment journalists rushed to the region and took photos of beautiful women and men with their light weapons who were not even aware that the whole world was talking about them.

But what has happened to Afrin? Why did all the journalists disappear? As we know, media is an important part of the state apparatus, states from all over the world spend millions of dollars on media and journalism. The abandonment of Afrin was the first step to abandon the whole region of Rojava. It was not a hazard. We witnessed one of the most violent attacks on the most peaceful region in northern Syria by the Turkish State and its jihadists proxies in Syria. It happened with the help of regional and international states too. But, still, this question remains: why this happened to Afrin? What has been changed since Kobani? Nowadays it is very ideal to talk about the resistance of local people but throughout history, each revolt, each uprising, and revolution has been affected, or to put it better, infected by interventions of big powers and what should be taken into account is the geopolitical and economic situation of people and their proposed system to determine their destiny and not to subjugate to these powers. This is what we are facing in Northern Syria and the Rojava system.

We had an opportunity to have a fruitful and friendly discussion with Heval Argesh who is fighting with SDF since 2017 and fought in Afrin during the attack of the Turkish forces. Heval Argesh comes from The United-States and has fought as an international combatant in different battalions such as Raqqa, Afrin and recently alongside SDF against the invasion of Rojava by the Turkish State.

 

Q: First of all hevalê delal [dear comrade], I want to thank you for accepting my invitation, even though we are on the Christmas holidays and most people prefer to spend time with their families. I wish to ask you to-if possible-introduce yourself as an international YPG combatant.

A: My name is Argesh, I’m from the US. I joined the YPG in 2017. At first, I was a member of the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) under the responsibility of the Marxist Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), a Turkish revolutionary leftist party. I fought in the campaign to liberate Raqqa for almost 6 months. 

After the liberation of Raqqa, I moved to work in the civil structure, Saziya Yekîtî û Piştgiriya Gelan (SYPG). During my time with SYPG, my work consisted of geopolitical analysis, media strategy and working in the communes of Qamishlo. 

In January 2018, when the Turkish military invaded Afrin I switched back to the military side so that I could go and join the defense of Afrin. I was in Afrin from February until March 2018 with Devrimci Güçler (Revolutionary Forces), a battalion formed by a number of Turkish Revolutionary Left organizations. 

Upon returning from Afrin I continued my work in Rojava but this time directly with the Autonomous Administration and the Kurdish Movement. From 2017 until now I have continued to work with the movement and with the Autonomous Administration. 

The work has brought me back to Rojava 4 times with my last trip being in October 2019 when the Turkish state launched its so-called “Peace Spring” operation, the 3rd illegal invasion of Rojava and the Self Administration of Northern and East Syria. 

Q: On January 2018 the Turkish army attacked the city of Afrin in Northern Syria, there are many arguments about this attack, if we take a look on the map, we see the geopolitical importance of this region for both sides. From one hand Afrin is near the border of Turkey, and near to the city of Aleppo. As we know the geography of Kurdistan is very violent and from the null part, we can have access to open space. So this city had high importance for the system of Rojava. And so to hurt Rojava, it was the first region that Turkey attacked and occupied. I want to know your idea on this since you were there personally and fought against the Turkish invasion with SDF.

 

A: I think it was driven by two main points; a continuation of AKP/MHP and Erdogan’s aggressive expansionist policy and desire to reestablish the ottoman empire in combination with the Turkish state’s obsessive fear and hatred of the Kurdish movement.

If we look back over the last 9 years, since the onset of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Rojava revolution, we can see how with the growth and with each success of; Rojava, the YPG/YPJ, and later the SDF and Autonomous Administration, the Turkish state has steadily and continuously escalated its military involvement in Northern Syria.

When Daesh began the siege of Kobani, the Turkish state began to tacitly support Daesh. Around this time, YPG/YPJ had begun to take and liberate space across Rojava. Kobani became the rallying cry for Rojava. The Turkish state viewed this success and support as a major threat. We can see evidence of their support when they would turn off the lights along the Turkish-Syrian border, an act which was deliberated done to allow Daesh to cross the border bringing reinforcements and supplies to support the siege of Kobani. There is also evidence showing the Turkish military and police openly allowing Daesh fighters to cross the border, even in broad daylight. 

