Turkey on a knife edge as elections loom

The article below, by SSK committee member Sarah Glynn, was published in the National on Friday. We now know the results of the election, but we hope that this can still provide useful background.

HDP supporters in Istanbul watch Dermitas's address from prison
HDP supporters in Istanbul watch Dermitas’s address from prison

Turkey on a knife-edge as elections loom

‘OUR country has reached a crucial crossroads … If you chose to vote for the AKP and Erdogan … the destiny of 81 million will be entirely at the mercy of one person.”

This warning against impending dictatorship comes from a rare appearance of presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas on Turkish state television. But Dermitas doesn’t only suffer from lack of air time. Like many other leading members of his People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and a great many other people who have criticised the Turkish government, he is shut away in prison awaiting trial.

Sunday’s Turkish election – for both parliament and president – was called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate his power. His instrumental approach to democracy was already clear in his 1996 comment that “democracy is like a tram ride: when you reach your stop, you get off.”

However, in the early years of his prime ministership, which lasted from 2003 until he became president in 2014, the Western world regarded him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model of “moderate” Islamic democracy. He made moves towards progressive reform, including lifting some of the restrictions on Kurdish cultural expression and starting peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but actual achievements were limited; and the AKP soon became increasingly authoritarian and anti-secular. In 2013, popular frustration at what was happening expressed itself on the streets of Istanbul, catalysed by the protests against the urban development of Gezi Park.

Dermitas’s HDP was formed in 2012, bringing together the campaign for Kurdish rights with other progressive and left movements, including those that came to the fore in the Gezi Park protests. Their participation in the June 2015 general election drew international interest. In the Turkish system, a party can only win parliamentary seats if it gets more than 10% of the popular vote. If it falls below that threshold then all votes given to its candidates are discounted. The HDP confounded expectations to win 13.1% of the vote, which translated into 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament and deprived the AKP of its majority.

Their resulting optimism didn’t last long. Erdogan had planned to bring in constitutional changes to increase his presidential powers, but now his AKP couldn’t even put together a government. He renewed attacks on the PKK and their sympathisers in acts of collective punishment that reduced Kurdish towns to rubble and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians; and he called another election for November. The HDP had already suffered violent attacks and bombings before the June election, for which they held the government indirectly responsible. This time hundreds of party members were arrested, and the violence was even more widespread. Their Ankara headquarters was attacked and set on fire by a mob of 500-600 people, and the bombing of a peace rally left more than 100 people dead. Some voters were frightened away. The HDP inched past the threshold with 10.8% of the vote and kept 59 MPs. The right-wing opposition also lost seats and the AKP got their overall majority.

The failed coup attempt in July 2016 provided Erdogan with an excuse to clamp down on his opponents. Although he accused his former political ally Fethullah Gulen of instigating the coup, the ensuing purge has not been limited to Gulen’s followers. It has decimated Turkish political and civil society and fallen particularly hard on the Kurds. Nine HDP MPs and 60 elected mayors from their sister party were in prison for the whole of 2017-18. Since the coup attempt, 152,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs (including 5800 academics), 139,000 people have been detained and 79,000 have been arrested (including 319 journalists).

The AKP’s parliamentary majority enabled them to hold a referendum for granting much greater power to the president, which took place in April 2017. The changes just scraped through on 51.4% of the vote, despite campaigning restrictions imposed by the post-coup state of emergency, the acceptance of unsealed ballots, and accusations of fraud. The new powers will be put into effect after Sunday.

Of course Turkish government oppression hasn’t been restricted to Turkey’s borders. There has been considerable evidence of Turkish support for Daesh fighters in Syria, Turkey has directly invaded Syria to restrict Kurdish control and effect major and violent displacement of Kurdish civilians, and they are currently attacking Qandil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s unprovoked war against the predominantly Kurdish Syrian region of Afrin, at the beginning of this year, provided the focus for jingoistic religious nationalism, and served as a distraction from internal economic woes.

Which leads us to Sunday’s snap election. Elections weren’t scheduled to take place until November 2019, but in April, Erdogan announced the new date. He clearly hopes to benefit from the war bounce – though it was hardly the swift victory he had promised – and he probably considered that the worsening economy would only have caused him to lose more votes the longer he waited. He may also have calculated on wrong-footing a divided opposition, though opposition parties have now formed an unlikely alliance.

A recent law change allows parties to compete as groups, allowing smaller parties to evade the 10% rule, and the parliamentary elections are now being contested by two groups and the non-allied HDP. The ruling AKP is allied with the ultra right-wing Nationalist Movelment Party (MHP). Their main opposition is an alliance made up of the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), who follow in the tradition of revolutionary Kemal Ataturk; the Good Party, led by an MHP dissident, and a small conservative Islamic party. Any hopes for a more left-wing voice depend on the unallied HDP passing the 10% line, but they could be helped in this by tactical voters who see this as the best hope for depriving Erdogan’s AKP of a majority. The opposition parties are each standing their own presidential candidates, and here pragmatic (though far from progressive) opposition hopes depend on the CHP candidate making it through to a second round and bringing together the anti-Erdogan vote.

