In Kurdish Rojava: Syria’s imperiled freedom fighters

Soldiers of the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, a homegrown defense force of the Kurdish areas in Syria. PHOTO: kurdishstruggle on Flickr
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In the midst of Syria’s bloody civil war, the Kurdish people have carved out an autonomous region in the country’s north called Rojava. With a population of several million people, many of whom are refugees, it has been a haven for all those fleeing the Islamic State (Daesh) and dictator Bashar al-Assad, especially women, children and other persecuted ethnic minorities like the Yazidis.

This self-governed region has attracted support from radicals worldwide who see it as a progressive bulwark against the tide of reaction that was unleashed by Assad and religious fundamentalists after the 2011 Syrian uprising.

But Rojava’s existence today is precarious, reliant partly upon a military partnership forged with the U.S., and also on Assad’s tenuous consent to its existence while he focuses on crushing rebellion elsewhere. However, the U.S. is a treacherous partner with a history of betraying the Kurdish people. And under Assad, the Kurds have long suffered persecution and discrimination. Now that his regime is consolidating control again and U.S. troops are drawing down, Syria’s Kurds face the threat of invasion from Turkey.

The question is whether Rojava can survive within these parameters.

Rojava’s roots. With a population of around 40 million, Kurds are the largest group of indigenous people in the world without a land base. The Kurdish people have struggled across centuries for self-determination, and the right to practice their culture, language and identity against forced assimilation by conquering forces. This includes after World War I, when Kurdistan was carved up and the Kurdish people absorbed into the new states created by imperialist powers.

Today the contiguous area known as Kurdistan is split between Syria, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey. Throughout their historic homeland, the Kurds confront discrimination, oppression, and political repression.

In 2011, when the winds of democracy were sweeping across Syria, Kurds were on the front lines, raising their flag alongside the Syrian masses in calling for democracy and Assad’s removal.

But the civil war that followed took its toll on progressive forces within Syria’s democracy movement. As conservative nationalists and reactionary religious groups gained ground among rebel forces, their anti-Kurdish bigotry came to the fore, dividing and weakening Syria’s opposition movement. At the same time, breathing space opened up for Kurdish self-determination when a weakened Assad found it in his interests to give limited autonomy to the Kurds while he focused on beating back the popular revolt. The Democratic Union Party took advantage of this opening to negotiate an autonomous region comprised of the three cantons of Kobanî, Afrin and Jazira in northern Syria which became Rojava.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a radical political party devoted to the cause of Kurdish self-determination. Like the PKK, the PYD follows the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey. He advocates a mix of libertarianism, feminism, and anarchism, and puts an emphasis on the concept of Democratic Confederalism where autonomous, local communities exist within a larger state. Among Rojava’s achievements is its establishment of a place where people of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live in relative harmony. Women’s leadership and equality are also embraced.

Feminism is one reason Rojava has had so much success in beating back the Islamic State. As reactionary religious fundamentalists have tried to establish repressive caliphates, where women have no rights, people’s militias have defeated Daesh in key battles. These militias include all-women’s defense units that have distinguished themselves as among the fiercest fighters, unwilling to surrender. This is not surprising given that Kurdish women have fought so hard to secure their freedom through years of organizing.

A vulnerable island. If Rojava’s strength is its feminism and multinationalism, a weakness is its reliance on treacherous partners such as the U.S., or precarious co-existence with Assad. This contradictory and unstable situation is a logical outgrowth of Democratic Confederalism, and the idea that multi-class, autonomous, self-governing communities can peacefully co-exist as islands within a larger, hostile capitalist state and world.

With Daesh on the brink of defeat in Syria, thanks to the PYD and its militias, the U.S. no longer needs the Kurds and is disengaging from Rojava. This conveniently sets the stage for an invasion from NATO ally Turkey.

The PYD’s sister organization, the PKK, is locked in struggle with Turkey’s repressive government, headed by President Recep Erdoğan. After an unsuccessful coup to unseat him in 2016, Erdoğan quickly turned his guns on the nation’s Kurdish minority. In particular, he persecuted the PKK, a political force with a strong standing among Turkey’s sizable Kurdish population — around 20 percent.

Erdoğan has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization and jailed numerous Kurdish politicians on the Left in an effort to silence opposition and crush political alternatives to his repressive regime. But he has been unsuccessful in his quest to destroy the Kurdish liberation struggle, or the support its political parties have within sections of Turkey’s working class. It is easy to see why Erdoğan wants to ally with reactionary religious groups to invade Rojava and replace it with a buffer zone. As long as Rojava exists in northern Syria, its inspiring example threatens to inflame the aspirations of Kurds and Turks who want freedom and democracy.

Solidarity with the Kurdish struggle. Over the centuries, Middle Eastern powers have used the Kurds to fight their wars when it was in their interest. Now it is imperialist powers that callously first help and then backstab them. In this situation, they are always vulnerable to betrayal and set-backs.

Today the fate of Rojava is still unknown. The Democratic Union Party is again in talks with Assad in hopes of reaching a non-aggression pact to secure Rojava’s survival. But ultimately, the fate of the Kurds is tied to the revolutionary consciousness of the popular movements and radical resistance within the repressive regimes that span Kurdistan. To win, the Kurds also desperately need international working class solidarity and a strong, global anti-war movement. Anything less will leave them vulnerable to genocide and ruthless suppression.

In the U.S. the Left and antiwar groups must pressure the U.S. government to retract its terrorist designation of the PKK, end arms deals for NATO ally Turkey, and recognize the Kurds’ right to self-determination.

Long live the Kurdish liberation struggle! Repeal the terrorist designation of the PKK!

Averill and Bazargan are students of the Kurdish struggle and activists in Amalgamated Transit Union 587. Send feedback:

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