Fortunately, these attempts by the Turkish state to undermine the YPG/YPJ failed. As we all know, the resistance and successful defense of Kobani was the key factor that brought military support from the US-led coalition. This support accelerated the progress of YPG/YPJ and led to the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). With the creation of SDF, and the increasing and continued military support of the coalition, the area of the Autonomous Administration was able to expand across Northeastern Syria.

SDF liberated city after city from Daesh, the system of democratic con-federalism continued to develop and was largely embraced by the people. The international community was largely supportive. To the west, SDF had managed to cross the Euphrates, liberating Minbic and moving towards Jarabulus. To the South, SDF had liberated Tabqa and was on track to liberate Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor. For the Turkish state, the rapid expansion, popular domestic and foreign support and continuing success of the YPG-led SDF and the Autonomous Administration, created fear and panic. Erdogan and the Turkish state could not accept that an ideology that came from the Kurdish movement could succeed. For the Turks, it didn’t matter that this ideology was bringing and organic system of direct democracy and stability to a region that had been brutalized by war. In their eyes, it was a challenge to their perceived power and dominance. Naturally, for them, they had to once again escalate their military involvement in Syria. 

We can see this with Operation Euphrates Shield. This operation was launched by the Turkish military and its jihadist proxy force which had co-opted the name the Free Syrian Army (FSA or T-FSA). The operation was a significant escalation of military involvement as it involved a major violation of Syrian borders and a mass incursion into Syria by official Turkish military forces. The intent was to push into Jarabulus and race down to Raqqa in order to curb the SDF campaign against Daesh and more importantly to drive a wedge between Cizere, Kobani and Efrin cantons, preventing the unification of Rojava. 

Since the coalition was prioritizing the campaign to liberate Raqqa, which was at the time the capital of Daesh’s so-called Caliphate, and racing the Russian/Iranian-backed Assad Regime to be the first to liberate the Al-Omar oilfields and other oil-rich lands in the Deir Ez Zor countryside, the coalition firmly checked Turkey’s advance and ensured that the operation would not progress any further east of the Euphrates with Minbic being remaining as part of the Autonomous Administration. 

So, at this point, we can see that the Turks had now escalated their involvement in Syria to include using Turkish regulars to conduct full-scale military incursions across the border. The fact that they were forced by the coalition to curb their advance, left the Turks incensed and even more desperate to escalate military operations against Rojava, the SDF, and the Autonomous Administration.

This in combination with Erdogan’s domestic political status seemed to have all played into the natural progression towards an invasion of Efrin. Erdogan looked towards Russia. Russia controlled the airspace over Efrin. Although Russia was beginning to court a relationship with the YPG, the higher priority was the opportunity to take advantage of the developing rift between Turkey and the West, particularly the US and NATO. Therefore, the way I see it, the invasion of Efrin was facilitated by Russia and served Turkey’s continued strategy to use aggressive military force to 1) destroy the developing democratic system in Rojava and Northern Syria and 2) use the opportunity of the war in Syria to expand and assert control over former Ottoman territories. 

Furthermore, what was even more concerning for the Turkish state was the fact that the US and the coalition had announced the start of a new program to fund and train a new border force that would protect the Autonomous Administration of Northern and East Syria, effectively a Rojava border force. So for the Turks, they probably saw this as the next step towards some kind of international recognition of Rojava/SANES as a legal autonomous region, a legal status similar to the KRG (Bashur) in Iraq. 

 

Q: Don’t you think the attack on Afrin was an international state's collusion? Even though western states have not started it but they were cooperative by sitting silent and doing nothing. They sold Afrin and with it the Rojava system?

A: Russia has sold certain sorts of missiles to Turkey that have been designed to take down NATO aircraft so despite little issues for Afrin Russia supported Turkey. However, west and especially the U.S could put heavy sanctions on Turkey upon TSA for purchasing a missile system but they did not. 

