The Kurds of Kobanê are the latest victims of a war that arose as a direct consequence of imperialism and oppression. Alan Maass and Tom Gagné explain the background in Socialist Worker US
BLACK SMOKE hangs over the Kurdish city of Kobanê in northern Syria, visible from the nearby Turkish border, as people organized into the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) make their stand against forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The resistance in Kobanê is holding out for now, and reportedly inflicting casualties on ISIS fighters, but it has been steadily overwhelmed by ISIS’s superior weapons, often U.S.- or Russian-made, seized from both the Syrian and Iraqi Army during past ISIS military conquests.
Several hundred thousand people have fled Kobanê and surrounding villages, crossing the border into southeastern Turkey to take refuge there–others seek to travel to northern Iraq, where Kurdish leaders rule over a regional government set up after the U.S. invasion.
But tens of thousands of people remain in the city, fearful of what is to come if and when ISIS conquers the resistance.
ISIS stands on the verge of another major victory despite the world’s main military superpower, the U.S., declaring war against it, with the support of dozens of countries. Air strikes against ISIS began in Iraq two months ago and have expanded into Syria–yet Kobanê is predicted to fall, and ISIS is reportedly continuing its advances in Iraq.
It’s clear that the U.S. campaign of air strikes has been a failure, even on its own limited military terms, much less the claims of President Barack Obama that another Middle East war would stop ISIS’s “network of death.” In their honest moments, U.S. officials admit that saving the Kurds of Kobanê is not a strategic priority.
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THE U.S. government isn’t the only one to betray the pleas of the Kurds. Just to the north, within sight of Kobanê, Turkish tanks stand idle on the border as the battle with ISIS rages.
As refugees from the city fled across the border this month, soldiers prevented would-be fighters from traveling the other way to join the defense of Kobanê against ISIS. Inside Turkey, mass demonstrations in solidarity with the Kurds of Rojava–as Western Kurdistan inside Syria is known–have been met with the usual response from security forces: beatings, tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition.
The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, says it opposes ISIS. But Turkey has long oppressed its own Kurdish population, at a terrible cost in lives during decades of civil war.
The ugly truth is that Turkey–a member of NATO and one of the U.S. government’s staunchest allies in the region–believes it has more to fear from an emboldened Kurdish population if Kobanê’s defenders repel the ISIS assault than if the city falls. But the government’s cynical inaction is backfiring–it faces growing instability and the threat of rebellion.
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has also contributed to Kobanê’s suffering. As part of its divide-and-rule strategy to confront the Arab Spring revolution and the ensuing civil war, the Assad dictatorship encouraged the growth of reactionary Islamist groups like ISIS among the opposition.
There has been an unstated cease-fire between ISIS and the regime, while Assad’s military concentrated its firepower in a war of terror against the uprising, including the armed groups that arose to defend it. ISIS, meanwhile, was able to spread its control in eastern Syria and along the northern border region with Turkey, waging war mainly on opponents of the regime. If ISIS can conquer Kobanê and link up several areas under its rule, it will have the Syrian government to thank in part.
As for the Kurds in northern Syria, they achieved de facto autonomy in 2012 after the Assad regime withdrew its forces from the region. This is one part of a Kurdish population spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, with no state of its own.
The Kurds’ longstanding and legitimate aspirations for national self-determination have been pulled in various directions, sometimes because of manipulation by outside powers. For example, the Kurdish elite in northern Iraq has been the most steadfast ally of the U.S. government during its quarter century of war on Iraq–despite Washington’s support for Turkey’s repression of the Kurdish struggle, and now its ineffectual actions against the onslaught against Kobanê.
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AND SO Kobanê has stood alone amid this tangled history and its many-sided conflicts. The old proverb that the “Kurds have no friends but the mountains” rings more true by the day.
The city would have fallen months ago if not for the determined defense led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant political force among Kurds in Syria and sister organization to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) founded decades ago in Turkey.
