Before the siege of Kobane, the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) had captured large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria. The lack of resistance and the relative ease with which it had taken control took most of the world by surprise. Why had an Iraqi army of tens of thousands, equipped with state-of-the-art US weapons, been defeated by a few thousand jihadists who arrived in Mosul in jeeps?
Likewise, when ISIS took the mainly Yazidi town of Şengal (Sinjar in Arabic) in late August, the Kurdish peshmerga had offered little defence and had fled for their lives, leaving thousands of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS’s barbarianism. They butchered the menfolk of a people they called ‘devil worshippers’ and enslaved the women, boasting about having done so on social media and in print. As the Yazidis sought refuge in the mountains, where up to 10,000 former residents of Sengal still remain, it seemed that no force in the Middle East was able or willing to tackle ISIS.
It was only when the extreme Islamists of the self-declared caliphate turned their attention towards the Syrian Kurds in Kobane that they faced tougher resistance. There the YPG/J (People’s/Women’s Defence Units), backed by perhaps 200 supporters from the Syrian Free Army, have resisted ISIS advances against all odds. In doing so, they have defied the early predictions of their downfall – most notably from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who declared in October that ‘Kobane is about to fall’ and air strikes would not save it. They have also forced the US to backtrack on its original view, as expressed by secretary of state John Kerry, that Kobane was not a strategic objective and to provide the air support that the Kurds had been demanding.
Above all, the defenders of Kobane have shown that they possess a belief in secular, democratic ideals and a commitment to self-determination in the autonomous region they have carved out in northern Syria to match the jihadi fervour of ISIS. So what are these ideals?
Rojava’s democratic revolution
When the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 (its armed struggle against the Turkish state started in 1984), its objective was an independent state of Kurdistan based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. During the 1990s, however, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan began to question such aspirations. While imprisoned on Imralı island, following his arrest and life sentence in 1999, he changed the central demand of the PKK from an independent nation to democratic autonomy. He came to regard nation states as part of the inescapable capitalist hegemony and hierarchical structures, and instead argued that true freedom could only come through localised, self-governed, democratic municipalities.
When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces vacated the Kurdish areas in northern Syria in 2011, Kurds who had been continuously oppressed in the region (Rojava in Kurdish) seized on the power vacuum and began to practise self-governance. The PYD, the largest party in Rojava and ideologically aligned with the PKK, quickly began putting what they call ‘democratic confederalism’ into practice across the three cantons of Afrid, Kobane and Jazere.
While I was in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan, I visited the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) headquarters. The DBP is also closely attached to the ideas of democratic confederalism and sees it as the future model for Turkey too. Huseyin Kocak, the joint mayoral secretary, stressed that ‘the resistance in Kobane is the same as the resistance of Turkish Kurds’. He says that ‘opponent[s] of the Kurdish movement [don’t] want to see the Rojava administration flourish for the simple fact that it is the product of the PKK’s struggle over the last 30 years.’
At the heart of this democratic confederalism is participatory democracy. ‘People’s councils’ take place in the cities, towns and villages. No decision can be made without at least 40 per cent participation by women in any decision-making body. A social charter states that ‘men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The charter guarantees the effective realisation of equality of women and works towards the total elimination of gender discrimination.’
Another important aspect of Rojava is its diversity. Unlike the sectarianism of ISIS, the Rojava administration recognises the rights of other ethnicities, religions and cultures, especially in Jazere, where Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis and Assyrians live side by side.
On 9 September, the US announced that it was beginning airstrikes in Syria, and many Kurds presumed this would prevent ISIS from reaching Kobane. It didn’t happen. At the same time, Turkish tanks and other armed forces stood by and watched the ISIS advance from across the border. The US inaction was partly a result of its assessment of the strategic unimportance of Kobane, as expressed by John Kerry, and partly due to a desire not to offend its ally Turkey. Although it was engaged in a two-year-old peace process and ceasefire with the PKK, the Turkish government still saw it as a terrorist organisation and was no doubt happy to leave it to slug it out with ISIS in Kobane. Indeed, the Turkish military even bombed PKK guerrillas in south-east Turkey in mid-October.
What neither the US nor the Turkish governments counted on, however, was the unyielding resistance of the defenders of Kobane – and the strength of the protests in their support. When Kurds across Europe staged sit-ins at airports, train stations and even stormed some parliaments, it brought much-needed attention to the YPG/J’s resistance. The left worldwide at last began to awaken to the unfolding crisis. The political activist and LSE professor David Graeber compared the defenders of Kobane to the mujeres libres in the Spanish civil war, and asked why the revolutionary Kurds were being ignored in the face of Islamist barbarism.
In a matter of weeks, the Kurds of Rojava went from relative obscurity and political isolation to worldwide attention. The US realised that it could not afford to let Kobane fall. The seemingly inconceivable occurrence of US bombs being deployed in support of left-wing revolutionaries had become a reality.
So does this mean that the YPG/J, and the Kobane resistance are now fighting on the same side as the forces of imperialism? When I put this question to Huseyin Kocak, he countered, ‘Whose weapons are we fighting against in Kobane? US-made weapons seized by ISIS when they took Iraqi-controlled Mosul.’
As we sat in a cafe in the Turkish border town of Suruç, the foreign minister of the Kobane canton Idriss Nassan, explained the lack of choices facing the YPG in trying to prise ISIS out of the parts of Kobane they have captured. ‘In urban warfare, it is very hard to do an offensive; the defenders have a natural advantage. Without heavy weapons, how can we drive ISIS out of the city, with just Kalashnikovs?’
The Kurds are fully aware that the US – and perhaps even more so Turkey – will try to reassert their own agenda once ISIS is defeated in Kobane. This can even lead to suspicion of other fighters who have joined the fight for the city. One Kobane refugee I met on the border explained the YPG’s distrust of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because ‘the FSA had been supported by the west for so long. We know the west has an agenda in the region and for this reason we have been wary of trusting them.’ A Kurdish activist I met said, ‘This is what the Turkish president, Erdogan, is doing: now he knows that the YPG can’t be defeated, he is insisting on sending his allies, the FSA and the peshmerga, into Kobane to force his agenda through.’
Control their own destiny
Huseyin Koçak says that the YPG has never asked for the help of foreign troops on the ground for fear of such agendas. From the start of the siege, ‘we have clearly stated our main demand: an opening of a corridor for guerrillas and arms to come through Turkey.’ Such a demand clearly highlights how wary the Kurdish guerrilla forces are of foreign intervention; they are clear in their desire to be in full control of their own destiny.
They are also adamant that they will resist any compromises in their commitment to their democratic ideals. One activist told me, ‘When a guerrilla first goes to the mountain, the first thing they learn is their ideology and not to concede any of it.’ The determination to continue the Rojava revolution lies at the heart of the effective defence of Kobane, and Kurdish fighters and activists are under no illusions about the dangers that lie ahead.
Despite their current preoccupation with ISIS, the US, Turkey and the other regional powers remain wary of a grassroots, self-governing revolutionary alternative taking hold in the region. Not only would it become a platform for Kurdish self-determination, but it could have the potential to transform notions of democracy and government across the Middle East.
‘Öcalan has always asserted that he is an internationalist,’ says Huseyin Koçak. ‘This idea of democratic confederalism is not just for Kurdish provinces, but the whole of Turkey and the Middle East. We are terrifying all the capitalist powers with our experiments.’
Yvo Fitzherbert studied history at the School of Oriental and African Studies before moving to Turkey