By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad
This article originally appeared in The National Interest on March 30, 2021.
Last week, the streets of Turkey erupted in protest, with women calling for their rights to be respected, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on ending violence against women. President Joe Biden called Turkey’s move “a disheartening step backward for the international movement to end violence against women globally.”
Biden’s words are a hopeful sign—leaders like Erdogan won’t get a free pass from the United States, as they had for the past few years. There had been a troubling global rise in persecution of opposition political parties, silencing of journalists, ethnic hatred and genocide, and violence against peaceful protesters.
If Biden will hold Turkey to account, the rest of the world may just believe that “America is back” in leading on human rights and respecting international norms, as the U.S. president said in his first major speech on foreign policy at the State Department.
Erdogan has been testing U.S. resolve for several years now in Syria, seeing what he can get away with. His first major test was the invasion of Afrin, Syria—my hometown. Turkey crossed the border and invaded our region in early 2018. They’ve been occupying ever since, exerting control through a deadly cocktail of the Turkish military and government repression, plus patrols by wily and ragtag militia members. It’s a nightmare that the United States has so far chosen not to see.
Afrin was a region known for olive groves, Kurds, and progressive politics. Then Turkey invaded, defeating our military in March 2018.
More than 600 people have been killed by the Turkish military or Turkish-backed militias in three years of occupation. Anyone who speaks out is harassed, arrested, or killed. Over 300,000 people have fled, and approximately 400,000 settlers from other parts of Syria now live in the homes they left behind. My home was not spared. Now militia members live in the home I built with my family. Settlers are mostly families of the Islamic, pro-Turkey militia members. The net result is that a city that was 97 percent Kurdish three years ago is now only a fraction of that today.
Turkey’s campaign against women is evident not only in the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention—it is evident everywhere in Afrin.
As the rest of Syria was erupting in civil war, Afrin had seen a growing women’s movement. Roughly 40 percent of government officials were women. Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, women were business owners, homeowners, intellectuals, influencers, and respected public figures.
Now there have been 213 documented cases of civilian women killed, as well as 150 documented cases of women and girls abducted, raped, and/or murdered. A UN commission from September 2020 found that Turkish officials were present at Syrian detention sites where people were jailed and raped. Those are only the cases we know about, as most cases go unreported. In a city where women’s rights were flourishing, now the women who remain are afraid even to go outside.
The occupiers have also cut down all of our olive and fruit trees in order to wage economic warfare, selling ancient trees in the markets for firewood.
As a Kurdish woman, I feel in my bones the oppression of our people and our women. Like the women of Turkey in the streets this past weekend, I know that if we do not stand up, we may perish. Someone must protect the people from the violence of dictators. It’s time to call on Turkey to stop. The United States now has an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past years.
The Biden administration seeks to promote human rights, to “build back better” the U.S. foreign policy of the past few years—which enabled Turkey’s military to invade deeper into our region in October 2019.
Erdogan supports violence against women in Turkey, women in Syria, Kurds in Afrin, and elsewhere. Will the United States shore up its principles, and match words with action?
President Biden can show the world that we can again trust U.S. leadership—by stopping Turkey, calling on Turkey to withdraw from Syria, and holding Turkey to account for its abuses. If the United States does not, no one will.
Sinam Mohamad is the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) mission in the United States. She is a top diplomat of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in Syria and also serves on the SDC Presidential Council. She is a founding president of the People’s Council of Rojava, also known as Western Kurdistan, and has also served as the AANES’ diplomatic representative in Europe. Ms. Mohamad has been a leading advocate for women’s rights in Syria for more than two decades. Born in Damascus, Ms. Mohamad is a graduate of the University of Aleppo.