Rojava Is Under Existential Threat
BY ROSA BURÇ / FOUAD OVEISY
Rojava, the site of a remarkable peoples’ revolution, is on the brink of colonization and extermination. The
international left must stand against it.
With local elections and another contest against his electoral nemesis,the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), just around
the corner, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is wasting no time rallying the country around a common cause:
destroying Rojava. “A strategic alliance with the US can only be possible if we wipe outterrorists from the north of Syria,”
Erdoğan declared in December. “We have done so in Afrin and in Shengal. We have buried them in the trenches they had dug
and we will continue to do so. Ifthey don’tleave, we will make them disappear because their existence disturbs us.”
Erdoğan is itching to wage war across the border, againstthe Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,the enclave
commonly known as Rojava. The revolutionary region’s political program shares many similarities with the HDP’s electoral
platform in Turkey, which promotes egalitarianism, peace, and radical democracy.
As for the messages that Erdoğan is telegraphing to the public,they are threefold. Domestically,to the Turkish nationalists and
his coalition partner,the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan sells the old war againstthe PKK (Kurdistan
Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish group). He does so by flattening all distinctions between the PKK and its civic sister in Syria,
the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which leads a pluralist coalition in Rojava. To the ISIS-crazed global media, Erdoğan is
selling the security discourse ofthe “war on terror” by promising to create an ISIS-free “safe zone” rightthrough Rojava, which
also buys him favor with the European Union’s anti-refugee membership.
And to the Middle Eastern and Western left, Erdoğan sells his agenda as an anti-imperialist one, portraying the Syrian
Democratic Forces (SDF), Rojava’s self-defense forces—made up of Kurdish, Syriac, Arab, and Christian units, among others
—as a US lackey. This he accomplishes by smuggling in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF),the second-largest NATO army, as
an alternative to the US presence in Syria, justifying the war against Rojava as, somehow, a war againstimperialism.
But rhetoric aside,the facts are this: Erdoğan is clamoring to continue Turkey’s ongoing ethnic cleansing project, extending his
tentacles from Afrin into the rest of Rojava. Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria does not amountto an end to
US imperialism in Syria—it simply transfers the maintenance of long-term US interests to its proxies in the region. And the
region’s Kurds, long colonized by multiple powers, have once again been caughtin the middle—trying to fightfor their
liberation while grappling with the cruel realities of geopolitics.A Colonial Handover
How would the US relate to the Syrian Kurds and Turkey under Trump’s withdrawal?
In a 2017 report,James F.Jerey,the Trump-appointed special representative for Syria engagement, prescribed a change of
“Turkey, a NATO member, sits on prime real estate . . . of central importance for U.S. policy in southern Europe and the Middle
East,” Jerey observed. However, Washington’s “mishandling ofthe Syrian civil war, along with its tilttoward the PYD in the
fight against IS in eastern Syria, risks forcing Turkey ever more into the Russian camp.” To remedy this risk,Jerey promoted a
“transactional reordering” of relations with Turkey and the wider Middle East, hoping to appease Erdoğan’s drive for
“Ataturk-like power.” For example, “the United States can quietly guarantee Turkey thatthe Armenian Genocide resolution in
Congress will not pass,” or adopt a bilateral “model like the US-Israel arms sales relationship to ensure” smooth sales ofthe
costly “F-35” program. If Washington reaches “an agreement with Turkey on its northern Syrian safe zone that would support
the Turks and their Syrian opposition allies with advisory teams and airpower . . . and refuse to recognize PYD autonomy, much
ofthe rancor in the current relationship would dissipate.”
That’s one plan. Then there is National Security Advisor John Bolton’s alternative five-point plan, which proposes what
amounts to another “safe zone,” this one manned by the Kurdish National Council’s (ENKS) Rôj Peshmerga militia,the Syrian
wing ofthe Kurdistan Regional Governmentin Iraq (which has strong ties to Erdoğan’s party). Bolton’s plan is favored by the
establishmentin Washington because it would shift political decision-making in Rojava to the safe neoliberal center. Air
supportfrom a potential KSA-UAE-Egypt alliance would then mollify the worries of some Arab states, as well as the Israeli
military, aboutfurther extension of Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s reach in Syria. Here,the United States would
save face by not “abandoning the Kurds” and slow down ongoing talks between the PYD and Assad, while retaining de facto
control over North and North Eastern Syria.
