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International solidarity: fighting at home for the revolution abroad

  • November 14, 2019

Anarchism & Autonomy

Campaigns against apartheid in both South Africa and Israel provide important lessons for the Rojava international solidarity movement against Turkey’s invasion.

In recent weeks, the world has watched in horror as the long-predicted Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria began in full force. NATO’s second largest army and their Jihadist paramilitary proxies are throwing everything in their arsenal against the democratic autonomous administration of the majority Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria.

Their military power is an impressive and international one; vehicles made by Swedish, German, Italian and British companies. With multinational arms companies have a key stake in equipping, maintaining and supplying parts to the Turkish military and arms industry. The full extent of this can be seen with this map showing all of the arms facilities linked to Turkey globally.

For example, the US government approved the sale of $3.5 billion worth of patriot missiles to Turkey by Raytheon, whilst the Italian multinational Leonardo supplies targeting systems and attack helicopters. Similarly, BAE Systems and Lockheed-Martin help Turkish arms companies produce fighter jets and missiles. Most egregiously perhaps, the UK government approved licenses for the sale of military products containing white phosphorus to Turkey over 70 times during the past 20 years. This is concerning because of the devastating and illegal use of the incendiary chemical by Turkish forces, causing severe injuries to several civilians in Rojava.

But the complicity of the West goes beyond arming and maintaining the military arm of Erdoğan’s murderous regime. The UK government, Conservative MPs and even some former Labour MPs like Jonathan Woodcock have actively supported the Turkish government’s claims that the majority Kurdish administration in Syria is a “terrorist threat” to Turkey. Trump too has come out with similar rhetoric justifying the invasion branding the PKK as a “bigger terrorist threat” than ISIS. The irony being that the PKK played a key role in resisting the ISIS genocide of Yazidis in Iraq.

Similarly, Germany has been criticized for its links to Turkey, with artists such as Hito Steyerl refusing to have their work shown in Germany due to the state’s complicity with Turkey, including Germany’s central role in brokering the EU-Turkey pact. German authorities were also criticized for shutting down the pro-Kurdish Mesopotamya publishing house this February. Authorities claimed that the publisher’s profits would go towards terrorism despite many of the books being in support of the revolution in Rojava. Activists have also faced fines and prosecution for flying YPJ, YPG and SDF flags. This conflation of Kurdish defense forces with terrorism reveals a complicity in the Turkish state’s attempts to portray its political opponents as terrorists.

Such claims of terrorism have been used repeatedly by Erdoğan’s regime to suppress any expression of Kurdish politics and culture in Turkey and beyond.

Similarly, the US has not only abandoned the Kurds, but has been accused of sharing intelligence on Kurdish military positions with the Turkish army — even though the Turkish assault on Syria has resulted in the bombardment of US military personnel by Turkey.

So, as British bombs and German tanks are turned against the only feminist multicultural democracy in the region, it is now more important than ever to consider what can be done to support one of the world’s most progressive experiments in radical governance.

The left and anti-imperialists worldwide have a long tradition of exposing and resisting racist and repressive regimes and the West’s ties to such regimes. By drawing on such histories we can see what exactly can be done to effectively undermine both Erdoğan’s regime and its allies across the globe.

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was able to draw on international solidarity and global boycott campaigns to destroy apartheid South Africa’s international reputation and damage its global economic links. More recently, Palestinian civil society and supporters around the world have worked tirelessly to promote a BDS campaign against Israeli apartheid.

By drawing on the examples and lessons of these movements we can see what can be done to support Rojava’s resistance against Turkish fascism.

Our gratitude to the revolution

Where does this invasion leave the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — the official name of territory generally known as “Rojava” — and Kurdistan more generally? A silver lining of this brutal conflict has been a growth in global consciousness about the Kurds and the revolutionary society they have fought so hard to protect and develop. There is a glimmer of hope that the social and political base built by this revolution can survive, perhaps even forcing concessions from Assad.

Meanwhile, guerrilla warfare by the Kurds is likely to continue in the mountains of Turkey and Iraq. In this regard northeastern Syria is an unfortunate setting for the revolutionary heartland; too open to be of any protection for Kurdish guerrillas. This once again confirms the oft-repeated adage that the Kurds’ only friends are the mountains — except perhaps for the tens of thousands of ordinary people around the world who are raising their voices in solidarity with the revolution.

