The False Friends of Kobane

(via Jacobin)

Assyrian fighter at a martyrs' cemetery near Hassake, a city in northeast Syria (Photo: Roman Kutzowitz, October 2014)
An Assyrian fighter at a martyrs’ cemetery near Hassake, a city in northeast Syria (Photo: Roman Kutzowitz, October 2014)

For nearly four months now, heavily armed Islamic State (IS) militants have been laying siege to the city of Kobanê in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).

Another IS massacre was initially feared. But the homegrown defense units of Kobanê, despite being hopelessly outmatched militarily, have been able to repel IS incursions for a surprisingly long time — and for much of this time without help. It has been a pitched battle that has repeatedly seen bitter house-to-house fighting.

However, with the questionably timed expansion of military assistance from the United States and the opening of Turkish territory to Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan, the tide appears to be turning. The close fighting within Kobanê has all but ended, though the surrounding countryside remains occupied by the IS.

After a wave of solidarity demonstrations for Kobanê all across Europe in October and November, international attention on the region noticeably abated with the arrival of the Peshmerga reinforcements. Nevertheless, the situation is still militarily and politically complex, and the battle over Kobanê remains in part a battle over the appropriate means of international solidarity.

The debate about what practical, concrete form this solidarity should be taking has not been settled. At an early stage of the fighting, some parliamentarians from Germany’s Die Linke — despite the party’s long-standing rejection of military interventions — proposed an international operation with a United Nations (UN) mandate. As Die Linke’s parliamentarians rushed ahead, a skeptical German public found itself again asking where it should stand regarding international military operations.

At the same time, UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon called on those who could protect the civilian population of Kobanê to do so. This raised additional questions, not only about who exactly could respond to such an appeal, but also about how realistic it was to hope for a military intervention whose primary objective would be the protection of civilians and not the pursuit of power. In the face of a spreading wildfire, care has to be taken not to call for aid from those who set the fire in the first place and then doused it with gasoline.

The planned intervention of Turkish ground troops has been among the more dubious propositions. This was, in any case, purported to be a controversial plan; France had declared its support for the establishment of a buffer zone by Turkey, while Great Britain and the US rejected this proposal, at least in public.

Given that IS militants have reportedly been crossing the Turkish-Syrian border with ease, and in the context of Turkey’s longstanding hostility to Kurdish interests, it was clear that such a plan would amount to the fox guarding the henhouse.

[…]

Turkey’s hostility to Rojava is intimately bound up in its own strategic goals — preserving regional influence as well as territorial sovereignty — and in Rojava’s apparent alignment with a domestic resistance that has historically threatened these goals. A cursory review of the background of this relationship should suffice here.

Shortly after the onset of demonstrations against the Syrian government in 2011, the PYD began to construct autonomous governing structures in the majority-Kurdish regions of northern Syria, and to assemble self-defense forces (YPG/YPJ) among citizens.

The PYD had previously made known that its activities were independent of the wider Syrian opposition. When the latter began conferring with Turkey and, with Western support, took up arms against the Syrian government and started calling for foreign military intervention, the PYD spoke out against such outside intervention and stressed that a democratic Syria could only be the collective project of all Syrians.

Under the leadership of the PYD, democratic council structures were erected in three regions (Afrin, Kobanê, and Cizirê) that are referred to as cantons. The governing assemblies as well as the self-defense forces are characterized by gender quotas and representation of all populations according to ethnic and religious identification (Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian Christian). Town, neighborhood, city, and regional councils invite and receive active participation from the population in decision making.

Democratically decided price controls, a constitutional justice system, and free schooling in any student’s mother tongue are additional distinguishing features of Rojava’s egalitarian structures. Under exceedingly adverse conditions, the region has managed to sustain its people on the basis of self-organized production collectives.

At the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Rojava’s representatives did not merely reject outside military intervention. In negotiations with the Syrian opposition, they also argued for the autonomy of the Kurdish region in a possible future Syria. The Syrian opposition organized under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council categorically rejected both these stances.

Representatives of Rojava were thereafter increasingly isolated by the opposition and its supporters, the so-called “group of friends of Syria.” This isolation was accompanied by an economic embargo that has been enforced by Turkey and the government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq (Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG).

The Turkish government, for its part, declared it would not tolerate this “terrorist formation” on its border, holding it as identical to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which it has waged a long-term campaign of repression with US support. And rivalries within Rojava between smaller Syrian-Kurdish parties and the PYD, the leading party, ruptured relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.

The smaller parties drew nearer to the KRG in time and jointly accused the PYD of monopolizing political power. Though the social footholds of these parties in Rojava were small, the discord between them and the PYD became a pretense for the KRG, in association with Turkey, to weaken Rojava by any means.

[…]

For the Turkish government, Rojava represents a threat on multiple levels.

First of all, Rojava’s democratic autonomy model functions as an example to the Kurdish population within Turkey itself. The cantons have declared that the natural resources of Rojava will remain the collective property of the region’s people, and any potential revenues from them will be invested back into the people. The egalitarian council structures and the collectivization of resources stand diametrically opposed to the confessional conservatism of the ruling Justice and Development Party and its neoliberal politics.

Furthermore, Rojava is an obstacle to Turkey’s ambitions to expand its regional influence. The strategic and economic orientation of Turkey is fundamentally at odds with Rojava’s project. Thus the entire prehistory of the conflict contradicts the expectation that the Syrian-Kurdish people might receive support from Turkey.

This plays out similarly in relation to the KRG. Self-organized production collectives, progressive gender politics, and democratic council structures also stand opposed to the basic orientation of the oil-rentier proto-state in northern Iraq — though nearly all commentary on the current situation might suggest otherwise.

If that weren’t enough, Rojava and Kobanê in particular have a strategic significance for the IS. Should Kobanê fall fully into the hands of IS, it would be even easier for the group to recruit from Turkey, as well as smuggle arms and other goods. In addition, Kobanê is in the middle of the three cantons geographically. The other two cantons would be completely dislocated from one another without Kobanê, and their defense against further attacks by the IS or other militias would be much more difficult.

Turkey is attempting to exploit this situation and instrumentalize the IS offensive in order to make Rojava into an international issue. Davutoğlu’s publicly declared conditions — to only support the use of US military bases in Turkey and US ground troops against the IS if the fall of the Syrian government is also a goal — are revealing.

He could not say it any more clearly: the IS advances and the murder of Syrians within sight of the Turkish border do not provide sufficient motivation to act, even in the form of the relatively minor concessions demanded by the Kurdish movement.

The contents of the Turkish War Authority bill, recently passed by the Turkish parliament, are shaping this reality. In that document, the PKK — for Turkey, the same thing as Rojava — and the IS are both named, in the same breath, as “terrorist organizations.” Still, faced with a choice between the PKK/ Rojava and the IS, the Turkish government’s preference for the latter is clear.

[…]

The citizen council-governed cantons are showing the entire Middle East that it is possible to build a peaceful, democratic, and social justice-oriented self government that transcends cultural differences. Rojava presents an alternative to the ethnic and confessional polarization endemic in the region. That such a model has, at least up to now, been able to survive primarily through its own self-defense forces — in other words, without imperialist protection — is special to say the least.

Still, it is apparent that the continued existence of Rojava cannot be ensured without international solidarity, the more so as US military assistance and the KRG’s involvement both seem to be bound to fundamental concessions that would curtail the most emancipatory aspects of the model.

But what kind of “solidarity” can we practice from the West? In Germany, a start would be to confront the calls by some left parliamentarians for a UN-mandated military intervention. Considering the manifest divisions in the Security Council, these calls are no more than symbolic anyway. Since such a UN mandate is plainly unlikely to come about, the only remaining effect of these calls is to damage, once again, Die Linke’s basic peace platform.

Demands from other quarters for arms shipments to Rojava also do not constitute solidarity with Rojava, if we are coming from the perspective of a politics of peace.

Without a doubt, of course, calls out of Rojava for military aid, considering the all-or-nothing war there, are understandable. This may seem contradictory. But the problem for peace-platform politicians in Germany is a different one.

Can the German left guarantee that the “avenue of legitimacy” they are opening for (both German and non-German) foreign military operations and arms shipments will serve the “right” purposes? Since the current political balance in Germany doesn’t permit Die Linke any of the power necessary to control military operations or arms shipments, the answer must be no.

One example of this in the very recent past: when the Yezidi people in the Iraqi Sinjar mountains were facing slaughter by the IS, they were left completely unprotected by the Peshmerga and the KRG.

The forces from Rojava and the PKK that rushed in to help were exactly those whose already long struggle against the IS had been actively weakened by the KRG. Although the unspeakable role of the KRG lies open for all to see, it was the KRG that was lauded as the Yezidis’ savior and received German arms shipments in contravention of German laws and the UN Charter.

As long as the KRG is thus encouraged and empowered in its political orientation towards Rojava, no one can guarantee that these new arms won’t some day be pointed at Rojava or the PKK.

Therefore, instead of working for military intervention and arms shipments — the implementation of which they cannot meaningfully influence — the German left could demand that the doings of NATO-member Turkey be exposed for what they are: the intentional delivery of the people of Rojava into the hands of the IS.

The units of the YPG/YPJ have declared that they can, together with the PKK, manage the defense of Rojava on their own. Still, Turkey has to open a corridor through its territory for military resupply and logistical resourcing, and abandon its de facto support of the IS. The lifting of Turkey’s embargo on Rojava also has yet to be attained.

The German government and other Western governments must be pressured to force their NATO partner Turkey to end both its proxy war in Syria as well as its repression of political protest. Western leftists could also work for goals such as the removal of foreign soldiers (as well as Patriot missiles) stationed in Turkey and demand sanctions against Turkey if it continues to support the IS. Finally, military intervention by Turkey or other imperialist forces must be adamantly rejected, whereas a more skeptical stance towards Western governments’ goals in the region is needed.

Campaigns for an end to arms shipments to all actors in the region and for massive increases in refugee aid are among the most important concrete projects peace-oriented leftists should be working on.

Source: Babacan, Errol and Çakır, Murat  “The False Friends of Kobane“, Jacobin, 6 January 2015

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