Kurdish liberation in Turkey and Syria deserves global support, not continuing condemnation

Kurdish liberation offers working alternatives to endemic crises facing humanity, particularly in northern Syria. The world’s largest stateless nation has long suffered persecution. From 1516 until 1918, the Kurds were mainly under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, Britain and France divided the Kurds over four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. In each they faced persecution and post-colonial suppression.

Today, history repeats itself. Once again, international powers are ignoring Kurdish calls for liberation. By commencing partial military withdrawal from northern Syria on 11 January 2019, US President Donald Trump signals Turkey a freehand to destroy Syria’s Kurds’ pioneering project. Clearly though, the world must stand with the Kurds.

Early into the internationally-backed war in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces retreated from the north; on 19 July 2012 Kurdish-led communities declared Rojava (in northern Syria) autonomous. Here local councils hold sovereignty through a bottom-up democratic confederalist model. Women’s liberation is central. Violence against women is dealt with by women, while a mixed local force deals with other police matters – both forces are answerable to local assemblies. Women’s participation is guaranteed through co-leadership, and every meeting requires a 40 per cent female quorum. Already by 2013, women in Afrin city held 65 per cent of political positions.

Women are frontline fighters against the so-called Islamic State (IS), their genocide and sexual violence. Rojava forces were the first to hold IS back in Kobanî between September 2014 and January 2015. Since then, Rojava has been key to IS’s retreat. It holds little ground, although it remains a strong threat.

Rojava changed its name to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) on 28 December 2016, while agreeing a new social contract. Both reflect the area’s multi-ethnic cohesion. The social contract gives anyone the right to asylum. By 2014, Rojava’s population estimates had doubled to 4.6 million people, half of whom had sought sanctuary. In camps, refugees also participate in democratic councils.

Turkey in January 2018 bombed and invaded Afrin, the western unattached canton of DFNS. Recruiting ex-IS fighters and committing war-crimes, Turkey is ethnically cleansing the area, as documented by the United Nations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, quoted by the BBC, threatened all of DFNS on 26 January 2018, saying that he would extend Turkey’s Afrin incursion all the way to the Iraq border.

Earlier, reports suggest, Turkey colluded with IS against DFNS, including enabling oil sales, allowing IS fighters across the border, and doing nothing when IS fighters entered Turkey to attack DFNS Kobanî positions.

Erdoğan has already decimated a similar Kurdish-led democratic project in Bakur, southern Turkey. HDP, the political party advocating for a local neighbourhood assembly model, advocate the same ‘three pillars’ as DFNS: feminism, the liberation of the Kurdish people and the collective liberation of humanity. But after HDP threatened Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party majority in 2015, the Turkish state conducted “massive destruction, killings and numerous other serious human rights violations,” between July 2015 and December 2016, according to the UN.

After a failed coup against Erdoğan on 15 July 2016 (which was condemned by HDP), the Turkish state used emergency powers to arrest tens of thousands of opponents including HDP politicians and members, such as co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. In 2017, the party asserted that 55 of their parliamentarians faced charges. As of early 2019, ten HDP parliamentarians are still in prison.

Democrats labelled as ‘terrorists’

International powers have not strongly challenged Turkey, although an investigation of the alleged sale of Afrin’s olives by Turkey to the European Union is one exception. The US-European-Turkish alliance is motivated by arms sales and Turkey’s geopolitical proximity to enable the control of western Asia’s oil. The EU also paid Turkey €6 billion to take back refugees and migrants that crossed into Greece from Turkey.

Additionally, an Orwellian glue underpins the facade of NATO’s second largest army standing with IS. Turkey defines the Kurdish-led liberation struggle in Syria and Turkey as ‘terrorism’, charging that the fighters are just proxies for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Yet there are no institutional connections between the PKK and DFNS, nor PKK and HDP, even if these groups have similar political philosophies.

The PKK’s ‘terrorism’ label applies to its 20th century beginnings, not its actions in this century. Co-founded in 1978 by leader Abdullah Öcalan, this Marxist-Leninist armed group wanted an independent Kurdistan. In August 1984, it launched a guerrilla war against the Turkish state.

