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Rojava Is Under Existential Threat

Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria would actually entrench US imperialism in the region — and open up the Kurds' revolution in Rojava to extermination and colonization.

Local residents speak with a Kurdish soldier while an oil well burns in the distance on November 10, 2015 near the town of Hole in the autonomous region of Rojava, Syria. John Moore / Getty

With local elections and another contest against his electoral nemesis, the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), just around the corner, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is wasting no time rallying the country around a common cause: destroying Rojava. “A strategic alliance with the US can only be possible if we wipe out terrorists from the north of Syria,” Erdoğan declared in December. “We have done so in Afrin and in Shengal. We have buried them in the trenches they had dug and we will continue to do so. If they don’t leave, we will make them disappear because their existence disturbs us.”

Erdoğan is itching to wage war across the border, against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the enclave commonly known as Rojava. The revolutionary region’s political program shares many similarities with the HDP’s electoral platform in Turkey, which promotes egalitarianism, peace, and radical democracy.

As for the messages that Erdoğan is telegraphing to the public, they are threefold. Domestically, to the Turkish nationalists and his coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan sells the old war against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish group). He does so by flattening all distinctions between the PKK and its civic sister in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which leads a pluralist coalition in Rojava. To the ISIS-crazed global media, Erdoğan is selling the security discourse of the “war on terror” by promising to create an ISIS-free “safe zone” right through Rojava, which also buys him favor with the European Union’s anti-refugee membership.

And to the Middle Eastern and Western left, Erdoğan sells his agenda as an anti-imperialist one, portraying the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Rojava’s self-defense forces — made up of Kurdish, Syriac, Arab, and Christian units, among others — as a US lackey. This he accomplishes by smuggling in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), the second-largest NATO army, as an alternative to the US presence in Syria, justifying the war against Rojava as, somehow, a war against imperialism.

But rhetoric aside, the facts are this: Erdoğan is clamoring to continue Turkey’s ongoing ethnic cleansing project, extending his tentacles from Afrin into the rest of Rojava. Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria does not amount to an end to US imperialism in Syria — it simply transfers the maintenance of long-term US interests to its proxies in the region. And the region’s Kurds, long colonized by multiple powers, have once again been caught in the middle — trying to fight for their liberation while grappling with the cruel realities of geopolitics.

A Colonial Handover

How would the US relate to the Syrian Kurds and Turkey under Trump’s withdrawal?

In a 2017 report, James F. Jeffrey, the Trump-appointed special representative for Syria engagement, prescribed a change of course.

“Turkey, a NATO member, sits on prime real estate . . . of central importance for U.S. policy in southern Europe and the Middle East,” Jeffrey observed. However, Washington’s “mishandling of the Syrian civil war, along with its tilt toward the PYD in the fight against IS in eastern Syria, risks forcing Turkey ever more into the Russian camp.” To remedy this risk, Jeffrey promoted a “transactional reordering” of relations with Turkey and the wider Middle East, hoping to appease Erdoğan’s drive for “Ataturk-like power.” For example, “the United States can quietly guarantee Turkey that the Armenian Genocide resolution in Congress will not pass,” or adopt a bilateral “model like the US-Israel arms sales relationship to ensure” smooth sales of the costly “F-35” program. If Washington reaches “an agreement with Turkey on its northern Syrian safe zone that would support the Turks and their Syrian opposition allies with advisory teams and airpower . . . and refuse to recognize PYD autonomy, much of the rancor in the current relationship would dissipate.”

That’s one plan. Then there is National Security Advisor John Bolton’s alternative five-point plan, which proposes what amounts to another “safe zone,” this one manned by the Kurdish National Council’s (ENKS) Rôj Peshmerga militia, the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (which has strong ties to Erdoğan’s party). Bolton’s plan is favored by the establishment in Washington because it would shift political decision-making in Rojava to the safe neoliberal center. Air support from a potential KSA-UAE-Egypt alliance would then mollify the worries of some Arab states, as well as the Israeli military, about further extension of Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s reach in Syria. Here, the United States would save face by not “abandoning the Kurds” and slow down ongoing talks between the PYD and Assad, while retaining de facto control over North and North Eastern Syria.