According to Joseph Daher, a member of the Revolutionary Left Current in Syria, who writes at the Syria Freedom Forever blog, Kobanê is also being defended by several battalions of Arab fighters. The Free Syrian Army, the network of armed groups waging a two-sided civil war against both the Assad regime and ISIS, also decided in early October to send fighters to Kobanê, according to Daher.
Mainstream and social media have broadcast stories of the immense courage of the resistance fighters, as they endure the onslaught of the better-armed ISIS forces. For those defending Kobanê, surrender means the dictatorial rule of ISIS, with its violence against religious and ethnic minorities and ruthless repression of all dissent. Many are choosing to fight to the death.
A significant number of the city’s last defenders are women, according to reports. Earlier this month, a commander of the female units mobilized by the YPG militia, Deilar Kani Khams, known by her military name Arin Mirkan, killed 10 ISIS fighters in a suicide attack, according to Al Jazeera. After running out of bullets, she stayed behind when Kurdish fighters retreated further into the city center, mingling with ISIS soldiers and then exploded a grenade.
The victims of Kobanê are the latest casualties of a nightmare caused by tyranny, oppression and imperialist war. The U.S. government claims its attacks on ISIS will help the people caught in the middle of this deadly conflict, but the Kurds of Kobanê have learned otherwise. Barack Obama’s new war will only make the suffering and violence worse.
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WHEN BARACK Obama declared war on ISIS, he promised in his speech to the United Nations that the U.S. would “work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death”–including support for “Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities.”
But in the face of ISIS’s first major offensive against people “fighting for their communities,” U.S. officials claim there is nothing they can really do with just air strikes–and what’s more, saving Kobanê isn’t part of the plan anyway.
As Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, “Kobanê does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIS]. Kobanê is one community, and it is a tragedy what is happening there, and we do not diminish that. But we have said from day one that it is going to take a period of time to bring the coalition thoroughly to the table…And to begin, the focus…is in Iraq. That is the current strategy.”
Translation: U.S. officials were happy to talk tough when they first expanded air strikes into Syria, but their top concern is protecting American interests in Iraq. There, Washington can still dictate to the central government–and even more importantly, the U.S. empire wants to defend its oil interests, especially in the north, where the threat of the ISIS-led insurgency conquering the Kurdish capital of Erbil in August prompted the U.S. to begin dropping bombs in the first place.
However, according to Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn, the U.S. isn’t even succeeding at its top priority. ISIS units in Iraq recently captured Hit in the vast western province of Anbar, along with parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi. Also, the insurgents are advancing into areas west of the capital of Baghdad–close enough to possibly begin artillery barrages of the country’s main international airport.
“The successful advance of the militants,” Cockburn summarized, “shows that the Iraqi Army is little more capable of resisting ISIS than when it lost Mosul and Tikrit in June” at the start of the ISIS offensive in Iraq.
About the only place the U.S. can arguably claim success is where its air strikes have been most concentrated–to repel the ISIS offensive toward Erbil, which threatened not only U.S. personnel who collaborate with the Kurdistan Regional Government, but the main concentration of oil reserves in Iraq’s northern region.
The cold calculations about U.S. priorities in this war appear all the more cynical when you consider that ISIS emerged directly as a product of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Neither ISIS nor its predecessor organization, al-Queda in Iraq, existed before the U.S. invasion in 2003. The divide-and-conquer policies of the colonial occupation, consciously put in place to counter the threat of a united armed resistance against U.S. forces, fueled the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one actor in the horrific civil war and ethnic cleansing that followed.
As the sectarian conflict spilled over Iraq’s borders, U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar sponsored reactionary Sunni groupings to counter the influence of the so-called “Shia Crescent,” stretching from Iran, through the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, to the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
ISIS is a product of the toxic mess of violence and hate spawned by U.S. imperialism–and Obama’s new war will only make things worse. As Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher wrote:
[The U.S.-led] military intervention is not designed to help the local populations in their struggle for freedom and dignity, but to serve the objectives of Western imperialists, with the agreement of Russian imperialism and all the regional sub-imperialists–whether participating directly, in the case of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or indirectly, in the case of Turkey, or not opposing intervention, in the case of Iran.
