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Between Rubble and State

Internationalist Reflections From the Recent Earthquakes in Kurdistan and Syria


By The Renegade

Reporting from autonomous northeastern Syria

Rubble in Hatay region with a clock displaying the exact time of the February 6 earthquake, 4:17am. (Photo: Suleyman Elcin)

At 4:17am on the morning of February 6, we were shaken awake in our noqte (base) at YPG International as thousands of lives began to dissipate in the snap of a finger just a few hundred kilometers to the west. A sense of frustration ensued as most relief efforts were multiple enemy checkpoints and borders away. Too distant, both geographically and politically. Our friends in the civil structures were already mobilizing in the self-governing regions of the Autonomous Administration. So we asked, what can we do as internationalists with the tools at our disposal? As mainstream attention rapidly shifts away from the quakes at the convenience of a Turkish state which holds elections soon, it becomes increasingly important to keep a critical light on the situation while elevating marginalized experiences, even as we remain dedicated to defensive preparation with ever-imminent threats of another Turkish invasion. After a Newroz racked with the collective pain of multiple highly destructive earthquakes and state brutality, the front of knowledge remains compromised in an ocean of information warfare.


In the classic state tactic of disaster racism, the Turkish state repeatedly uses the earthquake as a weapon against marginalized peoples. In every deadly earthquake that has shaken Turkish-occupied northern Kurdistan in recent history, the Turkish state has shown its reluctance to approach any path of human decency. One must not forget the 1975 Lice earthquake and 2003 Bingöl earthquakes where aid was purposely delayed, the 2011 Van earthquake where thousands of Turkish soldiers were sent to conduct raids instead of support relief operations, and as recently as the 2020 Elezîz (Elazığ) earthquake where aid was selectively blocked on an ethnic basis. Following the 2020 earthquake, the most Googled search in Turkey was “Elazığ kürt mü (Is Elazığ Kurdish?),” showing the racialized face of selective solidarity. From state securitization to failure of supplying basic necessities, subjects of the earthquakes were dehumanized in the face of destruction, often forcing them to organize relief efforts themselves. The common factor of all these earthquakes: they occurred in marginalized non-Turkish regions, predominantly inhabited by Kurds.


In February 2023, the state continued to try to prevent affected communities from self-organizing, no doubt leading to a multitude of deaths. Again, by far the most affected communities were Kurdish. According to one local reporter: “Rescue teams are insufficient. Residents try to rescue their relatives on their own, but the Turkish police doesn’t allow it…We don’t see any emergency workers, and we are afraid that people under the rubble have frozen to death. Turkish police are also gathering around the rubble and preventing rescuers from working.” Our friends at RiseUp4Rojava released a detailed report on the Turkish state’s racism-infused corruption in its response to the earthquake.


Expecting neglect from the state, the people of northern Kurdistan came together in a large-scale act of mutual aid regardless. In one case, villagers in Şemzînan district trekked countless kilometers through snow and mountains to deliver bread to affected communities. Knowing the oppression imposed by the Turkish state all too well, communities of northern Kurdistan bear the responsibility to catalyze rejuvenation in society following disaster. Even in the midst of sudden collapse, the collective energy of the stateless community prevails time and time again.


Disaster Racism Spills Over

Children walk past Turkish tanks during the Turkish invasion of Afrin, January 2018. (Photo: The Guardian)

By no means is this limited to Turkish-occupied northern Kurdistan, where the most dire impact of the earthquake was felt. The state has externalized its disaster racism across the southern border, where it stayed persistent in its ongoing attacks on communities and autonomous structures of northeast Syria (Rojava, western Kurdistan) impacted by the earthquake in many areas. Shortly after the earthquake, the Turkish state reportedly shelled Tel Rifaat, a heavily affected city southeast of Afrin. In the days following the earthquake, calls for Turkish aircraft continued to resound on the radio, Turkish drones continued to fill the skies, and shells continued to fall like nothing happened. Less than two weeks after the earthquake, the Turkish state killed one and wounded seven civilians in attacks on earthquake-affected areas. Across the so-called Iraqi border to the east, attacks continued against Kurdish villages and self-defense areas. Like a starving hound that is perpetually suspended in its hunger, the bloodlust of the second largest NATO power supersedes any and all social consideration in the disaster. Even when the lives of tens of thousands of people suddenly end, an entire region flushed in the paralyzing throes of leveled infrastructure and humanity, the state simply keeps on brutalizing.


