The sorry situation facing the Kurds in northeastern Syria needs a radical re-framing.
So far the political situation in the region has been reported within the framework of simple-minded dichotomies between good hats and bad hats and Trump-friendly nostrums like ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
So the Kurds are good guys because they fought (and defeated at great cost to themselves) ISIS. (Minor linguistic aside. The Kurds and others call them Daesh, not ISIS. This is braver than you think because members of Daesh are incensed by this and retaliate by flogging and cutting out tongues.)
But the Kurds weren’t at Normandy side by side with the Allies, complains Trump, so they must be bad guys, or as he repeatedly put it, ‘no angels’. (Note to the Thai military: you weren’t at Normandy either, so you’d better keep quiet about this at the next Cobra Gold.) Of course, you know who else wasn’t at Normandy? Any member of the Trump family. But the Germans were there of course, so that’s alright then.
Turkey now, well, they’re NATO allies, so they must be good guys. But they hate the Kurds and for months have been itching to invade (again) across their southern border.
And you can see how the cogs get jammed in what passes for Trump’s brain. We fight ISIS and the Kurds do too, so they must be our friend. But Turkey is our friend and Turkey fights the Kurds so the Kurds must be, er, our enemy.
Maybe instead of this two-dimensional Realpolitik, we could look at real politics. What has been going on in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria? And might this have anything to do with why everyone else wants to see them destroyed?
First off, this is not ‘Kurdish-controlled northern Syria’. It has its official name (above) and the handy shorthand name of Rojava, which I have yet to hear in a mainstream news bulletin. It is an autonomous region of Syria with no claim to independence, but which aims to serve as an example of how a post-war federated Syria could be run.
And before I start on what kind of government they have, let me emphasize that everything has been achieved in the middle of the most brutal civil war in today’s world. In a country of 21 million, something close to half a million have been killed, almost 2 million have been wounded and more than half the population have become refugees, although in the chaos, these can only be estimates.
Rojava however has a popularly ratified constitution, which in a number of respects leaves the latest Thai constitution in the dust. First, it guarantees equal representation of all ethnic groups, the Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians et al, in a form of direct democracy where decision-making starts at the bottom. All languages (Kurdish, Arabic, Syrian, Turkmen, Circassian and a whole bunch more that you’ve never heard of) have equal status and translation of government documents rivals that of the EU.
The basic freedoms of religion, expression, the media, etc, are guaranteed, and decentralization and environmental sustainability are promoted, as is gender equity, but here it is backed up in practice with a system of ‘co-governance’ where every position at every level of government has a male and female with equal authority. Try to remember that the next time you see a picture of the Thai cabinet or a gathering of high-ranking government officials.
The economic system has been criticized as ‘anti-capitalist’ but guarantees private property alongside cooperatives; community ownership and workers’ control are widespread.
Now Rojava is no paradise. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented human rights abuses, but mainly because they are given free rein to monitor the situation. In Turkey, Amnesty International’s Director and Chair of the Board were thrown in jail.
Compared with Turkey, which in 2015-6 killed around 4000 Turkish Kurds and levelled Kurdish cities, with Syria, a state that is incapable of anything except killing, torturing and displacing its own people, and with Iraq, so corrupt it is incapable even of that, Rojava looks to me like a relatively nice place to live.
Except that everything I have said about it now has to be put into the past tense. It’s over.
In one phone call, the Artist of the Deal got conned again by another autocrat who convinced him that the Kurds in Syria were the same thing as the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) in Turkey which the Turkish government has had branded as a terrorist organization. Trump moves the US forces to one side, and the Turks and their Arab ‘militias’ pour over the border to impose their version of how society should be run.
One example of this occurred on 12 October. Hevrin Khalaf, a political leader in Rojava, was intercepted in her car, summarily executed, as was her driver, and her corpse mutilated by Syrian Arab mercenaries doing Turkey’s dirty work. The Arab ‘militias’ deny doing it (and presumably deny recording it on their cell phones) and Turkey of course has no responsibility whatsoever.
So is the imminent demise of the only remotely democratic secular government in the region the result of shifting allegiances in a game where the major players (and the mainstream media) can see only 2 sides, us and them? Or was it thought that the last thing the Middle East needs is a working example of how a society can be organized on principles of equality, justice and mutual tolerance, an example that the media has pretty much completely ignored?
If there were examples like Rojava around (and Catalunya and the Scots Nats and other secessionist and surprisingly progressive movements), folk might just get the wrong idea. All sorts of wrong ideas.