I’ve been in North and East Syria for almost a year now. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to stay here and work here, involved in the women’s movement. That’s meant meeting a lot of different women from this part of the world. Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac, Yezidi, and more. Young women, mothers, fighters in the self defence forces. Women giving political analysis from their work in diplomacy, women taking care of us like we’re their own children, sleeping next to us on beds they lovingly laid out after we fought over who got to do the washing up. Women up at 4 am to milk the goats in the village. Women lecturing in university. Women still not in bed by 4 am, gun in hand, watching over the lives of their loved ones and comrades.
Its a beautiful picture and its no exaggeration, the beauty is as present as it sounds. But it’s not a fairy tale. I’ve witnessed how women-only communes and organisations deal with conflict and discord as well as good times. I’ve seen spirited debates and disagreement about the best way to do things. A woman is never only a woman, we are a lot of other things as well – age, religion, culture, family, work, background. These things give us different perspectives. To say we are all one, that we have common aims and common interests, is by no means to say that we are all the same.
One of the most impressive and encouraging things about the revolutionary project in North and East Syria is its willingness to accept and work with this, to embrace diversity. Under the Autonomous Administration, people are not expected to all agree all the time. They are expected to create and contribute to structures and methods of democratically discussing, compromising, and moving forward. And that is what they’re doing and will continue to do, except that since the 9th of October the situation in many areas has radically changed. I was in Serekaniye when the first shells fell. A peaceful, joyful protest had just ended and the city was in mid-afternoon peace. We were eating. Twenty minutes later families were fleeing, while self defence forces rushed to their roles.
The Turkish state’s invasion and occupation, both with its own forces and jihadist proxy gangs, has by now been well documented. The world is aware of whats happening, and the people of the world are angry and ready to take any action, whilst nation states and international institutions drag their feet and condone genocide. The Turkish state is declaring it wants to create a “Safe Zone” in North East Syria.
On the 17th of October a ceasefire was declared. For the people of North and East Syria this has meant little except there was less international interest in the threat that is still advancing. The war has slightly changed shape but it has absolutely not stopped. Jihadist gangs in the pay of the Turkish state are still actively advancing, trying to take land and cut important highways. Bombs are still falling from warplanes or drones. I’ve seen photos of streets I’ve walked and roads I’ve driven stained with blood. Areas we once passed through in convoys on the way to a celebration, overtaking and honking and waving out of the windows, are now marked a darker colour on a map, innocent and clerical enough but meaning: no longer free. You cannot pass. Above all, women are not safe here.
The Turkish state’s claim to a ceasefire has been little but a political ploy to persuade imperialist powers to escort it into the territory it wants, so that it won’t even have to make war to get occupation. Russia is the latest of these powers, after the United States previously made a similar agreement. Turkish forces, who have targeted civilians and aid workers, used illegal chemical weapons and committed other war crimes, are now escorted on “patrols” through the border region of North East Syria. A substantial area is already under the control of occupying forces, but these patrols go much farther. Through those villages where the mothers get up at 4 am to milk the goats, and still have energy to welcome guests like long lost daughters. Past the towns where those diplomats work 24/7 for a better, safer, more democratic world, where young women raise each others knowledge in universities and children walk to school. This is a tactic to extend occupation. This is the start of a slow, creeping attack, just as lethal as the fast and brutal one of the last month.
Erdogan wants to effect demographic change in North East Syria by forcibly moving people from other parts of Syria who are currently in Turkey there. This will destroy the pluralism and democracy the people have created. He has openly and internationally announced these plans under the guise of “returning refugees”. The “safe zone” is nothing but violence and occupation and the “returning of refugees” is forced resettlement, demographic change and occupation. It will impose homogenisation on a diverse region. Before the Turkish invasion, North East Syria was already welcoming thousands of displaced people from more war torn parts of Syria. The area was the safest and most secure in the region by a long chalk.
Whether the media and international powers accept it or not, the war continues. But of course so does resistance. Every Turkish patrol yet to enter North East Syria has been greeted by crowds of civilians throwing stones, chanting, protesting, blocking the road, and throwing the worthless and insulting Aid Parcels handed out by Russia back at their vehicles. The day before I wrote this a young man was killed when an armoured car drove over him. I am sure that the mothers in headscarves lining the roads with harmfuls of rocks will only have increased in number and fury in response to this. In the Til Temer and Ayn Issa regions women are still on the frontlines with the local military councils and self defence forces. Women work tirelessly supporting displaced people, in the health sectors, in neighbourhood organising. The women and people of this region will not accept occupation. So they need the rest of us to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in that resistance.