No short cut to liberation
Yassamine Mather examines the political consequences of the Kurdish movement’s alliance with reactionary forces.
There is no doubt that the left should condemn the Turkish military attacks in north-east Syria and support the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) movement and Syrian Democratic Forces in Kurdish areas, who are facing a major onslaught as a result of Donald Trump’s latest Middle East initiative. However, in this article I want to address two issues: first, a more realistic assessment of the PKK and YPG in the light of the adoration/uncritical support of Rojava by sections of the international left; and, secondly, the recent history of United States ‘support then betrayal’ in relation to the YPG.
The YPG is closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Stalinist organisation based in Turkey, which used to define itself as Marxist-Leninist, with the aim of overthrowing the Turkish state. But in more recent times it has moderated its position and calls for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state headed by itself. Unlike similar parties in the third world, PKK did not talk of the rule of the working class, instead concluding that, as Kurdistan was populated mostly by peasants, they, not the working class, would determine the class nature of the independence struggle in Turkey.
Armed struggle against the Turkish state started in the 1970s and lasted until 1999. Because of Syria’s rivalry and animosity towards Turkey, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, Bashar el-Assad, offered help to the PKK, giving it access to training camps in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon. Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders of the PKK, used Syria as a base for his operations. However, in 1998, Assad senior signed the Adana memorandum with Turkey, whereby the PKK was identified as a terrorist organisation and Syria agreed to force the group out of its territory.
Öcalan was eventually arrested in Kenya in February 1999, in an operation organised by Turkish intelligence, reportedly with the help of the CIA, and has been held in a Turkish prison ever since. But over those 20 years, Öcalan has changed his political line and the PKK, as well as his supporters in Syria, followed suit. He declared that the PKK is a peaceful organisation seeking “democratic autonomy” within the Turkish state and advocated a new model based on power flowing up from local councils. It was this movement that spread to the Syrian Kurds in early 2000s in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli and later led to the establishment of the Rojava autonomous zone in 2012, under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with the PKK, and following the cult of personality around Öcalan.
It is argued that, under the influence of the writings of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), Öcalan adopted what Bookchin called “communalism” or “libertarian municipalism”, which sees the municipality as the highest level at which direct self-government is possible. According to The next revolution, a collection of Bookchin’s essays posthumously published, he sought to “replace the nation-state with a confederation of municipalities”, in which “decision-making power flows up from below”.
Bookchin’s “communalism and transnational direct democracy” is supposed to be reflected in Rojava’s ‘Charter of the Social Contract’. However, according to Andrea Glioti and others who have visited and studied the area, “the social contract is an obsolete document that nobody follows and very few agree with. Everybody keeps citing it, saying it’s Rojava’s constitution”, but in reality it is irrelevant. Glioti states: “there is an emphasis on the equal political representation of all ethno-religious components - Arabs, Kurds and Christians being the most sizeable ones”.1 The emphasis on ethno-sectarian identities is further echoed in the foundational statement of the Federal Democratic System, which is based on the representation of “community components”. Glioti states: “This contradiction is also evident from the authority bestowed upon tribal leaders. For instance, Shaykh Humaydi Daham al-Jarba, the head of a tribal Arab militia and an outspoken supporter of the Assad regime, was appointed as the governor of the Jazirah canton in Rojava in 2014.”
By 2016 the son of Daham al-Jarba was the commander of the al-Sanadid Forces - an Arab militia fighting alongside the PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces. As always in Kurdish areas (whether in Iran, Iraq, Syria or Turkey), the prominence of tribal leaders remains a serious problem, often blocking any meaningful challenge to the existing patriarchal social order advocated by more progressive sections. So Rojava’s social charter officially accepts private property, which has the inevitable consequence of safeguarding the interests of landowners and tribal relations.
There is a lot of talk about participatory democracy from below. However, given the crucial role played by the cult of personality, key votes at the local and regional level are often unanimous in support of the latest ideas of the ‘leader’. A strange phenomenon, given continuing class, ethnic and gender contradictions.
Glioti, who was staying in Rojava with a Syrian Kurdish family in 2013, gives an insight:
… most of the people I met were busy dealing with the rising cost of living and had no idea of the difference between federalism and libertarian municipalism. People’s Houses (Mala Gel in Kurmanji), communal places where people gather, were already open, but I discovered their existence by reading the signs at their entrance, not because people mentioned it to me.
Another threat posed to democracy and decentralisation in Rojava is the PKK’s Stalinist legacy. The party claims to have shifted towards anarchism a long time ago, but some traces of its authoritarian upbringing are still visible in its ‘Syrian lab’: Öcalan’s portraits are ubiquitous, often accompanied by the slogan, “There’s no life without a leader” (be serok jiyan nabe). The PKK supporters are not generally inclined to accept criticism of Öcalan, who has been often portrayed by his former ‘comrades’ as a despot.
When I asked a PKK chief in charge of supervising education in Amuda, northern Syria, why they had decided to hang a party leader’s portrait in schools, he told me that to him Öcalan was more a philosopher than a political leader. Unfortunately, in Rojava, Öcalan looks like the only philosopher allowed to be portrayed everywhere.