For citizens of Turkey living in Scotland, the campaigning and (first round) voting is already over. They could cast their vote at the Turkish consulate in Edinburgh, which must have been intimidating for some, and impossible for anyone who had come here to seek refuge from the Turkish state. There have been a lot of campaign events, and although loyalties are fairly entrenched, the importance of the election has produced a record turnout for ex-patriot voters everywhere of 49%. In Edinburgh the turnout was 47% – 1804 people. Of course the turnout in Turkey will be much higher.

However, emergency regulations continue to ensure that this election is taking place on a far from level playing field, and recent rule changes have compounded this further. Security concerns have been used as an excuse to move polling stations away from HDP majority areas, and to place state security forces near the ballot boxes; and unsealed ballots will again be accepted. As if this was not enough to cause concern, leaked videos purport to show Erdogan instructing party workers on how to rig the ballot boxes to keep the HDP vote below 10%.

If, despite these precautions, Erdogan and the AKP fail to win the power they crave, they will not go quietly. Recent events in Suruc demonstrate the potential for violence. When a shopkeeper refused to show support for the AKP candidate, the candidate’s retinue started a fight. The candidate’s brother was fatally wounded and the shopkeeper’s three sons were all hurt. Two of the sons and their father were later lynched by the candidate’s relatives inside the hospital. The Turkish press attempted to report this as a PKK attack.

Whatever happens on Sunday, there are difficult times ahead.


Afrîn and Manbij: A tale of two cities

This article by Sarah Glynn was first published in Bella Caledonia on 2 June.

Sections were quoted by ANF News

Earlier this year, the world learnt briefly about a place called Afrîn. There was even a discussion in the House of Commons, though with no motion and no vote. And the BBC was forced to interrupt its coverage of the fight between Assad’s government forces and militant Islamists in Eastern Ghouta to take note of what they termed ‘Syria’s other battle’. But once Afrîn city had been captured by the Turkish army and the jihadi militias with which it is aligned, Afrîn became old news, and quickly forgotten. Even Kurdish political activists, with their long experience of being betrayed by foreign powers, have been taken aback by the lack of response in international forums to this unprovoked invasion and occupation of a formerly peaceful region, to the accompanying ethnic cleansing, and to the replacement of secular democratic structures with a regime of terror and with constraints on women that echo those under Daesh.

I have just returned from a week in the, autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where I was part of a delegation invited by Kongreya Star, the umbrella group for the region’s women’s organisations. And everywhere we went we were reminded of the importance of Afrîn, and that the fight for Afrîn and for all that it stood for is far from over.

When the Kurds of Northern Syria took advantage of the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war to set up autonomous administrations in the area they call the West (as in Western Kurdistan), or Rojava, the district of Afrîn formed one of three autonomous cantons. Across Rojava new structures were set up to create an inclusive bottom-up democracy in accordance with the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, but we were told that in Afrîn the development of the new system was most advanced. The new forms of organisation were most widespread and embedded, women were most active in all spheres of life, and different ethnic groups were most fully integrated. The area had remained peaceful throughout the civil war and had provided a safe home to tens of thousands of displaced persons of various ethnic backgrounds from other parts of Syria.

But on the 20th January, after getting the green light from Russia who controlled the air space, Turkey began an all-out attack. Without air-power of their own, the defenders of Afrîn could not hold back the second biggest army in NATO. The war that Turkey’s President Erdoğan boasted would take just days, lasted for nearly two months, but by 18th March the flag of the Turkish invaders flew over the centre of Afrîn city. Attacks on civilian areas had been relentless, but much greater casualties were avoided by the mass evacuation of the civilian population just before the city fell. Now, thousands of Kurds and their former neighbours are struggling to survive as ‘internally displaced persons’, while Turkey moves Arab families – including families of the violent jihadi groups bussed out of Eastern Ghouta – into their former homes. But, as our hosts from Kongreya Star made clear to us, resistance in Afrîn is not over, it has taken on a new guerrilla formation.

One of our first meetings was with the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Just as the SDF brings together the Kurdish defence forces – the YPG and female YPJ – with allied forces, so the Council combines representatives from different parties and ethnicities. The Council’s co-president (every organisation has dual heads, male and female) is from Afrîn and has family among those displaced. She talked about the conditions being suffered by people left in Afrîn, where occupying Turkish and Jihadi soldiers rape and kidnap for ransom, and regard women as existing for the service of men. In contrast to Turkey’s pre-planned displacement of population by ethnicity, she stressed how the Kurds were bringing all ethnicities together in a system that they have put forward as a future solution for the whole of Syria. She had no illusions in any of the imperialist powers intervening in Syria – nor in Assad’s Baath party, with its history of Kurdish exclusion and suppression, and of Arab ethnic nationalism – and observed that foreign governments that should have been speaking up for the Kurds all shared interests with Turkey. The Kurds are aware that they are only valued for their crucial role in the fight against Daesh, and she observed, wryly, that those countries that were the quietest when the Kurds were under attack, are themselves the most subject to Islamist terrorism. The world’s silence on Afrîn and on Turkey’s previous intervention into Syria has given her strong grounds to believe that Turkey will act on its current election rhetoric and launch further attacks.

