A guest post from Kamran Matin. Kamran is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where he teaches modern history of the Middle East and international theory. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013), and recently of ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’ in the European Journal of International Relations (2013). Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and a management committee member at Sussex’s Centre for Advanced International Theory. He is currently working on a paper on the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, and a larger project on the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.
The city of Kobani’s epic resistance against the genocidal assault of the Islamic State (IS) has entered its thirtieth day. So far the response of the western left has been generally one of solidarity. However, the left seems divided on the best way to support Kobani. Invoking anti-imperialist and anti-war principles a considerable part of the left has been shying away from demanding military and logistical support for the main defending force of the city, i.e. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Unites (YPJ), the armed wings of Democratic Union Party (PYD), by the US led anti-IS coalition. Moreover, with some exceptions such as David Graeber, many western leftists have neglected the historical significance and transformative political potentials of the success of Kobani’s resistance.
In what follows I argue that pressuring western powers to provide arms and logistical support to YPG/YPJ is legitimate and justifiable, and that in the battle for Kobani the left has a unique opportunity to contribute to an important shift in the regional balance of power in favour of a radical democratic and egalitarian project with transformative ramifications for the entire Middle East.
Kobani, the Kurds, and the West
With regards to the discomfort of the left with the idea of western military support for YPG/YPJ the important preliminary point to be made is that the Kurds have repeatedly claimed that they do not want or need direct military intervention by either coalition forces or Turkey. They’ve repeatedly said that they only need anti-tank weapons, ammunition and the opening of a corridor for fighters, food and medicine to reach Kobani. This request has been echoed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned of a repetition of the fate of Srebrenica in Kobani if such a humanitarian corridor is not established.
In its demand for a limited tactical western military support for YPG/YPJ the left by no means loses sight of the fact that at its root Islamic State is the fascistic faeces of western imperial metabolism, a direct product of the American conquest of Iraq, the deliberate manipulation of sectarian differences, and the destruction of the social fabric of Iraqi society. But surely, none of these should obviate the recognition of the vital significance of protecting an actually existing and functioning radical left experience at the heart of the Middle East from eradication, notwithstanding its unavoidable flaws and limitations.
After all, distinguishing between strategy and tactic has always been a basic element of concrete socialist politics. In fact, given the open opposition of the virulently anti-left government of Turkey, and the reluctance of the US-led alliance to assist YPG/YPJ, which has been partially overcome only due to the growing pressure of pro-Kurdish public opinion in Europe, the western left’s success in pressurising US-led collation states into providing unconditional military-logistical assistance to the Kobani’s defenders would be an important tactical victory in the left’s wider anti-imperialist strategy.
Moreover, a cursory review of historical evidence shows that taking tactical advantage of specific geopolitical circumstances has been a common feature of most progressive movements. Much of the ‘third world’ national liberation and anti-colonial movements of the last century exploited Cold War rivalries between the USSR and the US. To this very day the Palestine liberation movement has received support from regional anti-democratic states such Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. In Europe itself the Irish Republican movement received support from dictatorial regimes at loggerheads with the west, e.g. Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.
So the left should not, in fact cannot afford to, a priori rule out western military assistance for the defenders of Kobani. Rather, it ought to focus on the explicit terms and circumstances of such assistance, and the wider political project and movement that Kobani represents, and carefully examine the likely implications of the provision of such a limited assistance for a democratic left project in the region that would in effect undermine the objectives of the providers of the assistance. To probe this issue we first need to locate PYD, and its ally the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in the wider Kurdish movement.
Up to the 1970s, Kurdish movements for national rights in all parts of Kurdistan were more or less dominated by tribal chiefs, landed notables, religious authorities, or urban elites, or a combination of these strata. They lacked any radical socio-economic project and over-relied on external support. The Kurdish autonomist movement in Iraq during the 1960s-1970s is an important case in point. It strategically, and fatally, relied on US-Iran-Israeli hostility towards the pro-Soviet Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Thus, once the Shah of Iran, the main conduit for military and logistical support for the Iraqi Kurds, settled its border dispute with Iraq in 1975 the movement experienced a rapid and catastrophic collapse.