Whilst Trump’s betrayal has been crucial in creating a great deal of global attention with regard to the Kurdish struggle, the role of international solidarity should not be underestimated.

The Kurdish diaspora and thousands of other activists have been working tirelessly for years to raise the profile of the Rojava revolution and the threat of Turkish invasion. Now that the situation is so desperate and widely acknowledged, the fruits of this work are beginning to show.

Arms deals with Turkey have now been banned by several EU countries and prior to the so-called ceasefire the US had imposed economic sanctions on Erdoğan’s regime. Trump’s attempts to reverse these sanctions have been challenged by Congress’ recent bill sanctioning Turkey and halting the transfer of military material to Turkey. Trump’s administration clearly opposes this move, but it remains unclear if it will veto the bill and how the bill is currently being implemented.

What’s more, there is the hope that such work might galvanize a belief in utopian possibility, that another world might be possible. As shown by a democratic society with a radically different approach to the neoliberal dystopia we live in. A society where ecology and humanity are prioritized over profit and greed. The revolution in Rojava is of course not perfect, it is a work in progress — as perhaps any radical process should be.

Over the last seven years a great deal has been achieved. In an area where attacks on women’s rights and divisions between ethnic groups have been used to divide and conquer the populace, Rojava stands out as a unique entity. A pluralistic multicultural democracy which guarantees women’s rights politically, economically and socially. These guarantees are not just empty promises but are enshrined in the very fabric of the administration.

All communes and local assemblies have quotas for women and ethnic minorities to ensure they reflect the demographic of the area and separate women’s councils have veto powers over these institutions. This can be most clearly seen in the YPJ, the all-female women’s protection units which have played a crucial role in the heroic struggles against ISIS and Turkey. The revolution is therefore an inspiration and a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak world.

Of course, it does not stand alone in the world; alongside the thousands who have stood in solidarity with the revolution there is a growing network of similar struggles, some predating the revolution in Rojava by decades. From the direct democracies of the Zapatista territories to Amazonian Indigenous peoples resisting deforestation, or the inspiring work of Cooperation Jackson in the US; there is a global network of autonomy-based radical movements.

Many of these have expressed a great deal of solidarity with the revolution in northeastern Syria. Perhaps, then, we should not see solidarity as merely helping those in need but as a recognition of the debt and gratitude we owe Rojava for their inspiring work building a better world.

This is why international solidarity is so important, it shows us that another world is possible.

The success of the anti-apartheid struggle

A fine example of this was the international campaign to end apartheid. Remembering the radical history of international solidarity shows us how much can be done to support Rojava and other struggles. Nelson Mandela himself compared the treatment of the Kurds in the Middle East to the injustices of apartheid.

More recently the South African National Assembly’s spokesperson Lechesa Tsenoli spoke of the similarities between Mandela’s history and the imprisonment of Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan noting how, “We were able to break the apartheid system with the solidarity we received in the world. Revolutionaries all over the world stood up for us,” suggesting that the Kurdish struggle should be supported “on the basis of human rights. What is done to Kurds is contrary to our own law. Therefore, we support this struggle.”

Of course, these campaigns to boycott apartheid South Africa were not necessarily straightforward. With the benefit of hindsight many liberal commentators look back on the apartheid regime as a universally loathed government. This however obscures the struggle of the ANC and many grassroots activists to unveil the horrors of apartheid and the complicity of the international community in supporting the apartheid regime.

Whilst the ANC’s lawyers worked to garner international condemnation and support for economic sanctions, grassroots activists across the world took the fight to their own doorsteps to unleash what’s been referred to as a “fountainhead of solidarity.” A great diversity of tactics was employed including consumer boycotts, trade union activism, cultural boycotts and pressuring governments and institutions to divest from, or sanction the apartheid government.

This global network of solidarity helped raise awareness of the horrors of apartheid and show the complicity of politicians like US president Reagan and UK prime minister Thatcher who worked hard to have economic relations with South Africa continue unaffected by the anti-apartheid movement.

However, boycotts and demands for economic sanctions began to pay off. South Africa became increasingly isolated on the global stage and growing bans on arms sales to the country may have contributed to the regime’s 1988 military defeat in Angola.

