By Mariya Mubeen and Tim Kitz
Over the past month, the news cycle has been dominated by the Kurds and the United States, the Kurds and Turkey, the Kurds and Syria – after years of the Kurds and Daesh. This time it’s because the United States abandoned the Kurds, leaving them at the mercy of Turkey, Syria, and Russia.
News media readers seem to always be hearing about the Kurds in conflict with others around them. And it’s strange how quick news outlets are to lump everyone in the northern Syria region of Rojava as “the Kurds.”
Clearly it would be too much to ask for these articles to refer to the area as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). It is a mouthful.
And some of the terms associated with the place aren’t just challenging to say, they’re challenging to think about. Clearly it would be too much for the media to ask their readers to think about terms like “polyethnic autonomous region,” “self-governing secular polity,” “decentralized direct democracy,” and “communalism rooted in feminism, ecology, and autonomy” – all terms that more accurately describe whatever the media means when today it says “northern Syria” or “the Kurds.”
After all, if readers were exposed to such terms, they might have to rethink their assumptions about universally despotic Middle Eastern regimes, or about Israel being the only free and democratic society in the region. And if readers had to think about terms like “democratic confederalism,” “green anarchism,” “libertarian socialism,” and “Rojava revolution,” well, they might start questioning their own governments, the regimes under which they live, the horizon of what’s possible in politics.
Instead, the news media valiantly carries on publishing of explainer pieces inevitably titled “Who are the Kurds?” Here at The Leveller, we found five such articles dating back to the ’90s with the most casual of searches. We imagine Western newspapers have been working in this well-worn tradition going back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, at the very least.
Well, dear reader, this is not another one one of those articles. We hope to produce something here much more original, informative, and provocative.
While the push to form an autonomous region has stemmed from the oppression of the Kurds, the broader goal of the Rojava revolution is to form an egalitarian and inclusive self-government that includes all the ethnicities in the region, whether they are native to the land or have been forced into it as a result of conflict.
In order to explain what has happened in northern Syria – and how and why all the gains of the Rojava revolution are now threatened, to say nothing of the lives of the people of the region – we must, despite all previous protestations, begin with the Kurds. (But that won’t be all.)
Turkey & Syria vs. the Kurds
The Kurds’ current predicament can be traced back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Kurdistan, a nation that dates back in various forms to at least the 3rd century, had been subordinated by the Ottoman Empire, but was denied nationhood as this empire was split up in the wake of the war.
The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that was supposed to partition the Ottoman Empire did include provisions for a Kurdish state. This was for Bakurê, as the Kurds know it, the northern part of Kurdistan. The rest of Kurdish-majority territory would be given to Iran, the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, and the British Mandate for Iraq.
The four areas of Kurdistan, as they known to the Kurds:
Rojhilatê – Eastern or Iranian Kurdistan
Rojava – Western or Syrian Kurdistan
Bakurê – Northern or Turkish Kurdistan
Başûrê – Southern or Iraqi Kurdistan
Yet the firestorm kicked off in Turkey by the treaty swept Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish National Movement to power, on the strength of their fierce rejection of the treaty’s provisions. This rejection led directly to the Turkish War of Independence, which saw Atatürk’s forces defeat a portion of the WWI Allies who had defeated the Ottoman Empire.
In the wake of Atatürk’s victory, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne set up the boundaries and sovereignty of the Turkish state. A Kurdish state was denied in Bakurê, incorporating it into Turkey, while the provisions from Sèvres were confirmed that had given the rest of Kurdish-majority territory away.
So, ever since the Treaty of Lausanne if not before, the Kurds have received similar treatment – not great, to put it mildly – from the various state governments they ended up under. Kurds have been subject to multiple genocides by multiple state actors and responded with multiple rebellions and guerrilla conflicts.
After the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey began a severe Turkification process. They banned the Kurdish language, making it illegal to write, speak, or sing in the language. The government further strove to strip Kurdish identity away, calling Kurds ‘Mountain Turks’ and promoting resettlement in order to dilute the Kurdish population. It was illegal to even use the words Kurds, Kurdish, or Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government stripped many Kurds of their citizenship in 1962, leaving them trapped and stateless. They were severely discriminated against, with their language and culture delegitimized by the lack of citizenship rights.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
This systematic marginalization and oppression led to the 1978 formation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey by a group of students led by Abdullah Öcalan.
