“She was larger than life,” Evîn Basho, chair of the Women’s Board in North East Syria (NES), tells us, her eyes glistening with tears, as she looks lovingly at the pictures of Yusra Darwish on her phone. Darwish was killed in a Turkish drone strike on June 20, 2023, near the city of Qamishli. She was Co-Chair of the Qamishli Canton Council — yet another Kurdish woman in a leadership position within the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) fatally targeted by the Turkish state. The three missiles fired from the drone also killed Darwish’s deputy Liman Shawish and their driver, while wounding Darwish’s co-chair, Gaby Chamoun.
Darwish was Basho’s long-time friend and a fellow member of the movement for women’s liberation that has burgeoned since the AANES was founded in 2012. For years, she taught the Autonomous Administration’s political philosophy of democracy, feminism, and pluralism in schools, making it her life-long mission to build a new society in the war-torn region where ISIS rose and fell just a few years ago.
As a Kurd in the ethno-nationalist Syrian Arab Republic and a woman in a gender-conservative society, it is not surprising that Darwish threw herself into the new political project. While the Assad regime and armed opposition forces fueled existing sectarian and misogynist sentiments in the region, the multiethnic coalition in Northeast Syria set out to build a political system imbued with the ethos of peaceful co-existence and women’s empowerment.
“Having spent years teaching the Administration’s philosophy, Yusra was one of the people who understood it most deeply and had an unparalleled commitment to see it blossom in practice,” Basho told us. “Turkey has targeted our best women leaders.”
KILLING THE “TERRORISTS”?
Since 2019, when Turkey invaded and occupied Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad, it has increasingly used drones to carry out assassinations in areas of northern Syria remaining under AANES control. Turkey claims it targets individuals affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organization. It claims the Syrian Kurds are linked to the PKK and as such, present a security risk to Turkey.
Yet Darwish is only one of many local government officials, activists, and apolitical civilians who have been murdered in Turkish strikes since the last invasion. The other victims, as documented in a recent report by the women’s organization Kongra Star, include Zehra Berkel, Kobanê co-mayor and co-chair of Kobanê’s Justice Commission; Zeyneb Mihemed, co-chair of the Justice and Reform Office of the AANES; Delila Agit, a journalist; Emine Weysi, a mother of 5; and a group of girls playing volleyball in a schoolyard. The list goes on.
Turkey’s hypocrisy of using anti-terror discourse to legitimize attacks on civilian populations came to the fore with its latest escalation against northeast Syria. On October 5, it launched a blitz of air strikes intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. After five days of bombardment, half of the region’s power and oil facilities were rendered inoperable, leaving nearly 2 million people without access to electricity and water.
Turkey justified its most significant military escalation since the 2019 invasion as a retaliatory measure following a PKK attack in Ankara. It claimed, without evidence, that the perpetrators of this attack traveled to Turkey through Syria. Falsely accusing the AANES’ People’s Protection Units (YPG) of being complicit in the attack, Turkey unleashed an all-out war on North East Syria’s power and water stations, oil fields, industrial factories, schools, and hospitals, inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and killing nine and injuring fifteen civilians in the process.
Although these attacks violate international law, Turkey got away with them without so much as international condemnation. It declared it was laying waste to infrastructure belonging to the PKK and YPG – a preposterous claim uncritically repeated by most media outlets. The U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force—the main partner of the AANES in the war against ISIS—swiftly took down a tweet condemning Turkey’s inflicting civilian harm, while Pentagon officials reiterated support for its NATO ally’s “fight against the PKK.” Similarly to Israel’s renewed war on Gaza and Azerbaijan’s recent occupation of Artsakh, Turkey’s anti-terror discourse has turned millions of civilians into legitimate military targets in the eyes of the international community.
The lack of condemnation is nothing new: NATO member Turkey has been largely given carte blanche to carry out its daily attacks on the region since the 2019 invasion. According to the Rojava Information Center, 368 people were killed or injured by Turkish drone attacks since the beginning of 2022 before the latest escalation — not counting hundreds killed and injured in Turkey’s and its Syrian National Army (SNA) proxies’ daily frontline bombardments. 144 victims of drone strikes since 2022 were civilians, including 31 children. The rest are members of the local security units (asayish) or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — the same forces that collaborated with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to defeat the ISIS caliphate and who continue to receive U.S. support in the ongoing efforts to eradicate the group’s remnants in NES. Although the U.S. and the EU have the PKK on their terror lists, they regard the SDF—and its component, the YPG—as a separate organization. That does not prevent them, however, from turning a blind eye to Turkey’s unjustified aggression.
Policy groups have long called on the U.S. and European countries to remove the PKK from their terror lists. Turkey has all too often used its anti-terror discourse to inflict violence on Kurds—including through attacks on Kurdish feminist leaders and the Kurdish women’s movement—both within and outside its borders. The terrorist designation makes it very convenient for Western powers to overlook their NATO ally’s murderous, illegal actions.
