An anonymous movement
Last summer I visited one of Montreal’s famous anarchist bookshops to browse through the local resistance literature and, perhaps, find an affordable copy of Murray Bookchin’s works somewhere on the shelves. Luckily I did find a collection of interviews and essays by Bookchin, a thinker and activist whose anarchist and ecological writing and thought has been fundamental to informing Abdullah Öcalan’s turn away from Stalinist Marxism, toward the groundbreaking theory of Democratic Confederalism. Öcalan is the imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and the spiritual theorist and strategist of the egalitarian and ecofeminist Rojava revolution in the Kurdish north of Syria.
Incidentally, while I was there at the bookshop going through leaflets and pamphlets in French and English, a random Montrealer popped into the store to ask the shopkeeper if he had anything by Öcalan in store. Despite my lacking knowledge of the French language, I knew the shopkeeper responded that he had never heard of Öcalan, but before I had a chance to intervene, the customer had unfortunately disappeared into the St. Laurent Boulevard’s Sunday crowd once again. Afterwards, I had a conversation with the shopkeeper about Rojava’s paradigm-shifting practice in the Middle East, and even went out of my way to give him a sort of mini lecture on how Öcalan’s theory of Democratic Confederalism has been fundamental to the multi-ethnic and democratic praxis of the Rojavans throughout the current Syrian civil war.
That day I left the bookstore bookshop feeling somewhat guilty for making the shopkeeper feel embarrassed about knowing next to nothing about Öcalan, Bookchin and Rojava, but I recount this story here because for me it crystallizes how the Rojava movement’s resistance has been waged in near anonymity from the very first days of its humble beginnings. The likes of Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt, David Harvey and even Slavoj Žižek have since voiced their support for this movement, and other thinkers and activists have supported its resistance in one way or another. However, the general import of this movement, as a concrete alternative to the hegemony of imperialism, dictatorship and fundamentalism in the Middle East, has been largely buried under the barrage of nationalist and reactionary voices and media that dominate the Syrian civil war news cycle.
Painfully, voices and movements from the anarchist, post-colonialist and Marxist left have chosen to attack and even undermine the aims, strategies and achievements of the Rojava revolution. They correctly state that Rojava’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have relied on American military aid and cooperation in their resistance against the forces of the Islamic State (IS). And they go on to state that as mere instruments of the U.S. imperialist agenda in the region, the YPG/J are only tools used and discarded by the Americans, once their aims in the region have been realized. These critical voices have found renewed resonance in the wake of Turkey’s recent “Olive Branch Operation,” which has been waged with tacit approval from the White House and aims to invade and ethnically cleanse Afrin, the canton to the west of the now two famous cantons of Kobani and Cizîre.
Nonetheless, it is most necessary to demonstrate the hypocrisy of such claims and voices, and to situate the manner and history of YPG/J’s cooperation with the Americans as way of emphasizing the importance of voicing support for this movement not only against Erdogan’s aims in Syria and Turkey, but critically, in favour of the possibilities the Rojava revolution harbours for the entire Middle East region.
Kalashnikov vs. BGM-71 TOW
The U.S. foreign policy in Syria, particularly during the Obama administration, has been widely criticized and continues to be hotly debated. Nonetheless, the origin of YPG/J’s cooperation with the Americans can be traced to the U.S. decision to back the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the initial stages of the Syrian civil war: after it became clear that despite military aid and financing from Americans as well as Saudis, backing a losing FSA side would only imperil the U.S. interests in the conflict, the Americans had no choice but to rely on the forces of the YPG/J, if they were to remain a player in Syria. In turn, the YPG/J accepted the U.S. request for cooperation mainly because after the fall of Mosul to IS in Iraq, arguably no army in the Middle East could withstand the firepower of the American arms surrendered to IS by the fleeing Iraqi army. Moreover, as the only truly independent actor in the Syrian civil war, the Rojavans had been never invited to any talks on the Syrian crisis (until this last round), and required backing from one the big four (U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey) to be involved in discussions over a federalist vision of Syria they were only too eager to join.
There were moreover two important historical caveats concerning the background to this new cooperation. First, from the onset of the Syrian conflict, the Syrian Kurds in the Rojava region had refused to take part or take sides in the civil war; their political and military activity had been limited to protecting their regions from radical militant groups such as IS and, more importantly, to overseeing the implementation of Öcalan’s Democratic Confederalist vision, by filling the local vacuum of state power created as a byproduct of the war. Only when IS brought the war to the doorsteps of Rojava, did YPG/J relinquish their radical passivity. Second, even though the Rojavans’ heroic resistance during the siege of Kobani is remembered as the “Stalingrad” moment of the war against IS, the high cost and casualties of this battle had made it painfully evident that to rebuke the Americans, and to continue to resist the likes of IS (equipped with American BGM-71 TOWs) with second-hand Kalashnikovs bought on the black market, would inevitably lead to the surrender or destruction of the Rojavans’ freedom, ideals and praxis. This is especially true in view of the fact that every other national and independent faction in Syria were highly armed and financed from the beginning of this war, by the Americans, Russians, Iranians or the Saudis.