One of the other board members summed up the process that Northern Syria has been going through as parallel threads: resistance and struggle alongside creation and construction. They are establishing a community-based democracy, and the full participation of women is central to all that they do. This means not just changing the rules, but also changing people’s way of thinking in what is still a very patriarchal society.

All these points were to recur in future meetings during our intensely busy week.

We had hoped to be able to visit the Berxwedan camp in Shahba Canton to meet some of the displaced families from Afrîn, but Shahba has to be reached via a strip of land controlled by the Assad government, and we didn’t get the requisite permission. This was especially disappointing for the Kongreya Star member who was with us, who had hoped to be able to see some of her family. Her sister was killed in Afrîn and other family members are now distributed between different places in Syria – a situation that will be familiar to many Kurdish families. The Assad government has made it difficult for aid to get through too.

An Afrin family living in a destroyed school in Shahba

Conditions in Shahba are harsh. The massively overstretched administration has just produced a report that includes a census of over 100,000 displaced people from Afrîn. The area is badly damaged by war, and already accommodated people displaced from Turkey’s earlier incursions. As well as the camp, people are living in schools and mosques and whatever buildings could be found, including buildings that have been partially destroyed. Many lack electricity, sanitation, and even drinking water, and medical facilities are woefully inadequate. The local administration notes, ‘International relief organizations have so far provided no support to these displaced people, except for some aid from the Syrian Red Crescent’. The people in the camp have refused offers of help from Russia who they blame for their situation.

The Afrîn family we visited in Kobanê – one of 300 who have been found homes in the city – was relatively lucky. They had been sent on from Shahba because they needed medical help that wasn’t available there. The father had an injured leg, and he and his mother-in-law both needed surgery. The mother had given birth to twins the day after they arrived in the city. They told us that when the autonomous administration had taken over control of Afrîn in 2012 they had been very happy. They could use their own Kurdish language and live the way they wanted. When Turkey attacked they had moved from their village into Afrîn city, only leaving for Shahba when the SDF told all civilians that they should evacuate. With the mother heavily pregnant, the grandmother unable to walk, the father injured, and a young child in tow, that was not easy.

Three generations of an Afrin family talking with us in Kobane

Despite their own troubles, when this family learnt that one of the members of our group was the aunt of Anna Campbell, the English woman who died fighting in the YPJ in the defence of Afrîn, they were immediately solicitous over her loss. They told her that when they get their home back they will hang a picture of Anna on the wall. Respect for those who have given their lives, and support for their families, are central tenets of this revolution.

The SDF’s decision to evacuate Afrîn must have been especially hard when they knew that removal of the Kurds was Turkey’s declared aim, but the invading forces were threatening genocide; and, dreadful as life is in Shahba, for those who remained in Afrîn, or who went back to recover their land and animals, the situation is worse. There have been detailed accounts in Kurdish news sources such as ANF News – not that we could read these when we were in Syria as the internet connections came from Turkey, and these, along with much other material including Wikipedia, are blocked by Turkish censorship. The Information Centre of Afrin Resistance compiles weekly bulletins of what is happening: abductions and disappearances, torture, kidnapping for ransom, looting, women forced to cover their heads and only go out accompanied by a man, Yazidi parents forced to teach Islamic prayers, the killing of a folksinger and his son.

Women preparing to defend Afrin, from ANF News 3 March 2018

While Turkey was exulting in displacing the Kurds, persecuting Yazidis, and making women prisoners in their homes, we learnt more about the Democratic Federation’s completely opposite and inclusive approach when we visited Manbij. Manbij was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in August 2016, after 2 ½ years under Daesh control. Unlike the Rojava cantons, Manbij is not majority Kurdish. At the Manbij Women’s Council we met with women from different ethnic communities: Arabs, Turkmen and Circassians, as well as Kurds. An important part of the council’s activity consists of reminding people how different ethnicities have lived together in the past, and encouraging people to acknowledge the ethnic mix within their own families. Members told us how they go round from house to house knocking on people’s doors to find women from all ethnic groups who may never go outside their homes. They try to get them involved in public life and help them to find paid work that gives them a measure of independence, and they also help them to resolve the inevitable conflicts within their families. This is not easy work and requires patience and persistence. They explained that although many of the women they visit know what they want, they are afraid to act. Living under Daesh control has made them fearful and suspicious of public activity; and, unlike in the Kurdish areas where Öcalan’s ideas had inspired a strong underground movement that was ready to break free, they were not used to challenging patriarchal cultural traditions.

Discussion with the Manbij Women’s Council. (The images on the wall, which surround a big picture of Ocalan, include Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin alongside the familiar Kurdish political martyrs.)