Either way, the US withdrawal hides a grand strategy to further entrench US imperialism in the region. Americans are not leaving Syria. They’re simply transferring their interests to NATO members and allies. And since the TAF is not even prepared to replace the US Army for such a mission — given the purges the TAF’s personnel has experienced since the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 — the United States would have to offer “substantial military support, including airstrikes, transport and logistics.” In other words, deeper US military involvement.

Unfortunately, this basic fact has escaped some on the Left, who have taken the purported US pullout at face value and, at times, been willing to believe alternative truths about the revolution in Rojava or dismiss its participants as pawn on the imperialist chessboard. Take, for instance, the infamous 2015 Amnesty International report about alleged human rights abuses by the SDF, which the UN has since debunked. Amid the cacophony raised by this charade, Erdoğan’s expansionist project disguises itself as “anti-imperialist” to silence the real leftist program — the one in Rojava.

More fundamentally, the ready celebration of what is in fact a colonial handover suffers from a lack of awareness about the histories and specificities of oppressed peoples’ struggles in the Middle East against the region’s neoliberal and imperialist states.

Kurdistan, a Colony

Adopting Frantz Fanon’s words, we can say that for the Kurd there is only one destiny: to become a nonKurd. Assimilation or disappearance has been the colonial reality of the so-called “Kurdish Question” in the Middle East since the beginnings of the modern nation-state, particularly in Turkey and Syria.

The plans for a “safe zone” controlled by Turkey would involve resettling millions of Arab Syrian refugees, currently in Turkey, in Rojava’s Kurdish areas near the Turkish border. The Erdoğan regime, known for pushing neoliberal policies driven by the twin profit motors of construction and energy, have put housing projects for the settlers on the colonial agenda to boost the Turkish economy. The scale of it would be staggering.

In fact, such a colonial-settler project surpasses, in both size and scope, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s 1973 completion of the original “Arab Belt” project, which deported 140,000 Kurds from 332 villages in Rojava over ten years to Syria’s southern desert regions, replacing them with twenty-five thousand Arab families in forty-one “model villages.” Demographic engineering lies at the heart of colonial Turkification and Arabization policies that have dominated the region’s political and social realities, from Syria to Turkey and then to Iraq and Iran, against Kurds and Armenians among others.

In the case of Turkey, the state has always attempted to integrate and homogenize the dissident Kurdish regions in its territory into a common cultural stream, first by invading their traditional home places and then by razing them to create spaces of control and discipline. For example, after the 1938 Dersim massacre, which saw tens of thousands killed following a Kurdish uprising against state repression, the Turkish state redistributed the remaining Kurdish population of the area to various majority-Turkish cities. The Turkish state employed the same approach again in the 1990s, when the military burned down more than four thousand Kurdish villages, displacing the entire rural population of the majority-Kurdish Southeast. In both cases, the Turkish state’s primary aim was to domesticate those resisting its aggressive Turkification policies.

Scholars like Ismail Beşikçi, a sociologist of Turkish origin, have shown that the Turkish state’s institutionalized policies against its Kurdish population exhibit a “genocidal character.” Beşikçi also argues that despite the political appearances and differences between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the four nation-states share the cooperative goal of denying their Kurds the right to dignified existence, forging the Kurdish Question in the process — or in his words, the “international colony of Kurdistan.”

The colonial reality of the Kurdish Question, however, is not limited by its territorial determinations and histories either; it is not reducible to the division and allocation of predominantly Kurdish lands in the early twentieth century to the newly born states of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by imperialist powers. The international colonization of Kurdistan must be understood as a continuum that appears in how citizenship is defined and distributed by state powers across the Middle East.

In Turkey, the state traditionally considered Kurds “pseudo-citizens” who stood outside the boundaries of the Turkish nation, only granted citizenship rights (and an assimilated Kurd identity card) if they relinquished their mother tongue, history, and identity. Beşikçi recalls an ironic scene from the martial law court of Diyarbakır, Turkey, in 1971, where “persons who spoke Kurdish and not even one word of Turkish were said to be Turks, despite the fact that the courts were forced to hire interpreters to communicate with the accused.”

