Lessons from the siege of Kobane

November 11, 2022
Participants at the Kobane Day Lecture. Photo: Rojava Solidarity - Sydney/Facebook

Professor John Tully gave the following speech at the inaugural Kobane Day Lecture at New South Wales Parliament on November 8. The event was organised by the Democratic Kurdish Community Centre (NSW) and Rojava Solidarity Sydney, and hosted by Greens MPs Jamie Parker and Abigail Boyd. MPs from other parties attended along with human rights, solidarity and community activists.

* * *

Before I start talking about Kobane, I should make some mention of the extraordinary events that are happening in Iran and mainly, but not exclusively, in Rojhelat — Iranian Kurdistan — where we have seen the inspiring spectacle of young people coming out in the streets and defying the Islamist regime.

They say: “We used to be frightened of the regime, but now they are frightened of us”. Let us hope that this uprising rocks that system and brings it down.

The revolt started as you will know when a young woman, who is usually called Mahsa Amini, was killed by the brutal thugs of the regime.

In fact, the name that she’s known by in her family is Jina, because she’s Kurdish.

It sums up a lot of the repression of the Kurdish people throughout the many countries of the Middle East that her parents were not allowed to call her by that name and had to give her a Persian name instead.

The rebellion in Iran has the same philosophical roots as the amazing defence of Kobane.

The slogan of the young people in Iran today, of course, is “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” and if we translate that from the Kurdish it means “Women, Life and Freedom”.

It’s a remarkably simple sounding slogan.

But if you start to unpack it, it encapsulates everything that people who value human life, who value equality for all people, freedom for all people, the environment, Mother Earth who gives us all life.

Few people know the origin of that battle cry, that it comes from the Kurds and was used by the Kurdish defenders of Kobane.

Back in October 2014, Daesh was cutting through the countries of the Middle East like the proverbial knife through butter. They had made a lightning fast advance towards Kobane, causing 400,000 refugees to flee from the neighbourhood.

It’s an enormous number of people. You can't really get your mind around it.

You can get numbed by statistics, but one thing that always sticks in my mind was one person who was one of those refugees was a little boy called Alan Kurdi.

He came from Kobane and his parents were taking him across the seas and mountains to safety in Europe, but he drowned in the sea between Turkey and Greece.

I’m a father myself and it breaks my heart to think of that little boy drowning, and then you multiply that tragedy 400,000 times and we begin to get some sort of inkling of the suffering from that Daesh advance through Iraq and Syria.

Why were those people fleeing?

They were fleeing a medievalist brutal dictatorship. The Daesh leader, a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was himself a rapist, a multiple rapist, and that sets the moral tone of that organisation which was advancing on Kobane.

Daesh, of course, had committed genocide in Shengal, Mount Sinjar, the homeland of the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi people.

I don’t mind admitting I was sitting on the edge of my seat watching TV at the time, thinking can they hold out at Kobane?

The defenders were lightly armed, and they were facing a foe armed with heavy weapons that they’d got from the Iraqi army — sometimes handed over freely, at other times, captured.

I recalled the words of Albert Camus, the great French writer, when he was sorrowing over a defeat which actually did happen, where a fascist regime was installed.

That was Spain in 1939, and he wrote: “We learned that one can be right and yet be beaten; that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not enough.”

As I said, the defenders [of Kobane] were lightly armed and, if you think back to that time and recall the TV images, there were tanks lined up, Turkish tanks and naive people who thought maybe the tanks would come to the defence of Kobane.

Not a chance! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on record as saying that he hoped that Kobane would fall. Not only that, the Turkish state stands with blood on its hands for aiding and abetting Daesh.

MIT, the Turkish Military Intelligence, was hand in glove with them, perhaps from the very start, so the situation it looked desperate.

Would another variety of fascism triumph in Kobane?

And yet, seemingly like a miracle, the defenders tenaciously held on and slogan Jin Jiyan Azadi must have been reverberating in their ears.