One of the Arab women told us that she had been inspired by the way the Kurdish women worked together when they were living under Daesh, and had resolved to continue with this activity after liberation. Another wanted to express her thanks to the YPJ and SDF for liberating them from what felt like the end of life. In order to change social attitudes, the activists try and talk with all members of a family, including the men. A third Arab woman acknowledged the support she got from her own family, who shared her thinking, but not all families are sympathetic. We were told that there is a lot of educational work to be done before it will be possible to bring in even such a basic rule as outlawing polygamy. It was noticeable that the only women we saw in Manbij with uncovered heads – outwith the strangely anachronistic mannequins in the shop windows – were the Kurdish Women’s Council members. For society to change, a lot of hard work has to take place on the ground, and the women of Manbij have already set up three mala jin, or women’s houses, where women can go for support and to try and get family disputes resolved.

Images of dead SDF fighters on a Manbij roundabout, with multi-lingual slogan

During our week’s visit we went to places where the new democratic structures are much more fully established, such as Kobanê, where we met with one of the sixty-five local women’s organisations, and Qamishlo, where we discussed the steps they are taking to develop an economy based on community need – but Manbij is important because it demonstrates how the ideas developed by the Kurds can be taken up in other places and form an effective counter to the dominant Middle-Eastern narrative of ethnic strife, patriarchal oppression, and religious intolerance. Manbij is also the next place in Turkey’s sights, though what happens here is complicated by the presence of US troops. Afrîn demonstrated that none of the foreign powers who are happy to see the Kurds attack Daesh will lift a finger when the Kurds themselves are under attack. And these powers certainly won’t want to promote a system that sees itself as an alternative to capitalist modernity. Manbij’s future will depend on what the US sees as its strategic interests – and talks between the US and Turkey are coming to the crunch.

As we were flying home, UK Prime Arms Dealer, Teresa May, was abasing herself in front of Erdoğan, and mentioning the Kurds only as ‘terrorists’. Our government will not be forced to change tack unless the Kurds can be seen to have wide popular support. Building this will be a major task, but, as the experiences of Afrîn and Manbij demonstrate, history is at a crossroads, and the different paths lead to very different futures.

Sarah Glynn is a committee member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, whose website can be found at www.sskonline.org.uk. There will be an opportunity to show support for the Kurds and protest British arms sales to Turkey at the demonstration against the Glasgow arms fair at the end of June.


A week in Rojava

SSK committee member, Sarah Glynn, is just back from a week in the democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where she was part of a women’s delegation organised by Peace in Kurdistan and hosted by Kongriya Star, the Kurdish women’s organisation. She will be giving talks and writing about what she saw. Below is her first article (from The National) and an interview with Common Space.

Resistance is life: The Kurdish fight for freedom

Primary school children outside their temporary classroom in Kobanê. Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan is raising funds to build a proper school on this site

THE names Tigris and Euphrates resonate with ancient history, but today this “cradle of civilisation” has become the battleground for civilization’s future. Locally, people already describe what is happening here as a third world war: an acknowledgement not just of the scale of the fighting, but of the magnitude of the issues at stake.

Neoliberal capitalism has been accompanied by neo-imperial competition for power and control, while warring gangs, fired up by a bastardised religion, take advantage of the chaos. Neither militant jihadists nor the military-industrial complex offers hope for the future. But the very chaos of the civil war has opened up cracks and made space for the growth of a society with a totally different value system. I have been observing these developments from afar, but this month I had the opportunity to go and see them for myself as part of a women’s delegation to the autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Despite the area’s long history, its towns and cities are relatively modern clusters of reinforced concrete; however the city of Kobanê has earned a legendary status. It was here, in a battle lasting from September 2014 to January 2015, that Daesh suffered their first significant defeat, forcing the world to ask: who are these Kurds who have defended their city against all the odds, and what gave them the strength where much better equipped armies had failed? Clearly, part of the answer lay in the lack of any alternative. Although most of the civilian population evacuated temporarily to Turkey, they knew that as Kurds they had no future there. But the Kurds were, and are, also driven by a revolutionary force for the creation of a new society.

Our delegation with members of the women’s commune. Adile is on the right, Sarah Glynn is standing third from right.

That force extends well beyond the fighters of the People’s Protection Units – the YPG and female YPJ. It was evident in so many of the people we met, but nowhere more so than with the two bubbly, middle-aged women Sara and Adile, who recounted to us how they had cooked the food for the fighters during the siege of Kobanê, and washed the dead bodies – including those of the Daesh attackers because that is the ethical thing to do. Despite the horrific conditions and unbearable violence, Adile told us that they were happy because their work was vital.

The force for change took root long before the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. During the 1980s and 90s, Abdullah Öcalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were given refuge by the Syrian regime (who had no love for Turkey), bringing with them their radical leftist programme for secular democracy and women’s liberation. Adile explained that Öcalan provided them with an ideology and philosophy and a way to organise themselves, and he helped women to take charge of their own will. Under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad there was no room for any open opposition. Kurds could not even celebrate their spring festival of Newroz and, as another woman explained to us, photographs of political leaders had to be kept buried and only taken out at night. But, when the civil war created a power vacuum, Syrian Kurdish organisations were ready to take over control. Then, as Sara put it, it was as if a rock had been lifted, exposing green shoots underneath: the will of the people had built up, and now it could explode.