Historically, Kurdistan has therefore been a sort of hybrid colony — assaulted by the various colonial practices of four nation-states, intertwined with the geopolitics of imperialist powers.

“Playing One’s Own Game”

The Kurdish liberation movement is marked by the contradiction that, as Gramsci put it, “whatever one does one is always playing somebody’s game.” He added: “The important thing is to seek in every way to play one’s own game with success.”

Statelessness is one such hurdle. In Syria, a special census, decree No. 93, ordered in 1963 by President Nazim al-Qudsi, stripped 120,000 Kurds of citizenship. By the onset of the Syrian revolution, the descendants of this group numbered more than three hundred thousand, divided into the two extra-legal categories of ajanib, or foreigners, and maktumin, literally undocumented migrants in their own country.

Kurds have tried to make the best of this situation, orienting their strategy and theory toward overcoming it. Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish liberation theorist, developed his theory of Democratic Confederalism as one rooted in statelessness, which Syrian Kurds took up as a framework for grassroots organization in the decade preceding the Syrian revolution.

Öcalan’s writings on women’s liberation in the Middle East are no less Machiavellian in both strategic foresight and liberatory aptitude. He regards women’s emancipation “as a tool to destroy the structures of feudal Kurdish society,” where “women were at the bottom of a tribal hierarchy.” He recognizes that “feudal family and tribal structures presented an obstacle to [political] recruitment” and so “breaking down the established patriarchal social order would allow for the emergence of a new society in which women would take part equally.” (The destruction of the patriarchal family structure is doubly important, since the TAF arms and co-opts conservative Kurdish tribes in its war against the PKK.)

The implicit and explicit contradictions of this agenda only underscore the agency and remarkable accomplishments of the Kurdish women’s revolutions in Turkey and Syria. A gender distribution ratio in government, local feminist courts, a social contract that women have played a central role in writing and executing, indigenous and autonomous communalism — all are part of the feminist program in Rojava.

The danger in this Gramscian game, however, is that one might become too prone to playing another’s game. For example, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has maintained military bases and airports in Rojava throughout the civil war, since it handed control of Rojava over to the PYD at the outset of the Syrian revolution. (So sure was Bashar al-Assad of continued Kurdish subservience that he even left some guns behind, so the Kurds may fend for themselves.)

One might call this development inevitable, given the PYD’s mistrust of the Turkish-backed opposition umbrella organization, the Syrian National Council (SNC). But it was a position that only alienated the Syrian opposition, who then refused all PYD overtures to join opposition talks on Syria’s future — and who, save for the too-late and even-then-ambiguous Kurdish Issue Charter, had refused to recognize Kurdish demands for federalism. In fact, it is another one of the flaws of some parts of the international left that it continues to condemn the Kurds for refusing to embrace the Sunni and Arab vision of the Spring in Syria.

The PYD’s brief spring of autonomy came to a near end in 2014, when a well-armed ISIS found its way well into the gates of the city of Kobane. Here, the United States entered the Kurdish picture, seeing that its support for a failing Free Syrian Army (FSA) only amounted to a handover to ISIS of the military equipment it supplied to the FSA via Saudi intermediation – weaponry lost to ISIS in battle after battle. US airstrikes against ISIS positions in Kobane then enabled Rojava’s People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) to mount a resistance that has since become known as the Stalingrad monument of the war against ISIS.

Of course, the US deployed the narrative of a “war on terror” only as a pretext to attach itself to the PYD/YPG, and as a means to preserve its many interests in the Middle East, one of which is to obstruct the Iranian Shiite Corridor — a path laden with missile depots and stretching from Iraq to Western Syria to the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, ending right at Israel’s doorstep. In return, the YPG sought to wipe out ISIS by taking over oil fields in central Syria that funded the group’s reign of terror. In the process, the logistical necessities of driving ISIS out of Rojava also rendered the YPG/J dependent on the US’s might and tact. Add to such military exigencies the severe psychological impact of the atrocities committed by ISIS in Kurdish-majority areas, and it becomes evident that in the formation of the SDF in 2015, under US supervision, we are dealing with a situation in which Rojava’s revolution — built on confederalism and radical democracy — has been pushed toward an anti-ISIS and pro-security and territorial insurrectionary discourse.

