Syrian civil society must be defended

Syrian civil society must be defended
© Getty Images

One morning, this past summer, a delegation of academics and health professionals arrived at the University of Rojava in Qamishli, a town in North and East Syria on the border of Turkey. As we walked in the front door of the main university building, we found dozens of students dancing to traditional Kurdish music. An undergraduate student said, “Today, we are not alone in the world.”

This student, who was studying agriculture and civil engineering, described how their borders had been cut off by Turkey to the West and North, by the Assad Regime to the South, and by Iraq to the East.

He described that Iraq allowed entrance and exit to the region only in specific, rare circumstances — most often for the United States military stationed in the region.


The student explained that this was the first-time visiting professors and students had come to meet and give lectures. He said they felt joy to have left behind a war and refugee crisis and entered a time of rebuilding toward a peaceful and democratic future. 

We heard similar optimism the day before, in Kobane, another town in North and East Syria on the border of Turkey.

There we visited the kindergarten named after Alan Kurdi — the 3-year-old refugee whose image made global headlines after he drowned in 2015. The kindergarten honors his memory — and all children — killed and displaced during the war.

Yet now, universities, schools and hospitals we visited have been bombed and targeted by Turkish military planes.

And while Trump announced a “permanent ceasefire” between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces, we know this ceasefire is a farce.

Every day since that announcement, we have received personal messages from medical school professors and students sharing photos, videos and descriptions of ongoing bombing from Turkish military planes.


Last week, Human Right Watch reported that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups were executing civilians, pillaging property and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes, and that they may be guilty of war crimes.

This summer, the society we saw in North and East Syria was peaceful and democratic in ways that the United States and the international community should actively support.

We met students and professors studying everything from medicine to agriculture, civil engineering to environmental studies, and gender studies to literature. They are of multiple ethnicities, languages and religions working together in universities and on community projects explicitly designed to work toward gender equity and balance with the environment after the violence and destruction of the 2015 civil war. They have been building the democratic society of North and East Syria—also known as Rojava, or "the land where the sun sets" in Kurdish.

While each of these areas should be promoted and celebrated internationally, Syrians are instead being violently attacked and invaded by Turkey with the consent of the United States.

Indeed, since Trump announced the removal of American troops from posts alongside Kurdish allies in this region, Turkish attacks have shut down schools and hospitals and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Classes in universities were cancelled and replaced by crash courses in first aid. After hospitals were bombed, students organized themselves into makeshift medical caravans to care for civilians bombed or shot by the Turkish military or ISIS.

As professors focused on health and immigration, we cannot stand by and let this violent invasion continue that will invariably lead to another refugee crisis. We cannot stand by and let innocent people be killed. As people working toward a more equitable, democratic and peaceful world, we must not sit back and let an inspiring democratic society be attacked or destroyed by foreign aggression.

The bombing of the Democratic Federation of North and East Syria by Turkey goes against everything the United States stands for.

We must insist that our politicians take a stand — the UN must send international observers to maintain a real ceasefire that leads to the withdrawal of the Turkish military, and sponsor a true dialogue for the future of Syria that guarantees peace and democracy and includes real representation of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Together, we must push the international community to ban this deadly, violent aggression. Democracy — and the people fighting for it in Syria — is at stake.

Seth Holmes is a physician and anthropologist expert on migration on faculty in environmental studies and medical anthropology at the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco. Andrej Grubacic is an anthropologist expert on social movements around the world on faculty in anthropology at the California Institute for Integral Studies.