Image for The Sound of Silence: Afrin and the Darkness of Australia’s Foreign Policy

The darkness at the core of Australia’s foreign policy is highlighted both by Canberra’s silence over the invasion of Afrin, and by its push to become one of the world’s top ten arms exporters. The Kurds should beware. The Turnbull government wants to be quartermaster for any despot who will pay and one of the worst is the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s claim that “no equipment or platforms will be sold to any country unless the most stringent requirements are put in place” is hogwash. The Australian navy recently carried out joint exercises with the Saudis during their murderous blockade of Yemen. Australia has also agreed to provide training to the Myanmar military despite the genocide of the Rohingyas.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is silent about the invasion of Afrin. Although the Australian U.N. delegation rightly condemned Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad and Russia for their crimes against civilians in East Ghouta, it uttered not a syllable of condemnation of Erdoğan’s simultaneous war of aggression against the Afrin Kurds. The omission was not accidental.

Erdoğan’s janissaries have hoisted the crescent flag over Afrin after its Kurdish defenders withdrew to spare it from further destruction. Erdoğan’s “Operation Olive Branch” has cost the city’s civilians dear. Hundreds of people died in Turkey’s relentless bombing. Much of the city’s infrastructure was pounded into rubble. As many as 200,000 people have fled. Given that Erdoğan has threatened to “ethnically-cleanse” the Kurdish population and replace them with Arabs, it is uncertain if they will ever return.

The remaining Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians and other Christians face a miserable future. Fearing that a stream of coffins back to Turkey would dent his popularity, Erdoğan recruited a horde of Syrian Islamists as his “boots on the ground”. These include thousands of members of the former Al Qaida affiliate in Syria, plus recycled ISIS fighters. They have threatened to behead those who refuse to conform to their inhuman Salafist dogmas. The Yazidis, whom they regard “devil-worshippers”, are in mortal danger. There are credible claims, too, that the Islamists have taken Yazidi and Christian women and girls as sex slaves.

Afrin was an oasis of peace in the midst of the sectarian civil war that has destroyed much of the rest of Syria. It had welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees regardless of religion or ethnicity. Its pluralism, secularism, grassroots democratic structures and championing of women’s rights stood in stark contrast to the region’s sectarianism and patriarchy. Afrin provided a model for the post-war reconstitution of Syria as a federal republic for all its peoples.

That vision is anathema to both the Islamist Erdoğan and his Syrian jihadi allies. Erdoğan has transformed Turkey from an incipient democracy into a fascist dictatorship. The failed military coup of 2016 was his Reichstag Fire. He has stamped out democratic freedoms, crushed the free press, imprisoned tens of thousands of people, and eliminated all traces of an independent judiciary. Education has been steadily Islamised. Women, he declared, are not equal to men and their role is confined to motherhood. There is no room for cultural or linguistic pluralism. The Kurdish districts in Turkey’s southeast have been subjected to ferocious military repression, with whole cities wrecked and the people terrorised.

The world has allowed him to get away with an illegal invasion. Russia allowed Turkish jets to bomb and strafe Afrin at will. The U.S. urged restraint on all sides—as if there was symmetry between the Turkish forces and the lightly armed Kurdish defenders. British foreign minister Boris Johnson signed off on a contract to provide Erdoğan with high-tech jet fighter technology after the invasion began.

Australia has maintained a complicit silence throughout this sad episode. This should not surprise us. Australian foreign policy is a moral black hole and our leaders lack empathy for the victims of dictators. But they are also stupid if they think that appeasing dictators works. Tyrants always want more. Erdoğan has neo-Ottoman designs for regional hegemony and if unchecked will further destabilise an already volatile region.

Written over 70 years ago in an age of dictators, Bertolt Brecht’s words apply to the silence today:

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible

When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard.

The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Australia’s indifference to the crime of Afrin also reveals a profound ingratitude. While Erdogan was busy providing ISIS with sanctuary and logistical support, and his son Bilal was selling their stolen oil on the international market, the Kurds of northern Syria were fighting for all of humanity. They put ISIS to flight at Kobanê and the liberation of the Islamist “capital” of Raqqa would not have been possible without them.

Australia is a democracy. We, the people, do not have to remain silent. We should demand that our elected representatives speak out against the crime of Afrin. The Swedish parliament has done so. Angela Merkel has condemned the invasion. Time to show some backbone—and gratitude—Mr. Turnbull and Ms. Bishop, and stand up to the despot in Ankara.

*John Tully is Honorary Professor in the College of Arts and Education at Victoria University in Melbourne. He is also a member of Australians for Kurdistan.