Either way,the US withdrawal hides a grand strategy to further entrench US imperialism in the region. Americans are not
leaving Syria. They’re simply transferring their interests to NATO members and allies. And since the TAF is not even prepared
to replace the US Army for such a mission—given the purges the TAF’s personnel has experienced since the attempted coup in
Turkey in 2016—the United States would have to oer “substantial military support, including airstrikes,transport and
logistics.” In other words, deeper US military involvement.
Unfortunately,this basic fact has escaped some on the Left, who have taken the purported US pullout atface value and, at
times, been willing to believe alternative truths aboutthe revolution in Rojava or dismiss its participants as pawn on the
imperialist chessboard. Take, for instance,the infamous 2015 Amnesty International report about alleged human rights abuses
by the SDF, which the UN has since debunked. Amid the cacophony raised by this charade, Erdoğan’s expansionist project
disguises itself as “anti-imperialist” to silence the real leftist program—the one in Rojava.
More fundamentally,the ready celebration of whatis in fact a colonial handover suers from a lack of awareness aboutthe
histories and specificities of oppressed peoples’ struggles in the Middle East againstthe region’s neoliberal and imperialist
states.Kurdistan, a Colony
Adopting Frantz Fanon’s words, we can say thatfor the Kurd there is only one destiny:to become a non–Kurd. Assimilation or
disappearance has been the colonial reality ofthe so-called “Kurdish Question” in the Middle East since the beginnings ofthe
modern nation-state, particularly in Turkey and Syria.
The plans for a “safe zone” controlled by Turkey would involve resettling millions of Arab Syrian refugees, currently in Turkey,
in Rojava’s Kurdish areas near the Turkish border. The Erdoğan regime, known for pushing neoliberal policies driven by the
twin profit motors of construction and energy, have put housing projects for the settlers on the colonial agenda to boostthe
Turkish economy. The scale of it would be staggering.
In fact, such a colonial-settler project surpasses, in both size and scope, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s 1973 completion of
the original “Arab Belt” project, which deported 140,000 Kurds from 332 villages in Rojava over ten years to Syria’s southern
desert regions, replacing them with twenty-five thousand Arab families in forty-one “model villages.” Demographic
engineering lies atthe heart of colonial Turkification and Arabization policies that have dominated the region’s political and
social realities, from Syria to Turkey and then to Iraq and Iran, against Kurds and Armenians among others.
In the case of Turkey,the state has always attempted to integrate and homogenize the dissident Kurdish regions in its territory
into a common cultural stream, first by invading their traditional home places and then by razing them to create spaces of
control and discipline. For example, after the 1938 Dersim massacre, which saw tens ofthousands killed following a Kurdish
uprising against state repression,the Turkish state redistributed the remaining Kurdish population ofthe area to various
majority-Turkish cities. The Turkish state employed the same approach again in the 1990s, when the military burned down
more than four thousand Kurdish villages, displacing the entire rural population ofthe majority-Kurdish Southeast. In both
cases,the Turkish state’s primary aim was to domesticate those resisting its aggressive Turkification policies.
Scholars like Ismail Beşikçi, a sociologist of Turkish origin, have shown thatthe Turkish state’s institutionalized policies against
its Kurdish population exhibit a “genocidal character.” Beşikçi also argues that despite the political appearances and dierences
between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran,the four nation-states share the cooperative goal of denying their Kurds the rightto
dignified existence, forging the Kurdish Question in the process—or in his words,the “international colony of Kurdistan.”
The colonial reality ofthe Kurdish Question, however, is notlimited by its territorial determinations and histories either; itis
not reducible to the division and allocation of predominantly Kurdish lands in the early twentieth century to the newly born
states of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by imperialist powers. The international colonization of Kurdistan must be understood as a
continuum that appears in how citizenship is defined and distributed by state powers across the Middle East.
In Turkey,the state traditionally considered Kurds “pseudo-citizens” who stood outside the boundaries ofthe Turkish nation,
only granted citizenship rights (and an assimilated Kurd identity card) ifthey relinquished their mother tongue, history, and
identity. Beşikçi recalls an ironic scene from the martial law court of Diyarbakır, Turkey, in 1971, where “persons who spoke
Kurdish and not even one word of Turkish were said to be Turks, despite the factthatthe courts were forced to hire interpreters
to communicate with the accused.”
