The struggle to abolish borders which separate peoples from each other, is commonly represented by certain well known and extreme examples. The militarized wall between the US and Mexico is one clear case in the consciousness of the Western left. Another disgusting manifestation is the stranglehold of Israel’s apartheid wall around the West Bank. Less well known, despite a hundred years of fierce struggle, are the borders that separate the 40 million Kurdish peoples from each other and which span across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The Kurdish aspiration to destroy these borders is reaching its peak today on the boundary that separates Turkey and Syria. As a result of decades of resistance to these nation states, the radical Kurds of Turkey and Syria are taking advantage of the geopolitical shake-up in the region and are declaring their regional autonomy. But before we examine the current situation, a brief sketch of the historical context is in order.
A History of Struggle
In the midst of the First World War, the semi-secret Skyes-Picot pact between Britain and France prefigured the borders which would define Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq for a hundred years to come. After a four year war under the helm of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern-day Turkey, the Turkish Republic was formed with the Lausanne Agreement in 1923. Turkey was not only a project resulting from an independence war but also from the creation of an artificial national identity. This Turkish identity began to erase all other ethnicities and cultures which it regarded as a threat, and the Kurdish people were at the top of this list. After being carved up and divided by the imperial powers of Europe, the Kurds now found themselves being erased by the budding Turkish nationalism.
The 20th century history of the Kurds within the borders of Turkey is ripe with rebellions and ensuing massacres such as the events of Dersim that started in 1938. This instance alone left more than 10,000 Kurds dead and at least as many forcefully removed from their homes. Without a doubt, the most resilient Kurdish resistance movement emerged with the formation of the the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, in 1978. Formed by Marxist-Leninist students and led by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK became a formidable enemy of the Turkish state as it waged a guerrilla war of independence, most aggressively in the late 1980s and 1990s.
At that time, the goal of the PKK was to create a unified Kurdistan along socialist principles. The PKK operated training camps across the border from Turkey in Iraq but more notably in Syria, especially in the Bekaa Valley near Lebanon. As a testament to its transborder aspirations, the PKK and its leader Öcalan left a deep mark on Kurds in Western Kurdistan, located in northern Syria. The 30 year civil war left more than 60,000 people dead within Turkish borders, the vast majority of them Kurds, members and sympathizers of the PKK, as well as 4,500 Kurdish villages evacuated and burnt by the Turkish military.
In 1999, Turkish special forces were able to capture Öcalan from exile in Rome (via Kenya), and the scope of the Kurdish struggle started to take a new form. From his extreme isolation in an island prison in the middle of the Marmara Sea, Öcalan began to make references to the Zapatistas and even to the relatively obscure social ecologist Murray Bookchin. The war for independence became transformed into one for autonomy, self-governance and expression of their identity such as using the Kurdish language, banned until very recently. More emphasis was placed upon the non-guerilla organizations of the Kurdish people, both their legal political parties but also on different modes of civil disobedience and the beginnings of an autonomous mode of federative governance.
The Kurds in Turkey had not been the only group under the yoke of a repressive nationalist Kemalism. Secularism, one of the pillars of the Turkish Republic, had been steadfastly preserved by its guardian — the Turkish Armed Forces — which targeted various stripes of Islamists vowing for power. But the tables turned at the turn of the century when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) put forth a program conjoining neoliberal development and Islam and swiftly rose to power. The AKP, with the rabid yet shrewd Erdoğan as its chief, became the first Turkish government to start a dialogue with PKK leadership in Oslo in 2008. Although mostly window-dressing, such interchange was unheard of until that moment.
In Kurdistan, the Sun Rises from the West
Today, the situation for the Kurds has taken a different turn with the dawn of the Arab Spring and its spread to Syria. The Syrian people were not able to bring a swift departure to their despotic leader Bashar Al-Assad as had been the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Instead, the country plunged into a still raging war against the last remaining Ba’athist dictatorship in the region. From this desperate mess emerged Rojava on July 19, 2012.
Rojava, meaning West in Kurdish, was the product of what is referred to as a Democratic People’s Revolution by those who took advantage of the weakening of the Ba’athist regime, namely the PYD (the Democratic Unity Party). Their territory is comprised of three cantons in northern Syria, Cizîr to the East, Efrîn to the West and Kobanê in the middle. Instead of forming a state, the PYD seek to implement democratic autonomy and self-governance with assemblies that extend down to the neighborhood level. In January of this year, their Democratic Autonomous Assembly passed a “social agreement” which guaranteed decentralization, free education in the native tongue, healthcare, housing and an end to child labor and any discrimination against women.
The radical Kurdish movement’s emphasis on women’s autonomy and empowerment must be underlined. There have been numerous PKK units and guerrilla camps which are only for women. Nearly all political organizations they form have two leaders, one a man and another a woman. Following in this tradition, on April 2, 2012 in Rajava, the autonomous force the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces) was formed within the YPG (the People’s Defense Forces). Both the YPG and YPJ have had to defend the revolution of Rojava nearly constantly from both the Ba’athist regime as well as the various stripes of Islamists who have turned Syria into the latest front of their jihad.
A Gang called ISIS
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, gradually matured into a full-fledged Salafist organization and expanded its operations to Syria, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Their form of jihad and power struggle led to their disavowal by Al Qaeda earlier this year, and ISIS quickly became the reigning address for Islamic extremists looking to join the holy war. ISIS stepped into the limelight of the Western media with its capture of Mosul in Iraq on June 10, 2014. But the autonomous regions of Rojava have also been under a fierce ISIS assault for more than a year.