However, since the early 1970s traditional Kurdish nationalist parties have progressively lost their dominance over Kurdish politics. This has been largely due to the rapid processes of capitalist development that has dramatically transformed the social fabric of Kurdish society over the last fifty years or so. Feudal-tribal social relations have lost much of their salience if not been completely destroyed. However, feudal and tribal forms have retained varying degrees of cultural and political influence thanks to the belated, rapid, and top-down character of capitalist development in the region. In fact, such influences have in some cases increased through their inflective articulation with specific economic circumstances such as the rentier character of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
At the same time, urbanisation has increased massively, literacy has grown significantly, and the intelligentsia have expanded considerably as a social stratum. These momentous changes in different parts of Kurdistan have given rise to new social and political forces that have radically challenged the old patterns of Kurdish nationalist politics. In the cases of PKK and PYD in Turkey and Syria, respectively, they have in fact decisively supplanted traditional conservative Kurdish nationalist forces. Before the rise of PKK, in Iranian Kurdistan Komala – the Kurdistan branch of the Communist Party of Iran (CPI) – also represented such a transformation.
A defining feature of these new forces is that they strategically link the cause of national liberation to wider political projects that are gender-egalitarian, eco-conscious, and socio-economically broadly socialist. They have developed much more flexible and imaginative political strategies that combine armed struggle with a vibrant civic political culture that exploits legal-constitutional opportunities found in the political-administrative structures of the states they are opposing. An extraordinarily successful example of this phenomenon is the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Turkey whose electoral campaign and considerable success in municipal elections has involved unprecedented levels of political participation and leadership of women and subaltern classes and grassroots activism. Indeed, BDP and its predecessor parties have managed to re-pose the Kurdish question in Turkey as a fundamentally democratic question.
BDP’s growing weight in Turkish politics and PKK’s own military resilience, organisational efficacy, and control over territory in the Qandil mountains have enabled the Kurdish movement in Turkey to conduct a highly autonomous and complex diplomacy that exploits international and regional cleavages on terms advantageous to its progressive socio-political project. The result has been remarkable. It has forced the state with the second largest NATO army into a peace or ‘settlement process’ whose very initiation represented an unprecedented democratic achievement in Turkish politics. This achievement is only one of the potential causalities of Turkey’s current Syria policy.
So the basic question regarding the relation of geopolitics and progressive politics is under what specific circumstances such forces engage with international and regional powers. In the current conjuncture PKK and PYD are movements that have successfully combined a popular grassroots movement, a highly innovative and resilient form of armed struggle with a remarkably independent foreign and regional policy. As a result, although they might suffer tactical defeats, they are unlikely to be manipulated into imperial intrigues. In fact, PKK and PYD have consistently called on Syrian opposition forces, other Kurdish parties, and KRG to revise their uncritical alignment with US foreign policy in the region.
In the case of Kobani, the request of military assistance made by PKK and PYD therefore simply represents a tactical exploitation of the contingent convergence of their specific interests with that of US led anti-IS coalition for a wider strategic political project. For victory in Kobani will have important and wide-ranging ramifications beyond Syrian Kurdistan.
Consequences of Kobani’s Victory
PKK was formed by a group of Kurdish university students disillusioned by the Turkish left’s deprioritisation of the Kurdish question during the 1970s. Following the 1980 military coup PKK began its armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state in 1984. Exploiting the Cold War geopolitical rift between pro-Soviet Syria and the NATO member Turkey, it set up its military training camps in Syria. PKK’s influence in Syrian Kurdistan, exemplified in the rapid rise of PYD to hegemony, is partly the result of PKK’s presence in Syria for more than a decade during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as close historical, cultural and kinship relations between Kurds in Syria and Turkey.
The end of the Cold War led to Hafiz Assad’s rapprochement with the west. At the same time, with the intensification of PKK’s war with Turkey in the early 1990s Turkey increasingly threatened Syria with military action unless the latter ended its hosting of PKK leadership and training camps. As a result, in 1998 Syria closed down PKK camps and expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan who was subsequently captured by Turkish secret services with the help of CIA.
Ocalan’s capture and the relocation of PKK forces into southern/Iraqi Kurdistan led to a political and ideological overhaul of the party. Since then PKK has radically reformed its political programme and strategy. Together with PYD, PKK now advocates a form of libertarian socialism in which the Kurdish national question is solved through the system of ‘democratic autonomy’. Democratic autonomy involves a rejection of nation-statism, which could ultimately lead to what Frantz Fanon described as ‘nationalisation of the robbery of the nation’ and leave oppressive hierarchies of class and gender intact. By contrast, democratic autonomy begins from a radical decentralisation of existing states through the establishment of a gender-egalitarian and eco-protective confederated system of self-management based on popular communes as the basic organs of the exercise of direct democracy. The idea of democratic autonomy has been the theoretical lynchpin of formation and administration of three cantons of Afrin, Jazira and Kobani in Syrian/Western Kurdistan or Rojava, which were established by PYD after the retreat of Syrian military from these regions following the militarisation of Syrian revolution and the outbreak of the civil war.
The new ‘social contract’ that underpins Rojava’s experience of democratic autonomy is enshrined in the constitution of Rojava, which is a truly remarkable document in the modern history of the Middle East. The preamble of the constitution begins thus:
We, the people of the Democratic Autonomous Regions of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Syrics, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens, freely and solemnly declare and establish this Charter. In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.
The charter abolishes the death penalty and “incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other internationally recognized human rights conventions.”
Given the catastrophic scale of the ethnic and sectarian conflict currently raging in Syria and Iraq the very formulation of such a ‘social contract’, let alone its successful implementation by PYD amidst a horrific civil war and under severe political, diplomatic and economic sanctions from western and regional states, Turkey in particular, is an absolutely remarkable achievement and worthy of all possible support from the left forces across the region and the world.
But the significance of the Rojava experience now under mortal threat in Kobani is by no means limited to the Syrian Kurdistan. It has transformative ramifications for all parts of Kurdistan and by implications for Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
In Syria, Rojava provides a radically different alternative to both Assad’s brutal dictatorship and its Islamic opposition’s equally repressive and anti-democratic project. It can also function as the pivot for a diverse array of marginalised and muted secular and progressive forces that can contribute to the extension of Rojava’s experience of democratic autonomy to other parts of Syria in the longer run. We should remember that for many months after the outbreak of anti-Assad protests secular-progressive forces such as the Local Coordination Committees of Syria were in the forefront of the popular uprising. They lost their political clout only when Assad forces’ incessant violence against peaceful protests led to the militarisation of the opposition, which was in turn quickly sectarianized as a result of the indirect intervention of regional reactionary pro-western, anti-Assad states of Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all of which sought Assad’s downfall at any price. The success of the democratic autonomy experience that Kobani exemplifies can therefore reinvigorate secular-progressive forces in the rest of Syria providing them with space and resources for organisation and communication so that together they can at a minimum counterbalance reactionary Islamic opposition forces.
The success of the Kurds’ democratic autonomy experience in Syria will also directly affect Turkish politics. It’s now two years since the start of peace negotiations between the Turkish state and PKK for ending their decades-long conflict. During this period PKK has observed a ceasefire, and withdrawn the bulk of its guerrilla forces from Turkey. AKP, on the other hand, has not taken any significant step to demonstrate its sincerity in the talks. True, it has broken the taboo of the public debate on the Kurdish question and decriminalised the use of Kurdish language in the public. However, it has not implemented any major changes in the overall Kurdish policy of the Turkish state or even making symbolic gestures, such as the improving Ocalan’s prison conditions and releasing Kurdish political prisoners as it was expected by the Kurdish side.
In fact, recent statements by Turkish president and prime minister, which inter alia equate PKK with the Islamic State, strongly suggest that AKP is reneging on its previous promises of peace and conciliation with the Kurds. This conjecture is supported by yesterday’s aerial bombardments of PKK targets around the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. AKP’s reaching out to the Kurds in 2011-2012 could therefore be seen as having been a tactical move to attract the support of the more conservative sections of the Kurdish voters in its electoral struggle against Kemalist and republican forces that sought to contain Erdoghan’s increasingly autocratic, which culminated in the events surrounding Gezi park protests.
Under these circumstances, the Kurds’ victory in Kobani will strengthens PKK’s position in dealing with the Turkish state, and will be highly conducive to the formation of some form of coalition or collaboration between BDP and secular and leftist opposition forces in Turkey to check AKP’s authoritarian impulse and advance peace and reconciliation in Kurdistan. Although Turkey’s continuing economic growth under Erdoghan has thus far rendered AKP’s electoral all but certain, an economic downturn, which given the heavy construction bias of AKP’s growth strategy is quite likely to occur at some point, can rapidly erode its popular support among the urban poor and petty bourgeoisie. In such an event, the Kurds’ strengthened political position can be a major force for placing Turkish politics on a more progressive and democratic track. A preliminary measure for this is the modest but important electoral success of HDP, a nation-wide, pro-minority and feminist left party close to pro Kurdish BDP, in the recent presidential elections. And further democratisation of Turkey along a broadly gender and social egalitarian path will entail major consequence for the neighbouring countries as well as Europe.
The Kurds’ victory in Kobani will have immediate and longer-term impacts on Iraqi Kurdistan too. Conservative political parties dominating KRG, Masoud Barzani’s KDP in particular, have viewed the Rojava experience as a threat to their own model of Kurdish autonomy that so far has generated a corrupt and nepotistic capitalism based on oil rents and lucrative backroom deals with Turkish and western companies. KRG went as far as digging a trench along its border with Syrian Kurdistan ostensibly to prevent the infiltration of ‘Islamic terrorists’ from Syria. But in reality it was arguably a means to pressurise PYD into a political compromise that would extend KDP’s dominance into Rojava. The animosity of the ruling parties in KRG, KDP in particular, towards PKK has a longer history though and is rooted in the contradictory socio-political projects these two forces pursue. PKK’s advocacy of radical democracy, gender-equality, social justice and protection of the environment stands in stark contrast to the conservative, elitist, crony-capitalist, and pro-western project of KRG ruling parties. Some figures within these parties have openly and proudly declared that they want transform Iraqi Kurdistan to another Dubai!
Under these circumstances, the victory of PYD in Kobani can pose a serious challenge to conservative Kurdish nationalist parties in KRG by strengthening pro-PKK and left forces in southern/Iraqi Kurdistan. In the absence of a hegemonic left alterative mass discontent with KRG ruling parties have so far been exploited by The Change Movement or Goran. Although Goran has capitalised heavily on the administrative and economic corruption within KRG but in terms of social and economic modern it is not fundamentally different from either KDP or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), from which it splintered a few years ago. Given the massive popular support for Kobani’s resistance in Iraqi Kurdistan and the serious economic, diplomatic, political and military malperformance of KRG, a military victory for PYD in Kobani can readily translate into a political victory for the more progressive and democratic forces in KRG. This can in turn deepen the Kurds’ fledgling democratic experience in post-Ba’ath Iraq.
In Iranian Kurdistan the left has historically been very strong. In fact, in southern regions of Iranian Kurdistan or Rojhelat the radical left Komala-CPI was the hegemonic opposition force to the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and a refuge for leftist forces fleeing post-revolutionary persecution and political repression of the new Islamic regime. Since the mid-1990s PKK has entered Kurdish politics in Iran and with the establishment of The Party of the Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) it has formed an affiliated military-political organisation that has proved highly effective in both military engagements with Iranian military forces and organising civil society organisations and activities inside Iran, which have high political potentials should domestic political circumstances change.
PJAK has recently promulgated its system of Democratic and Free Society of the East (KODAR), whose content is very similar to, and inspired by, the canton projects of PYD in Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurds’ victory in Kobani and the continued existence and operation of democratic autonomy experience in Rojava will therefore undoubtedly boost KODAR project in Eastern/Iranian Kurdistan. It can also lead to closer relations and cooperation between PJAK/KODAR and the main radical left and other nationalist-progressive force in Iranian Kurdistan, which have recently displayed a relatively rare show of unity in solidarity with Kobani’s resistance. There have also been large scale, spontaneous solidarity demonstrations in many cities in Iranian Kurdistan and other parts or Iran, which mark a new chapter in popular politics since the suppression of the Green Movement in 2009. A victory in Kobani can bring further inspiration and energy to a new phase of political activism in Iranian Kurdistan and strengthen wider democratic movement in Iran.
Considering all this, it is therefore obvious that the battle of Kobani is not just a matter of the Kurds’ struggle for national recognition and defence of their democratic experience in Syria. It is also a unique moment for the international radical left movement to make a strategic intervention in support of an extremely dynamic and resourceful movement for gender equality, radical democracy and social justice in the Middle East.