Öcalan began as a revolutionary socialist and a Kurdish nationalist, essentially in the familiar mould of a Marxist-Leninist guerilla leader. Yet his thought and the goals of the PKK have significantly evolved, especially after his imprisonment in 1999. Öcalan was decisively influenced by green anarchism, feminism, and in particular the communalism or revolutionary municipalism of Murray Bookchin – an American writer and political philosopher.
This has meant that the PKK has abandoned the goal of forming a nation-state in favour of forming an autonomous and multi-ethnic network of administrative councils, which are elected by neighbourhood communes – democratic confederalism.
Within this system, individuals have property usage rights, but the commune makes decisions about how to dispose of it and meet the economic needs of the group. Öcalan has described democratic confederalism as “democracy without the State,” and a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society.”
The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey and a number of its allies, including the EU and its member states and fellow-NATO countries like US, UK, and Canada. The UN does not consider it a terror organization; neither do a range of nations including Russia, China, Switzerland, Brazil, and India.
The PKK, meanwhile, considers the Turkish regime of President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be fascist, believes it wants to establish a military dictactorship, and vowed to overthrow it in 2016 in a joint statement with other socialist organizations in Turkey.
While the PKK started in Turkey, it has also operated in Syria, which led to the formation of its Rojavan equivalent, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD’s program is also the democratic confederalism of Öcalan and the PKK.
Acronyms! The rest of this article is something of an acronym salad. To keep them straight, just hover any coloured acronym, or check out our handy-dandy Acronym Catcher.
Rojava, or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES)
Northern Syria has been referred to with different names, but is most commonly known as Rojava, meaning “west” – literally “the land where the sun sets” – in Kurdish. This refers to the fact that this territory forms the (south)western portion of Kurdistan.
Rojava gained its status as a de-facto autonomous region after the Syrian government withdrew from the region in 2012. This happened in the wake of the Arab Spring’s turn to civil war in Syria and the near-collapse of Assad’s regime. Rojava’s forces steadily gained control over a large portion of northern Syria over the course of the ongoing civil war and the subsequent coalition war against Daesh.
The Rojava revolution and the chaos of the civil war led to the communion of the predominantly Kurdish PYD with Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen groups in the region. Together they formed a constitution for the de-facto autonomous region, which eventually went by the name of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES).
This federation created a system of self-governance and worked to implement Ocalan’s democratic confederalism, pluralistic tolerance, and gender equality. With a diverse population and strong female leadership, Rojava’s ideals are anchored in grassroots democracy, secularism, gender equality, sustainability, tolerance, and diversity.
These ideals, birthed from oppression and ethnic cleansing, stand staunchly against the mindset of the governments in the region, which are built on ethno-nationalism, religious conservatism, and an authoritarian personality cult. Its presence and initial success poses an implicit threat to neighboring governments, simply by existing.
The People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
There are a number of militias who have fought to preserve Rojava’s autonomy. The YPG is a militia predominantly run by northern Syrian Kurds. They were established by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to protect Kurdish enclaves when the Syrian civil war was still green.
They had their first big victory in Kobani and, since then, the YPG has grown and formed alliances with other militias fighting to protect their regions from separate forces. They have often been lumped in with the PKK and are considered a terrorist organization by Turkey.
The YPG female brigade, the YPJ, was founded in 2013 as a woman-only organization. This is in keeping with the democractic confederalism’s feminism, which insists on women’s full participation in the Rojava revolution – and the use of woman-only spaces to keep traditional patriacharchy from sabotaging gender equality.
The participation of women has been paramount to the strength of the militia. They were heavily involved in Raqqa, Afrin, and Tabqa.
Daesh fighters were terrified of YPJ fighters, since they believed that they would be denied a martyr’s place in heaven if they were killed by a woman. Before attacking Daesh positions, YPJ fighters would identify themselves through distinctive battle cries, an act of psychological warfare that ensured ISIL fighters knew they were facing an army of women who were about to send them to hell.
As Rojavan autonomy became a reality, the PKK has worked closely with YPG and the YPJ in the front lines of the war against Daesh. They were all key ground forces in the Siege of Kobani. Together they pushed out Daesh jihadists and retook most of northern Syria, driving them out of key regions like Kobani, Raqqa, and Manbij.
