by Giuseppe Acconcia
In 2011, as Syria’s uprising spread, the Kurds living in the country’s northern provinces organized themselves to defend their neighborhoods and provide social services. The Kurds’ “local coordination committees” were similar to the bodies of the same name that sprung up everywhere in Syria where the popular revolt took root. In most places, these committees were eclipsed as Bashar al-Asad’s regime lashed out to quash the uprising and the opposition – largely peaceful at the outset – armed itself in response. In the majority-Kurdish areas of the country, the regime withdrew its forces and the local coordination committees became the administrative and security apparatus of a de facto autonomous zone known as Rojava.
Rojava started as a Kurdish project tied to the major Kurdish political formation in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in turn is closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PYD subsequently convened popular assemblies that proclaimed a multi-ethnic Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, Rojava’s official name. It advances a non-violent critique of capitalist society, grounded in jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s theories of democratic autonomy, ecology and women’s liberation. Another way of describing Rojava’s avowed principles is “communalism,” defined by Murray Bookchin as a philosophy that “seeks to recapture the meaning of politics in its broadest, most emancipatory sense.”
In the Syrian civil war, the PYD and Rojava support neither Asad nor other rebel elements. Rather, they take the pragmatic approach of cooperation with whatever side best helps their cause at any given moment.
In 2013, the war came to Rojava, with the emergence of jihadi groups, culminating in the Islamic State, or ISIS. The PYD had already formed militias, such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), many drawn from the ranks of the local coordination committees. The YPG and YPJ mounted stiff resistance to ISIS, breaking its siege of Kobane, a town on the Turkish border, in 2015. The Asad regime, busy battling the rebellion elsewhere, made a tacit laissez faire agreement with these militias. The YPG and YPJ received tactical support from the US-led coalition against ISIS, due to their effective combat performance.
Women have been prominent members of both civil defense and combat units. Equality between men and women, fighters say, is key to their political formation and personal lives. “Love is essential, part of everyone’s instinct,” one explained. “Religion exploits death: if you are a martyr you go to heaven. For us love and death are in contradiction.”
Other rebels often accuse the Rojava fighters – despite their successes – of collaboration with the regime. The Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq and human rights organizations criticize them as utopian and exclusionary. But the Rojava project now has a bigger enemy.
On January 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, a major incursion into parts of northern Syria controlled by fighters of the YPG, YPJ and other Kurdish units. The Turkish army entered Afrin, the westernmost enclave of Rojava, on March 18, and since then pro-Turkish rebels have controlled the canton. Meanwhile, the US-led coalition secured the cantons of Jezira and Kobane, in effect splitting Rojava in two. According to the UN, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled from these areas. Neither the US nor the Asad regime nor its ally Russia moved to stop the Turkish attack on Afrin, carried out during a UN ceasefire.
Despite the loss of Afrin and the inconsistent outside support, the Kurds of northern Syria continue to pursue the Rojava dream of a better society based on gender equality and grassroots mobilization, as symbolized by the recent opening of Kobane’s first university.
Dilar Dirik is an activist with the Kurdish women’s movement. I spoke with her in April 2018.
Giuseppe Acconcia: It seems the international community has abandoned the Kurds yet again.
Dilar Dirik: Those who betrayed the people in Afrin are not the true international community. The true, civil international community rallied for Afrin around the globe – in Afghanistan, Japan, South Africa – countries where there are no Kurds.
It was the international community of states that abandoned the Kurds. But the word “abandoned” is misleading, for the Kurdish freedom movement in Rojava never counted on international support in the first place. We all knew very well that US support was tactical and that it would conclude as the US pursued its imperialist, profit-driven agenda. We knew that as soon as ISIS, the so-called common enemy, was defeated, the Kurds would be left vulnerable to all manner of hostility.
The political formations in Rojava have never been invited to all the international conferences on Syria – and that is to appease Turkey, a NATO member and a major regional player. No one could expect the powers that be, the hegemonic international order, to tolerate a leftist revolution with a central role for women and a commitment to the coexistence of all people.
The Turkish attack on Afrin took place with Western complicity: Italy, Britain, the US, Germany and others sell Turkey the weapons it uses to target the Kurds. Russia also supported the invasion of Afrin to force its administration to hand over the area to Bashar al-Asad and his bloodthirsty forces. These actors may oppose each other on other levels, but they act in concert when it comes to suppressing alternatives to the state system and imperialist, authoritarian interests. They need the war to continue in order to spread chaos in the Middle East and bolster the arms industry. Hawkish foreign policies help these states to legitimize anti-democratic domestic policies. Their aim is to block any kind of leftist revolution or leftist political project, at home or abroad.