Both sides committed atrocities. The PKK had bases in Syria, which were destroyed in the late 1990s. But the death toll and violations were asymmetric: Turkish abuses against Kurds were extensive, and have never stopped. This is just one example of the power imbalance between occupying forces and those occupied.

States also often label liberation struggles as ‘terrorism’, regardless of their own violations. Reconciliation and peace has come to South Africa and Northern Ireland after negotiations with politicians that were also once deemed ‘terrorists’.

On 15 February 1999, Öcalan was kidnapped by the Turkish secret services with assistance from the CIA and others. Öcalan was sentenced to death for treason in a trial later ruled unfair by the European Court of Human Rights. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he has been in solitary confinement in İmralı Island Prison ever since. This is in breach of the 2015 ‘Mandela Rules’ which provide international minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

By 2001, lobbying by Turkey had the PKK on US, EU and UN terrorist lists, even though Öcalan pushed for peace talks during his trial, which was rejected by Turkey (Turkey and the PKK have since held peace talks, the latest from March 2013 to July 2015).

Crucially, on İmralı, Öcalan shifted ideologically to democratic confederalism. In tandem, PKK militants broadened their liberation philosophy. Reading US thinker Murray Bookchin, Öcalan adopted his concept of municipalism. Evolving Bookchin’s thinking and writing from prison, Öcalan argued nature needs liberation from human domination, to prevent endemic ecological crises. He also said that man’s domination of the Earth relates to men’s domination of others. Ecological ideas (and feminist concepts) have flourished in DFNS, including a project to reforest Rojava.

Breaking the status quo

Turkey needs to be forced to release Öcalan, hold peace talks and cease attacking the Kurds, both within the Turkish state and DFNS. DFNS should be allowed into Syrian peace talks as it offers hope beyond a war driven by international powers. If DFNS fails, it will only open the door for IS’s revival.

The world should not list a democratic, feminist, refugee-welcoming and ecological revolution as terrorism. Arguing this is one thing, making it happen, another.

A Kurdish-led movement has called for Öcalan’s release since 1999, galvanised recently by Turkish atrocities, which has brought protesters to the streets in global capitals around the world. There are also new allies since the democratic confederalism transformation. One popular campaign for solidarity with DFNS is Women Rise Up for Afrin, launched on 8 February 2018 in Tirbesipiye City, DFNS. It opposes the violent chauvinism of both IS and Erdoğan, and its movement has received global support, as exemplified by an event in the UK Houses of Commons on 6 March 2018.

The campaign to release Öcalan was also the headline international campaign of the Durham Miners Gala in July 2018, which is the largest annual trade union rally in Europe. Support has come from human rights defenders in Sweden as well as those who challenged Argentinian fascism. Numerous solidarity letters have been penned, from politicians to activists to academics. And as the 20th anniversary of Öcalan’s imprisonment approaches, calls for his freedom are getting even louder.

Since 8 November 2018, imprisoned HDP Member of Parliament Leyla Güven has been on hunger strike calling for freedom for and negotiations with Öcalan.

Despite being released on 25 January 2019, Güven continues her hunger strike and is currently in a critical condition. She joins many other Kurds who are also hunger-striking for Öcalan’s release. Weaponising their health is a last resort for the Kurds, as they have no opportunity to go through civic and legal channels in Turkey.

The necessity to join a strategic alliance with the US also has a last resort element. The US support for DFNS involved – and for now, involves – air support and military advisors on the ground that effectively act as human shields against Turkey’s bombs. This has drawn criticism from many anti-imperialists across the world. But this argument ignores the fact that Syria is a proxy war – with all sides backed by global powers.

Trump’s move to abandon the Kurds to Turkey will cause more persecution. One potential reason for their recent alliance is that Trump relates to Erdoğan as a strongman in an increasingly authoritarian world. Solidarity with the Kurds gives the world a crucial opportunity to instead stand with strong women. In addition, it is the chance to stand for democracy – real democracy, not neoliberal democracy forced at the barrel of a gun – and stand with an ecological, feminist movement when the world needs it most.