The radical nature of much of this work should also be highlighted. Barclays banks were singled out for their ties to the regime and students across the UK organized various radical direct-action campaigns against the bank, including occupations of Barclays branches on campuses. The diversity of this solidarity work can also be seen in the boycotts of academic and sporting endeavors linked to apartheid.

By pressuring sporting institutions such as the International Olympic Committee and the International Cricket Council to ban South Africa’s “all-white” sports teams, activists helped unravel the legitimizing power of culture and turn it against the apartheid regime. Again, this was not achieved without radical means. Activists invaded the pitches of sporting matches at Twickenham and Lord’s to show the world that business as usual was not acceptable where apartheid was concerned.

The success of such campaigns is reflected in the eventual ban of South Africa by various organizations such as the Olympics Committee, and the imposition of economic sanctions by several nations despite Reagan and Thatcher’s opposition to such measures.

The apartheid regime’s violent response to such activism also demonstrates just how threatened they felt by international solidarity campaigns. For example, the 1988 murder of ANC leader Dulcie September in France and the bombing of Mandela’s office in London.

These campaigns relied on grassroots activism and a diversity of tactics, by attacking the cultural legitimacy and economic links the regime had to the global capitalist system, the campaigns presented an effective threat to the apartheid regime.

From Kobane to Afrin

The power of the anti-apartheid struggle then shows how much we can do. Whilst there have been great strides and victories with increasing international condemnation of Turkey much more can be done. Around the world, and in states with strong links to Turkey especially, this work needs to continue and grow — reversing the Turkish invasion is just the start.

Great things can be done with enough dedication, persistence and popular participation. But we cannot be placated by concessions from power or dismayed by attempts to smear Rojava and the Kurdish people as terrorists. It should be remembered that many Conservatives including both Reagan and Thatcher called Nelson Mandela and the ANC terrorists not so long ago.

Recent news of the UK suspension of arms sales licenses to Turkey, and similar measures taken by states like Norway, Germany, France and the Netherlands were a step in the right direction but this is not enough. Western companies and armed forces continue to play a crucial role repairing and maintaining Turkish military equipment, and the suspension of arms sales licenses has often not been enough to actually halt the export of arms to states with horrendous human rights records.

In the UK for example, the ban on licenses will only affect future arms deals with Turkey and not deals currently in effect. For many of these measures only arms deemed likely to be used in Syria will be targeted and how this will be defined is unclear.

This is of course not the first time an international solidarity movement has supported Rojava, and the Turkish invasion is not the first time that the revolution has been threatened.

In 2014 the city of Kobane was besieged by ISIS and the Kurdish freedom movement around the world began to mobilize international support for the Rojava revolution’s resistance against ISIS’s brutal siege. Drawing attention to the heroic efforts of the Kurdish resistance helped spread the word about Rojava and its revolutionary society, even with many major media outlets doing their best to depoliticize the feminist and leftist facets of the YPG and YPJ.

This international solidarity work then laid the framework for the international reputation of the Kurds as a force for good against the onslaught of ISIS. The siege was eventually broken and ISIS were repulsed at Kobane but the 2016 Turkish invasion of Afrin presented a new threat to the revolution.

With Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement had a more well-defined opponent. Whilst ISIS’s economic links and supporters remain ambiguous and murky, it is much clearer just how closely many states have ties to Erdoğan’s regime.

This then was the beginning of work to expose the brutality of Erdoğan’s regime to the world and halt the West’s economic, material and political support for his government. Particularly crucial were attempts to ban arms sales to Turkey and whilst these did not necessarily come to fruition during the invasion of Afrin, they certainly helped lay the foundations for the solidarity work that continues to this day.

We are not powerless

So why should we focus on boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in our solidarity with Rojava? The successes of the anti-apartheid movement in employing such tactics suggests why these approaches are so necessary.

However, there are differences in context, Turkey is a much more powerful state than apartheid South Africa was and their role as a key NATO member will make it harder to garner international and domestic condemnation. However, the sheer brutality of Erdoğan’s regime both in Turkey and Syria, along with its links to Jihadist groups and perhaps even ISIS make it more easy to establish public consensus in opposition to it.

Just like the horrific atrocities of apartheid in South Africa and Israel, Erdoğan’s violent repression makes his regime a strong target for BDS campaigns. Such campaigns have a diversity of tactics built into their strategy allowing for a wide base of support. For example, many liberals or people with non-revolutionary politics supported anti-apartheid boycotts despite the revolutionary rhetoric of the ANC.

