Fouad Abdo is a farmer from the village of Batirzani, near the border wall that divides Rojava from Turkish-occupied Kurdish regions to the north. His small farm and the village are unusually green for this time of year in north-eastern Syria, thanks to a nearby freshwater spring. Just outside the village lies the melon patch where he was standing when he was attacked by Turkish border guards.
“I was with a friend of mine, taking care of our crops, and as we were returning the Turkish border guards shot at us, firing one bullet into my leg,” he says.
“We ran to the village and from there to the hospital to receive treatment. The road is not good, and our village is far from the city, but there are no doctors here.”
Fouad is one of the lucky ones. A new dossier prepared by the Rojava Information Center (RIC) documents over 30 such incidents since the start of 2019 alone, with 27 civilians injured or killed in cross-border mortar and heavy weapons attacks by Turkish forces and border guards. In stark contrast, RIC found only one documented attack crossing the border from north-eastern Syria to the Turkish side in 2019, with the perpetrator arrested by the local security forces.
“We are not a threat to Turkey,” said Fouad Abdo. “We stay in our homes, work and spend time with our family and children.” Yet it is the people of north-eastern Syria, like Fouad Abdo, that Turkey claims are a threat on their border and necessitate the creation of a ‘buffer zone’ running the length of the border wall.
Negotiations between the USA and Turkey are still underway over the “buffer zone” separating Turkey from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, more commonly referred to as Rojava. It will at least involve Turkish patrols into Rojava and the withdrawal of YPG forces in favour of local military councils, and Turkey is pushing to establish ‘observation points’ on north-eastern Syrian soil.
The RIC research indicates that Turkey is manipulating anti-terrorism rhetoric to expand its area of influence and attack the democratic, autonomous project to its south, while itself terrorising local farmers and civilians.
In 2012, in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, Rojava declared autonomy and began a new democratic project based on women’s rights, grassroots democracy and ecology. Among its core principles is the guarantee of mutual support and co-existence among the various peoples of north-eastern Syria – including the Kurds.
Turkey, like the Syrian regime, has a long history of violent suppression of Kurdish language, culture, rights and resistance. It has launched many attacks along the shared border with Rojava, most notably the invasion and occupation of the Afrin region in early 2018.
Again, the stated reason for this attack was the alleged danger Afrin posed for Turkey. Turkey claimed it had faced 700 cross border attacks from Afrin, when in reality only 26 ‘cross border incidents’ took place along the whole Turkish-Syrian border, with only 15 originating from Afrin.
Yet on this pretext, Turkey was able to invade and occupy Afrin, imposing military rule across the previously-peaceful region. Turkish-controlled, armed and funded jihadist groups like Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Sultan Murad Brigade are imposing sharia law, and engaging in extortion, kidnapping, murder, torture, rape, and gender-based violence, in actions possibly amounting to war crimes, according to Amnesty International.
Now Turkey is once again exaggerating the threat posed by north-eastern Syria, with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying:
“We are determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates, no matter how the negotiations with the US to establish a safe zone along the Syrian borders conclude.”
At the same time, Erdogan and his lieutenants issue constant threats against Rojava to the effect that they will “bury Kurdish militants in ditches”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates at least 422 Syrian civilians have been killed by Turkish border guards along the border since 2011. Since the beginning of 2019, attacks in north-eastern Syria have been increasing, peaking in the month of July with seven documented attacks resulting in the injuries of civilians and even the death of one child. Maher Hassan Al Baligh, 17, lived in a village near Kobane – where Turkey closed its borders back in 2014 and left the YPG and YPJ surrounded by Isis. He was shot and killed by Turkish snipers, while working outside with his family near the same border.
The continuing Turkish attacks have left a scar on the people of north-eastern Syria – physical, psychological and demographic. Fouad Abdo explains how his village has been affected:
“When I was a child, there was no wall here. Now there is fear in the village. We don’t know if they will shoot at us or not. We cannot plant grain close to the wall anymore. The shepherds cannot go to their fields, people are scared to go into the garden.
“We go on with our work here, but since the start of the war, many young people have left. When the old people die, there are no young people to go on with their work. We stay in our homes, work, and spend time with our family and children. We are not a threat to Turkey.”
Sitting down with Fouad Abdo, eating the same melon he was harvesting when he was shot, it was hard to see how he could be perceived as a threat: how Maher Hassan, a child, could be a threat to Turkey.
As Newroz Ahmed, general commander of the all-female YPJ militia says:
“Many of our people have been killed along the Turkish border, and as such it is impossible for us to accept their insistence on having a presence in the region. We are capable of ensuring security along the border and preventing any attack from our side.
“Our region is already safe – the safest in the wider region. Here, different peoples live in peace, with their own identity and own faith.”
The narrative that Turkey must protect itself from the “terror corridor” is merely an excuse to move its troops into the democratic, autonomous regions of north-eastern Syria.
Robin Fleming is a journalist based at the Rojava Information Center in north-eastern Syria.