On October 10, protestors demonstrated outside Hart House against the invitation of Turkish Ambassador to Canada Kerim Uras to an event titled “Toronto-Turkey Alliance: Research and Trade Workshop.”

The protest was in opposition to Turkey’s recent military offensive into Northern Syria against the Kurdish-led forces called the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the leader of the military arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG controls swathes of territory in northeastern Syria and have been instrumental to the US in its fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

A day prior to the event, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted, “Canada firmly condemns Turkey’s military incursion into Syria today.” An October 8 report by Genocide Watch noted, “Turkey’s aggression into neighboring states threatens the long-term security of all Kurdish, Christian, and Yezidi populations in the region. Turkey’s intention is genocide.”

Protesting the event

Along with the Turkish ambassador, other speakers at the event included U of T professors from the Departments of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and Earth Sciences, as well as several professors from Turkish universities. Kurdish PhD student Sardar Saadi sent a letter to Ted Sargent, U of T’s Vice-President, International, asking him to cancel the event. “I am dismayed that my own university ignores these atrocities and plan to collaborate with the Turkish government, particularly at the time that Kurdish people are being bombed and displaced while the talk on ‘research and trade’ is taking place,” wrote Saadi.

Saadi wrote in an email to The Varsity that the protestors “managed to shut down the event,” but that Sargent continued with the event in private. “This is such a shame and as a member of this community for more than 6 years, I am ashamed of my university and incredibly furious and disappointed.”

“The event continued in a different format and in a different location because of safety concerns,” wrote Sargent in a email to The Varsity. He noted that the goal of the event was “academic collaboration and fostering connections between U of T and Turkish researchers in areas such as geophysics, archeology and nanotechnology.”

“Such discussions are in keeping with our commitment to academic freedom and free speech,” remarked Sargent.

Salam Alsaadi, a representative from the Syrian Solidarity Collective at U of T, wrote, “We strongly condemn invitations to all officials of any despotic regime in the region not only Turkish officials.”

The situation in Turkey and Syria

The Kurdish people are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, making up roughly a fifth of Turkey’s population. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group, as it links the YPG to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK, a political and military organization based in Turkey that pushes for Kurdish autonomy, has been in armed conflict against the Turkish forces.

Following a sharp policy shift by US President Donald Trump, US troops withdrew from YPG territory. This prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to begin an offensive in order to establish a “safe zone” across the country’s border, free of Kurdish fighters.

On October 27, the SDF announced that it would be withdrawing from the Turkey-Syria border in accordance with a deal between Turkey and Syria, negotiated by Russia, amidst an unsuccessful ceasefire.

The Toronto Turkish Consulate General did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.