The only beacon of hope in Syria is on the brink of destruction.
While civil war raged across the rest of the country between the Assad regime and largely Arab rebel groups, the Kurdish population in North Eastern Syria were abandoned, left to face the brunt of ISIS alone. Not only did they repel that vicious death cult, at the urging of the US, UK and others they led the counter-offensive, eventually destroying the so-called ‘Caliphate’.
Now, the very same superpower which called on them to lead that campaign has betrayed them, clearing the way for their ethnic cleansing at the hands of Turkey.
The Kurds didn’t just liberate millions from ISIS. Syrian Kurdistan, known as Rojava, and then the wider North East have seen the introduction of genuine grassroots democracy, systems of secular governance which brought together all ethnic and religious groups and a deep commitment to feminism at every level of society.
During their campaign against ISIS, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units, the YPG and YPJ, worked with Arab, Assyrian, Yazidi and other groups to establish the Syrian Democratic Forces. It was the SDF who, with substantial American, British and French support, defeated ISIS. 11,000 SDF fighters died in that campaign.
Despite doing this largely at America’s urging and often acting against their own interests, the Kurds and SDF have been brutally betrayed by Trump. Over the course of weeks, US forced compelled the SDF to destroy their defensive fortifications along the Syrian-Turkish border. They did this on the explicit commitment that the US would protect them from Turkish invasion. Instead, within days of the defences being destroyed Trump suddenly withdrew US forces and called Turkey’s President Erdogan, essentially greenlighting an invasion.
The Turkish state’s hatred of the Kurdish people is deep and goes back a long way. When the Ottoman Empire fell after WW1, the Kurds were promised a homeland of their own. It didn’t happen. Instead, Kurdistan was split between the new nations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Some 20 million Kurds live in Turkey itself, where they face sustained and brutal oppression of their culture, language and political rights. Tens of thousands of Kurds have been killed or imprisoned by Turkish forces and many thousands more have died during the decades long armed struggle between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK.
Turkey simply cannot tolerate a society on its doorstep where Kurds can live freely, capable of defending themselves. And so, Erdogan launched a brutal invasion of North East Syria, involving not only the Turkish military but proxy forces under their control, largely made up of jihadist gangs, Al-Qaeda affiliates and former ISIS fighters.
Despite heroic SDF resistance, the Turkish invasion has been brutal. Their forces have proudly recorded and posted online the executions of civilians and mutilation of SDF fighters. There is clear evidence of white phosphorous use against civilians and even the US envoy for Syria, himself integral to the betrayal, has acknowledged that these were unmistakably war crimes.
A NATO nation is committing ethnic cleansing against our friends and allies. So what do we do?
The Westminster Government have reluctantly been forced to suspend new arms export licences to Turkey. This only applies to future arms sales and not to licences already granted though. The UK has supplied £1.1 billion of arms to Turkey since 2014. A real arms embargo should be the bare minimum.
This isn’t an entirely reserved issue though. Many of the arms dealers linked to Turkey are based here in Scotland, where they have received public funding and other support from the Scottish Government.
Since 2007, companies with links to the Turkish military have received over £14.5 million in public money. This includes Leonardo, whose links to Turkey were widely reported in 2018.
Leonardo produces components for the F16 fighter jets which have been used by Turkey in the offensive. They received the bulk of the funding from Scottish Enterprise, at £13.8 million.
Other recipients include BAE Systems, who also produce equipment and systems for the Turkish air force and have received £616,748 from Scottish Enterprise. Thales, who manufacture combat systems for the Turkish navy and have arms manufacturing facilities in Turkey, have received £204,992. All of these companies also receive account management services, meaning they get the free support of a civil servant, who is tasked with helping them grow their business and expand sales.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly claimed they do not fund the manufacture of munitions. Yet they have also refused to disclose exactly what it is they do fund, despite my repeated attempts to find out. In the case of one arms dealer, Chemring, they have funded the expansion of manufacturing capacity, even when Chemring has made it clear they will be expanding their munitions manufacturing.
Why, when our Kurdish allies face a campaign of ethnic cleansing at Turkey’s hands, is the Scottish Government happily handing public cash to the regime’s arms dealers? And when will they stop?