The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have scored remarkable victories over the last three years against Daesh in northern Syria.
The YPG was created five years ago. Assad withdrew from Kurdish areas in north west Syria to concentrate his offensive in more central areas. The YPG became the army of the cantons formed in what Kurds call Rojava, “the West” of Kurdish territory. It made its female units (YPJ) every bit as prominent and effective as the male units. It rejected religious sectarianism and nationalism. It armed those it liberated like the Yazidis, and helped them organise in their self defence. It allied with some Arab fighters in the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF). It beat back Daesh, a force formed from experienced officers of Saddam’s Iraqi army, and financed with millions of dollars from Saudi and Qatar.
Daesh had made a blitzkrieg advance across Iraq and Syria in June-August 2014, seizing heavy armaments surrendered by 30,000 Iraqi army soldiers as they fled. Daesh had also acquired arms and finance from Wahhabist forces in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In its new “Islamic State”, Daesh launched terror against minorities. The more than 40,000 Yazidis in Northern Iraq faced the execution of all males and the selling of their young women into sex slavery. The forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan had left the Yazidis to their fate. For four months the YPG fought virtually unaided against Daesh.
When Daesh attempted to take Kobani, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, bloated to about 200,000 people by refugees fleeing Daesh, the battle was fierce. The Turkish regime did little to stop Daesh trading oil for money and arms. It stopped volunteer Kurds and arms from Turkey getting to the besieged YPG forces in Kobani.
The US were in a quandary. Obama had pledged US military force to defeat Daesh. But Turkey was the USA’s most powerful ally. The US deferred. As US warplanes began sorties into Syria, they spared the large concentration of Daesh military forces outside Kobani. After six weeks of Daesh’s onslaught on Kobani, the US changed tack. They started bombing the Daesh forces around Kobani and worked with YPG forces on the ground. The siege of the town was broken.
The YPG’s defeat of Daesh round Kobani, with the help of US air cover, became a model which over the last three years has advanced and now pretty much destroyed Daesh in their “Islamic State” capital of Raqqa. To keep Erdogan happy, the US had long maintained a ban on the Turkish-Kurdish PKK as “terrorists”. That ban, also implemented by Turkey’s other NATO allies in Europe, has caused great distress to the families of YPG volunteer fighters, usually from the Kurdish diaspora. Erdogan also locked up members and leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP party in Turkey.
The US simultaneously allied with Erdogan and armed and supported the Rojavan militias YPG/YPJ, which were politically dominated by the sister party to the PKK, the PYD in Syria. Some on the left put a simple minus where the US put a plus.
The Kurds fighting against Erdogan in Turkey were considered good, because Erdogan was an ally of the US. The same Kurds fighting Daesh with US support were thought not so good, or ignored. A simplistic “anti-imperialism”, reduced to anti-Americanism, was unable to recognise that it is the right of an oppressed people to take military support from whomever they can when fighting forces like Daesh.
A confused mosaic of conflicting positions on Syria has become commonplace. Pacifistic outrage at all military action; refusal to fully acknowledge the barbaric crimes of either Assad or Daesh; ludicrous conspiracy theories in which the independent agency of militias and communities in Syria is denied and they are demonised as tame tools of imperialism. Both Russia and Iran, in support of Assad, and Saudi and Turkey, against Assad, have promoted and financed sectarian forces in Syria for their own ends. The US has needed the Kurds probably as much as the Kurds have needed the US, but the US, too, puts its own imperial interests first.
The US made many efforts to nurture forces which might serve it as a reliable alternative to Assad in Syria. Most ended catastrophically. The alliance struck up with the YPG at the battle of Kobani continued to have successes against Daesh. Turkey and Saudi Arabia also had difficulties. The Islamist militias those governments financed were often at each other’s throats, and often lost support to more extreme Islamist militias. Assad was saved by Russian air power and massive Iranian military intervention. He also gained from the elimination of the initial democratic ethos in the Syrian opposition and its replacement by the armed religious and ethnic sectarianism promoted by the Turkish and Saudi allies of the US.