The current BDS campaign against Israeli apartheid is very illustrative of how such a strategy remains relevant to the here and now. The campaign has had many successes in raising discussions about Israeli apartheid against Palestinian peoples and in putting economic pressure on companies who profit from the Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory.

Once again, the fierce backlash these tactics have provoked shows just how effective they are. In April 2015 Tennessee became the first US state to condemn BDS and since then 27 other US states have taken similar measures. Similar moves have occurred in the UK and Germany. BDS then clearly presents enough of a threat to companies complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation that states have felt the need to take action to protect their economic and political reputation from BDS.

A similar campaign targeting companies complicit in the crimes of Erdoğan’s regime clearly has a great deal of potential. Just as the BDS campaign has its basis in Palestinian civil society’s calls for a boycott, so too is the boycott of Turkey rooted in calls for boycotts from Kurdish civil society. The complicity of companies such as TUI in supporting the Turkish tourism industry, which is heavily linked to the Turkish government, has already been targeted by protests in the UK.

Similarly, European arms dealers liked to Turkey have been blockaded in several locations across Europe. For example; activists in Bristol blocked the entrance to arms factories linked to Turkey, the occupation of a Leonardo factory in Naples and German protests against tank factories in Freiburg.

The potential then is already there with a nascent Boycott Turkey campaign being launched in the UK and various actions having already taken place. However, if we want to continue to provide meaningful support to the revolution in Rojava in the face of overwhelming aggression, more needs to be done.

There is a strong nexus between various economic actors, cultural institutions, academic institutions and the political reputation of the Turkish government. Nike’s sponsorship of the Turkish national football team helps legitimize their explicit support of the Turkish invasion. Many UK universities promote careers and research with arms companies directly involved in arming and maintaining the Turkish military. Turkish airlines are essentially directly controlled by Erdoğan’s government and act as both an economic and diplomatic force in support of his rule. All such activity therefore helps prop up Erdoğan’s regime economically and reputationally.

A coordinated Boycott Turkey campaign has already begun, and by aiming to target key companies strongly implicated in the crimes of the Turkish state the energy of the movement can be focused on effective measures that have the chance to make a real material difference. For example, boycotts of Turkish Airlines and protests in airports across the world have already helped cause a 25 percent drop in the company’s share price. It’s clear then how a BDS campaign can start to unravel these links and show people across the world that the Turkish dictatorship is not a distant issue of no concern to them, but something connected to many of the institutions in their everyday life.

Revealing this complicity starts to highlight the realities of a globalized world-system in a way that can mobilize and educate less radical people alongside those already committed to supporting the revolutionary work of Rojava. Similarly, as Fanny Malinen points out, the complicity of states like the UK in supporting Turkey also affects many of their political projects such as the “hostile environment” to immigration.

By highlighting the crimes of the Turkish state and the complicity of the West to a wider audience, BDS can therefore play an important role in exposing the political projects of Western governments as part of a violent global system of imperialist wars and inhumane borders all in the name of profit. This power to simultaneously delegitimize the Turkish state, weaken it economically and legitimize those resisting the state’s repressive forces is something that can make a real difference to the peoples of Kurdistan and Turkey alike.

The very nature of this power also means such activism can play a role in undermining and revealing Western states’ projects of globalized violence.

It is important then to continue to support international solidarity work and demand boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Turkish government. Such solidarity can also be a powerful tool for raising the spirits of revolutionaries faced with the overwhelming challenge of defending the revolution from a myriad of reactionary forces.

So, go out and find your local solidarity group, write to your MP, union or university and demand boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Keep updated with the RiseUp4Rojava and Boycott Turkey campaigns, spread the word and think about what you might be able to do to help.

We are not powerless in the fight against Erdoğan’s regime, as we have seen with the successes of the anti-apartheid movement and the continued work of the BDS campaign against Israel. These campaigns allow us to let the world know just how many people are willing to stand up for Rojava and the possibility of a radically different world. They show us that this issue is not confined to Turkey or Syria but is one that concerns all of us across the world.

Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown is a human rights graduate and freelance researcher with an interest in radical human rights and anti-systemic movements — particularly focusing on autonomy-based struggles such as the Rojava revolution.

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