If we look at Turkey's foreign policy, we see it wants to recreate the Ottoman empire. Before Afrin operation, the Turkish foreign policy was less aggressive but after Afrin, we saw the real face of Turkish aggressive politics. By purchasing a weapon system, all these war crimes, ethnic cleansing. At that time of the attack, we used to check international channels and none of them was covering it. For their own profit, we saw that all the world was talking about eastern Ghouta and airstrike by the Assad regime but no one was talking about what was going on in Afrin and all around us. The UN ceasefire was ignored. The western countries were muted as we know nearly all western states selling weapons to Turkey. They purchased A16 from the US, from Israel, Britain missiles, from France and of course, they fight with German Tanks and armors. Though international states could intervene by very little effort whereas they gave some pretexts like that area was not covered by the coalition. But I think we should see the problem in the difference between systems. Historically if we look at the Kurdish movement autonomy Bashur dominated by pro-western, pro-Americans so to be supported it is absolutely necessary to be able to intervene directly or indirectly to exploit natural and human sources. They see this possibility very low in Rojava. At the same time, they see the Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria as a threat because they failed to exercise their power there and the system cannot be manipulated by state-systems. The ideology practiced in Rojava is upon Ocalanś Ideas, a democratic con-federalism, municipalism, and feminism. 

 

Q. I was thinking about if we had Afrin and could advance in the region so we could have access to some open spaces as the sea.

A: I think the possibility was very low as near the sea we have Russian-Iranian military bases with Assad for example in Lattakia…

 

Q: As we know the Turkish State supports jihadists (directly or indirectly), but what was different at the time of Kobane and Afrin? In the battle of Kobane, the Kurds resisted nearly for two month but at that time different states as France, US made a coalition with the Rojava forces to conquer ISIS since at that epoch they believed they had a common enemy and it was ISIS but for Afrin, the same happened with nearly 20000 troops consisting pro-Turkey jihadists and rebellions but this time they face a member of NATO so in a complete silence or even by contributing in the attack, Turkey occupied Afrin. What are the international and regional impacts of the system of Rojava and also of this attack?

 

A: I should insist on this point that the expansion of SDF was not gifted by the US or coalition in general and its popularity, its international support could pose a very big threat against Turkey and at the same time against Iran, Iraq and its neighborhood. We just passed Arab spring so it could come to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and other countries. They terrified by its pluralism, multiculturalism, feminism, and direct democratic communities, its localized aspects, and domestic politics. As we know Iran and Turkey never had a good relationship. They are historic enemies but they had like some joined operations and they were against PKK, Kurdish worker party so we see they agree on one point and it is the Kurdish struggle. Though Turkey has KDP support even Turkish soldiers dressed up in Peshmarga dress to fight PKK in the mountain of Qandil. And KDP has American support. At the beginning of the uprisings in Syria, the US supported the Free Syrian Army, but after a while, they stopped funding them at least directly. But the general idea is that how can we push PYD faraway. So regional powers and international states try to push PYD further away because, as we discussed, its ideology is based on con-federalism and non-state democracy which day by day got more popularity and this terrifies them. Even they tried to pull Arab tribes further away from PYD/YPG. So the attack on Afrin was also an attack on the ideological side of the established system in Rojava by collusion of regional states and coalition. It was done by Turkey with the cooperation of local powers and international states. Since I was involved in the movement and I was in Afrin, I can say, we were able to see the true face of the Turkish state, their aggressive foreign policy against the Kurdish movement became clear and I think from that moment on, after the green light of coalition, Russia and the local states understood that, if they wanted, they could even attack the whole Rojava and no one reacts internationally and locally since it was the question of self-determination of people who are not easy to manipulate and, as the Kurds say, they did not have any friends except mountains. I want to say that even we, as internationalist fighters, were not that many. There was not a bunch of Rambos there, even them left the Kurds. We were just tiny numbers. So it was cynical seeing people abandoned by the whole world except a few comrades in solidarity with them. 