All the same, the cooperation between the YPG/J and the U.S., which began as a tactical and intelligence partnership in particular battles, and evolved into training and limited arms support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the closing stages of the war against IS, cannot be described as a one-way scenario of YPG/J reliance on the U.S. and its imperialist aims and strategies in the region. Quite the contrary: it is the U.S. that has no partner in Syria but the YPG/J. Indeed, the YPG/J have operated entirely independently of U.S. demands throughout this Syrian conflict and have, on numerous occasions, acted against American aims and interests. In fact, it is only recently after the defeat of IS and with the announcement of the formation of the 30,000 strong SDF army along the Turkish border, that this partnership had transformed into a more strategic coalition.
Therefore, if it is fair to criticize the YPG/J for giving U.S. strategy in the Syrian conflict a lifeline, it is equally unfair to criticize the YPG/J for choosing to arm their democratic, feminist and egalitarian cantons (against the forces of war criminals like IS and Assad) over appeasing the so-called anti-imperialist ideals of intellectuals and voices here in the West. It is, in fact, hypocritical to flatten the Syrian battlefield into a purely imperialist chessboard arrayed with proxy pawns, and so to reduce the stakes and aspirations of Rojavans’s paradigm shifting practice by casually comparing them to the ethnic and/or religious agendas of other factions involved in the Syrian conflict. Forces that are backed by countries with petit imperialist and expansionist agendas, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, and which have moreover continuously refused Rojavan overtures toward an all-Syrian but democratic cooperation and partnership.
No friends but the mountains
As the famous saying goes, the Kurds, the largest group of stateless people in the world, “have no friends but the mountains.” And if the war campaign against the canton of Afrin is being framed in the media not only as the latest rejected pilot in the Kurds’ quest for democratic self-determination, but also as a melodrama of their betrayal and abandonment by the U.S., it is necessary to emphasize in contrast that the YPG/J are only victims of their own success.
Analysts and strategists may correctly point to imperialist plans for dividing Syria across sectarian lines, as the Turkish incursion into Afrin will not merely severe it from its sister cantons to the east, and force it to either realign itself with the Russians or risk full invasion by the Turks and their extremist allies. Rather, it also aims to establish a Sunni dominated corridor from Turkey all the way to Iraq (via the opposition dominated areas and Sunni midlands antagonistic to Assad’s rule) that could cut off the Kurdish areas’ access to the sea (via the mainly Shi’ite areas to the south-east) and lead to the complete isolation and containment of Rojava from all sides. It is true that this is a scenario that best serves the U.S. interests in the region, as it appeases Turkey’s fear of the Kurds; pacifies Assad; does not cross the Russian red line of losing access to its Mediterranean military base in the Assad-controlled region; and most importantly, by way of the Sunni corridor, splits Iran’s threatening access to Israel via a “Shi’a Crescent” that extends from Iran to Israel through Northern Iraq, central-southern Syria, and finally, the Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon.
Geopolitical interests aside, however, weakening Rojava is important to the U.S. foreign policy for a more strategic reason. The ideological danger of Rojava’s political alternative to the “business as usual” of the Middle East outweighs, for both Western imperialism and regional expansionism, the importance of safeguarding their strategic stakes in land, sea and commerce. The Rojavans’ hybrid tactical strategy of Dual Power and democratic organization effectively overcomes the cynicism around both revolution and reform that haunts the post Arab Springs and Green Movement Middle East, and its stateless motto is essentially nationless in a region plagued by sectarianism. Indeed, if the Middle East is the Gordian knot of world politics and peace, then it is Rojava’s practice that has brought race, gender and class together, against a regional chessboard arrayed with imperialist, fundamentalist and nativist actors. And it is precisely here, because of this existential threat to the order of late neoliberalism, that Rojava is a victim of its own success and its out-dated partnership with the U.S. The tacit agreement held by all the opposing sides involved in the Syrian conflicts with regard to the Turkish invasion of Afrin is only a testimony to the seriousness of this threat. An isolated Rojava could then be weakened and gradually picked apart via embargos, land blocks and no fly zones, in the same way that other paradigm-shifting revolutions elsewhere were contained and derailed before.
Therefore, the Rojavas need vocal support here in the West not in order to save them from abandonment by the U.S. Indeed, the people and defenders of Afrin have never asked for solidarity from governments and institutions here in the West, as they are keeping out Erdogan’s forces on their own just fine. Rather, it is from the Western governments’ continued interference in Syria that the Rojavans must be protected. The leftist organizations and movements here in the West must step in to save the civilians in Afrin from the same fighter jets and tanks their governments sell to the Turkish military. It is in view of such considerations and nuances that it is important to not approach the Syrian stalemate from a morally reductive or superior standpoint.
In his seminal piece on the Rojava Revolution, Michael Taussig asked if in the clash between Rojava and IS we were “facing an ‘Hegelian moment’ in which two symmetrically opposed contenders have erupted onto the stage of history?” With the elimination of IS at the hands or Rojava, we must now ask if the elimination of Rojava via Turkey’s endgame is in truth an attempt to ensure that no history takes place in the Middle East, and that things go back to their neoliberal normal with the end of the war. It is high time that the Rojava Revolution emerged from anonymity.
Fouad Oveisy is a PhD student in Critical Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His research is focused on the intersections between realpolitik, critical theory, and post-revolutionary strategy and literature.
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