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Between Rojava and Washington

The Kurdish struggle has been undermined by world-power clashes over the future of Syria.

A Kurdish PKK fighter. Kurdish Struggle / Flickr

The Syrian civil war has evolved into a proxy war involving an array of both regional and global powers. On one side, Iran, Russia, and now China have acted to stabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad, while on the other, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Turkey, and the United States are backing anti-Assad rebels, in an effort to affect regime change in Damascus.

Yet the Syrian tragedy — which in five years of fighting has cost nearly half a million lives and provoked the largest refugee crisis since World War II — has brought to the fore forces that have muddied the waters for those powers seeking to oust the Assad government. While the West and its regional allies have sought to back what they describe as “moderate” rebels, the most effective military resistance to the Assad regime has come from a collection of radical Islamist groups. These have included Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, al-Jabhat al-Nusra, which recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an organization which seeks to impose a radical version of Islam on not only Syria but the entire Muslim world.

However, Islamic-orientated “black reaction” is not the only political force unleashed by Syria’s chaos. The conflict has also seen Syria’s long-marginalized Kurdish community — which numbers between 1.5 and 2.5 million — rise to prominence in the country’s predominantly Kurdish north, a region known to Kurds as Rojava. The Kurdish experiment in self-government, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has differed greatly from the Islamic State’s efforts to construct a global caliphate.

Those living within the boundaries of ISIS have suffered at the hands of a brutal regime governed by a literalist and unforgiving version of Islamic law, a system that has subjugated women, promoted sexual slavery, and, more generally, imposed the harshest punishments upon anyone they regard as not conforming to their interpretation of correct Islamic behavior. In contrast, the Kurdish experiment in self-rule has promoted inter-ethnic solidarity and cooperation, the emancipation of women, and popular democracy.

Defending the Rojava Revolution

In both ideological and organizational terms, the PYD is, in essence, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist Kurdish political organization founded in Turkey in the late 1970s that has waged a guerrilla war against both the Turkish government and Kurdish forces they regarded as “pro-government” collaborators. Until his arrest in 1999, the organization was directed by its founder Abdullah Öcalan, an individual who routinely did away those who challenged his decisions and constructed a grotesque cult of personality around himself.

However, since his imprisonment, Öcalan appears to have mellowed and, in his writings, has reoriented the PKK away from Soviet-style Marxism towards an ideology that blends elements of feminism, environmentalism, and anarchism, inspired by the anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin.

Indeed, the PKK, which in its 1978 manifesto advocated the creation of a “united, independent, and socialist Kurdistan” (incorporating lands in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), has completely rejected the nation-state model as a resolution of the Kurdish question in favor of what the party calls “democratic confederalism,” a form of participatory democracy based upon local autonomy. It is these principles that govern in Syrian Kurdistan today.

These observations are not meant to idealize the Rojava revolution. Like all revolutionary movements, the PYD has often failed to live up to its ideals. It has yet to shake off the authoritarian impulses inherited from the PKK, and has frequently been accused of suppressing other Kurdish political parties in Syria, including the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an organization with close links to the Iraqi Kurdish political leadership. It also faces allegations of ethnic cleansing in Arab villages and has, at times, used child soldiers. The organization also continues to promote the cult of Öcalan through its control of the education system and media.

Despite these shortcomings, the achievements of the Rojava revolution are undeniable. The 2014 Rojava “Social Contract” enshrined the principles of inter-ethnic cooperation, religious tolerance, popular democracy, and gender equality. Indeed, on the issue of gender equality, the Syrian Kurdish revolutionaries have made enormous strides.

While many so-called secular regimes throughout the Middle East have paid lip service to “women’s rights,” the PYD has enforced concrete measures to ensure the emancipation of women. The PYD’s decision-making bodies implement gender parity and executive positions are held by male and female co-leaders. The PYD’s military structure also includes an all-female division known as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Women are active participants in the Rojava revolution, not passive observers.

For these reasons, despite its many shortcomings, the Rojava revolution is worthy of support from the political left, if only because it demolishes the myth that secular military dictatorships and authoritarian Islamist theocracies constitute the only political alternatives in the Middle East. Yet after two years of military and political success, the Rojava revolution is in danger.

Intolerable Contradictions

While the PYD seized control of Kurdish-inhabited regions of northern Syria very early on in the Syrian conflict, their rise to international prominence came within the context of the fight against the Islamic State. Following the Islamic State’s successful invasion of northwestern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the organization launched a full-scale assault on the Syrian Kurds. The struggle centered on the town of Kobanê in which local Kurdish fighters, many of whom were young women, heroically defended the town from ISIS’s onslaught.

The battle for Kobanê proved pivotal for Syria’s Kurds. With ISIS advancing in both Iraq and Syria, humiliating US-backed forces including the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in the process, the Obama administration was essentially forced to provide air support to PYD forces in Kobanê in order to deny ISIS a victory, a victory which would have served to enhance its image of military invincibility.

Yet by intervening on the side of the Syrian Kurds, the United States was creating a completely unsustainable contradiction in its Middle Eastern policy, particularly with regard to its relationship with Turkey.