All these actors want to put an end to the revolutionary processes in the region and restore stability, with authoritarian regimes that serve their interests and not those of the popular masses of the region.
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THE TREACHEROUS behavior of the Turkish government toward the unfolding massacre in Kobanê is even more blatant than Washington’s hypocrisy.
Turkish military equipment that could counter the ISIS arsenal stands unused, within sight of Kobanê–while the government’s security forces focus their repression against those who show solidarity with the Kurds, including those hoping to cross the border to join in the defense of Kobanê.
Stunning video footage shows smoke from ISIS artillery attacks billowing into the sky over Kobanê in the background–while in the foreground, Turkish police beat Kurdish protesters. The government admits that at least 30 people have been killed so far in clashes between police and demonstrators across the country.
The grim fact is that Turkey’s government sees the battle of Kobanê as–in the words of the Al Monitor news website–an “opportunity” to extract concessions from Kurdish political forces.
In early October, Salih Muslim, co-chair of the PYD, attended a secret meeting with intelligence officials of the Turkish government where he pleaded for arms–especially anti-tank weapons–to be allowed across the border to fighters in Kobanê. He was confronted with a series of conditions–including that the PYD dissolve local governments running the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria and distance itself from its sister organization, the PKK.
Basically, the Turkish government demanded that the autonomous zone ruled by Kurds since 2012 be turned into one dominated by Turkish forces–or Kobanê would fall.
If it seems hard to believe that the Turkish government would respond to Kobanê’s catastrophe by blackmailing the victims, it shouldn’t be. For decades, Turkey has stopped at nothing to maintain the oppression of the Kurds, who represent as much as a quarter of the country’s population.
This dates back to the end of the First World War, when Turkey was formed in the colonial carve-up of the conquered Ottoman Empire. The Kurds were denied a nation state and instead became a persecuted minority in several countries–nowhere more so than Turkey, home to the largest number of Kurds.
The PKK has its roots in the radicalization of the 1970s, when it was founded as a Maoist organization fighting for an independent Kurdish state. The armed conflict with the Turkish state cost over 40,000 lives, mostly Kurds. According to Human Rights Watch, some 3,000 Kurdish villages were wiped from the map by the end of the 20th century as a consequence of government policies.
After several phases of fighting and relative peace, the PKK declared a cease-fire in 2013 following extended negotiations between jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish government, led since the early 2000s by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.
The AKP has tried to maintain an image of tolerance toward the Kurdish minority, at least compared to the military rule that preceded it. But that didn’t stop Erdoğan from stating at the start of October that the PKK and the ISIS insurgency were equally dangerous. “It is wrong to view them differently–we need to deal with them jointly,” he told reporters.
The Turkish government does view the rise of ISIS–with its claim to have formed a caliphate erasing the national borders established after the First World War–as a destabilizing factor in the region. But it continues to see Kurdish unrest as a grave danger.
Now, Kobanê has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance, with strong echoes in both Syria and Turkey–even prompting calls for support from Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and a leading figure in the U.S. government’s plans for the region. Given this, Al Monitor concludes, “Turkey would probably be happy to see Kobanê fall.”
But the Turkish government is playing with fire. The huge demonstrations in solidarity with Kobanê show that anger with Turkey’s inaction could become the greater threat.
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ONE REASON for the Turkish government’s hostility toward Kobanê is that it is a centerpiece of the autonomous region established by the Kurds in northern Syria. Kobanê is the main city in the middle of three cantons that make up Rojava.
The mass uprising against the Assad dictatorship that began 2011 spread throughout the country, including the Kurdish-dominated region in the north. The regime’s primary response was murderous violence against all dissent. But Assad also tried to maintain support from various ethnic and minority groups by portraying the Arab Spring rebellion as dominated by Sunni fundamentalists. At the same time, he cynically encouraged the most reactionary Sunni groupings by releasing Islamist political prisoners in an attempt to shift the balance inside the opposition.