Blocking aid on an ethnic basis, the Turkish occupation turned away an aid convoy intended to relieve communities in Afrin and Idlib simply because it came from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which it deems as a Kurdish separatist threat to Turkish power. 30 fuel tankers and two trucks full of basic necessities were left idle in Manbij, prevented from reaching the most directly affected communities. Even most aid from the only Kurdish charity organization deemed legal by the Turkish state, the Barzani Charity Foundation, was seized by Turkish authorities to prevent its use in Kurdish areas south of the border.


Arguably the most impacted settlement in all of Syria was the historically Kurdish town of Jinderes in Afrin region, where at least 1,376 people fell in the earthquake, roughly 3% of the town’s population. Turkish occupation forces and their proxies denied aid to the town. Four Kurds were subsequently murdered by occupation forces for celebrating the Kurdish holiday of Newroz there on March 21, sparking the largest protests in the town since its occupation. The disaster racism of occupying forces was so pronounced in Afrin region after the earthquake that some Arabs risked detention making a call to support the region’s original Kurdish inhabitants, who have been made minorities in their homeland after the Turkish state’s January 2018 invasion and subsequent ethnic cleansing operations. While enduring the hegemonic games of Turkish state occupation, the people of Afrin region now also endure a new wave of violence from al-Qaeda splinter group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is taking advantage of the disaster to expand both its occupation in Kurdish regions and its relations with the Turkish state simultaneously.


State, Hegemony, Elitism, Disaster

Turkish state propaganda poster showing the progression of the Republic of Turkey below a radiant Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, c. 1933-35. (Photo: University of Michigan Library)

Why do these things happen? Where is the substance of it all, and where does one find quantum pieces of internationalist understanding here? We start by categorically rejecting, and resisting, any procedural approach that legitimizes structures adding to the suffering. These problems are not a coincidence, nor are they a simple pattern. They are the result of the nation-state itself.


First, the concept of hegemony, or sources of dominance and power in a state, is paramount to understanding why these affected populations have been severely marginalized and “treated like dogs” as one affected resident of Jinderes described, even in the most destructive natural disasters. Virtually all nation-states have risen with a privileged class that bears most ruling power. In the Turkish state, Turkish ethnocentrism has been the primary social doctrine of the state dating back to the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, with the Turkish elite at its helm. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, this doctrine became further concentrated into the republic, culminating in the ethnic cleansing and genocide of non-Turkish populations. This legacy of state terrorism remains widespread in the southeast (northern Kurdistan), where the Turkish state continues its nearly 45-year-old dirty war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which emerged in 1978 as the Kurdish people’s self-defense against the Turkish state.


In northern Kurdistan, vulnerable infrastructure remains neglected to accommodate the Turkish state’s settler-colonial economy, attracting state-friendly investors to clean up and gentrify while driving out the Kurdish underclass, who can no longer afford to live in their own homeland when (and if) reconstruction occurs after a disaster. In northern Kurdistan, disasters are far more often state-imposed than natural, such as the Turkish state’s razing and depopulation of multiple Kurdish cities in 2015 and 2016. The same cities were later affected by the 2020 and 2023 earthquakes. By subjecting Kurdish communities to a regular cycle of disaster, the Turkish state intends to impose assimilation by force. Kurdish communities are blocked from life-saving infrastructure while Turkish settlers and fully-assimilated Kurds are able to live in earthquake-proof buildings that only they can afford, enjoying a front-row seat to the mass carnage of marginalized people just outside their window. This state-backed process of militarized gentrification is directly attached to a state’s hegemony, and can be found in various forms across the world.


For over two decades, this hegemony in the Turkish state has been headed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party whose power rests in the Ottoman continuum of state belligerence, imperialism, and brutality. With Turkish mainstream news channels now almost solely focused on the upcoming elections in May, fleeting reports on earthquake relief often have little separation from presidential candidates and the Turkish ruling class. Traces of mainstream coverage left are now almost completely devoid of any human element, inextricably bound to the elite.


In all recent instances of lethal earthquakes affecting parts of northern and western Kurdistan, the nation-state constellation and global oligarchy share their arbitrary thoughts and prayers with “Turkey and Syria” and the “people of Turkey and Syria,” homogenizing the people affected, most of whom Kurds, into a state category which they widely reject. It can be seen most clearly in a disaster that solidarity of the international state system defaults to the state, not the people actually affected. In this era of mass information, the most crucial concept one must decipher is that states present a false aura of credibility deemed acceptable by consensus of its own elite.