Discussion at the women’s commune. Adile is on the left.

Öcalan’s teachings gave them the strength and purpose to begin to build a new humanistic society, but the rocks that crushed them were not all placed by the regime. They also had to free themselves from the traditional patriarchal structures within their own culture and families, and the liberation of women has become increasingly central both to Öcalan’s ideology and to the Kurdish revolution. This includes ensuring women’s participation through quotas and co-chairs in all the new structures, and through separate women’s organisations.

IN the organisations that we visited we saw plenty of examples of relaxed and respectful relations between the sexes, but the shift in social consciousness that is needed is very large. As women are being supported to stand up against domestic abuse, we heard the (male) complaint that divorce rates have gone up.

The society that is being created is a bottom-up democracy that encourages as many people as possible to take an active part in moulding their community. We were taken to a local women’s organisation, or commune, that brought together women from 11 streets and was one of 65 similar communes in Kobanê. We met in their small plain hall, with concrete floor and plastic chairs. On the walls were pictures of “martyrs” who have been killed fighting for the freedom to make a better society and who, together with the martyrs in the women’s own families, act as a constant reminder of the principles they died for.

Women come here to organise and learn, and to share and resolve problems and disputes. In the economic sphere, the new society prioritises social need and the increased involvement of women. A women’s bakery co-op has recently been set up in the area. In their long floral dresses and head-scarves the commune women look unlikely revolutionaries, but there was no doubting their commitment and solidarity. They didn’t defer to a leader – our questions were answered by different people. One told us that they had come a long way and feel empowered, but still have a long way to go.

Every city has its martyr’s cemetery where the community can gather to show respect for the fallen and support for their families. The cemetery in Kobanê is striking not just for the number of people who lost their lives defending that city, but also for the growing rows of graves of people from Kobanê who have gone on to die for the liberation of other places, such as Manbij and Raqqa. For the people of Kobanê, the Kurdish motto, “resistance is life”, is more than just a metaphor.

By the time Daesh had been pushed out of Kobanê, three quarters of the city had been destroyed. Rebuilding has been impressive, especially with the difficulties of getting building materials, however the area that bore the brunt of the attack has been left as a museum, complete with abandoned makeshift tanks. New street names recall the men and women who died there. It is a brutal and stark memorial, but overlooking all is something even more frightening. Just a few hundred metres away, across the Turkish border, a big red flag with a white crescent provides a constant reminder that the Kurds and their revolution face an existential threat. The Turkish government gave active support to Daesh and made no secret of their disappointment that Kobanê survived the siege.

The Turkish flag flying close to Kobanê

This year, Turkey carried out an unprovoked invasion of Afrîn, the westernmost canton of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Up until then Afrîn had provided a haven of peace, welcoming refugees of all backgrounds from other parts of Syria; and it was here that the social revolution had been most fully developed.

Now, most of Afrîn’s Kurdish population is in refugee camps and scattered, while their homes are given to jihadi families and Arab refugees as part of a planned ethnic cleansing. Those families that remain are suffering under a rule not very different from that instigated by Daesh. And Turkish election rhetoric boasts of plans for extending the invasion to Kobanê and beyond. Yet, at the same time that we were in Syria, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being given a state visit to the UK and welcomed by ministers desperate to make trade deals and boost British arms sales.

Without wide popular resistance, Western governments will continue to bow to Turkey’s demands.

The Kurdish-led struggle for a better world demands to be known and understood, before it is too late.

Sarah Glynn is a member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, who are contributing directly to the rebuilding of Kobanê by raising funds for a “Scottish” primary school (see sskonline.org.uk). The delegation she went on was organised by Peace in Kurdistan and Kongriya Star (the Kurdish women’s movement).


SSK sends solidarity to the people of Gaza

At our last meeting we agreed the following statement:

SSK sends support to the peaceful Palestinian resistance in Gaza. Support for human rights cannot be limited by ethnic or religious boundaries. It must include the right to equal treatment regardless of ethnic or religious affinity, and the right of refugees to return to their homes. The brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators by the Israeli forces should be condemned by all who claim to believe in democracy.

The photo of our co-convenors, Roza and Stephen, was taken at the STUC conference.

SSK at Dundee May Day

We were very pleased to be asked to address the rally for Dundee’s May Day celebrations – and made a new banner for the occasion:

An emergency motion at STUC

Scotland’s trade unions have condemned Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. At the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) annual conference held in Aviemore 16-18 April they agreed an Emergency Motion which called on the UK government to urge Turkey to withdraw from Syria and to stop selling arms to Turkey.

In moving the motion Stephen Smellie of public sector union UNISON said,

“There has been worse than silence from the UK government. They have made statements about Turkey’s right to deal with terrorism. It is Turkey who are the terrorists!”

The full Emergency Motion is below and the report on the UNISON Scotland website is here.

You can find a summary of previous STUC and TUC resolutions and motions on the Kurds here: Trade union policy on the Kurds.

