“They didn’t help us in Normandy, in the Second World War” was Donald Trump’s less than entirely relevant comment on the fate of Syrian Kurds, after his green light to Turkey had resulted in the predicted military onslaught against the autonomous Kurdish areas in northern Syria. As an immediate result dozens of Kurdish fighters and civilians have been killed or wounded.
Trump’s cruel decision to pull out American troops, thus leaving the Kurdish fighters exposed to the high-tech weaponry NATO forces can deploy, has been widely criticised as reckless, destabilising and a gift to Islamist forces. But many mainstream accounts leave out the crux of the matter – the attempt to crush Rojava, the self-governing area where Kurdish forces inspired by socialist ideology have established a democratic, bottom-up and above all feminist regime. Something that appals reactionary politicians in the Middle East and beyond.
At the time of writing the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces have struck a deal to allow Syrian government troops to occupy some parts of Rojava up to the Turkish border (but not the city of Sere Kaniye where the heaviest fighting is) as the only way to block the Turkish army and the Islamist mercenaries that it is using as its shock troops. By Monday evening the towns of Manbij and Kobane had been occupied by Syrian troops. Kobane won back from a six-month ISIS siege by YPG and YPJ forces in 2015 with 1000 Kurdish casualties and they also liberated mainly Arab Manbij after a long ISIS occupation.
The deal is that Kurdish military forces will be integrated with the Syrian army, but for the moment Kurdish administration of the region will continue. It is hard to see how this situation can persist and in any case the Turkish attack has not yet been stopped, so far. Without doubt the deal between the SDF and the Syrian regime is highly dangerous for the Kurds, but one that was forced upon them. As SDF commander Mazlum Abdi put it: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
He went on to say: “We believe in democracy as a core concept, but in light of the invasion by Turkey and the existential threat its attack poses for our people, we may have to reconsider our alliances. The Russians and the Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection. We do not trust their promises. To be honest, it is hard to know whom to trust.”
This assessment is very realistic. It is not a question of putting faith in Bashir al-Assad or Vladimir Putin, it is a matter of the survival of five million people in the Rojava area.
The bloody Syrian regime of president Bashir al-Assad has always been determined to re-establish control of the whole of the country, including Rojava. These events mark a major turn in a cycle of struggle in which, for a decade, the most militant Kurdish forces in both south east Turkey and the adjacent areas of northern Syria (respectively known as North Kurdistan and West Kurdistan) attempted to take major steps towards building self-governing communities, outside the control of the Turkish and Syrian states. They have been met by ceaseless and bloody repression from the AKP (Justice and Development Party) Islamist government in Ankara, in which thousands have been killed and whole towns flattened.
How the Struggle against ISIS and Erdoğan Unfolded
Up 2012, following the rebellion against the Assad government in Syria, the population of the three mainly Kurdish cantons in the north of the country – Afrin, Cizire and Kobane – moved to assert local community control. This led to their formal unification as Rojava in 2014. This was accompanied by similar moves towards declaring self-governing Kurdish communities in south east Turkey.
In the May 2015 Turkish election Erdoğan’s AKP failed to get an overall majority thanks to the strong showing of the HDP – the People’s Democratic Party, an alliance based on supporters of Kurdish rights, leftist groups, women’s organisations and other oppressed groups in Turkey – that got 14% of the vote and 80 MPs.
Seeing his power under threat Erdoğan got NATO sanction for a military campaign against ‘terrorists in Syria and Turkey itself. This request gave the green light to a bombing campaign against ‘terrorists’ across the southern borders in Syria and Iraq. The ‘terrorists’ meant not only the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria but also the PKK in its Iraqi mountain redoubt of Qandil.
From September 2015 many thousands of troops were deployed to attack Kurdish towns and cities in south eastern Turkey, particularly Cizre, the Sur area of Diyarbakir, the de facto ‘capital’ of Turkish Kurdistan, Şirnex, Silopi, Gever and Nusaybin. The aim was to crush the attempt by municipalities to declare self-rule and to crush the militant youth defending self-rule. It was also a terrible massacre, killing probably hundreds of civilians. According to Erdoğan and his party these were all ‘terrorists’.
While the Turkish state could over a period of several weeks and with some difficulty crush civilian-led rebellion on occupied land within the state borders by massive artillery and air bombardment, and by taking heavy casualties, the situation in northern Syria was more difficult. The airspace over the Syrian border was controlled by Syria and Russia, and then the situation was changed dramatically by the Islamic State siege of Kobane, that started in September 2014. The YPG and YPJ took hundreds of casualties from a massive concentration of Islamist fighters, until the decision by then US President Obama to intervene with air strikes in support of the Kurds. By October 2014 350 Kurdish villages had been captured by ISIS and the US feared an Islamic State power base on the Turkish border. Without doubt the US air strikes turned the military tables against ISIS, and the de facto alliance between the Kurds and the United States against ISIS was sealed. From that point on it was Kurdish militias that confronted and defeated ISIS in Syria, (just as other Kurdish militias did in Iraq) but of course backed up by massive American firepower. It was this alliance that was a permanent focus of annoyance for Erdoğan, seeing his NATO allies allied with ‘terrorists’.
The 2016 attempted military coup in Turkey was a gift to Erdoğan. Since then [than]he has used emergency powers to crush democratic rights even more, close down opposition media, and purge the civil service, education, the military and the courts of every trace of possible dissent. Most leaders of the HDP and many other opposition groups are in Turkey’s notorious and torture infested prisons.
