July 19 marked the seventh anniversary of northern Syria’s Rojava Revolution. On that day in 2012 the nascent People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of the Kurdish-majority city of Kobanê. The outnumbered forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad surrendered and were allowed to depart (without their weapons). Other Kurdish cities and towns in the north were soon liberated as well.
From these beginnings, the liberated zone has grown into the General Council of the Self Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria (NES). Together with civic councils in towns liberated from the Islamic State (Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor), today it governs a third of Syria’s territory.
The Rojava Revolution has attracted widespread interest, admiration and support around the world because of its heroic and unyielding fight against the barbaric Islamic State and the extensive and unprecedented participation of women in the fighting forces.
Alongside the male YPG is the all-female Women’s Protection forces (YPJ), a 25,000-strong women’s army that has furnished its share of military leadership, fighters and martyrs to the struggle.
In Northern Syria, the revolution is attempting to build a new society, one in which all ethnic and religious groups can live together amicably and cooperatively, in which women are empowered to enjoy their full human rights and which is based on grassroots democracy and a cooperative economy.
The Kurdish people constitute a majority in Northern Syria but the area is ethnically mixed. Alongside the Kurds are Arabs, Turkmen, Syriac Christians and many other ethnic and religious groups forming a rich mosaic of humanity.
The cost of the long struggle against the Islamic State (IS) has been truly terrible. Earlier this year, the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (which comprises the YPG, YPJ and allied groups) announced that the war against IS had cost it more than 11,000 fighters killed and more than 21,000 wounded. These figures testify to the ferocity of the conflict and the very rudimentary battlefield medical services available to the resistance forces. Furthermore, these losses are from an overall population of only a few million.
The war against IS is not over. While it now controls no territory in northern Syria, it has extensive networks of sleeper cells and enjoys support from nearby Turkey, ruled by the implacably anti-Kurd regime of strongman President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan. Periodically, these cells carry out suicide bombings and assassinations.
Recently there has been a wave of arson attacks on grain crops. Fields across Rojava now lie burnt and blackened. Whether carried out by IS and/or agents of the Turkish regime, the effect has been devastating.
West washes its hands of captured fighters
An additional burden imposed on the liberated territory is the need to care for large numbers of refugees who have fled the fighting in both Syria and Iraq. For this humanitarian work the NES receives little or no help from Western countries. The largest number of refugees are housed at the huge al-Hawl camp. As of April, it held some 74,000 people.
A separate section of the camp houses families of IS fighters. Many are from Western countries. While some have been repatriated, most have not. The West wants to wash its hands of the problem but the NES cannot and struggles to provide basic services to thousands of desperate and sick people.
The NES has also been left to deal with thousands of captured IS fighters, many of them foreigners. In an effort to foster reconciliation, many local Arab fighters have been released to their communities (as long as they don’t have blood on their hands). But the foreigners are a big problem. Generally their home countries are refusing to take them. So the resource-strapped NES has to run prison camps to house them and provide security.
Apart from IS sleeper cells, the Rojava Revolution faces other serious threats.
Not surprisingly, the regime of “The Syrian Arab Republic” remains completely opposed to the idea of decentralising and democratising the country. However, its failure to retake the north-western city of Idlib from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies shows that without the participation of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian forces on the ground, the Syrian army has been badly weakened.
The NES and the Syrian government have been negotiating, but whether the dictatorship is prepared to sign off on self-government for a liberated zone and to recognise an independent armed force (the SDF) as a legitimate player remains doubtful.
Today, the main threat the revolution faces comes from Turkey. In early 2018 Turkish forces and their Islamist allies invaded and occupied Afrin, the geographically isolated, westernmost part of Rojava. Turkey has built a wall along its whole border with Rojava, and stopped all trade and access from the north. It conducts periodic shelling across the border and also uses IS and other proxies to carry out attacks and sabotage.
For some time Turkey has been threatening to cross the border and establish a “security zone”. Only its increasingly fraught relations with the US have so far prevented this.
The Erdogan regime is completely Kurdophobic. Its basic calculation is that it needs anti-Kurd racism to cement right-wing forces behind it. Futhermore, granting self-government to the Kurds in Turkey would undermine its whole repressive project.
That is why Kurdish aspirations in Rojava are such a threat to the regime. It knows very well that there is no physical threat whatsoever. However, there is the very dangerous “threat” of a good example — of democracy, inclusiveness, women’s empowerment and ecology.
Alliance with Washington purely tactical
While Rojava has attracted widespread support from left and progressive people, some are confused by its collaboration with the United States.
The basic situation is quite simple. In northern Syria two antagonistic forces heading in completely different directions have momentarily intersected.
The US regime does not support a people’s revolution in northern Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East (or the world at large). However, in its struggle with the Islamic State only the Kurds and their allies could provide reliable “boots on the ground” for Washington.
The US would prefer that the NES morph into a regime like that of Masoud Barzani, the central figure in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Barzani runs a neocolonial regime thoroughly subservient to Turkey and the US.
Rojava’s alliance with the US is a limited military one. When Turkey invaded Afrin last year, Washington did nothing. Now it is constantly trying to pressure Rojava into accepting a Turkish “buffer zone” along the border.
Furthermore, Washington supports Turkey’s ongoing repression of its Kurdish population and its war on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Right now Turkey is building bases in northern Iraq and bombing the area in yet another attempt to smash the PKK. It hopes the combination of the bases, bombing and ground incursions along with its high-tech drones will finally enable it to wipe out the liberation movement.
Washington knows well that the Rojava Revolution and the PKK share a liberation philosophy but for practical reasons it chooses to ignore this obvious fact.
Finally, it is worth noting that none of the Western countries really support the Rojava Revolution. Judging by their general rhetoric in favour of democracy and women’s rights one might think they would embrace the liberation experiment in northern Syria. But the reality is that they mortally fear it. If it spread it would endanger Western interests in the Middle East — and at home.
Earlier this year the NES tried to get visas so that some of its badly wounded SDF fighters could get specialised medical treatment in Europe, but was refused. The SDF defeated the Islamist gangs at a tremendous human cost but the West won’t help them.
Germany is attempting to criminalise the PKK flag and the banners of the YPG and YPJ. In Britain, the government is prosecuting those citizens returning from fighting with the SDF. It puts them on the same level as those who fought with the IS killers.
The inspiring liberation project in northern Syria will get no real help from the West. It desperately needs solidarity from progressive forces around the world.