Afrin’s Echoes: Diaspora Responses to Turkey’s Syrian Project

On Jan. 21, German pedestrians watched a familiar scene unfold as they went about their Sunday shopping. The previous day, Turkish forces began a cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces Ankara says are linked to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels active in Turkey. Thousands of Kurdish-Germans poured into the centres of major German cities in protests that elicited solidarity from leading German politicians across the ideological spectrum.

Even though activists handed out flags with symbols and pictures associated with the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan that have been banned in Germany since 1993, local police proved reluctant to intervene out of concern that confiscation of such material could trigger street violence.

In the weeks that followed, complaints from an incensed Turkish government pressured the German Interior Ministry into enforcing the ban on the use of PKK symbols. While parts of the Turkish diaspora in Germany were encouraged by Turkish-funded mosques to express support for Turkish offensive in Syria, more left-leaning Turks remained unwilling to pick sides between the Turkish government and the PKK, which they both distrusted.

With presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey now scheduled for 24 June 2018, it looks likely that such protests by Kurdish organisations and political splits within Turkish communities will influence the behaviour of diaspora voters in what could well prove a watershed moment for Turkish society.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey’s evolving approach towards the conflict has had a significant effect on the political life of Turkish and Kurdish diaspora communities in Europe. In the first years of the war the support the Turkish government provided to rebel movements helped foster solidarity with the Syrian opposition among the Turkish diaspora close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

By contrast, among those in the Turkish diaspora hostile to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his support for Syrian Islamist rebel groups fuelled underlying scepticism towards the Syrian opposition as a whole. Within Kurdish communities in Germany, the emergence of Kurdish self-rule in Syria rekindled interest in Kurdish nationalism among younger members of the diaspora who have become increasingly well-integrated in German society.


With the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) and its siege of the Kurdish town of Kobane from September 2014, the war in Syria took centre stage in the political life of the Kurdish and Turkish diasporas. The epic four-month defence of Kobane by Syrian Kurdish forces with support from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters was an inspiring moment of national resistance that renewed diaspora engagement with the Kurdish nationalist cause.

During the battle there was a palpable intensification of community activity in solidarity with the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters trying to stem the ISIS advance. Over the past few years, a strong commitment to the continued domination of large parts of northern Syria by parties and militias linked to the PKK has become adopted by an increasing number of second and third generation members of Kurdish communities in the EU that before 2014 had been drifting away from diaspora politics.

By contrast, Turkey’s involvement in Syria, along with other AKP policies, have compounded divisions within the Turkish diaspora in Europe. While those within the Turkish diaspora that continue to support Erdoğan’s political agenda have thrown their support behind Syrian rebel movements, significant numbers of people of Turkish background in the EU hostile to the Turkish government have often demonstrated hostility towards anti-Assad groups supported by the AKP.

Yet as the power of militias linked to the PKK has expanded in Syria, further splits have emerged within the Turkish diaspora. While some left-leaning networks have expressed some understanding of Kurdish aspirations, other groups hostile to the AKP have voiced support for military intervention against groups they fear might threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.

The increasingly entrenched nature of Turkey’s presence in northern Syria may also influence the development of Syrian diaspora communities. Made up to a significant extent of refugees from rebel communities, many have spent time in refugee camps in Turkey and have families that have fled to or originate from territory in Idlib, Afrin and north Aleppo that are now under the control of the Turkish army.

If Turkey consolidates its sphere of influence in northern Syria, it might become the only part of the country that refugees that have settled in Europe can visit without fear of arrest by the Syrian government. With social services, education and policing already coordinated by the Turkish state, these territories along with refugee camps in Turkey would be spaces in which an AKP government would have a free rein to promote its ideological agenda.

With no sign of the Turkish army leaving northern Syria anytime soon, this opens up social channels through which Ankara can influence the long term political development of the Syrian diaspora in Europe as well.

With another AKP electoral victory looking likely, the dynamics that are leading to Turkish rule over Idlib, Afrin and north Aleppo look unlikely to change soon. Even if opposition parties achieve the unthinkable and topple Erdoğan, the need to control a protective zone where Syrian refugees can be resettled and Kurdish aspirations can be thwarted will keep the Turkish army in Syria for the foreseeable future.

The response of Kurdish, Turkish and Syrian diasporas to the Afrin campaign indicates that the impact of the AKP government’s Syrian project will be felt far beyond Turkey.