Historically, Kurdistan has therefore been a sort of hybrid colony—assaulted by the various colonial practices of four nationstates, intertwined with the geopolitics of imperialist powers.“Playing One’s Own Game”
The Kurdish liberation movementis marked by the contradiction that, as Gramsci putit, “whatever one does one is always
playing somebody’s game.” He added: “The importantthing is to seek in every way to play one’s own game with success.”
Statelessness is one such hurdle. In Syria, a special census, decree No. 93, ordered in 1963 by President Nazim al-Qudsi,
stripped 120,000 Kurds of citizenship. By the onset ofthe Syrian revolution,the descendants ofthis group numbered more
than three hundred thousand, divided into the two extra-legal categories of ajanib, or foreigners, and maktumin, literally
undocumented migrants in their own country.
Kurds have tried to make the best ofthis situation, orienting their strategy and theory toward overcoming it. Abdullah Öcalan,
the Kurdish liberation theorist, developed his theory of Democratic Confederalism as one rooted in statelessness, which Syrian
Kurds took up as a framework for grassroots organization in the decade preceding the Syrian revolution.
Öcalan’s writings on women’s liberation in the Middle East are no less Machiavellian in both strategic foresight and liberatory
aptitude. He regards women’s emancipation “as a toolto destroy the structures of feudal Kurdish society,” where “women were
atthe bottom of a tribal hierarchy.” He recognizes that “feudal family and tribal structures presented an obstacle to [political]
recruitment” and so “breaking down the established patriarchal social order would allow for the emergence of a new society in
which women would take part equally.” (The destruction ofthe patriarchal family structure is doubly important, since the TAF
arms and co-opts conservative Kurdish tribes in its war againstthe PKK.)
The implicit and explicit contradictions ofthis agenda only underscore the agency and remarkable accomplishments ofthe
Kurdish women’s revolutions in Turkey and Syria. A gender distribution ratio in government, local feminist courts, a social
contractthat women have played a central role in writing and executing, indigenous and autonomous communalism—all are
part ofthe feminist program in Rojava.
The danger in this Gramscian game, however, is that one might become too prone to playing another’s game. For example,the
Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has maintained military bases and airports in Rojava throughoutthe civil war, since it handed control
of Rojava over to the PYD atthe outset ofthe Syrian revolution. (So sure was Bashar al-Assad of continued Kurdish
subservience that he even left some guns behind, so the Kurds may fend for themselves.)
One might callthis developmentinevitable, given the PYD’s mistrust ofthe Turkish-backed opposition umbrella organization,
the Syrian National Council (SNC). Butit was a position that only alienated the Syrian opposition, who then refused all PYD
overtures to join opposition talks on Syria’s future—and who, save for the too-late and even-then-ambiguous Kurdish Issue
Charter, had refused to recognize Kurdish demands for federalism. In fact, itis another one ofthe flaws of some parts ofthe
international leftthatit continues to condemn the Kurds for refusing to embrace the Sunni and Arab vision ofthe Spring in
The PYD’s brief spring of autonomy came to a near end in 2014, when a well-armed ISIS found its way well into the gates ofthe
city of Kobane. Here,the United States entered the Kurdish picture, seeing thatits supportfor a failing Free Syrian Army (FSA)
only amounted to a handover to ISIS ofthe military equipmentit supplied to the FSA via Saudi intermediation – weaponry lost
to ISIS in battle after battle. US airstrikes against ISIS positions in Kobane then enabled Rojava’s People’s and Women’s
Protection Units (YPG and YPJ)to mount a resistance that has since become known as the Stalingrad monument ofthe war
Of course,the US deployed the narrative of a “war on terror” only as a pretextto attach itselfto the PYD/YPG, and as a means
to preserve its many interests in the Middle East, one of which is to obstructthe Iranian Shiite Corridor—a path laden with
missile depots and stretching from Iraq to Western Syria to the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, ending right at Israel’s
doorstep. In return,the YPG soughtto wipe out ISIS by taking over oil fields in central Syria thatfunded the group’s reign of
terror. In the process,the logistical necessities of driving ISIS out of Rojava also rendered the YPG/J dependent on the US’s
might and tact. Add to such military exigencies the severe psychological impact ofthe atrocities committed by ISIS in Kurdishmajority areas, and it becomes evidentthatin the formation ofthe SDF in 2015, under US supervision, we are dealing with a
situation in which Rojava’s revolution—built on confederalism and radical democracy—has been pushed toward an anti-ISIS
and pro-security and territorial insurrectionary discourse.