A state’s response to natural disaster often reflects its hegemony clearly, centering men of the ruling class. In the history of the state, one may trace this normalized spectacle of elitism back to the disaster responses of the Roman Empire. In 17 and 23 CE, Emperor Tiberius used major earthquakes in western Anatolia to surround himself in newfound regional ethos, celebrating his acknowledgment of the earthquakes by minting new earthquake-edition coins of himself with the inscription “CITIES OF ASIA RESTORED,” sending them to the majority-Greek affected areas while new statues of him were built amid the rubble of completely leveled cities. Instead of enjoying a dignified autonomy while reeling from this devastating earthquake, Greeks of western Anatolia were faced with a brand new imposition of Roman hegemony.


Just to the southeast today, the same process plays out a few states later, the face of Ataturk and Turkish flags found looming over the rubble of multiple Kurdish cities in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan. While Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic, peers outward to the underclass from an increasingly worthless Turkish lira, Turkish President Erdogan tours affected cities for photoshoots and speeches, making a public performance out of his futile attempts to appear less racist.


To the West, we can connect this presidential cultism with, for instance, the spectacle of Trump throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico, or incessant coverage of Bush and Clinton’s joint earthquake fund following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Pasty elitist men on a screen, climbing on the pain of millions to relish in their perceived legitimacy. State hegemony abuses disasters to cloak itself in a cult of elitism backed by the media oligarchy, when in reality this embedded elitism is causing exponentially more suffering. This is where one also finds patriarchy at the core of the state.


A Colonial Crisis State in Syria

Hawarî Jin (Women’s Rapid Response Units) guard a checkpoint near the infamous Al-Naim Roundabout of Raqqa, where Daesh (ISIS) held many public executions. February 2023, six years after the Autonomous Administration liberated the city in 2017. (Photo: The Renegade)

South of the militarized wall that splits the conquered landmass known as Turkey from that of Syria, another set of state-derived problems can be found exacerbating the travails of disaster. In Syria, hegemony can be traced to a French Empire that carved the colonial borders of a state that otherwise would not exist. Upon the withdrawal of the French administration in 1946, an inevitable concentration of power to renew its chambers under a new colonial state that self-perpetuates crisis to the benefit of its former and current occupiers alike.


In the context of colonialism, marginalization in Syria takes a multitude of forms. While the northwest in Idlib region has been marginalized in the war due to its status as a bastion for clericalist rebel groups, the northeast has a much longer history of marginalization along ethnic lines. Instead of repackaging Western narratives that favor NATO occupation, one must analyze the historical social geography of the Syrian state that allows its hegemony to asphyxiate many communities. The colonial undercurrents leading to the marginalization of northeast Syria can be found in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and 1923 Lausanne Treaty respectively. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French and British empires agreed to construct the states of Syria and Iraq under their colonial occupation. The borders of these states, solidified in blood under the Armenian Genocide-influenced Lausanne Treaty, heavily favored majority-Arab power structures south of Anatolia. The Kurdish, Yazidi, Armenian, and Assyrian communities of West Asia were split into three separate pieces under three state hegemonies, Syria and Iraq under Arab hegemony and Turkey under Turkish hegemony, immediately rendering these communities powerless and marginalized. Because of this, the majority non-Arab regions of northeast Syria have been marginalized both socially and economically, stripped of their resources by the colonial magnet of Damascus. While Arab cities in the west and south were prioritized in development under the Syrian state, cities in the northeast were neglected, designated as centers of production to feed the Arab economy with raw materials and cheap labor. A clear separation that can be found in infrastructure abandoned by the Syrian state for decades, which the Autonomous Administration now works to rebuild in the northeast of the region.


Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, predominantly living in the north, were denied Syrian citizenship as early as 1962 as the Syrian state consolidated its Arabization policies. Syrian state brutalization of Kurds culminated in the 2004 Qamishlo massacre, where 30 Kurds were killed by regime forces after a riot broke out at a football match. The Kurdish citizenship policy was not reversed until 2011, when Bashar al-Assad felt an impending state collapse if he could not compromise with the mobilizing Kurdish population. His attempts failed as self-organizing Kurdish communities began to liberate land in the north alongside other marginalized communities while the Syrian Arab Army withdrew to fight rebels elsewhere, setting the basis for what would become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in 2013, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015. Naturally, this democratic self-organization of marginalized communities leading to a separation of power has left a searing dissatisfaction in the mouths of Syrian Arab nationalists and the state ruling class. The residues of this colonial complex of ownership toward marginalized peoples can be found most glaringly in everyday behavior of the Syrian Arab Republic toward an alienated northeast, amplified in times of disaster.