Now, with the end of the war against ISIS and with US positions firmly anchored in Syria, the restoration of the status quo in Syria returns the Gramscian Rojava to the status of the odd one out, once again. And having put aspects of its internationalist project on hold, in favor of an understandable drive for security, Rojava finds itself dispensable and replaceable by any bully with a bigger gun — such as Turkey, who can lay claim to securing the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria. Perhaps, then, the political lesson here is that if a revolutionary force engages in a “war of maneuver” with the aid of a hegemon, it should not lose sight of how that hegemon might be engaged in a careful, atrocious “war of position.”

The SDF’s alternatives to the US’s plans are less clear cut. Damascus’s Russian-dictated reaction to the list of ten reconciliation demands put forward by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political wing, has been lukewarm. Assad is likely weighing the perils of making peace with an armed and organized Rojava in a postwar scene where he will already have his hands full with the reconstruction capital pouring in from Arab states. But after the bloodbath and the chemical bombs, he must also be wary of another resurgence from Syria’s repressed Sunni majority, who kickstarted the revolution and who live between the Damascus strongholds and Rojava. Maintaining Turkey’s Kurdish problem might deter Turkey from sponsoring future revolts, while keeping a leash on Rojava.

As for Trump, his administration will likely seek a deal between the PYD and Turkey that aims to pacify Turkish fears by driving a wedge between the YPG/J and their PKK forbears in Turkey.

What the International Left Should Do

The people of Rojava have fought for their revolution, and their victories have been significant given the challenges. Without an amenable leftist state or party to aid them, their options were simple: die, or die. They have refused that result, fighting instead for a new state of life and politics.

What can the international left do to aid them now, at this crucial juncture? We should support shutting down arms sales to the Turkish state, including from Germany, England, and, of course, the United States. We should staunchly oppose the economic blockade Turkey has imposed on Rojava: items entering from Rojava’s border with Iraq are restricted to no more than the bare necessities of sustenance. Here, the international left could raise the costs of the Turkish embargo on Rojava by highlighting its counter-revolutionary character — an old imperialist measure also imposed on other revolutionary enclaves, such as Cuba — or circumvent state actors altogether by organizing direct international aid to Rojava’s people via leftist parties and sympathizers.

Unfortunately, the news from Rojava rarely makes it to the mainstream media, buried instead in a swamp of propaganda and fake news produced by Erdoğan’s cyber army. The news of the ethnic cleansing in Afrin has not been given center stage in the media, anywhere, for more than a year. So the international left must become a louder voice against the perpetuation of humanitarian disasters.

Both the United States and Russia should get out of Syria, and the international left should pressure the Assad regime to settle for a democratic program of the country’s transition to confederalism. It is crucial that a neutral and international peacekeeping force guarantees the peacefulness of such a transition for all inhabitants of Syria by barring the expansion of interventionist states already present in Syria, such as Turkey and Iran. Returning control of the province of Idlib, occupied at the moment by al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to a local civilian administration, is integral to such a transition plan. Finally, the international left should support the HDP’s peace process in Turkey, so that Erdoğan’s war machine is deprived of preemptive pretexts once and for all.

Rojava, the site of a remarkable peoples’ revolution, is on the brink of colonization and extermination. The international left must stand against it.

End Mark

About the Author

Rosa Burç is a PhD researcher of the Center on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS) at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy. Her research is on radical democracy and grassroots movements, currently focusing on the Kurdish movement in the Middle East. She has conducted several research visits to various parts of the Kurdish region.

Fouad Oveisy is a PhD student of critical theory and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He researches the intersections between realpolitik, political theory, and post-revolutionary strategy and literature, with a particular focus on the Kurdish Question.

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