Emergency Motion

Turkey’s invasion of Afrin

That this Congress condemns the invasion of Afrin, in Syria, by Turkey and assorted militias that include former Al-Qaida and ISIS fighters. Another invading army does nothing to help the people of Syria and end the conflict.

Congress is further concerned at threats by Turkish President Erdogan to extend Turkey’s military campaign eastwards into the rest of the Kurdish region of Syria, Rojava.

Congress calls on the UK government to

  • raise with Turkey the need to withdraw from Syria and;
  • cease arms sales to Turkey whilst they continue to attack Kurdish communities in Syria.

Submitted by UNISON


Turkey was already shelling across the border when, on 19th January, President Erdoğan announced the launch of the spitefully named ‘Operation Olive Branch’. This was to be a full invasion of the isolated canton of Afrin, part of the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Erdoğan claimed that Turkey would overrun Afrin in days. With no air power, Afrin could not hold off the second biggest army in NATO without support, and none was forthcoming; but it was not until 18th March that Turkey and its allied militias took full control of Afrin city. The intervening two months was a time of intense activity by Kurds and their supporters everywhere, and also of heartache and frustration as politicians and media ignored what was happening until almost the final minute.

In frustration at the lack of reporting beyond the reproduction of snatches of Turkish propaganda, Sarah Glynn wrote this article about the war on Afrin for the 6th February edition of the National.

Below are some of the actions that we took to try and alert people to what was happening. We also called on people to tell their MPs to tell the UK Government to condemn Turkish aggression, to stop any further arms sales to Turkey, and to insist on the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria being part of any discussions on the future of Syria.

On 22nd January, Sarah wrote this article on the Importance of Afrin for Bella Caledonia.

On 23rd January SSK organised a large protest outside the Turkish and Russian consulates in Edinburgh. (Turkey was able to attack because Russia withdrew their forces that had been protecting the area.) The demo was the subject of a report in Common Space.

The same day, SSK also organised a protest in Dundee City Centre.

There was a short report and photo in the next day’s Evening Telegraph.

On Saturday 27th SSK organised protests at Glasgow’s Buchanan Street steps

and Dundee City Centre. When we had organised the Dundee protest four days earlier there were no Kurds taking part, but now the local community had found us. This time they turned up in force and brought their children. There were reports on this second Dundee demo in both the Courier and the Telegraph

On 3rd February, a few of us from Dundee joined up with the student socialist society for a protest in St Andrews,

and on the 4th there was another protest in Edinburgh.

We were back in Dundee City Centre on 17th February,

24th February, 9th March

and 13th March

Meanwhile, the Kurdish community in Edinburgh kept a vigil for some days outside the Scottish Parliament,

and on 14th March they organised a rally. John Finnie, a Green MSP, came out and spoke to the protestors, but relatively few people walk past Holyrood, so we decided to march up the Royal Mile. Some people were a little worried as the last Edinburgh protest had been attacked by an angry Turkish man, but the policeman outside the parliament called on a couple of his colleagues to facilitate and protect the march. We must now feature in dozens of holiday photographs.

On 17th March our stint in Dundee City Centre was cut short by swirling snow, but it was dry again in time for us to hand out leaflets to the fans going into Dundee United game.


When we weren’t out on the street or printing hundreds of leaflets we chased up our MPs to put pressure on the UK Government. Already on 15th January, with the Turkish Government threatening to attack Afrin, we wrote to all Scottish MPs and MSPs calling on the UK/Scottish government to ‘condemn this act of aggression’. This was reported on in Common Space. Chris Stephens, MP for Glasgow South,  has been a long-time supporter, but we also visited Stewart Hosie and Chris Law in Dundee, and users of Edinburgh’s Kurdish Community Centre spent an afternoon emailing their MPs and MSPs. Chris Stephens lodged an Early Day Motion (See report in Common Space ), and both he and Chris Law spoke at the debate that eventually took place in Westminster on 12th March. Chris Law added a human dimension by describing the situation of one of his constituents, who we had introduced to him.

Kawa’s family’s plight was also covered in the Daily Record.

On 22 March our co-convenor, Roza Salih, attended a meeting for Afrin at the Parliament in Westminster, along with Scottish MPs Chris Stephens and Tommy Shepherd.

One of the first things the invading soldiers did to stamp their mark on the city of Afrin was tear down the statue of Kawa the Blacksmith. The original Kawa (after whom our refugee friend is named)  is a mythical hero – an ordinary man who led the people against the tyrannical ruler who had captured their land, allowing the sun to shine again – and has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance. He is also associated with the return of spring, celebrated as Newroz on the spring solstice. That the statue was pulled down just a couple of days before Newroz was even more poignant. Which made us think that one way that we could demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Afrin, was to erect our own ‘statue’ of Kawa in Dundee. This we did on Saturday 24th March, with Mike Arnott, secretary of Dundee Trades Council, doing the formal unveiling. (You can read more about the symbolism of the statue in this article that Sarah wrote for Common Space.)

It succeeded in generating a lot of interest from passers-by, and was reported on in the Evening Telegraph and in Common Space.  It was even shared on the YPJ’s own Facebook page.