But Erdoğan has much wider ambitions – which focus on winning back ‘Ottoman lands’ (areas occupied by the Ottoman empire and including oil-rich east Syria and north Iraq) but above all making himself the key political leader of Islam in the Middle East, and thus on a world scale. While the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt under Mohammed Morsi, this ambition was frustrated. Now Erdoğan is in competition with Saudi leader Mohammad Bin Salman, currently hosting Russian leader Vladimir Putin on a state visit.
During the long years of the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than half a million people, the Islamist forces have received military and financial aid, as well as influxes of jihadi fighters, from a variety of sources, but especially Turkey, the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. These states have been in a competition for influence, but Turkey has had the advantage of being a border state. Thousands of jihadis have been allowed by Turkey to cross the border into the zones it partially or fully occupies: Idlib, Afrin, the towns of the Euphrates Shield area – including fighters who had been driven out by the Kurds. It is not surprising then that these self-same jihadi fighters are leading the Turkish invasion, nor that they have started their trade mark war crimes, such as the execution of ten people including Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, leader of the Syria Future Party – murders gleefully filmed by the jihadis and put on social media.
The Project of Rojava
Rojava is an attempt to put into practice the position developed by the Kurdistan Workers Party and its allies of ‘democratic confederalism’. In effect communities are self-governed by a complex set of community organisations, in which everyone is encouraged to participate. Most striking about the Rojava experiment has been the adoption of the leading role of women as a central factor in the revolution. At every level and in every organisation, women must be incorporated in the leadership, at least on an equal basis with men. This goes hand in hand with the role of the Women’s Defense Units, the YPJ, that take an equal role in the fighting and have their own commanders.
Detailed accounts of different aspects of the Rojava experience can be found here. As Gilbert Achcar, the foremost Marxist academic writing on Middle East affairs today, explains it:
“The Syrian Kurds and their allies have paid a heavy tribute to this fight [against ISIS], incurring more than ten thousand casualties. They were instrumental in the containment and rollback of IS in Syrian territory. They are also unquestionably the most progressive, if not the only progressive, of all armed forces active on Syrian territory, especially with regard to the status and role of women. And yet they have been consistently labelled by the Turkish government as “terrorists” due to their close relation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (aka PKK), the main force active in Turkish-dominated Kurdish territory.”
Response of the West
The abrupt decision by Trump to dump the Kurds and to greenlight the Turkish invasion has doubtless alarmed many Western leaders, but their response has been pathetic, and as cynical in its own way as that of Russia.
At the United Nations Russia and the United States jointly vetoed a resolution that merely called for a ceasefire. At the NATO meeting in London they had trouble agreeing the word ‘condemn’ about the invasion, mainly because of British opposition. There is talk of arms embargos, and some countries are implementing them, but that is merely a gesture. Turkey has all the heavy weaponry it needs, including that provided by the more than £1bn worth of arms purchases from Britain in the last four years. And British, American, Italian and other firms are on the ground in Turkey, servicing its military equipment on a daily basis.
In short, Western governments are doing next to nothing to practically oppose the Turkish action. Especially since all the NATO powers regard the PKK as a ‘terrorist’ organisation, and are punctilious in continually stressing that Turkey ‘has legitimate security concerns’ against the Kurds. No one is going to stop doing business with Erdoğan and he knows it. Their sanctimonious expressions of ‘concern’ can be safely dismissed as a joke. And he has the continual threat that he will allow some of the three million Syrian refugee in Turkey to cross over into Europe if its political leaders do not play ball.
How will the pieces fall?
AKP leaders have continually stressed that they “will not allow a terrorist corridor” on their border, which means in effect a Kurdish enclave. Erdoğan has repeatedly stated that he wants to populate north Syria with Arab Muslim refugees from the Syrian war and elsewhere. The objective would be an attempt at demographic engineering to overturn the the Kurdish majority in the area’s three million people, and of course to destroy the gains of the social experiment that has been taking place there. That seems off the agenda for the moment, but the plans of the Syrian regime and their Russian backers are unclear. But everyone says the same thing: the big winners are Assad locally, and Vladimir Putin, his main patron, in regional terms. For them, the truth is that the fate of the Kurds is of little concern. But for the Kurds and their neighbours in North Syria for now the crisis continues, and so will their struggle for survival and dignity however hard the conditions,
So the people of Rojava and the whole of north Kurdistan today need international solidarity more than ever. Press your political representatives for much more vigorous action against Erdogan including inducing demanding Syria and Russia to close the airspace; go to protests and publicise them if you can; and give money to the Kurdish Red Moon (equivalent of the Red Cross) Heyva Sor, or ask your organisation to make donations. (Go to Heyva Sor UK on Facebook). It is now the only medical and material aid charity still working throughout the area since such international aid agencies as were present have pulled out their expatriate staff. The KDP of Iraq (Kurdistan Democratic Party) has just managed to get 30 lorry loads of aid in, but this though welcome will be a drop in the ocean with 160,000 people displaced already and with the water treatment plant at Hasakah, the big town away from the border where most refugees have headed, bombed by Turkey a few days ago.
Sarah Parker and Phil Hearse are the authors of the Left Unity pamphlet Dictatorship and resistance in Turkey and Kurdistan (2016).
 https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/13/kurds-assad-syria-russia-putin-turkey-genocide/. Foreign Policy magazine did not reveal the name of the commander.
 It was this ambition that led him to try to attempt attend Mohammed Ali’s funeral in 2016, with farcical results, as [at]the boxer’s family refused to let him speak and he eventually refused to attend the funeral and flew home.