Hayvi Mustafa is co-president of the Executive Council of Afrin, a region in northern Syria of 1.5 million people that currently includes some 500,000 internally displaced people.
Three months ago, I was sitting here in my office with my colleagues, celebrating the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s fighters were vanquished by our own Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the help of our American allies. We had great hopes that day: Eliminating the security threat meant that we could finally begin investing in education and social services. As a woman, I was especially keen to empower others of my gender, which I saw as a crucial part of our plans to transform our society into a true democracy after our lives under the totalitarian state of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. My duties evolved to include supervising the work of 15 governmental departments that provide security and services to people regardless of their ethnicity, religion or politics. Among our accomplishments is a new university that offers instruction in engineering and social sciences and provides full access to women as well as men.
Today I am sitting in that very same office, listening and watching as Turkish jets bomb us and artillery shells our homes. We are getting calls from local officials warning that Turkey pushing deeper into our territory, perhaps even hoping to take the city of Afrin itself. Turkey accuses us of being an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). All of the region’s leaders and U.S officials have denied these allegations. Nonetheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains determined to wage his war against Afrin. His invasion in our territory also serves the purpose of distracting his own people from his authoritarian power grab at home.
Our region is religiously and ethnically diverse. Our population includes Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Yazidis and Alawites. Many of us are descendants of the survivors of genocides that were committed by Turkish states against the non-Turkish peoples during and after World War I. All of these communities have refused to leave Afrin despite the threat from the Islamic government in Turkey and the jihadist groups associated with it that publicly threaten us with ethnic cleansing. All of these communities are working together to build a democratic alternative in Syria.
Erdogan wants to destroy this freedom; his forces have already killed 18 innocent civilians. Though ostensibly a U.S. ally, Erdogan is not ashamed to use jihadist groups to eliminate Afrin as a democratic alternative. Not only did Erdogan allow al-Qaeda to grow along Turkey’s border with Idlib, but he has also coordinated with al-Qaeda to facilitate the entry of the Turkish troops into our region. Erdogan doesn’t fight al-Qaeda — he works with them.
Since 2011, when Assad’s regime started to collapse, the democratic political institutions of our region have worked tirelessly to mobilize people in a struggle for democracy and security against the barbarism of the Islamic State and the chaos of the Syrian civil war. We have organized our self-defense and enforced universal human rights. Most importantly, our security forces do not perform summary executions — with one man as judge, jury and executioner — as frequently happens in the other lawless areas of Syria. Our forces abide by the laws written in our legislative assembly.
Ironically, the fact that the Islamic State never took control of our region has limited the American presence here, and we are now paying the price. Unlike some other regions in northern Syria, we do not have U.S. military bases or even military observers. This encouraged Erdogan to wage war against us under the pretext of “fighting terrorism.” He accuses all Kurds of being terrorists by virtue of their birth. But today it is not only the Kurds who are being attacked by Erdogan. Turkish prisons are filled with peaceful political activists from a wide variety of backgrounds, yet all are accused of terrorism.
We should not be destroyed because our struggle for democracy and freedom curtails Erdogan’s ambitions. We should not be destroyed because we kept the Islamic State and al-Qaeda out of our region. We look to Turkey as a neighbor and seek a better relationship with its people. We differentiate between Turkey as a government and its people, between Erdogan as an Islamist dictator and his oppressed subjects. We believe that this is a distinction that our friends in the United States and Europe should also make.
U.S. diplomacy appears to be having little effect on Turkey, and this is not a surprise. Erdogan failed to support a democratic alternative to the Assad regime and refused to help the United States defeat al-Qaeda in Syria. Our defense forces have recruited many democratically minded Syrians from the areas where al-Qaeda is now concentrated, and we are prepared to work together with the United States to end this threat to global security. To do this, the United States needs to enforce a no-fly zone similar to agreements between the United States and Russia preventing the Syrian air force from bombing SDF targets, and to establish closer cooperation with our security forces in the region. But Washington must act soon. Time is running out.