Finally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was created in 2015 to coordinate all the militias cooperating in Rojava against Daesh. Signatories included the YPG and YPJ, as well as the Assyrian Syriac Military Council and Arab Al-Sanadid Forces from the Jazira region, the Syrian rebel factions of Free Syrian Army from the Euphrates region, and the Army of Revolutionaries from the Manbij region.
The SDF is also bolstered by smaller Armenian, Turkmen, and Chechen forces in their respective regions. They are the official military wing of the NES.
These diverse yet coordinated armed forces have safeguarded the multi-ethnic Rojavan experiment, fighting off the jihadists Islamic State and safeguarding minorities.
Rojava has been a refuge for many marginalized minorities fleeing from the civil war, or from oppressive governments. The area is home to many ethnic groups, with Kurds and Arabs forming the largest groups, then Assyrians who are native to the Jazira Region, Turkmen who are native to the Euphrates and Afrin region, and smaller minorities of Armenians and Chechens.
The Armenians and Assyrians have been subjected to Ottoman genocide and the violent persecution by its successor Turkish state, while the Chechens have been subjected to Soviet genocide and violent persecution by its Russian succesor state.
In 2014 the Rojavan forces intervened and broke a Daesh siege on 40,000 Yazidis refugees in the Sinjar mountains of northwestern Iraq. The Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority with a long history of persecution, were fleeing genocide at the hands of Daesh. With US air support the Rojavan forces established a safe corridor for an estimated 35,000 Yazidi to escape into Syria.
The US Alliance with the SDF
This proved to be the winning formula, generally, in the war with Daesh – US air support plus SDF ground forces (or Iraqi Security Forces). During the Obama administration, the American army provided military training, supplies, and clutch air support in the war against Daesh, especially during the siege of Kobani.
The US military refused to bring Assad’s regime in their sights, claiming Daesh as their sole target. The US has always been more of less comfortable with dictators like Assad – and likely did not want to be drawn into conflict with Russia, who support Assad’s regime.
Yet so long as Daesh was a significant threat, how could the US resist attacking them? They were exactly the of expansionist and threatening Iraqi Islamic extremist state that it had so badly wanted to exist in the wake of 9/11, when it had settled for the secular Iraq of Saddam Hussein that was actually there.
The American alliance with the Rojava always had a fragile quality, however, given that the US was also a significant ally of Turkey, the implacable enemy of the PKK and persecutor of Kurds, Armenians, and Assysrians.
With Daesh decimated, Rojavan forces have ceased to serve US interests. (Daesh will undoubtedly be back, though, since a seed of fighters, territory, and equipment have survived and there has been no real change to the conditions that produced it in the first place. In Syria, for example, one preconditions for Daesh’s appeal is the ongoing domination of Sunni Muslims by an Alawite minority in the Assad regime.)
Trump’s October 6 pull-out of a largely token force of US troops supporting the SDF sent a clear signal to Erdoğan that Turkey had a free hand to attack Rojava. Turkey’s attacks accordingly began three days later, under the Orwellian codename Operation Peace Spring. (This name follows a theme; Turkey’s 2018 attack on Afrin was codenamed Operation Olive Branch, war crimes and all.)
Having helped defeat Daesh, the NES now finds itself fighting a battle on two fronts after being deserted by American troops. Surrounded by Turkish and Syrian government forces, they find themselves caught between a rock and a hard space.
Where Things Stand Today
Due to their close ties to the PKK and heavy inspiration from Öcalan’s ideals, the SDF have been constantly under fire from Turkey. To President Erdoğan, the PKK, YPG, and YPJ are terrorists that must be eradicated.
But it goes deeper than that. The successful establishment of the NES would mean an autonomous state for the Kurds, something that Erdoğan cannot stand. That coupled with his animosity towards Bashar al-Assad, has led to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of NES land in the north of Syria. After the United States decided to withdraw, Turkey has amped up its attacks on SDF–controlled regions, prompting serious fears of ethnic cleansing.
Of course, if Turkey truly cared about fighting terrorism they wouldn’t have provided tacit support for Daesh for years. It is simply that Erdoğan fears the resistance and democratic confederalism of the PKK and Rojava revolution.
Attacking Rojava also gives Erdoğan an excuse to crack down – even more – on dissent at home. He has warned of a “heavy price” for those who protest the war and the Turkish press is expected to be in “service of the government and its war goals,” as Reporters Without Borders put it.