(PS One of our demands has been that the UK stop selling arms to Turkey – the leaflet we handed out outside the football was even headed ‘UK Weapons are aiding ISIS’. On 28th March, we were very happy to see Edinburgh Antifascist Action making the point with a banner drop on a bridge facing the Edinburgh Leonardo factory, which manufactures combat helicopters for the Turkish state. The banners read “Hands Off Afrin” and “Leonardo Kills!”)



This year has been dominated by the Turkish invasion of Afrin. News coverage was cursory, and wider political interest only emerged briefly when Turkish dominance was already almost complete, but for the Kurds, and for everyone who cares about a better future for Syria, and indeed for the rest of the world, this has been an appalling disaster. Our actions in support of Afrin deserve a blog of their own, so this post will concentrate in our other activities to date.

On 5th February Ercan Ayboga visited Scotland and gave a talk on the “Revolution of Rojava” at the University of Strathclyde Student’s Association. Ercan is co-author of a book with the same title, and is an environmental engineer and ecological activist who has been living in North Kurdistan. During his visit he met other academics and students in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and also had discussions with Edinburgh World Heritage about their contract to restore Kurdish cities in Turkey that the state has helped to destroy. Ercan was able to raise awareness about Turkey’s history of destroying Kurdish heritage and Turkish human rights abuses. Kurds are concerned about Kurdish artefacts and heritage being erased by Turkey as part of the efforts to ethnically cleanse Kurdish areas. Ercan also spoke in Edinburgh on 6th February but a new venue had to be found when the room booking wasn’t accepted by Edinburgh University, a matter that we will pursue. Ercan’s talk on Rojava was recorded by Stuart Pratt and can be seen here.

Towards the end of February we were shocked to hear of the arrest of the revered Kurdish politician, Saleh Muslim, who had visited us in Scotland at the end of 2016. This time he had been visiting the Czech capital of Prague as part of a European speaking tour, when he was arrested on a warrant from Turkey. News of his arrest was greeted by protests from Kurdish supporters everywhere, and we sent off letters to all Scottish MPs. Although Saleh was led to the court in handcuffs and with armed guards, the lawyers quickly saw sense. You can read more in Common Space here.

On 6 March our discussion with Josh Walker packed out Dundee’s Butterfly Café. Josh, who is originally from Wales, fought with the YPG and was arrested on his return under the Terrorism Act. You can read more about him here, and about the farcical court case they put him through here. The Dundee police didn’t know what to make of this and kept driving back and forwards outside the window. When the meeting finished they came in to check with the café owner that all was well and there had been no trouble. Next day Josh went on to speak at St Andrews Socialist Society.

On 8th March, Dundee Kurds held a brief demonstration for International Women’s Day, and Sarah wrote an article on the Kurdish women’s struggle for Bella Caledonia.

In mid March, Elif Sarican of the Kurdish Students Union came up from London to discuss the importance of Rojava and campaigning tactics with groups in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh.

For Newroz, Kurds and friends packed out the Miners Welfare hall in Penicuik on 25th March. Although there was little to celebrate, this made the act of coming together to remember Kurdish culture, tradition and history even more important. Along with the music, dance and drama (with performers including SSK’s Murat Gullen), we had speeches from SSK’s Alex Currie, Honar Kobani, Roza Salih and Stephen Smellie.

The hall was well decked out with flags, including many calling for Freedom for Öcalan, with his image. We suspect that it was these in the background of our videos that got out Facebook page shut down without warning or explanation or right of appeal. All we could do was make our protest public through a letter in the paper – see below.

Letter in the National

On 27th March the cross-party Kurdish Group met in the Scottish Parliament to celebrate International Women’s day and to discuss Kurdish issues, including the Turkish invasion of Afrin. Women and their guests gathered at the invitation of Ruth Maguire, SNP MSP, to hear from SSK speakers including Roza Salih. There was also a Skype session with Dilber Yosef from Kobane. In answer to a question from John Finnie, Green Party MSP, Dilber asked for help from the international community to draw attention to the desperate situation in Afrin. The plight of families there was underlined when an audience member told of the death of five of his family in Afrin and his remaining family’s plight trapped under occupation, without food and water. The politicians present agreed to explore means of support for Afrin and expressed support for Kurds in Scotland. Read more about the meeting here. Recent negative contacts with the police and the blocking of an SSK room booking at Edinburgh University were also discussed, and again the politicians were supportive. A meeting with the Scottish Justice Secretary has been promised.

4th April was Abdullah Öcalan’s 69th birthday. He must have spent it in solitary confinement in prison in Turkey, where he has been for the last 19 years. SSK sent him a birthday card and message of support by way of the UK’s ambassador to Turkey. Öcalan is unlikely to receive his own copy, or gain freedom soon, but we marked the occasion with a photograph.

On 16th April, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visited our stall after addressing the STUC Congress in Aviemore. An emergency motion has been submitted by Unison condemning Turkey’s invasion of Afrin.

and on 17th we were visited by Richard Leonard, leader of Scottish Labour



Our first public meeting of the year – at the end of January – looked at the crisis in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Dr Mariwan Kanie lead a discussion at Unite in Glasgow.