Aid convoy from the Autonomous Administration awaiting permission to cross into regime territory, February 2023. (Photo: Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê)

In the wake of the February earthquake, all of these state-imposed conditions have been felt heavily. In many areas with a substantial Kurdish population, the regime has prevented nearly all basic resources from flowing in and out, including medical supplies, causing immense challenges in the autonomous communities. 100 fuel tankers from the northeast were blocked from entering the besieged Kurdish enclave of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyah neighborhoods in Aleppo following the earthquake. A medical convoy was also forced to wait two weeks for the regime’s permission to cross into the neighborhoods while the regime demanded over half the aid coming from Autonomous Administration areas be confiscated. A detailed account of the Syrian state’s racialized actions surrounding the earthquake can be found in The Nation article co-authored by Debbie Bookchin: “The Earthquake Has Left Syrian Kurds Even More Under Under Siege.”


Carefully stewarding its power after nearly collapsing for years, the regime remains desperate to sustain its colonial relationship with the northeastern regions. Actions of the Syrian state are very visibly stamped by the cult of Assad, even in areas it no longer has an administrative presence. The economy of the northeast remains tied to a hyper-inflated Syrian pound, a dyad of state Assads likewise peering outward to the underclass from a currency that has been melted by the Western financial system. The regime continues to buy raw materials from the northeast only to sell them back as secondary products, attempting to keep its grasp on the autonomous region while compounding the consequences of global sanctions on marginalized communities.


The Diplomacy Cocktail

Erdogans and Assads alongside one another in 2009, two years before the Syrian Civil War would break out. (Photo: The Globe Post)

The common assertion that “Assad won the war” is a cliché of binaries that detracts from substantive understanding of the Syrian crisis state. Heavily fractured, the Syrian shell of the French Empire is now only partially filled by an Assad dynasty which has become dependent on crisis to remain legitimate. After losing nearly a third of Syrian land that remains out of its administrative control, the Assad dynasty has lost far more than it has gained. What the dynasty now seeks is consolidation of power through racialized diplomacy, resurrecting its once-estranged ethnic fraternity in the Arab League while rediscovering its bond with the AKP’s Turkish state to facilitate mutual coercion of Kurdish communities.


The earthquake crisis has made an immaculate cocktail of political spectacle for states to exploit. This cocktail begins with ruling class legitimization then spills over into diplomacy, where the Syrian and Turkish states find disaster racism to be a common pursuit. The mutual doctrine of ethnocentric hegemony is binding the Syrian and Turkish states closer to one another as they draw nearer to expanding their relations, both using it as a potential opportunity to reconcile while barring all marginalized representation from the Autonomous Administration at the negotiating table. The regime has already reaped its social benefits of extensive economic isolation from the international state system in the war, and now looks to restore its pre-war diplomacy. A state that was once diplomatically abandoned after being written off as collapsing, the Syrian Arab Republic is now gradually attempting to rejuvenate its international recognition.


The regime’s ethnocentric hand is only reinforced by this recognition, compounding the social consequences of crushing economic sanctions that suffocate the isolated northeast under a double-layered blockade while giving the regime more domestic legitimacy among its privileged Arab communities. In this sense, both isolation and the restoration of international diplomacy concurrently strengthen the regime in this transitional period. A new paradoxical yet symbiotic relationship, balancing the domestic legitimacy already gained in international neglect with foreign legitimacy to be gained in a new round of reinstated relations with UN member states and regional institutions such as the Arab League. With a common antagonization of marginalized communities in the region, the two state powers of Syria and Turkey inch closer to normalization in their pursuit to destroy these communities, despite Cold War-derived backing by the hostile state poles of Russia and the US.


A Wind That Cannot Die

Internationalism means remembering. Without memory of yesterday to millennia past, from martyr to ancestor, from aggregate to quantum, we fail to know any moment. In the context of natural disaster, the memory is quite fresh, and must not be diminished. In northeastern Syria, internationalists stand at the ready to defend the autonomy of stateless peoples in the region. We refuse to lay idle as state fascism manifests itself in every dimension of destruction, from the imperialist power struggle of a state to the disaster racism it displays in an earthquake.


As the stateless communities of northeast Syria and northern Kurdistan have shown, after over a decade of constant self-defense in the face of a potent death locomotive coming from all directions, facing perhaps the most fervent efforts of state terror seen in this century, there is nothing that can uproot a collective spirit separating itself from state and hegemony. Regardless of the coercion that meets the region, this energy remains immortal. Among hostile drones and jets north of the Euphrates, the breaths of many martyrs fill a sky that now knows the manifestation of freedom through the revolution of autonomous peoples. This is a wind that cannot die.


Support Relief and Reconstruction Efforts

If you wish to support relief efforts, avoid donating to state agencies. Consider supporting the ethical ongoing relief and reconstruction efforts of Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Red Crescent), a medical and humanitarian structure of the Autonomous Administration here.


A list of immediate resources for affected communities outside of the Autonomous Administration can be found here.

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