The United States, meanwhile, is perfectly comfortable abandoning military allies whenever it becomes convenient.
The presence of the United States had deterred Turkey from attacking SDF-held enclaves during the war. And some within the US government and military believed the SDF was owed ongoing protection, as a crucial ally in defeating Daesh.
Yet if Erdoğan ever had a natural ally, it is Trump. In fact, Trump probably admires the Turkish strongman.
They are both anti-democratic populists, with a corrupt and corporation-friendly governance. They both cultivate a macho cult of personality and an authoritarian and fear-mongering leadership style. They both use religion to reinforce their power, while personally engaging with it in a shallow and hypocritical way.They both dream of overwhelming state power that crushes dissent and diversity. They both see themselves as harbingers of an ethno-nationalist renewal, a renewal that demands they violently exclude anyone outside their narrow definitions of their in-group.
Erdoğan is just so much farther along in his program than Trump, having twisted the Turkish constitution to make him a permanent elected dictator. (But then with Trump’s musings about a civil war and ruling for another 21 years, he might not be far behind.)
By pulling out of the area, then slapping a few token sanctions on Erdoğan, then granting Turkey the territory they would have had to fight for through a “ceasefire,” Trump has done well by his Turkish pal. (Note that this was a ceasefire that didn’t even consult the Kurds – how do you declare a ceasefire on behalf of someone else and give away their land?)
What is ironic is that Assad and Putin are cut from exactly the same leadership cloth as Erdoğan and Trump. Their program is also the same – to shore up the power of their authoritarian ethno-states.
The only thing that gives NES any hope is that, for the moment, the national interests of all these demagogic madmen do not align.
Assad wants to reassert his authority over Syria. If he can incorporate NES back into his state, he wins at little cost. Otherwise, he may work to violently destroy it. The existence of a successful democratic and autonomous state within Syria’s previous territory always has the potential to destabilize Assad’s authoritarian government. The NES also controls some coveted oil producing regions in northern Syria that Assad wants back.
Meanwhile, Putin’s goal is always to counter US power wherever he can.
During the Syrian civil war and the war against Daesh, Russia propped up the Assad regime, probably saving it from toppling. They formed a coalition of authoritarians with Syria and Iran to fight against the Daesh.
Russia has currently positioned itself as a peace-keeping negotiator, having met with both Erdoğan and Assad to discuss the most beneficial course of action. Beneficial for Russia, at the very least. Anything that fosters their power and influence in the region is a win for Putin.
Needing immediate protection from Turkey, the SDF have invited Assad’s troops to help at the border. However, inviting these troops into their region opens the NES up to pressure from Assad, when he inevitably tries to take back control of the region.
The NES finds itself in a tight spot. They are looking to the protection of Assad (a bloodthirsty tyrant), backed by Putin (an opportunistic goon), in hopes of staving off the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing at the hands Erdoğan (a fascist in the making), enabled by Trump (a Twitler if there ever was one, with his Muslim ban and concentration camps for kids).
As they jockey for position around Rojava, these sadists would like to carve up the world between regimes like them. The democratic confederalism of the Rojava revolution provides a powerful alternative to their vision of a world dominated by crony capitalism, chauvinistic nationalism, and macho authoritarianism. It is best eliminated from the horizon of the possible, so that Conservative politicians across the globe can all hold hands and sing as one “There is no alternative.”
The Rojava revolution that makes our most progressive Western politics look old-fashioned and reactionary looks to be foundering, its light in danger of extinguishment by authoritarian enemies.
Let’s do what we can to hold their light aloft.
Acronyms! Get your Acronyms here! Only the finest of acronyms caught here, for your reading pleasure and clarity of understanding:
Daesh or Daish – An acronym of the Arabic name al-Dawlah al-Islamīyah fī l-ʻIrāq wa-sh-Shām, this is usually translated as either the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Later the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), this name is rejected by many on the grounds that it is neither a real state nor truly Islamic.
PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which operates mostly in Turkey
PYD – Democratic Union Party, the Rojavan equivalent of the PKK
NES – the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the current name of autonomous Rojavan territory
YPG – the People’s Protection Units, a militia predominantly run by northern Syrian Kurds
YPJ – the Women’s Protection Units, sister of the YPG
SDF – the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition of NES military forces led by the YPG & YPJ