On the 1st April we held a Day School at Strathclyde Uni with talks on the different areas of Kurdistan, and guest speakers Chris Stephens MP and Gary Oak, a Londoner who fought with the YPG. Like in all good Kurdish events, it included lots of food and dancing. You can read Sarah’s talk on Rojava here: 17-06-27 Day School talk for website

In mid-April, Sarah Glynn went to the conference on Challenging Capitalist Modernity organised by the Kurdish Network for an Alternative Quest in Hamburg. (One of the main organisers was Havin Guneser who, in October, had had to speak to the public meetings we had arranged via Skype when she wasn’t allowed into the UK.)This conference has become a biannual event, and is now very large. Hamburg has a big Kurdish community and foreign attendees were billeted out on welcoming Kurdish households (thank goodness for Google translate!). Sarah wrote a critique of the conference for Bella Caledonia.

On 26th April, there was another Kurdish demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to Turkey’s aggression outside its borders.

Turkey’s attack on Afrin began at a low level in July and on the 22nd we held our first, very wet, Hands Off Afrin demonstration in Edinburgh’s Princes Street to try and alert people to what was happening. As Kurdish fighters were battling ISIS the Turkish state was bombing YPG positions. To highlight this we distributed leaflets and asked members of the public to sign petitions. We also wrote to MPs and MSPs asking them to raise the issue with the UK and Turkish Governments. We received support from Politicians, Trade Unions, Trades Councils and individual friends of the Kurds. (Thanks to all of you who sent messages!) Chris Stephens, MP, wrote to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to pursue the issue but the response from the Foreign Office was discouraging.


At the end of July SSK Co-Convenor Stephen Smellie and committee member Alex Currie attended the Kurdish Cultural Festival, in Quorn, Leicestershire organised by the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), the Freedom for Öcalan campaign and other groups fighting for oppressed Kurds. Stephen ran a workshop and spoke at the meeting and Alex also addressed the meeting. Another speaker was Dilek Öcalan (pictured with Stephen and Steve Sweeney, journalist from the Morning Star). Dilek is the niece of the esteemed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has been held in solitary captivity in a Turkish prison on the island of Imrali since 1999. (Just referring to Öcalan as “esteemed” will cost you a six month prison sentence in Turkey.) It is Öcalan’s ideas and writing that inspired the democratic, self-governing, secular and gender-equal model of governance operating in Rojava, with its cooperative-based economy.

In late August, three Kurdish families in Edinburgh had a nasty shock when Scottish police raided their homes because they’d been reported as having taken part in “terrorist activities”. (In reality, the Newroz party, back in March!) The Kurdish Community Centre in Wester Hailes was also forcibly entered. No one was arrested and nothing illegal was found, but innocent families were intimidated and their hopes that they would be safe from persecution in Scotland were shattered, along with the community centre doors. MPs and MSPs took up the case with Police Scotland. The malign influence of the Turkish Consulate in Edinburgh is clear and perhaps recent successes in getting positive attention for Kurdish issues at a national level in Trade Unions and in Scottish politics have helped to prompt this backlash in attempted smears and malicious allegations. You can read the statement from the Kurdish Community Centre about the impact of the raids here. http://www.sacc.org.uk/news/2017/edinburgh-kurdish-families-raided-anti-terror-police

On 20th September we held a fundraising dinner in aid of the Scottish School in Kobani  at Honar Kobanis’ Rojava Restaurant in Edinburgh

On 25th September the Kurdistan Regional Government held a referendum on declaring full independence from Iraq. On 16th we discussed the issues at a public meeting in the Unite building in Glasgow, with Jonathan Shafi of the Scottish Radical Independence Campaign and the SSK’s Goran Abdullah. Passions were high, as although everyone wanted independence there was no agreement on the best tactics and strategy for achieving this.

On 26th September several of us attended our first meeting of the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Kurdistan. This group was set up by Ross Greer from the Greens, with the SNP’s Ruth McGuire as co-convenor. At this first meeting we had a discussion via Skype with HDP MP Hisayar Ozsoy in Ankara.

In October SSK helped with three separate events as part of the Edinburgh World Justice Festival. One of these, at Honar Kobani’s Rojava Restaurant, combined Scottish and Kurdish writing and included the writer, James Kelman and poet Allan Cameron (see below). We also took part in joint event with Unison and the NUJ where we read out replies from the political prisoners to our postcards, and we held a discussion on the Revolution in Rojava to accompany an exhibition of photographs. Roza spoke to Common Space about the Rojava talk.

On 1 November we celebrated Kobane Day at the Unite Building with guests including Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, and James Kelman. you can read the report in Common Space here.

In December SSK Dundee combined with Common Weal to hold a discussion on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, which have been so influential in the writings of Abdullah Öcalan. This meeting at the butterfly Café was led by Mike Small of Bella Caledonia, who worked with Bookchin in the 1990s. You can watch a video of Mike’s talk here, and listen to the full audio complete with discussion here. You can read Common Space‘s interview with Mike about the talk here.