The roots of this contradiction lie in the fact that the United States has long regarded the PKK — the organization from which the PYD sprung — as a terrorist organization, and has provided both military and political support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK for decades. With the decision to support the Syrian Kurds US officials have thus been thrust into the comical position of pretending that the PYD and PKK are entirely separate organizations, a fiction that is almost impossible to sustain.

This state of affairs has been exacerbated by the fact that, while the United States is prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State, Ankara views the PKK-PYD axis and the Assad regime as the main enemy. Indeed, Turkey has been more than willing to tolerate the flow of fighters and weapons into Syria in order to undermine its enemies — a policy that has bolstered the position of the Islamic State.

At the same time, Ankara refused to allow Kurds from Turkey to cross into Kobanê to help defend the city, a move which sparked violent protests across Turkey’s Kurdish-inhabited southeast and which helped the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) secure over 12 percent of the vote in the June 2015 elections.

Turkey finally joined the “anti-ISIS” coalition in July 2015, but its strikes against ISIS positions in northern Syria have been largely symbolic. The bulk of its military action has been directed against PKK positions in Iraq, and Ankara has consistently worked to exclude the PYD from peace talks aimed at bringing the Syrian conflict to an end.

Despite continued efforts to undermine the Syrian Kurds, the PYD won the battle for Kobanê — a major strategic setback for Turkey. Following its victory, the PYD launched a successful offensive, seizing the ISIS-held town of Tell Abyad in June 2015, a major crossing point for Islamist fighters from Turkey. This victory was extremely significant for Syria’s Kurds.

Until then Kurdish-controlled territories had been truncated, with the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobanê, and Qamishlo separated from each other by ISIS-held territories. The Tell Abyad win strengthened the Kurdish position in Syria by linking up Kobanê and Qamishlo. This prompted Turkey to declare that any PYD efforts to cross the Euphrates river and seek to link up with the Afrin canton would constitute a “red line.”

Despite fierce opposition to the PYD, Ankara was unable to halt Kurdish advances in Syria, especially now that they had limited US support. But the basic anti-PYD calculus of Turkey policy remained consistent. After all, every PYD victory enhanced not only the prestige and influence of the Syrian Kurds, but also the PKK, which by late 2015 was engaged in an armed struggle against Turkey’s authorities in towns and cities across the Kurdish southeast.

The longer the PYD experiment in Kurdish radical self-government continued, the more attractive it became to Kurds in Turkey. Turkey’s hands were tied however. Plagued by instability and unrest at home, as well as a diplomatic spat with Russia over the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces, Ankara was unable to intervene into Syria directly.

Selling out the Revolution?

However, the attempted coup d’état of July 2016 has radically shifted the political landscape in Turkey. Following the failure of a camarilla of military officers to remove Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from office, Erdoğan began a full-scale purge of military officers implicated in the coup d’état, including Adem Huduti, a veteran anti-PKK fighter and the commander responsible for the Turco-Syrian border.

Encouraged by these developments, and working under the assumption that the threat of Turkish military intervention had receded, the PYD leadership authorized a westward offensive across the Euphrates, crossing Turkey’s “red lines.” By August 2016 PYD forces had driven ISIS forces out of Manbij, which, although a predominately Arab town, greeted the PYD (and its Arab allies) as liberators. This move by the Rojava rebels proved too much for Ankara; the stage was set for Turkish military intervention.

On the morning of August 24, Turkish forces backed by local Islamist militias associated with the Free Syrian Army crossed the frontier, taking control of the ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus. Significantly, ISIS offered almost no resistance to the Turkish advance, sparking accusations that the entire operation had been staged for Western eyes and that ISIS forces had been informed of the operation beforehand. While Turkey entered under the banner of the anti-ISIS coalition, the true target of the action was the PYD which had been slowly advancing towards the city.

Moreover, Turkey’s August intervention into Syria has exposed the inherent contradictions within the US government’s regional policy. The PYD was never the first choice of ally for Washington policy makers; the PYD-Washington relationship was always an alliance of convenience, born out of the fact that other than the Assad regime, the PYD were the only military force able to halt the advances of the Islamic State.

However, despite the cooling of relations between the United States and Turkey, Washington continues to prioritize its relationship with its erstwhile NATO ally. Immediately after Turkey crossed the border, no less than Vice President Joe Biden demanded that the PYD withdraw from Mabaj, back across the Euphrates river.

Naturally, the United States and its European allies are keen to avoid clashes between Turkish and PYD forces. But it appears they are in no position to stop them, as Turkish-backed Islamists are now in open conflict with the PYD and its Arab allies. Erdoğan is calling America’s bluff. By entering Syria, he is forcing America to choose between the Kurds and Turkey.

In this scenario, there is little doubt who the United States will back. And once again the Kurds will become victims of Great Power imperial politics. The days of the Rojava revolution may well be numbered.

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About the Author

Djene Bajalan is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Missouri State University. His research focuses on Middle Eastern affairs and he has previously taught and studied in the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan.