Socialist Alternative

Kurdistan: The Battle for Kobane

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Regional war poses new challenges for struggle for Kurdish self-determination

Serge Jordan, CWI

KobanêThumbnailEvery day brings more gruesome news of the actions perpetrated by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS): beheadings, crucifixions, enslavement of women and massacres of minorities and of virtually everybody who stands against their utterly sectarian agenda.

A few miles from the Turkish border, the northern Syrian city of Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab in Arabic) and its predominantly Kurdish population constitutes one of the three Kurdish enclaves in north and north-east Syria. For more than two years, these have been under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). These three Kurdish cantons in the north of Syria are also called Western Kurdistan or ‘Rojava’ in Kurdish.

Two weeks ago, IS launched a major coordinated offensive on Kobanê, besieging it from the east, west and south. The jihadists have modern and heavy weapons and armour, including tanks, much of it looted from the Iraqi army last June. The Kurdish militias of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, the armed units affiliated to the PYD) are mainly armed with elderly soviet guns and automatic rifles.

The Kurdish villages around Kobanê, taken over by IS’s advance in the last days, have been the scenes of new atrocities perpetrated by IS, such as summary executions of villagers. Reports indicate that over 150,000 refugees, mostly Kurds, fled to Turkey. This is the largest and fastest exodus of civilians since the Syrian conflict began.

The role of Turkey

Many accuse the Turkish regime, ruled by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), of collusion with IS. The convergence of timing between the major IS offensive on Kobanê and the recent liberation of 49 Turkish hostages has raised new suspicions of collusion between IS and the Turkish state. Whatever the details of the deal concluded between the Turkish authorities and IS, it is clear that the Turkish ruling class does not want an emboldened and politically radicalised Kurdish population on its doorstep.

A de-facto economic embargo has been imposed by Turkey over Rojava. The German magazine Spiegel reported that Turkish security officials were involved in sponsoring the 2012 attacks on Syrian Kurds by the Qaeda-linked Nursa Front and the Free Syrian Army.

Kurdish protesters trying to cross the border to assist in the defence of Kobanê have faced fierce repression from the Turkish police. “I want to go to Kobanê and fight the IS, which is right now butchering my people, but I can’t”, complained a 30-year-old Turkish-Kurd interviewed by journalists. However, hundreds of unarmed protesters have managed to cross the border fences and rushed towards the besieged city.

In recent years, the AKP regime encouraged the flow of radical Islamic fighters onto the Syrian battlefield. They have been used as proxy forces against Bashar al Assad’s regime and also to undermine the Kurdish resistance in the north. The Turkish state now faces a Frankenstein’s monster, as the growth of IS in Syria and Iraq is increasingly seen by the Turkish state as a potential threat to its internal stability. The Turkish rulers are even less keen to tolerate a PKK-controlled area in the north of Syria, which is seen by many as a symbol of resistance for the Kurds of the whole region -especially for the restive Kurdish population within Turkey’s borders.

The PKK and the Turkish government have been in a “state of non-conflict” within Turkey since March of last year. This is part of a negotiated “peace process”. The uncertain outcome of developments in the wider region is potentially threatening this unstable process. This was highlighted by recent declarations by PKK leaders admitting they are having trouble “restraining” their own fighters. They even threatened to nullify the settlement process.

While a package of democratic reforms have been granted to the Kurds in Turkey in the last couple of years, the economic and social marginalisation of the Kurdish population continues. Many are growing sceptical about the limits of the reforms. For example, one of these new reforms was the offer of providing Kurdish language education. Yet this “reform” only applies to private schools and not public schools. The recent opening of three private schools offering young Kurds education in their mother tongue led to the police deploying armoured vehicles and water cannon to stop what was described as an “unpermitted educational institution”.

Within such a charged situation, clashes between police and activists in the Kurdish south east of Turkey are becoming increasingly frequent. An atmosphere of looming unrest predominates. While a return to open armed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish army remains unlikely, at this stage, as none of the parties would gain from such a development, events can take on logic of their own. Illustrating growing tensions, last Friday, three Turkish policemen were killed in an ambush between the South eastern cities of Diyarbakir and Bitlis,.

The PKK and resistance to Islamic State

There is no doubt that in both northern Iraq, and in and around Rojava, the self-sacrifice and guerrilla experience of many fighters from the PKK and PYD have played an important role in keeping IS in check. The determination of many of the PKK-linked fighters to deal with IS is also motivated by the comparatively better situation the Kurdish population enjoys in Rojava since the forces of the Syrian regime were driven out of this area.

Numbering more than 25 million, the Kurds remain the largest stateless nation in the world, divided up between four different national territories. They have been systematically denied their national and cultural identity and basic democratic rights, and been subjected to brutal repression. Within that context, surrounded by an ocean of reaction, made up of dictatorial regimes and jihadist violence, the experience of the so-called “liberated zones” of Rojava, in which the Kurds can exercise their cultural and linguistic rights, has been looked at by many Kurds in the region with pride and inspiration.

The units of the PKK have gained further sympathy after they secured a corridor to help the Yazidi minority escaping the danger of an imminent genocide by the reactionary IS gangs on the Sinjar mountains, in northern Iraq, last August. Despite the better weaponry in the hands of the ‘peshmerga’ (the Kurdish military forces linked to the PKD and PUD, the corrupt, neo-liberal parties ruling the Kurdish autonomous region in the north of Iraq, or Southern Kurdistan), the latter retreated without a fight. The PKK forces stepped in, providing the bulk of the fight against IS in that area.

The Turkish regime’s balancing act

These developments have put the Turkish state in an increasingly uncomfortable position and a growing dilemma. The PKK and PYD are being seen, including by a layer of Turkish workers and youth, as playing an active role in the fight against IS. At the same time, the ruling AKP has been exposed as having encouraged the rise of IS in different ways. This is putting, once again, the credibility of the regime’s foreign policy under serious strain. On the other hand, as a member of NATO, the Turkish ruling class has been under increasing pressure from US imperialism to take a more active involvement in the coalition against IS. At the UN General Assembly in New York, the Turkish president Erdoğan showed a shift in approach. Previously Turkey was reluctant to back the US. But at the UN, Erdoğan offered “both military and political contributions” to the US-led actions. Such a move might cover an attempt by the Turkey to use the anti-IS coalition to strike a blow at the Kurdish resistance by other means.

On 2 October, the Turkish Parliament is voting on a motion regarding Turkey’s role in the coalition, which includes a possible deployment of troops into Syria and Iraq in the case of a “threat to national security”, as well as the authorization for foreign troops to transit through Turkey. One of Erdoğan’s projects is also the establishment of a “buffer zone” inside Syria along the Turkish border. This would help the regime to limit the massive flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey. It would also seek to isolate and strangle further the Kurdish enclaves.

A more concrete engagement from the Turkish army in the fight against IS, such as allowing the use of its military bases for the US-backed airstrikes, or the entering of Turkish ground forces within Syria or Iraq, would expose Turkey to possible terrorist retaliations by IS in its mainland. Turkish people would again pay the price for the foreign adventures of their ruling elites.

The struggle to defend Kobanê and Rojava

In the looming confrontation between the people of Kobanê and Rojava and Islamic State, socialists do not look from the side-lines and take a neutral position, as if the outcome of such a battle was of no significance to the fate of the masses of the region.

Geographically surrounded and vulnerable to attacks, the threatened city of Kobanê is also very strategically located. The capture of that area by IS raises the dangerous possibility of wide-scale massacres of Kurds, which Islamic State views as secularists that need to be physically eliminated. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds could be driven out from lands where they have lived for thousands of years while giving IS easier access to the Turkish border and to north-west Iraq.

The CWI stands for the right of the Kurdish people to armed resistance to defend themselves, their villages, neighbourhoods and families against the onslaught of Islamic State, – as well as against any sectarian force or state terror. Faced with the threat of savage reaction, a mass organised and democratically-controlled armed mobilisation of Kurdish workers and poor peasants to resist IS’s advance is a vital necessity.

For that purpose, socialists should recognise the right of the Kurdish people to acquire the weapons they need to defend themselves. However, to win the right of self-determination of the Kurds on a genuine and meaningful way, it is important to warn against any attempts by imperialism and by the local ruling elites to exploit the fate of the Kurds for their own purposes. It is no secret that the Western imperialist powers supplied arms to religious sectarian forces in the past to advance their interests. When the guns are turned against them, they seek to arm the opposition. They do this not to strengthen the forces that are fighting against repression, but to gain their control back of the resources in the region. No illusions should be created in the role of Western imperialism, whose actions will only further religious sectarian divisions.

No to imperialist intervention!

The supposed ‘humanitarian’ motivation of the West to intervene military in the region is an old and well-known excuse to cover up for imperialism’s sinister calculations. In that sense, the plight of the Kurds has offered a new cynical argument for Western powers to justify their military escalation in the Middle East. The threat to the people of Benghazi was also used three years ago to justify NATO’s bombing of Libya. The reality is that jihadists have been perpetrating massacres in Syria for the last two years, at least, without Western governments and media expressing the global outrage that we hear now.

The history of the Kurdish people has shown many times that the imperialist powers and capitalist elites are no friends of the Kurdish peoples’ long-standing struggle for national liberation. When Saddam Husseins’ regime was killing the Iraqi Kurds on a mass scale, including the deadly gassing of 5,000 people in the village of Halabja, in 1988, the so-called “international community” did not lift a little finger to help.

The more weapons are being flown into the region by Western governments, the bigger the influence of these capitalist powers is likely to be to impose their political agenda and try to prevent any serious challenge to their system or interests in the process. In this power struggle, the more left-leaning elements are all the more likely to be ultimately side lined or even crushed by those factions acting as proxy to the capitalist-orientated goals of US imperialism and its allies.

That is why the decision of the Danish supporters of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) to vote in the Danish parliament in favour of sending a Hercules airplane full of weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq -a right wing government largely pliant to the interests of imperialism – is a dangerous and mistaken policy.

It also appears that while the leaders of the PKK and the PYD regularly criticise the agenda of imperialism in the region, they are also attempting to build better ties with the Western powers. Some reports even mention representatives of the PYD (which, contrary to the PKK, is not banned by the EU and the US) travelling to London to meet with the British Foreign Office. In the same vein, some capitalist politicians and commentators are discussing the possibility of the PKK being removed from the European and American lists of terrorist organisations. This is an expression of how much the PKK’s struggle against the jihadists has contributed to its popularity, especially, but not only, amongst the Kurdish community. At the same time, these developments and others also indicate that some sections of the Western ruling class are flirting with the idea of at least temporarily normalising their relation with the PKK, for their own cynical ends.

The history of the Kurdish people is a history of resistance. But it is also a history of sell-outs and betrayals by various Kurdish leaders, some of which have struck deals with imperialism for the sake of their own personal benefits. This is shown by the examples of the likes of Masoud Barzani, the famously corrupt president of the Kurdish Regional Government, in Southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq). His project for Kurdish “self-rule” is no more than the building of a client-state largely dependent on regional and imperialist powers. Its economy is aimed at enriching a small Kurdish elite, Turkish big business and multinational corporations.

Any solution for the Kurdish struggle relying on the political backing of western imperialism should be rejected, and delivery of weapons can be accepted only on the basis of a rejection of “conditions” imposed by outside powers that run against the interests of the mass of the Kurdish people. Furthermore, the leaders who speak on behalf of the Kurdish community should be held accountable for their words and actions, with no secret behind the scenes deals with imperialist and capitalist leaders.

The forming of democratically-elected, non sectarian defence committees in all Kurdish areas, neighbourhoods, cities, towns and villages is essential. This would allow the mass of ordinary people to take an active role in the resistance against IS, but also to democratically decide the course of action, including decisions regarding the supply, use and distribution of weapons, and to be able to challenge any behind-the-door deal that could put the gains of their struggle into jeopardy.

In a situation of increasing desperation and fears on the ground, repeated calls for the West to ‘intervene’ are understandable, but nevertheless threaten to choke off the very struggle for liberation that so many Kurds want to see carried through to victorious conclusion.

The US-led military strikes launched on IS targets, for example, rather than assisting the Kurdish population under the threat of IS have only made matters worse. Dozens of civilians in Arab Sunni-dominated zones have been killed, and this only drives new recruits into the arms of IS. Kobanê’s inhabitants complain that these bombings, by driving some IS fighters away from their strongholds, push them towards the Kurdish areas.

That is why while uncompromisingly recognising the legitimacy of the armed resistance against IS, it is vital that all aspects of this resistance is democratically controlled from below.

The self-governed cantons of Rojava

It is reported that steps towards a more democratic decision-making process are encouraged in Rojava. This is particularly true when it comes to organising women fighting for their rights and playing a bigger role in society, including on the military front. A third of the YPG militias are made up of women. This stands out in the region, especially in comparison with the ultra-reactionary agenda of women’s subjugation defended by IS and other right-wing religious forces in the region.

Unfortunately, reports from some human rights’ organisations also highlight certain trends in the PYD’s methods of rule in the area that socialists need to subject to unambiguous criticism. This includes, for example, the kidnapping and abduction of journalists critical of that party’s views. The PYD insists that all political organizations have to recognize its leading role. The leaders of this organisation consider it should be taken for granted that they play the leading role rather than allow a process of full democratic debate and discussion, controlled from below. Notwithstanding their current popular support, this illustrates administrative, top-down, bureaucratic methods by the PYD and PKK leaders, which socialists should oppose.

The project of the PKK and PYD leadership is based on what they refer to as “Democratic Confederalism”, based on self-administered councils and assemblies. Such councils can potentially play a pivotal role in encouraging the active and democratic involvement of the mass of the population, workers, poor peasants, women and young people, not only in the immediate tasks of defending the area from IS’ reaction, but also in the revolutionary transformation of society. However, such councils and assemblies need to have decision-making powers and to be linked together on a local, regional and wider level. It is essential that all councils are formed on the basis of the systematic election of delegates, subject to recall, at all levels, and the right of all political parties to democratically defend their views and programmes. They need a system of democratic workers’ control and management and not simply to be transition belts for the implementation of the decisions of the PYD leadership in a top-down fashion. As, for example, was the case in the Cuban revolution and recently under Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

The “Constitution of the Rojava Canton”, aims at establishing a “social contract” to run the autonomous areas, the right to work, social security, health, adequate housing etc. However the economic basis upon which such demands are supposed to be realised and guaranteed remains very evasive. While some occasional references are made to ‘socialism’, in reality, this is seen as something for the future and meanwhile the political organisations running the region plan to work within capitalism.

That is why – while it is important to defend Kobanê, and Rojava, as a whole, against IS rampage, state repression and imperialist meddling, and to preserve the positive gains established in those areas – struggle needs to be linked to a broader and viable political strategy that can ensure a long term and genuine solution to the oppression and marginalisation of Kurdish people, in Rojava and all parts of Kurdistan.

For working class unity and solidarity

The PKK and the PYD claim they are among the only political forces involved in the military conflict not basing themselves on religious sectarian politics. That this gains an echo, shows how a class appeal across sectarian and national lines could be a powerful lever to appeal to workers, poor and oppressed people of all communities and religions in the wider region. Indeed, not only Kurdish but also millions of Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish workers, peasants and unemployed are denied the right to a dignified existence, free from poverty and violence.

Similarly, guarantees of equal rights must be consistently provided for all minorities who live in all the Kurdish zones: Assyrians, Arabs, Turkmens, etc. The strength and viability of the Kurdish resistance in Rojava will depend on the wider mobilisation and support it can win from workers, the poor and youth internationally, and on the geographical extension and strengthening of its most progressive features.

The protest action organised in Istanbul by the KESK (Confederation of Public Workers’ Union) and TMMOB (Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) in solidarity with the struggle in Kobanê, and against the complicity of the AKP government in IS’s actions, is a small example of what can be done by the left and the trade union movement on a wider scale; to build the international solidarity and unity of the working class in favour of the Kurds’ struggle for self-determination.

The AKPs’ increasing agenda of backdoor war against the Syrian Kurds is partially motivated by its attempt at diverting the attention away from its growing domestic problems. This is why such welcomed mobilisations in support of the Kurdish resistance should be linked up to the building of a mass struggle of all workers’, the poor and those exploited by capitalism; Turkish and Kurdish alike, within Turkey, against the neo-liberal and authoritarian agenda of the Turkish ruling class. This would also offer a powerful alternative road to those Kurdish activists in Turkey who might be tempted by a return to the dead-end of individualistic bombings and shootings to make their grievances heard.

For socialism

If done consistently, and fought for by workers’, the left and Kurdish organisations in the region and internationally, a class-based approach would help in starting to rebuild a mass and united movement of all workers and poor not only in Turkey but in the wider region. This would provide a platform to begin to reverse the dominant menacing trend of sectarian bloodshed and war.

Such a struggle should be armed with a revolutionary socialist programme aimed at bringing under public ownership and working class control the rich resources of the region, providing the material basis to start solving the multi-dimensional crisis at play, by planning the economy democratically to provide decent infrastructure, jobs and living standards for all.

An international workers’ response to the crisis in Kobanê and Rojava is all the more essential as the Kurdish enclaves, while with some oilfields, have no factories and a numerically-weak working class. This makes it impossible to remain in isolation for a lengthy period of time and certainly not to be able to build a fully developed socialist society.

Only a revolutionary and internationalist programme, which would couple the fight against capitalism, landlordism and religious sectarianism with the struggle for equal democratic, cultural and religious rights for all communities and minorities, could alter the deep sense of alienation gripping millions in the region, and transform it into a common, positive outlook aimed at transforming society, for the benefit of all. Such a programme, assisted by the building of mass multi-ethnic and cross-religious forces based on the working classes and the oppressed, would cut across the breeding ground of religious fundamentalist groups, such as IS, much more effectively than any quantity of imperialist bombs will ever be able to do.

The CWI stands for a voluntary socialist and democratic confederation of the Middle East, based on the planning of the resources by working people and on the right of self-determination for all nationalities, and the guaranteeing of the rights of all minorities, within every state. In such a framework, all Kurds, in each part of Kurdistan, would be able to determine freely and democratically their own future and the character of the state they want to live in. This could start building a road out of the nightmarish situation created by capitalism and imperialism in the region.

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