 

Q. Afrin occupation showed that Rojava has no friends except the solidarity of internationalists, no state helped these people to save their land and all coalitions were tactical if we are more optimists strategic. But still, there were men and women from all over the world who were solidarity with them and supported by any means they had. I want to ask you to tell us about your experience as an internationalist while fighting in Afrin.

 

A: I want to say the people of Northern Syria were abandoned by the international world but still being open to internationalists and it is meaningful for me. They did not say all we can see is betrayal, we are finished with internationalists and they embraced internationalist even though a few of us were there but meant a lot to them. I saw how much that meant to the people of Afrin. This was a great motivation for us. I want to say this movement is a real alternative for future systems. Our obligation and self-awareness are to defend this system if we want a different future.

 

Q: What do you think about critics of leftists on the Rojava system. When I read some articles in French, in English or Persian, I see that many people criticized the system, for example, why did they cooperate with the US forces and western states though we know that was not a choice but a force to preserve their land as we saw these kinds of agreements thorough history if we just remember the commune of Paris, there were negotiations.

A: Normally, in the Kurdish movement, and in Rojava we are taught to accept criticisms without engaging in a polemic, as they might offer us some perspective we missed. That being said, I have also heard these criticisms and I try to take them into consideration because I think they do pose a point that keeps us aware of how delicate the balance is in these kinds of tactics. 

However, I find that often these criticisms are based on narrow, dogmatic views. Often, these critics are made from the comfort of a computer chair in the west. 

Yes, it would be great to be in a world where we could be « ideologically pure », I suppose then we would be able to renounce all forms of imperialism, for example, the Kalashnikov. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we could struggle against Daesh or, the Turkish army with locally sourced, Rojava stones, maybe we could take down a drone with a few moldy, old tomatoes fired from a slingshot? 

All joking aside, I think if we expect this extreme degree of «purity» we are being naive. The reality is we are living in a world that has a number of hegemonic powers clashing for power and influence. These powers are operating on massive budgets to develop technology at an unparalleled rate. Unfortunately, the truth is, that these powers, these states have weapons systems that whenever there is a revolution or the birth of some new idea, or a system that poses an alternative, those states, those hegemonic powers will focus all their energy to destroy it.

In Rojava, we are in the eye of the storm, the heart of this conflict between the East and the West blocs and all of their powers. 

We know what our ideology is. That’s the key. We keep that as the core, the foundation of our every move and with that, we can pursue our ideological strategy. In the pursuit of said strategy, as long as we remain true to our ideological core, we can and we must be pragmatic and tactical.

In this situation, we are surrounded by enemies. We are engaged in multiple fronts and conflicts. More importantly, in Rojava we are no longer only a guerrilla movement made up of volunteers, now we are a movement that is accountable and responsible to support the people. 

If the US offers weapons, training, air support and closed air space, then we can take that. We know that with this offer, there often comes a price and even a betrayal. But our comrades they take this decision using the lense of an ideologically driven strategy. We know the risks, we accept them and we can make this tactical alliance while at the same time using our ideology to prepare and organize for the risks. 

This is generally how the SDF and Autonomous Administration can remain in the game against such great odds. These tactical decisions and alliances are made so that we can allow the revolutionary project to continue to develop and to give the people the confidence that this project is here to stay, that it is fundamentally their project. 

I think it’s common for those who are not involved in the struggle on a daily basis, or who only have the surface-level view to make surface-level assumptions. I realize there will always be critiques of every revolution, and that’s a good thing. In this movement, one of the many things I found so refreshing is the enthusiastic encouragement of criticism and different perspectives. I think that’s how we can remain revolutionary, by constantly being in flux and open. These critiques keep us in check and force us to reevaluate and analyze our tactics and strategies. As a comrade once told me, in politics it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, it’s impossible to be friends with everyone, but how you deal with that, that’s the revolutionary aspect of the struggle.

 

20 ژانویه, 2020