The olive tree is a symbol of peace, freedom, and fertility in the Middle East. It symbolizes the natural beauty of a region, which historians refer to as “the cradle of civilization” – Mesopotamia. The olive tree is also a vital part of the life in Afrin, a Kurdish region in the northwest of Syria. In Afrin today, it is Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs of the Muslim, Christian, Alevi, and Yazidi faiths, that jointly organise their lives in the shade of thousands of olive trees. In the spirit of the olive tree, Afrin is considered the last stable area in the country and has been largely spared by the war.
On January 20, 2018, the Turkish army and affiliated jihadist gangs launched a war of aggression on Afrin, which is part of the region of Rojava and under the administration of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). This cross-border invasion of the Turkish state, cynically labelled “Operation Olive Branch” is a violation of international law. Since the beginning of the operation, hundreds of civilians have been wounded and killed, dozens of homes, schools, and vital infrastructure have been destroyed in the airstrikes and ground invasion. Ain Dara, a 3000-year-old Hittite temple has been deliberately targeted and destroyed.
Over the last years, the Turkish state had attacked Afrin on several occasions. Although jihadist groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State had been beheading, crucifying and mass shooting people at the Syrian-Turkish border since 2013, the Turkish government under president Erdogan did not take much issue with Islamist troops on its borders.
At the moment, using a language reminiscent of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the Turkish president Erdogan promised to “return Afrin to its rightful owners”. The military operation is happening in front of the eyes of the international community and with the tacit approval of the same forces which had previously supported the Kurdish people in their fight against the Islamic State.
Among the targets of the attacks is the Robar refugee camp. Due to the influx of refugees from areas like Aleppo, Idlib, Manbij, Azaz and al-Bab, the population size of Afrin has nearly doubled since the beginning of the war, providing shelter to nearly half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The canton administration established the Robar refugee camp in 2015 to provide additional support for the hundreds of thousands of IDPs, many of which had settled in the city and area around Afrin.
The War on Afrin is a War on Women
In all wars, death, destruction, displacement, torture, and trauma find their additional expression in the sexual nature of militarism and warfare. The gendered face of war and conflict has reached unprecedented dimensions in the Syrian war. Not only have jihadists groups, especially the Islamic State, used sexual violence and torture, including gang rape and sex slavery as systematic tools of war, other parties of the war such as the Assad regime forces and sections of the Free Syrian Army have been found to use sexual violence as part of their war strategies. The systematic, planned, and conscious elimination and degradation of women during wartime must be named as a deliberate act: feminicide.
The women of the Women’s Defense Units YPJ have become the hopeful face of the war against the rapist murderers of the Islamic State. In fact, Afrin has been the first area in Rojava to form autonomous women’s battalions.
Beyond the military fight, the YPJ also form the self-defence of a women-led social revolution. Since July 2012, the region of Rojava has established grassroots democratic structures based on the principles of radical democracy, ecology, and women’s liberation. Led by the political system of Democratic Confederalism, the people created communes, assemblies, academies, and cooperatives to organise their daily lives in a secular, multi-cultural, and gender egalitarian manner. An autonomous women’s movement established women’s social, political, and economic structures to secure a radical transformation in the society shaped by male domination, patriarchy and violence against women. Since the beginning, polygamy, child marriage, and forced marriage have been banned. Women’s laws have been passed, while the Social Contract of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria states the elimination of discrimination of women in all spheres of life as a crucial principle, alongside actively committing to the liberation of women. In all spheres of political life, a 40% women’s quota is enforced, while the co-presidency principle shares the chair among a woman and a man, from the federal administration to the small neighbourhood communes.
Through ecological economic cooperatives women became producers, creators, and value-makers again. Women’s academies and educational institutions initiate the necessary mental and intellectual consciousness to lead the society towards equality and justice. The women of Afrin and northern Syria have proven that violence, oppression, and rape culture are not the fate of Middle Eastern women – another life in freedom is possible.
On February 3, 2018, a horrific video circulated on social media, which showed the mutilated, dead body of a Kurdish woman fighter, covered in dirt, surrounded by FSA fighters, abusing the corpse. The fighter, Barîn Kobanê, was captured, tortured, and her breasts were cut off. Whilst the aim of this war crime was to demoralize the population of Afrin, while asserting the most barbaric face of patriarchal fascism, the women of Afrin see their resistance and struggle symbolized in Barîn Kobanê’s fight and will continue to defend themselves.
What is at stake in Afrin is women’s guarantee for a life in freedom, dignity, and justice, being one of the few places were women not only lived safely, but where they became active decision-makers and driving forces in public life.
The Women’s Initiative for Peace in Afrin will be the collective platform of women and women’s organisations to condemn the Turkish invasion of Afrin and propose peaceful solutions to the war. The alliance invites decision-makers to live up to their moral and political responsibilities and to pressure them to take urgent action to prevent civilian killings and other war crimes. Furthermore, the alliance will provide insightful perspectives and suggest policies to the public. It will actively engage the media to keep Afrin on the press agenda. Ultimately, it will struggle to take meaningful actions and steps to provide solidarity and support for the resisting women of Afrin. Possible campaigns and actions of the Initiative will be releasing joint statements on the developments in Afrin, organising joint protests, events, and seminars, passing motions in trade unions and political parties, and developing information work on the democratic women’s structures in Afrin and northern Syria.
Demands and calls to the government, political parties, human rights organisations, unions, and international institutions:
-immediate end of the attacks on Afrin
-end to all arms deals and political partnerships with authoritarian regimes such as Turkey in the Middle East
-humanitarian support for Afrin
-independent investigation into war crimes in Afrin
-establishment of a No Fly Zone for the protection of civilians
-support for the democratic forces and peace efforts of the DFNS for a free, democratic Syria
-support for the inclusion of the DFNS in the Geneva peace talks on Syria