In withdrawing its forces from the Rojava region in 2012, leaving the PYD to establish and dominate the structures of autonomous self-rule, the Syrian regime no doubt hoped the Kurds would keep their distance from the rest of the anti-Assad opposition–and also serve as a buffer during the civil war against any moves by Turkey, one of Syria’s main regional enemies.
Still, as Joseph Daher writes, “The autonomous self-administration of Rojava would never have been allowed without the popular and massive movement from below of the Syrian people–Arabs, Kurds and Assyrian together–against the criminal and authoritarian Assad regime.”
In November 2013, representatives from different ethnic groups established a formal government–a confederation of “Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen,” according to the preamble of its charter. As Daher writes:
The experience of self-administration in these regions is very interesting, particularly regarding the rights of women, and religious and ethnic minorities. Some contradictions nevertheless exist, especially regarding the authoritarianism of the PYD forces that have not hesitated to repress activists or to bar them from ruling institutions.
We should not forget that the PYD, like its mother organization, the PKK, lacks democratic processes in its internal functioning and in relation to other organizations considered to be rivals, or merely, as we have seen, critical of it. We must remember, for example, the protest movements in late June 2013 in some cities of Rojava, such as Amouda and Derabissyat, against repression and arrests carried out by PYD forces against Kurdish revolutionary activists…
That shouldn’t stop us from providing full support to the Kurdish national liberation movement in its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran against authoritarian regimes that oppress them and/or prevent them from achieving their self-determination. It is also why we should demand the removal of the PKK from all lists of terrorist organizations in Europe and elsewhere.
We can criticize the leaderships of the PKK or PYD for some of their policies, but…a fundamental principle of revolutionaries is that we first need to support all forms of liberation struggles unconditionally, before we criticize the way they are led.
It is no surprise that ISIS has had Rojava in its sights since the fundamentalists announced their so-called caliphate. The assault on Kobanê is an attempt to liquidate the system of self-rule established there, just as ISIS has waged war on other forces–Sunnis included–that differ with its reactionary dogmas.
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THERE IS much more to understand about the tangled web of conflict and violence in the Middle East today. But we need to start, as the Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher does, with a commitment to the popular struggle for democracy, self-determination and social justice.
As Daher concludes in a recent article at Syria Freedom Forever:
The fall of the city of Kobanê and its occupation by ISIS would represent a double defeat: for the self-determination of the Kurdish people and for the Syrian revolution…
It is a dialectical relationship, and both are linked. A defeat of the Syrian revolutionary process and of its objectives would mark, most probably, the end of the Rojava autonomous region’s experience and the hopes of the Kurdish people to decide their own future in the face of the opposition of multiple actors: Western and Russian imperialism, Arab and Turkish nationalist chauvinism and Islamic reactionary forces.
On the other side, the Syrian revolutionary process would not be complete without the possibility of the Kurdish people to decide freely of their own future: separation or participation in a democratic, social and secular Syria, with its national rights guaranteed.
We must oppose every counterrevolutionary attempt to undermine either Kurdish self-determination or the Syrian uprising. One face of that counterrevolution is the reactionaries of ISIS, with their barbaric war on Kobanê. Another is the authoritarian and undemocratic regimes of the region–even when they oppose each other, as Erdogan’s Turkey and Assad’s Syria do.
Last but not least is U.S. imperialism, which bears responsibility for the horrors unfolding in the Middle East today. Whether through direct intervention or support of reactionary forces, the U.S. is intent on maintaining its dominance in order to control the world’s most valuable resource: oil.
As anti-imperialists in the U.S., we want to expose the hypocrisy and deceptions of the latest U.S. war drive–and build the forces demanding an end to its wars, so the masses of people in the Middle East can decide their collective future for themselves.