Giuseppe Acconcia: The Turkish attack on Afrin caused hundreds of casualties during a UN ceasefire in Syria.
Dilar Dirik: Erdogan is a war criminal. He does not even hide it. He recruited jihadi groups to commit atrocities in Afrin – just another time he has supported jihadis in Syria against the Kurds. Turkish forces committed war crimes during the invasion, including murder, torture and looting. They even documented their crimes on social media networks. That’s how confident they are that no one will hold them accountable.
Using the language of ethnic cleansing, Erdogan defines all Kurds as terrorists and wants to move them out of northern Syria into a buffer zone, which is in reality a colonial annexation. Consider his own words: “We will clear this land of terrorists and give it back to its legitimate owners.” He has said repeatedly that he will not stop in Afrin but will advance to the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Erdogan has installed foreigners to administer Afrin, people who have nothing to do with the area. He wants to subjugate and annex Afrin, as is clear from the conduct of the occupation: the invaders have hoisted Turkish flags everywhere, changed street names and demolished the statue of Kawa, a symbol of Kurdish resistance. In the name of fighting terrorism, they are destroying Kurdish culture.
Erdogan makes it seem like Arabs and Turks are fighting together against the Kurds. But his nationalistic, fascistic fantasies do not correspond to reality on the ground in Rojava. For years, various ethnic and religious communities – Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmen and Armenians – have been fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds against all kinds of attackers.
As the Baath party did in the 1960s, Erdogan wants to change the demographics of northern Syria in order to dominate the Kurds. With this same aim, the Turkish army destroyed entire regions in northern Kurdistan [southeastern Turkey] and massacred civilians in Cizre, Sur and Nusaybin.
And, of course, he wants to eradicate the democratic project of Rojava. Erdogan cannot abide a revolutionary system on majority-Kurdish lands within or close to Turkish borders.
It is a shame that world leaders who claim to defend human rights and international law refrain from calling him a war criminal, despite all the evidence!
Giuseppe Acconcia: In view of what’s happened, how could the European Union give another 3 billion euros in aid to Turkey?
Dilar Dirik: Erdogan is using refugees to blackmail Europe. He promised the Europeans that Turkey would keep refugees in its territory. But he is creating thousands of new refugees himself, through his wars, and is thus able to continue threatening Europe with an immigrant invasion. In addition, he is deliberately dividing the refugees against each other to trigger clashes among Arabs and Kurds in both Syria and Turkey. There is plenty of evidence of Erdogan trying to indoctrinate vulnerable refugees to act in his interest.
In contrast, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees, even from Iraq, found a safe haven in Rojava. The population of Afrin doubled. Now people have been forced out and are awaiting humanitarian aid in vain. The Kurds have nowhere to turn, unless they want to compromise the ideals that thousands of people fought and died for.
No international organization or institution is genuinely invested in finding a solution for Syria or holding war criminals accountable. Asad’s war crimes are denounced by international bodies and in the media, and rightly so, but the illegal Turkish invasion, on the heels of Turkey’s brutal massacres in northern Kurdistan, is tolerated by the global powers because of Turkey’s NATO membership and its flirtation with Russia.
Citizen action is required to halt the Turkish war machine, and therefore, the Kurdish movement and solidarity groups have called for a campaign to boycott Turkey.
Giuseppe Acconcia: Is the Rojava dream ending?
Dilar Dirik: Not at all. The resistance in Rojava is still strong. After 58 days of resistance in Afrin, the YPJ/YPG fighters decided to transform the war into a guerrilla struggle. They did not surrender, but changed tactics, due to the severe circumstances, especially the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
For the Kurdish militants in Rojava, Afrin is only one battle in a long war. Rojava is an idea, a political project that has influenced hundreds of thousands of people. Over the last seven years, a culture of radical democracy has established itself. A tactical military withdrawal does not mean that this experiment in democratic autonomy will not go on. After a while, the population might go back to Afrin, and their project might be even more radical. ISIS forced out the residents of Kobane, too, but after the YPG/YPJ defeated ISIS, they returned and created more democratic structures. The same might happen in Afrin.
Giuseppe Acconcia is a researcher focusing on the Middle East. Reprinted with permission from MERIP.