Three weeks ago, on July 2, ISIS began a siege of Rojava’s central canton of Kobanê, using military equipment and munitions captured following their victory in Mosul. ISIS is trying to take Kobanê from the east, west and south and this ongoing siege constitutes the most serious threat that Rojava has come under thus far. The Kurdish movement in Turkey identifies deeply with Rojava since the PYD has been enormously influenced by the leadership of Öcalan. Therefore, a threat to the revolution in Rojava also constitutes a serious threat for the aspirations of regional autonomy for Kurds living within the borders of Turkey. In addition, many believe that the Turkish state is using ISIS for a proxy war against Kurdish autonomy by supplying them with arms and intelligence and free movement across its borders.
Following the ISIS siege of Kobanê, Kurdish and Leftist political actors in Turkey — namely the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) — mobilized to intervene in the situation. Starting on July 9, they set up four different encampments along the border in strategic locations to prevent regular ISIS movements in and out of Turkey so they could bring their wounded to Turkish hospitals and receive logistical support from the Turkish state. These encampments have also been used as staging grounds to cross the border en masse to join the YPG and YPJ forces in their defense of Kobanê. The current climate within the Kurdish movement in Turkey is one of a wartime mobilization with daily calls by party members for the youth to remove the borders and join the defense forces in Rojava.
One of the largest crossings in defiance of the border came on July 14, when approximately 300 youth crossed into Kobanê and were greeted by YPG members on the other side who would guide them across the minefield between the border and Kobanê. But this was only the prelude to what would be a historic celebration of the Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy, on the second anniversary of the revolution in Rojava.
Destroying the Border
All day and into the night on July 18, thousands of Kurds flooded into the encampment in the township of Pirsus (Suruç in Turkish). Tents had been set up near the village of Alizer, a village literally divided by the border between Turkey and Syria. People came from all over Kurdistan to celebrate the revolution in Rojava and to remove the border so as to join their compatriots on the other side in their war against ISIS.
The next day, on the 19th, the air was filled with the dry dust as the camp was set up in the middle of a fallow field under gusts of scorching winds. The sun shone hard at 45ºC, yet people kept coming and joining in the ongoing halay (a circular dance popular amongst Kurds). With more people came more and more tanks and armored personal carriers of the Turkish military as well as the water canons and other armored vehicles of the police.
The tanks and troops of the Turkish military arrived from a nearby base which has on its entrance the words “The border is honor” emblazoned on its entrance. Yet the Kurdish villagers and militant youth were not intimidated by the show of force and remained determined to destroy this border between them and their comrades under siege. On the other side of the border, thousands of Kurds from Kobanê arrived to embrace those separated from them by a flimsy barbed wire. As nighttime set in and the air became cooler, fireworks started to light the sky in a great celebration of the revolution. People were restless and the barbed wire lost any semblance of a deterrent it once represented. The stage was set for a spectacular confrontation.
And that confrontation came as promised. After the wires were clipped, a few hundred Kurdish youth crossed into Kobanê to be greeted by a delegation from the YPG. The police and military brutally attacked the celebration launching hundreds of teargas canisters into the area, as well as assaulting the crowd with batons and water cannons. The perseverance of the people was pure inspiration as everyone from the most bold and wild youth to old grannies joined the resistance against the forces of the Turkish state with rocks, molotov cocktails and fireworks. From the stage came directives for people to come and join those fighting or at least to come with their cars to help evacuate the wounded. After a two hour battle, the police and soldiers forced their way into the area with the tents and set fire to it all.
Five hours later, the military launched an operation at another encampment 30 kilometers away, near the village of Ziyaret, at the township of Birecik. The front lines of the siege of the Kobanê canton is visible from this point and this camp was strategically placed to sabotage ISIS movements and provide support and solidarity to the YPG. The people at that camp fought the military off and regained control of the camp only to have to endure another more vicious attack the following morning, on July 21, during which soldiers and police burned the tents and destroyed the cars of those there, arresting eight people after beating them.
Rojava for the Middle East
In the Western media, when one hears of Kurds or Kurdistan it is most often in reference to Mesud Barzani and the Kurdish territory under his control in Northern Iraq, which has also extended its sovereignty in the current context created by ISIS. It must be pointed out that this political formation has minimal affinity with the radical revolutionary one launched by the PYD in Rojava. In fact, both the PYD and PKK often find themselves in open conflict with Barzani’s vision for the Kurds. Occasionally doing the bidding of colonial states, Barzani is also a frequent visitor of Erdoğan. In fact, as recent as last week he flew to Ankara to meet with him and discuss the situation unfolding in the region.
The siege around Kobanê by ISIS is continuing but the YPG and YPJ are determined to thwart it and as of today have begun to take back territory from them. Meanwhile, their comrades on the Turkish side of the border have begun to rebuild the encampment at the village of Ziyaret and vow to stay there until ISIS is fought off. They see the defense of Kobanê as the crucial battle to keep the battle for Kurdish autonomy alive. Many compare this current mobilization to that which took place in defense of the Spanish Revolution against the fascists in the late 1930s. The crushing of the Spanish Revolution had global repercussions that are still being felt today. Similarly, the perseverance of the revolution in Rojava is the only remote hope for a different kind of Middle East, where peoples come together in solidarity with each other rather than at war under sectarianism stoked by colonial powers.