Now alliances in the region are changing fast. Assad’s chief protector Russia is sending warplanes to support pro-Turkish forces in Idlib province, the very same forces that have been fighting Assad since 2012. Turkey and Assad’s Syria are edging towards a greater common purpose, which will be defined against their common foe, the Kurds and other communities in liberated Northern Syria. Despite Trump’s announced policy of greater disengagement, the US military high command seems stronger now than it was in Obama’s day, and the US alliance with the Kurds is as strong now as it ever was. There has been horrendous destruction across much of Syria. The reconstruction bill is estimated at over $3 trillion.
Assad’s artillery and aerial bombardments have created huge damage, and so has Daesh’s preparedness in northern Syria to have every civilian, every building destroyed, as well as themselves, rather than surrender. As early as January 2017, 17% of housing in the town of Raqqa had been destroyed. But that was only after 2,000 bombing raids on the town. There have now been nearly 5,000. Commentators such as Joshua Landis and Hassan Hassan) argue that the US will continue to support Rojava and the Kurds there, if only as its only way of making sure that Russia and Iran do not become stronger in Syria. US Aid from any imperialist power always carries the risk of leverage. Washington sees the Rojava Kurds’ policies of gender equality and secularism as useful, but worries about the PKK’s militant “Communist” (in fact, Stalinist) history.
In Rojava the US wants a “business-friendly” and US-friendly government with no radical vagaries. If the US continues to support the Kurds and their allies in Rojava and Raqqa, it will attempt to moderate YPG policies. The key problem at the moment is that the democratic structures of Rojava have yet to function properly. And there is little mass production in the region, never mind an organised, powerful working class. There is a powerful army with some secular, pro-gender-equality, social-egalitarian ethos — about 50,000 in the YPG/YPJ units, and up to 50,000 from other ethnic groupings in the wider SDF.
The SDF was formed on the model of the YPG but incorporated fighting units with different histories. How much the multi-ethnic, secular, gender-equal principles of the YPG have been taken up by the SDF is difficult to judge. The military forces of the YPG/ YPJ and the SDF are clearly where the real power lies in Rojava. A radical army cannot substitute for a radical working-class movement. And there is always a danger that the military discipline needed on the battlefield carries over into unquestioning obedience in social and political life. Everywhere you go in Rojava, on demonstrations, at meetings, in the command rooms of the YPG, you will find pictures of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who has been in Turkish jails since 1999.
It is not surprising that the YPG honours a jailed leader, but this looks very much like a living residue of the PKK’s Maoist and Stalinist past. If political disputes arise, those who can claim to speak in the name of the leader will have great advantages. Think of how the personality cults around Lenin (after his death), Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Tito, etc. were used to silence dissent. Despite that, the growth of Rojavan radicalism nails the lie that politics there needs to be based on a religious or a narrow nationalist identity. It makes clear that the sexist, sectarian and dictatorial methods currently prevalent elsewhere in the Middle East are no more inevitable there than anywhere else.
YPG in liberated areas
A returned YPG fighter recently spoke to Solidarity about how the YPG and the SDF have dealt with communities previously under ISIS (Daesh) rule. He denies the reports of the YPG pursuing an austere policy of distrust towards the liberated populations. “Family names are very important”, he said, “so when the head of a family is against ISIS they will most likely be killed and their family forced to join ISIS. Most of those forced to fight will be left to defend losing villages and towns”. Many young men were forced into ISIS and fed lies about the YPG being “infidels and Western pawns”, but ended up joining the SDF with genuine desires for democracy and freedom. “For every one we convert [from awe of jihad to secularism] at least 20 more surrender”.
Villagers are prompted to organise themselves democratically and elect from their ranks those required to police checkpoints. The YPG and SDF militias are given clear instructions to keep out of the villages to ensure there are no fears or claims of intimidation. Through empowering local democracy in the liberated populations, through gaining their trust of them, says the YPG volunteer, the SDF appear to have been able to create a system where the democratic people have been empowered and the brutal jihadists best identified.