They were fighting for Women, Life and Freedom against an enemy which had no time for any of those things; which regarded women as chattels and who had no regard for life. They were mass murderers. They had committed genocide. They did not recognise freedom — people were to be converted at the point of a sword, or a bayonet, to their twisted version of Islam.

The defenders were right and yet they weren’t beaten! Force did not vanquish spirit, and courage was rewarded.

To its credit, the United States had realised that here was a force which was capable of standing up to this barbarous enemy of all humanity which, had it succeeded, would have set up a regime that makes the Taliban regime in Afghanistan look like a picnic or a Sunday School.

The US began to drop light weapons and also, of course, to launch air strikes on the Daesh fighters.

Daesh was put to flight, so much so that the Syrian Democratic forces — with the Kurdish fighters as the core of the liberation army — took Raqqa, the capital of the so-called ISIS caliphate that fell on March 17, 2017.

These victories were victories for all of humanity. But we should never forget that they came at an enormous cost for the Kurdish people: tens of thousands of their finest young men and women died or were maimed in that struggle. And they fought and died for all of us.

We often talk about turning points — it’s something of a cliché — but Kobane was a genuine turning point in the struggle against ISIS.

Had the defenders not held out, who knows what would have happened, what the future would have looked like. As I said, think of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and multiply that several times and you will begin to get some idea.

Alas, I just sometimes can’t get my mind around the ingratitude of the world subsequently.

It started with [US President] Donald Trump who withdrew most of the American troops and this signalled to President Erdogan in Turkey that he could get ready to invade. I don’t know if you remember [Trump’s] ridiculous words when some of his generals said we can’t do this and he said the Kurds never helped us on D-Day [the invasion of Normandy in 1944].

I don’t know what goes on in that man’s mind, but that is the level of ingratitude and stupidity that the Kurds have had to put up with. It allowed the Turkish Army aided by Jihadi proxies — some of whom were recycled Daesh fighters — to invade Afrin, the western most canton of Rojava, three months after the fall of Raqaa.

This flouted international law, but the world turned away. War crimes were committed on a colossal scale. There was ethnic cleansing, which is specifically a crime against humanity recognised by the United Nations.

Since that time there have been countless cross-border attacks, drone and artillery strikes and there is credible evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish guerrillas by the Turkish military.

We should also think about where Erdogan gets his heavy weapons — [Leopard] tanks from Germany, military aviation from the United States and Britain.

Something I would like to see followed up here is the British subsidiary here which provides high-tech components used in drones used against not only the Kurdish people, but other peoples in the Middle East.

That is a total disgrace and the Australian government should get onto it straight away.

Unfortunately, because he’s got away with it this far, Erdogan is plotting an even greater invasion of Rojava. The image that springs to mind is of someone walking on a tightrope and there’s a raging sea below it full of sharp rocks and sharks and all sorts of other creatures.

This is like the peril which the Kurdish people are facing today in Rojava, with Assad the dictator of Syria on one side and on the other they have Erdogan in Turkey.

We cannot allow this massive tragedy to happen. It makes me think of the motto of my first trade union: “Educate, Agitate and Organise”.

We can educate ourselves first: find out what has happened to the Kurdish people — the whole history of the Kurdish people over the last 100 years.

If we educate ourselves then we can educate other people and we can agitate. We can write letters to newspapers. We can speak up in parliaments. We can speak up in our church groups, in our trade unions, whatever avenues where we live and work.

Specifically, I would mention a couple of things which I think we should start to ask the Australian government to do.

One is to support a No Fly Zone in the north of Rojava along the border with Turkey; to call on the United Nations to stop Erdogan’s attacks.

Secondly, something which has been in the news very much recently, we should repatriate all the Australian ISIS families. We can’t expect the Kurds to clean up our mess. They simply don’t have the legal, welfare or other means to do that in those camps.

We should also provide material aid to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure in cities and we should protest in the United Nations every time there is some fresh Turkish atrocity.

Finally, we should ponder the deceptively simple, yet profound, message that the Kurds are telling us: the battle cry of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi is Woman, Life and Freedom.

Thank you.

Video: 2022 Sydney Kobane Day Lecture. Rojava Solidarity Sydney.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.