Keeping Kurdish hopes alight – 2020 and beyond
When so much of the left seems to have lost its way, the Kurdish freedom movement has brought hope and inspiration, through its practical implementation of grassroots revolution. But those of us who have invested our hopes in the Kurdish struggle, and who recognise this as a vital frontline in the battle between fascism, on one side, and a free, fair, democratic and ecologically-sustainable future on the other, find ourselves scrolling through an unbearable litany of bad news. Every day, powerful self-interests compete and conspire to extinguish those hopes and the people who carry them.
Taking stock at the turn of the year, we find a Kurdish region whose future is on the cusp. And this is a future that concerns us all. What happens here can help determine if we transition to socialism or regress into barbarism.
Hard-won everyday progress rarely makes it to the news, so, before observing the many ways this progress is under attack, it is important to remember the achievements and aims of the Kurdish struggle. We can easily take for-granted that Kurdish politicians and activists are very often women, and that both civil and military organisation in the Autonomous Authority of North East Syria (Rojava) bring together people from different communities, but these are huge achievements. And the Kurdish revolution is taking concrete steps towards changing the nature of society more broadly, through the integrated development of empowered local organisation and a new communal mindset, and the beginnings of new needs-based economic structures. Through painstaking work – practical, organisational, educational, and theoretical – they are creating an alternative way of being that can begin to challenge the old normal.
Rojava illuminates a path to a better future, but it is under existential threat. While 2020 spared North East Syria from full-scale war, Turkey has never properly respected the US and Russian brokered cease fires that ended their last invasion. In recent weeks, their bombardments and raids have intensified, and there are fears that a bigger assault is on the way. Thousands have fled the strategic town of Ain Issa, which commands the M4 highway to Kobanê and is under constant attack. And for more than a year, since Turkish proxies took control of the pumping station, over a million inhabitants of Hesekê have faced uncertain water supplies.
Depriving people of water is only one of the many war-crimes committed by the mercenary gangs that Turkey employs as its ground forces. Afrîn used to be the part of Rojava where the new society was most developed. For the minority who didn’t flee the Turkish invasion, it has become a waking nightmare, especially for the women, who dare not venture out of their homes and are not safe even there. Local sources record a constant stream of kidnapping, extortion, torture, and rape, and there have been reports of women sold into slavery. Many Turkish mercenaries previously fought under the ISIS flag, and others are attached to related groups, so this should not be surprising. People face forced Turkification and, if they are not Muslims, religious conversion. The homes of those who fled are given to Arabs, in a deliberate manipulation of the population that may stoke tensions for generations to come. Physical violence is accompanied by widescale looting, the felling of olive trees, and the destruction of ancient sites. Similar changes have happened in the areas occupied last year, and could be expected to accompany any future Turkish invasion.
In Turkey itself, the crackdown on any form of opposition only intensifies. According to recently released figures, from President Erdoğan’s installation up until the end of 2019, 27,717 lawsuits were filed for the crime of insulting the president, including 264 against children between 12 and 14.
Although Erdoğan’s popularity has lessened, this has made him more dependent on the support of the far-right ethnic-nationalists. He is determined in his ambition to crush the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and loses no opportunity to brand them as terrorists, and to whip up popular prejudice against them among more traditional layers of society. In 2020, 1,750 HDP members and administrators were taken into custody, with 172 of them sent to prison. And, since August 2019, 48 municipalities have seen their elected HDP mayors removed and replaced by government-appointed ‘trustees’. Imprisoned HDP members include MPs and co-mayors.
When Turkey released large numbers of prisoners to protect them from getting covid-19 in overcrowded prisons, there was outrage that those released included known mafia bosses, but no political prisoners, not even from the many still awaiting trial. Currently, some 2500 political prisoners are on rotating hunger strike to protest about their conditions, as well as to demand an end to the solitary isolation of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Earlier in the year, activists imprisoned on the basis of false witness were allowed to starve themselves to death. These included musicians from the hugely popular Grup Yorum, and human rights lawyer, Ebru Timtik.
Erdoğan’s religious conservatism has reversed advances in women’s rights, and rewarded misogyny. While women’s movements protest the increase in brutal attacks and murders carried out against women, and the callousness with which these are treated, the Turkish Government is discussing withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women.
The organisation of women’s groups, and of all forms of civic organisation, is about to become even harder. The Turkish parliament has just passed a law that will allow the authorities to interfere in and close down NGOs without even recourse to the heavily-compromised courts.
As in Syria, violence in Turkey extends to the physical world. In 2020, after 12,000 years habitation, the beautiful town of Hasankeyf in the Kurdish south-east was finally lost forever under a dam project that had been condemned around the world.
Turkey’s internal fascism is matched by an aggressive imperialism. While Kurds who share Ocalan’s condemnation of the nation state emphasise that they are not challenging existing state borders, Erdoğan has made it clear that he aims to undo the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and reassert Turkish rule over parts of Syria and Iraq. These are the areas lived in by the Kurds, so his neo-Ottoman dream meshes with his mission to eliminate Kurdishness.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is autonomous, but suffers under its own corrupt government, dominated by two feudal Kurdish families and their political parties. The Barzanis’ KDP has used ties with Turkey to boost its power relative to other parties and to the federal government in Bagdad. Turkey has long carried out attacks on Iraq’s Qandil mountains, where Kurdish PKK guerrillas have been based since the 1980s. Now, with the help of the KDP, Turkish forces are making increasingly significant incursions into this Iraqi territory. Kurds everywhere have condemned the KDP for actions that risk leading the region into an intra-Kurdish war that would only benefit Turkey. Turkey has also been instrumental in securing the US-sponsored deal that aims to hand the Șengal region – home of the Yazidis – over to a combination of the KDP and the Iraqi army (without any consultation with those who actually live there). On top of all this, reaction to systemic failure by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) – including unpaid wages – has resulted in anti-government protests that culminated, this December, in the killing of eight protestors by the security forces.
In Iran, open political action is impossible. Kurdish opposition groups are based outside the country, and their activities include guerrilla actions. In 2020, armed clashes led to the deaths of twelve members of Kurdish political parties, and seventeen members of state security forces. The cruel lack of opportunity and the institutionalised state violence faced by the Iranian Kurds is exemplified by the kolbers, who carry heavy loads on their backs across the border over dangerous mountain passes. Economic necessity forces them to rely on this poorly-paid work, and they are rewarded by becoming targets for the border guards, who kill several kolbers every month and wound many more.
Iranian proxies are very active in both Syria (where they support the Assad government) and Iraq (where they have built significant influence).
While Turkey is blatantly brutal, the self-serving actions and inactions of other imperial powers can be equally devastating. In North East Syria, there have been protests outside the Russian bases that are supposed to be guaranteeing Turkey’s adherence to the ceasefire, but Russia has little incentive to intervene. They hope that the Turkish attacks will force the Autonomous Administration to surrender their autonomy and seek protection from the Syrian regime – as they had previously hoped when Turkey occupied Afrîn.
The Autonomous Administration of North East Syria has not been officially recognised by international institutions. Conventions in favour of nation states can always be overcome if this benefits key interests, but deference to Turkish and other imperial powers, and fear of anyone who questions neoliberal norms, ensure that no exception is made here. Despite repeated requests, the people who have been administering a large part of Syria have never been invited to international negotiations on the country’s future. Debilitating US sanctions against Syria also apply to the autonomous North East, and, thanks to a Russian veto, humanitarian aid is only allowed into the region via Damascus – where most gets diverted. The embattled Administration has been given almost no help in the mammoth task presented by thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families, and only a small number of the foreign nationals have been accepted back by the countries they came from.
A lot of hopes are riding on Joe Biden, but US foreign policy is not noted for successful peace-making, nor for support of anti-capitalist entities. Meanwhile, the fact that Biden could be more sympathetic to the Kurds makes the first twenty days of 2021 especially dangerous, as Turkey might decide to act before Donald Trump leaves the Whitehouse.
To serve its own strategic interests, the US doesn’t want to do anything that would drive Turkey out of NATO, and they are happy to comply with Turkish plans to eliminate the leftist PKK. After their tactical alliance with Kurdish forces in Syria, they won’t follow Turkey’s lead in equating these with the PKK, but they hope to tame them and bring them into the liberal fold. Diplomatic analysis of North East Syria tends to portray the Rojava revolution as a youthful fantasy that the Kurds will grow out of. This view underlies the policy of the US-led coalition, including efforts to encourage an agreement with the conservative Kurdish opposition, which is linked to the US-friendly KDP in Iraq. None of this will change with the installation of Biden, who may not share Trump’s awe of Erdoğan, but has previously lumped the PKK together with ISIS.
For European countries, Turkey is valued as a trading partner and for keeping refugees out of Europe. It took Turkish claims to Eastern Mediterranean gas fields to force a serious EU debate about sanctions, but, even then, measures adopted were so weak that they only strengthened Erdoğan’s impunity. Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner, and German authorities have shown an exceptional willingness to appease Turkey on Kurdish issues, including clamping down on Kurdish publishing. In October, they seized all 500 copies of the Arabic translation of a book on Ocalan, edited by two academics, because it had his image on the cover.
Italy continues to persecute a returned volunteer who fought to defend Afrîn, and the UK even prosecuted a volunteer’s father and brother, although the case was ultimately dropped. All three countries export arms to Turkey, and it is no surprise to see the German Foreign Minister claim that an arms embargo on Turkey would be ‘strategically incorrect’. The UK government has just congratulated itself on signing a trade deal with Turkey that not only allows Turkey to retain advantages given by the EU, but opens the door to more concessions.
Foreign delegations continue to visit the KRG in Iraq to discuss trade deals, even as the security forces shoot and kill protestors. The statement from the British Consul General in Erbil on the recent protests drew an invidious parallel between the riotous actions of some of the protestors and the state-authorised brutality of the security forces. And there has been no international condemnation of the KRG’s blockade of the UN-recognised Maxmur refugee camp, which houses thousands of families who escaped the Turkish government’s attacks on Kurdish villages in the 1990s.
International interaction with Iran concentrates on security. Apart from the isolated, high-profile (foreign related) human rights case, what happens inside the country receives little more informed engagement than a medieval map labelled ‘here be dragons’. It took the tragic drowning of a refugee family attempting to cross the Channel to open a brief media window into the Iranian Kurdish reality.
But the picture isn’t entirely bleak. European governments have begun to wake up to the threat of Turkish fascism, at least when it rears its head on European streets – though it’s not clear how effective prospective bans on the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves will actually be. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights made an unusually strong judgement against Turkey, ruling that the imprisonment of HDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaș, was a political act to silence him, and that he should be released immediately. And, early last year, Belgium’s highest court ratified a previous appeal ruling that the PKK should not be considered a terrorist organisation because it is a party in a non-international armed conflict, which makes it subject to the laws of war and not criminal law. Terrorist listing is driven by political considerations, so this ruling hasn’t shifted government positions; however, the ruling has repercussions beyond the legality of PKK membership in Belgium. It provides important ammunition in the fight to remove the PKK from the terrorist list. Delisting is vital not only to delegitimise Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds, which are framed as part of the war on terror, but also because the PKK, which is recognised by Kurds all over the world, has long been ready and waiting to negotiate a peaceful and fair future for Kurds in Turkey.
Through all this, Kurdish organisations have had to engage in a complicated balance of realpolitik, while attempting to keep alive the ideals that they have fought so hard for. Undoubtedly, they make mistakes, and there are many groups who are ready to highlight every error, but their strength is in the depth of their power of resistance. This is inspired both by the crises that they face, and the potency of their alternative vision. It never ceases to amaze me.
The photograph is of children in Maxmur camp and was taken by Tekoșer Sayin, who lives there.