As SDF commander Rohîlat Afrîn told us when we met her at a military base near Heseke, “this is not just Turkey’s war—it’s a war that’s waged on us by the international powers controlling the skies.” The U.S., despite being one of the guarantors of the 2019 cease-fire that put a stop to Turkey’s invasion, has silently watched Turkey’s attacks expand in their scope in the U.S.-controlled airspace.
SLOWLY STRANGLING THE AUTONOMOUS PROJECT
As both Basho and Afrîn told us, Turkey’s real goals behind its attacks have nothing to do with its alleged security concerns. The Turkish state is targeting the self-governing region to extinguish an example of Kurdish autonomy that could inspire Kurds within Turkey’s borders. It has invaded the AANES twice, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and wiping out the structures of new progressive governance in the areas it now occupies. Since the last invasion in 2019, Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to invade once again—but lacking approval from either Russia or the United States, the guarantors of the two ceasefire agreements that brought the 2019 invasion to an ennd, he has resorted to waging a lower-intensity war, with artillery bombardments of frontline areas, drone assassinations within the AANES, and, now, periodic air operations against civilian infrastructure targets.
Basho believes this choice of warfare is serving Turkey well: the NATO member is undermining the AANES without dealing with the international outrage that a full-scale invasion would incur. The impact is, however, just as debilitating.
Turkey is waging a long-term war of attrition, aiming to diminish the AANES’ legitimacy and capacity to serve its population. Even before the latest bombing campaign, Turkey’s regular artillery and drone bombardments of the frontline areas had prevented the Administration from providing public services badly needed in the war-torn region. Turkey’s restriction of water flows into Syria and shutting down of a water station had already left millions with little water and electricity. The economic embargo imposed by Turkey had already made it difficult to import even basic necessities. Now, with much of the vital infrastructure lying in shambles, the AANES is faced with a compounded humanitarian crisis it is in no position to address.
Turkey’s warfare works best on a psychological level. Ever-increasing material hardships and fear have made migration all too common and dampened enthusiasm for the new political project among the locals. “Turkey found a convenient way to empty this region of its people,” Basho told us. It is carrying out demographic engineering — already well underway in the parts of northern Syria it occupies — without resorting to a full-scale invasion.
TARGETING THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
Making the region unlivable for civilians is only one part of Turkey’s slow-death strategy. Turkey also wants to demoralize the people who are building the new social and political system, singling out women in particular. As a result of Turkey’s attacks, women are reportedly less willing to join the Administration’s civilian and military structures for fear of being targeted, and their families are less likely to encourage them to do so. Turkey’s war threatens to reverse the advances in gender equality made by the women’s movement in northeast Syria over the last decade—often by the very women who are now on Turkey’s hit list.
SDF deputy commander Salwa Yusuf (also known as Jiyan Tolhildan), killed in a Turkish drone strike in 2022, was one of these pioneers: someone who is given credit for women’s presence across all the structures of the AANES. “She joined organizing early on, determined to get women out of their homes, ” Afrîn told us. When the Syrian uprising began, Yusuf and her comrades would go from house to house, spending hours and, at times, days convincing Kurdish families to let their daughters join the public sphere — a daunting task in a society where women’s life choices rarely extended beyond marriage.
These women later became the core of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the women-only force co-founded by Yusuf to defend northeast Syria against extremist forces. “We could not have defeated ISIS if we hadn’t organized the women first,” emphasized Afrîn. Yusuf was instrumental in that struggle.
A PLURALISTIC ALTERNATIVE UNDER THREAT
While Turkey claims it targets the Kurdish “terrorists” in NES, it is not just the Kurds who are attacked for daring to build a more inclusive society. Gaby Chamoun, a Syriac Christian and the Co-Chair of the Qamishli Canton Council along with Darwish, survived the drone attack— the missiles did not hit his side of the vehicle. Their driver Furat Daniel, also a Syriac Christian, was not so lucky.
As Georgette Barsomo, the head of the Syriac Women’s Union of Qamishli, told us, Syriacs and other Christians in northeast Syria are reliving the massacres inflicted upon them by the Ottoman Empire a century ago — but now at the hands of its successor, the Turkish state. Turkey and its SNA proxies have systematically invaded, occupied, and targeted Christian villages, exacerbating the ongoing mass migration of the religious minorities from the region — the gravest problem the Syriacs have faced since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Syriac women’s organizing has been affected as well, Barsomo told us. Founded in 2013, the Syriac Women’s Union shows just how popular the administration’s feminist agenda has become among the region’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. First of its kind in Syria, the Union works to educate Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian women about their rights and provides mechanisms to secure them. Alongside the Bethnahrain Women’s Protection Forces (HSNB) and the Syriac Women’s House — a restorative justice mechanism for family and marriage matters — Barsomo and her comrades struggle “against outdated traditions that limit women’s freedom.” Continuous Turkish attacks, however, make organizing harder and more dangerous.
Barsomo is convinced Turkey has intentionally targeted the region’s Christian communities. Yet, its agenda is more far-reaching than that: “It sees the democratic administration that has incorporated all ethno-religious groups as a threat to its nationalist, authoritarian ideology.” As it has shown once again, Turkey is determined to do all it can to thwart this viable alternative to the region’s sectarian, undemocratic, and patriarchal status quo.
(Photo: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage)