When Kurds seek independent statehood they are viewed as troublesome violent separatists, bent on breaking up the nation state, threatening national sovereignty and regional security. As tipping up the applecart of the 20th-century colonial rearrangement of the Middle East into the countries – Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria – in which the majority of Kurds live.
The Kurdish quest for freedom has met with brutal repression, the international community by and large averting its gaze, even when things have got truly genocidal.
Over the years, the Kurdish nationalist project has tended to give way to a more achievable agenda for human and cultural rights and varying degrees of self-rule or regional autonomy.
One example is the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), created in various stages under the aegis of the US, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Ba’athist regime of Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s reputation as the most democratic, stable and functional part of Iraq was tarnished recently when its government stifled protests against corruption and unpaid public-sector salaries. But still, it is viewed as a comparative success.
More impressive, for leftists and progressives at any rate, has been the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (aka Rojava) which has emerged within a collapsing state torn by civil war.
Rojava is viewed as a haven of grassroots democracy, based on principles of feminism, ecology, cultural pluralism, participatory politics and a co-operative sharing economy. Since 2012 it has presented a radical alternative to the nation state, articulated as ‘democratic confederalism’ by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
British anthropologist David Graeber describes Rojava’s revolutionary autonomy as ‘a synthesis of the ideas of American anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin and other authors, Kurdish tradition, and wide-ranging experience in the pragmatics of revolutionary organization.’
It has inspired people around the world.
INSIDE TURKEY – WORSE DAY BY DAY
What’s happening inside Turkey – where 15 million Kurds live – profoundly affects Kurds in the wider region too.
Although Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the March 2019 local elections, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a pro-peace, pro-Kurdish, bottom-up, Left alliance, did very well in the majority-Kurdish east of the country.
Erdoğan responded by instigating another round of politically motivated trials against party members, officials and politicians, accusing them of links with the outlawed PKK, which the government designates as terrorist.
Elected mayors belonging to the HDP were arrested, stripped of office and replaced by government trustees – a move condemned by Human Rights Watch as the equivalent of cancelling the 2019 election. In one day in May this year, five more mayors were arrested and replaced by government trustees, making a total of 52 removed from 64 municipalities won by the HDP last year. The HDP calls this a ‘coup’.
Speaking to me shortly after the latest culling, Ayse Gokkan, activist with the Free Women’s Movement of Kurdistan and herself a former HDP mayor, said that the repression of Kurds in Turkey was getting ‘worse day by day’.
Local democracy is being destroyed, devolved power being transferred to paramilitary forces. Modelled on the hated ‘village guard’ system of government spies, ‘neighbourhood guards’ are operating in Kurdish-majority cities, armed and with the authority to search and harass locals.
She explained: ‘There is a so-called NGO, People Special Forces (HÖH), that arms people to “protect” the state from its enemies. They are a paramilitary force, equipped and trained to attack opposition groups and movements.’
The policy is to build fear and anxiety, she said. The paramilitary forces encourage attacks on women activists and their organizations, including shelters. ‘They want to make women desperate, render them helpless, dependent on the state and males.’
Key to Erdoğan’s success in ratcheting up authoritarianism is the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization and the adoption of this by the US, the EU, Australia and Japan. The PKK remains armed and militarily active, mainly focusing its attacks on Turkish military targets. In 2015 it was engaged in urban warfare with government forces in the Kurdish-majority east. The PKK says it is acting in self-defence against a state that is using overwhelming force to deny democratic rights.
There are calls in some countries to take the PKK off the terrorist list. Doing so would increase stability and encourage peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, some argue. Others say that the listing is simply unfair and gives the Turkish state an extra weapon with which to attack freedom-seeking Kurds everywhere.
There have been peace negotiations in the past. And on their own human rights records, both the PKK and the Syrian YPG have responded to international accusations that they use forced conscription and underage fighters by working with Geneva Call, an NGO pushing armed non-state actors to adhere to international humanitarian norms and pledging to keep minors away from combat.
PEOPLE BEFORE STATES
Dreams of a pan-Kurdish state of greater Kurdistan seem remote today; various forms of regional or democratic autonomy are a more realistic possibility.
Rojava’s revolutionary system is holding up remarkably, under the circumstances, using its grassroots structures to meet the basic and economic needs of its people during lockdown in a way that puts rich nations to shame. But it faces existential threats from all sides – including, again, IS. The Turkish invasion interrupted the sustained Kurdish-international military pressure against IS, which, taking advantage of the chaos, has been regrouping and launching sleeper cell attacks in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces are weakened but still burdened with holding tens of thousands of IS captives and their families, including at least 2,000 foreign national fighters, many Europeans among them.
Hassan does not mince his words: ‘How should the SDF take responsibility for thousands of imported jihadist thugs and their families while Turkey is attacking to release them? The SDF fought IS on behalf of the free world but this is the time of hypocrisy and betrayal. It is not the SDF’s duty to guard European trash here.’
The humanitarian need in the region was great even before Operation Peace Spring and Covid-19. Today, a few international NGOs are getting emergency aid such as food and medicines into Rojava, working with local NGOs. The Kurdish Red Crescent runs health centres. But the aid is not on the scale required. In January, under Russian pressure, the UN closed its last remaining aid route between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava.
Furthermore, because the WHO and UN are not present in the region, NGOs there are not able to access the $2 billion UN fund dedicated to tackling Covid-19.
The Kurds need to be able to decide their own future, but there are things that others can do.
International recognition of Rojava would allow essential humanitarian aid to get though. There are credible fears that Turkey is planning another major onslaught. The UN and its member governments should be putting pressure on Turkey to withdraw from Rojava. Arms sales to Turkey must stop.
Pressure should be put on Turkey to release its 50,000 or so political prisoners, including PKK leader Öcalan, who has already served 20 years. A Brussels court recently found the PKK not to be a terrorist organization; the EU, US, Australia and Japan could stop kowtowing to Turkey, delist the PKK from their registers of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and urge both sides to negotiate peace.
If the nations of the EU stepped up to their humanitarian responsibilities and took their fair quotas of refugees, they would be less vulnerable to Erdoğan’s blackmailing tactics.
The issue of Kurdish freedom is one with vast and complicated geopolitical ramifications. But it is also about simple, human things. One man who, with his family, had to flee from Turkish bombardment recalls: ‘My beautiful village home is now occupied by pro-Turkey Fayalaq al Sham fighters. My olive fields and pomegranate orchards have been seized by former IS fighters from Deir Ezzor.’
A Kurdish grandmother, living in exile, learns that her family home, so full of happy memories, is now being used by the Turkish authorities as a torture centre.
The quest for Kurdish freedom has become about a lot more than the creation of a Kurdish state. It’s also about values. About reversing nationalist thinking and nation-state ideology and putting people before states.
That’s one of the many reasons why we should care.