Now, with the end ofthe war against ISIS and with US positions firmly anchored in Syria,the restoration ofthe status quo in
Syria returns the Gramscian Rojava to the status ofthe odd one out, once again. And having put aspects of its internationalist
project on hold, in favor of an understandable drive for security, Rojava finds itself dispensable and replaceable by any bully
with a bigger gun—such as Turkey, who can lay claim to securing the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria. Perhaps,then,the
political lesson here is thatif a revolutionary force engages in a “war of maneuver” with the aid of a hegemon, it should notlose
sight of how that hegemon might be engaged in a careful, atrocious “war of position.”
The SDF’s alternatives to the US’s plans are less clear cut. Damascus’s Russian-dictated reaction to the list often reconciliation
demands putforward by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC),the SDF’s political wing, has been lukewarm. Assad is likely
weighing the perils of making peace with an armed and organized Rojava in a postwar scene where he will already have his
hands full with the reconstruction capital pouring in from Arab states. But after the bloodbath and the chemical bombs, he must
also be wary of another resurgence from Syria’s repressed Sunni majority, who kickstarted the revolution and who live between
the Damascus strongholds and Rojava. Maintaining Turkey’s Kurdish problem might deter Turkey from sponsoring future
revolts, while keeping a leash on Rojava.
As for Trump, his administration will likely seek a deal between the PYD and Turkey that aims to pacify Turkish fears by
driving a wedge between the YPG/J and their PKK forbears in Turkey.What the International Left Should Do
The people of Rojava have foughtfor their revolution, and their victories have been significant given the challenges. Without an
amenable leftist state or party to aid them,their options were simple: die, or die. They have refused that result, fighting instead
for a new state of life and politics.
What can the international left do to aid them now, atthis crucial juncture? We should support shutting down arms sales to the
Turkish state, including from Germany, England, and, of course,the United States. We should staunchly oppose the economic
blockade Turkey has imposed on Rojava: items entering from Rojava’s border with Iraq are restricted to no more than the bare
necessities of sustenance. Here,the international left could raise the costs ofthe Turkish embargo on Rojava by highlighting its
counter-revolutionary character—an old imperialist measure also imposed on other revolutionary enclaves, such as Cuba—
or circumvent state actors altogether by organizing directinternational aid to Rojava’s people via leftist parties and
Unfortunately,the news from Rojava rarely makes itto the mainstream media, buried instead in a swamp of propaganda and
fake news produced by Erdoğan’s cyber army. The news ofthe ethnic cleansing in Afrin has not been given center stage in the
media, anywhere, for more than a year. So the international left must become a louder voice againstthe perpetuation of
Both the United States and Russia should get out of Syria, and the international left should pressure the Assad regime to settle
for a democratic program ofthe country’s transition to confederalism. Itis crucialthat a neutral and international peacekeeping
force guarantees the peacefulness of such a transition for all inhabitants of Syria by barring the expansion of interventionist
states already presentin Syria, such as Turkey and Iran. Returning control ofthe province of Idlib, occupied atthe moment by
al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,to a local civilian administration, is integralto such a transition plan. Finally,the
international left should supportthe HDP’s peace process in Turkey, so that Erdoğan’s war machine is deprived of preemptive
pretexts once and for all.
Rojava,the site of a remarkable peoples’ revolution, is on the brink of colonization and extermination. The international left
must stand against it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rosa Burç is a PhD researcher of the Center on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS) at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy. Her research is on radical democracy and grassroots movements, currently focusing on the Kurdish movement in the Middle East. She has conducted several research visits to various parts of the Kurdish region.
Fouad Oveisy is a PhD student of critical theory and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He researches the intersections between realpolitik,
political theory, and post-revolutionary strategy and literature, with a particular focus on the Kurdish Question.
WAR AND IMPERIALISM / THEORY
COLONIALISM / KURDISH INDEPENDENCE / ROJAVA / SYRIAhttps://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/rojava-u ... ia-erdogan