The 'other' Kurds fighting the Islamic State

(Dilar Dirik is a Kurdish activist and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. My research focus is Kurdistan and the Kurdish women's movement. This article is excerpted from the one that appeared on Al Jazeera, 2 September 2014)

The Islamic State has been committing massacres in Syria for almost two years, without global outrage or action. In fact, it was even supported by several governments in the enthusiastic attempt to topple Bashar al-Assad - no matter the cost.

The Kurds in Rojava, who the West has forgotten, know the Islamic State very well. The region of Rojava (Kurdish for "West", i.e. western Kurdistan) has the highest concentration of the Kurdish population within the fading Syrian borders. Islamic State fighters murdered hundreds of people, especially in Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) and Serekaniye (Ras al-Ayn) over the course of the past year. For two years, the People's Defence Forces (YPG) and the Women's Defence Forces (YPJ) have been fighting them and other Islamist groups, as well as the Assad regime forces. Yet, in spite of the many efforts of Kurdish activists, the plight of the people in Rojava have been completely ignored.

Moreover, ever since Kurdish forces took control of Rojava in 2012, they have been marginalised, as regional and international powers imposed political and economic embargoes on them. The reason for this is the ideological affiliation of the most influential party in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been struggling against Turkey for decades. The YPG/YPJ are the general defence units of the Rojava cantons, and are close to the PYD.

Turkey conveniently allowed open supply and recruitment channels for the jihadists which strengthened their forces in their fight against Rojava. At the same time, the KDP - a traditional rival of the PKK - did not take the threat of the Islamic State seriously and even dug a border trench (the "trench of treason") between its territory and Rojava.

While the Yazidis expressed their anger at the KDP peshmergas' withdrawal from Sinjar in early August, the YPG/YPJ forces crossed the now meaningless Syrian-Iraqi border to rescue the stranded Yazidis. They soon were joined by the guerrillas of the PKK. After having created a humanitarian corridor to lead the refugees to Rojava, they established a refugee camp in Derik, where the people await further humanitarian aid. The YPG/YPJ forces and PKK guerrillas now hold posts in south Kurdistan and continue to fight the Islamic State, along with the US-backed peshmergas.

Had policy makers listened to the warnings of Rojava, let alone supported their efforts to establish secular, democratic structures, the Islamic State would definitely not have come so far. Instead, the Kurds were excluded from the Geneva-II peace conference in early 2014, PYD politicians were repeatedly denied visas to EU-countries and the US, and the embargoes continue.

Limits of military intervention

It is important to remember how we got to this point: the US "war on terror", global arms trade, sectarianism exploited by different governments, hijacking of the so-called Arab Spring, Islamophobia, and global patriarchy.

Military intervention cannot destroy the popularity the Islamic State enjoys among some Sunni Arabs, who were excluded by the sectarian politics of Maliki's Shiite Iraq and Assad's Alawite Syria, nor the immense trauma caused in Muslim-majority countries from unjust US-led wars. It will not take back all the financial and military resources poured into radical groups via Gulf states.

This foreign policy, which exploited sectarian divides, established hegemonic proxies, and thus perpetuated a system of complete dependency in the region, cannot be genuine in its claim to support "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East. How can top arms suppliers talk about the "morality" of arming friendly forces, after they casually sold the same arms to governments that support jihadists?

No surprise that those outside of these parameters of dependency, the YPG/YPJ and the PKK, were able to fight a force like the Islamic State the best, without relying on anybody's weapons or approval, rescuing ten thousands of Yazidis, and teaching the international community a lesson in humanitarian intervention.

Only the people can liberate themselves

Altough the Islamic State and the PKK fight on the opposite sides of the battle for Syria and Iraq, both group are labelled as terrorist. The PKK started out with the aim of an independent Kurdish state in the 1970s, but long transformed its vision and now advocates regional autonomy or "democratic confederalism" through grassroots democracy, gender equality, and ecology, while rejecting the nation-state as an oppressive, backward institution.

It is intellectually and journalistically lazy and factually fraudulent to keep calling the PKK a separatist organisation, as many news outlets do.The PKK condemned civilian attacks that were committed in their name, declared several unilateral ceasefires and currently is engaging in peace talks. Even the Turkish state accepts the PKK as a negotiating partner.

This "terror" label also criminalises entire communities and millions of ordinary people, while shunning any theoretical approach to what the PKK wants. There are countless accounts of Yazidi refugees, who express their gratitude to the PKK for saving them. They praise the PKK and the YPG/YPJ forces for protecting the people. The PKK must be recognised as a political actor and the US and the EU should remove it from their "terror lists".

Secondly, Rojava must be recognised internationally. In the midst of the Syrian war, the people there created self-governance structures in the form of three autonomous cantons. These have 22 ministries with one minister and two deputies each, one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian, at least one of which has to be a woman. Several schools, women's academies, working, living, and farming cooperatives, and women's and people's councils have been established.

The defence forces of these structures are the oldest and most experienced opponents of the Islamic State. The embargoes on Rojava oppress the region in which ten thousands of refugees are now stranded. They must be immediately lifted.

The peoples of the Middle East are well able to create their own visions of freedom and democracy, if hegemonic powers would quit hijacking these attempts for their own gains. This is a utopia that the Rojava revolution is trying to live and which it has achieved to a remarkable extent. Heavy weapons will not defeat the Islamic State, but a democratic, gender-egalitarian, autonomous organisation of the people in the Middle East will. The Rojava revolution shows us that a different world is possible.

Box matter

Kurdish Women Fight on Front Lines Against Islamic State

(Excerpts from the report by Ayla Albayrak in Suruc,Turkey and Margaret Coker in Kirkuk, Iraq, Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2014)

Kurdish women have stepped up to defend their lands in Syria and Iraq. An estimated one-third of the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Kobani are women, fighters and residents say, a figure that mirrors their role in other significant battles across Kurdish territories this year.

The month-long battle over the city on the Turkish border is straining Islamic State, Kurdish politicians and U.S. officials say, and hampering its overall expansion strategy.

The overriding motivation that Kurds give for fighting the insurgents is to save their ancestral homeland from destruction. Yet many women combatants also cite a more personal crusade. Across the territory in Syria and Iraq that it now controls, Islamic State has reinstituted slavery, prohibited women from working and threatened to kill those Muslims, including Kurds, who don’t adhere to their ideology.

“Islamic State are terrorists, inhuman,” said a 28-year-old female commander of both men and women in Kobani who uses the nom-de-guerre Afsin Kobane.

Ms. Kobane was a kindergarten teacher when she decided last year to join the female unit of the Syrian Kurdish resistance force, known as YPJ. Speaking by telephone from her post in the besieged city on the Turkish border, she said her mixed-gender unit had been fighting for more than a month and was holding a position only a half-mile from Islamic State fighters.

This development is partly a reflection of the leftist and Marxist political ideology that has influenced the Kurds’ decades long struggle for independence in Turkey and Iraq.

If she survives the battle for Kobani, Ms. Kobane said she knows her battlefield experience will alter her life forever.

“After this, I can’t imagine leading a life of a traditional Kurdish woman, caring for a husband and children at home,” she said. “I used to want that before this war.”

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