A lot has been said about women’s empowerment in Rojava and there is no doubt that combating patriarchy is an important part of the Rojava agenda. However, visitors to the region remind us of what we experienced in Iranian Kurdistan in the late 1980s and 1990s - women’s participation in armed struggle is part of militarisation of society at large. Taking up arms and martyrdom are considered prestigious and the families of ‘peshmergas’ (those who face death) are encouraged to follow in their footsteps. Female participation in politics is encouraged, but little of this affects civilians.
From all the eye-witness statements I have read, including those written by courageous ex-members of the PKK/YPG , the situation is not that different to what some of us experienced in Iranian Kurdistan three decades ago. In the Kurdish branch of the Organisation of Iranian Peoples Fedayeen Guerrillas a woman held one of the most important posts in the central committee - she was the editor of the organisation’s main paper - while I was the ‘engineer’ sent to set up a radio station. Women fighters played an equally active role in debates and the political life of the base.
In fact those years were the only times in my life when I did not see any signs of misogyny - and that includes my time working in two British universities. However, our ‘privileged position’ did not change the fact that the peasant women in the villages where we had bases were regularly beaten by their husbands, fathers or brothers. Men would refer to their wives as maal - a term relating to a collection of his possessions, including animals as well as his wife.
Let me turn now to the second issue: that of US support and now desertion of the SDF. I am amazed by those who keep referring to this as ‘betrayal’. I am sorry, but what did they expect, given the history of the region, the politics of the last few decades? Academics or activists who refer to ‘US humanitarian interventions in the Middle East’ are either suffering from amnesia or have deliberately buried their heads in the sand for the sake of their career prospects.
How can anyone forget the fundamental causes of the current situation? The rise of Islamic State was no accident. It followed the invasion of Iraq, the anger of the Sunni population of Iraq, when helicopter gunships killed civilians in towns and cities loyal to the former dictator, Saddam Hussein, when water-boarding and other ‘humanitarian’ treatment of prisoners brutalised the likes of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Abu Ghraib and other US prisons in Iraq.
No-one in their right mind should have believed that the intention of the United States and its allies in the region was just about defeating IS, even in the latter stages of the civil wars in Iraq or Syria. If the US had been serious about defeating jihadist Islamists, it would have taken steps against Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states supporting and financing them. It would have imposed sanctions on Turkey - well known as a hub of the group’s financial and trade transactions.
As for the Kurds, time and time again they have played off one country (supported by this or that major power) against another, seeking support from the most dubious rightwing forces in the US or Europe - and on every occasion ordinary Kurds have paid the price of the incompetence and betrayal of their leaders. For all its internal reforms, the YPG/SDF was no different: it sent delegations to the United States seeking political support and it is not any better, now that it has lined up once more with its historic ally, the Assad regime - albeit the son this time.
In early 2015, when it became clear that the PYD was seeking US air support, we warned that this was a slippery slope that would lead to the organisation becoming a tool of the United States. Iranian, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish supporters told us we were mistaken: the PYD was a mass organisation with solid support on the ground, it was claimed. It would be able to resist any US proposals of which it disapproved and it would never sell out. Four year later, it gives me no pleasure to say that we were right.
In the autumn of 2014 the Obama administration started giving support to PYD forces after IS had surrounded the small town of Kobanê close to the Turkish border (the Turkish government openly opposed this) and in 2015-16 Iranian and Kurdish leftwingers in the US were reporting regular visits by PYD leaders to Washington. In the summer of 2016 it became clear that US special forces were assisting the PYD and the Pentagon admitted the presence of US advisors in Kurdish areas. And in September it was reported that two planes loaded with weapons for the PYD had landed in Kobanê.
So there we have it: the PYD not only signed up to a coalition with Saudi-backed forces, but it was now accepting US military aid. But this was no surprise. As I had pointed out, far larger organisations had demonstrated how such alliances inevitably lead to complete political bankruptcy. The PYD is no exception: it is following a path already taken by a number of Kurdish organisations in both Iran and Iraq.
This strategy of allying with the enemy of one’s enemies has plagued the Kurdish opposition for decades. Until 2014 the Syrian Kurds had maintained a level of independence and integrity, but this latest collapse into the familiar pattern of reliance on foreign powers had serious consequences for the revolutionary left in the region.
Imperialism has ensured success for its policy of divide and rule by playing Kurds against Kurds, as well as against other citizens of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. So the shah of Iran, together with the US, gave support to Kurds against the Ba’athist government in Iraq - until the Algiers accord, when a deal between Iran and Iraq ended this phase. Kurds then realigned themselves with Saddam - Iranian Kurds had military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.
So the Kurds have paid a heavy price for this constant dependence on their enemy’s enemy and occasional flirtations with colonial/imperialist powers, yet there is no sign that their political leaders, as the ultimate decision-makers, have learnt anything from these successive ‘betrayals’. In recent times the most disastrous aspect of this reliance on foreign powers can be seen in the effective backing of Iranian Kurdish organisations for Donald Trump’s ‘regime change’ policy, and their pursuit of funding from Saudi Arabia and Israel.
There is no short cut to defeating all the region’s reactionary forces - Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Islamic Republic, Assad’s Syria, etc - nor to building a viable force to oppose imperialist interventions. In reality, the SDF’s actions, both in accepting US aid and now relying on Assad, have played into our enemies’ hands.