Rojava revolutionaries show how to fight 'Islamic State'

July 3, 2015

YPJ fighters defending Kobanê, June 26. Photo:

The “Islamic State” (IS) terror group attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France have grabbed global attention and condemnation. But the group's attack on Kobane in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) — and the fierce resistance — has been largely ignored.

The United Nations security council issued a statement on June 26 that said: “The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attacks of 26 June 2015 against a chemical products factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France … a bomb attack in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City … and gunmen attacking a tourist hotel near Sousse, Tunisia.

“The members of the Security Council underlined the need to bring perpetrators of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice [and] reaffirmed the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”

The group that calls itself the Islamic State — but is often referred to by its earlier, less ambitious, name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Almost immediately, the attacks were described by Western political leaders and the media as a global coordinated terrorist attack.

One person was killed in the attack in France, in which a delivery driver decapitated his boss and tried to blow up a chemical factory by crashing his truck into it.

The attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait were more serious. The bombing of the Shia mosque in Kuwait killed 27 worshippers and 38 mainly British tourists were killed in the attack on the hotel in Tunisia. Both attacks were reportedly carried out by single terrorists with logistical support from larger terrorist networks.

The UN Security Council statement was conspicuously silent, however, about another terrorist attack that was occurring at the same time.

Kobane attack

On June 25, about 100 ISIS fighters attacked the town of Kobane in Rojava. Locally based forces of Rojava's left-wing militias, the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) and Peoples Protection Units (YPG), took three days to drive out the terrorists who systematically massacred civilians.

A June 28 statement by the YPG Kobani Command said 233 civilians — a high proportion children — were killed along with 16 of the defending forces and most of the ISIS terrorists. At least one of the attackers was captured alive and others escaped across the border into Turkey.

The UN's silence on the Kobane attack is notable not only because it killed four times as many victims than the other three condemned attacks combined.

The attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait were carried out by autonomous local terrorist cells or individuals with varying degrees of connection to the IS. The attack on Kobane was part of a significant military action involving core IS forces and their fight to hold and expand territorial control over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Between September and January, Kobane was besieged by a 10,000-strong ISIS force armed with heavy artillery, the largest military deployment the group has ever undertaken.

The IS has a dual nature. On the one hand, it is a well equipped army that emerged out of Syria's civil war to hold more territory than either the Syrian government or other anti-government forces by last year. When it swept into northern Iraq last year, it precipitated the near collapse of the fragile Iraqi state created by the 2003-2011 US-led occupation.

This led the US and its allies — including Australia — to initiate an air-war against the group.

On the other hand, the prestige it achieved through these military successes, and its side-lining of the Syrian al-Qaeda-aligned group, the Nusra Front, has enabled it to supplant al-Qaeda as the main inspiration and sponsor of Jihadi terrorists worldwide.

While in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is a strongly centralised military force with pretensions to state power over considerable territory, globally it is as much a brand name. Outside Syria and Iraq, the group frequently endorses actions carried out in its name but which it played no part in planning or executing.

The IS's origins as a split from Al Qaeda means it seeks support among Sunni fundamentalists by being more hardline than any previous Sunni Islamist terrorist movement. This explains why it advertises its own extreme violence and intolerance, as well as its hostility towards other Sunni Muslims who do not accept its authority.

When Western leaders claim the IS has declared war on the whole world, they can back up the claim with the group's own boasts. This has created a pretext for intervention not only for the West, but for its regional rival, the Shia Islamist Iranian state.

The West, Iran and their local proxies are all genuinely concerned by the rise of the IS, but their antipathy towards each other and shared antipathy towards democratic forces in the region remain. Their interventions are at the same genuinely directed against the IS but also against other foes, including each other.

'War on Terror'

Moreover, the West's “War on Terror” has always been as much about exploiting the politics of fear for domestic purposes as justifying war overseas. The supposed existential threat posed today by ISIS — and previously by Al Qaeda — justifies draconian national security laws.

It also serves as a useful distraction from unpopular policies. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott exemplifies this cynical politics.

“This illustrates, yet again, that as far as the Daesh death cult is concerned, it is coming after us,” Abbott said on June 27, despite the fact that none of the victims were Australian.

Abbott routinely refers to ISIS as “the death cult” — and seems to think that “Daesh”, an Anglicisation of the Arabic acronym, sounds more threatening than ISIS.

He used the attacks to defend controversial new laws that allow the government to strip citizenship from dual nationals — and even to justify their extension to Australian-only citizens, something opposed by many of his ministers.

Abbott said: “We have got legislation before the parliament to strip citizenship from terrorists who are dual nationals. We have got a citizenship consultation taking place right now led by Philip Ruddock and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells that is looking at the whole range of citizenship.

“As I said during the week in my Magna Carta speech … Australians going abroad to fight with Daesh … is the modern form of treason and perhaps we need something like the modern form of banishment to deal with it.”

Despite the fact that Australia has forces in Iraq as part of the US-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Abbott only briefly mentioned the war in the Middle East. Instead, he concentrated on racist dog-whistling, with reassurances his “strong” government was protecting Australians from the remote threat of domestic terrorism.

Kurdish struggle

The West's ignoring of the massacre in Kobane also reflects the West's deeply ambivalent attitude towards the YPG and YPJ.

On the one hand, the West wants to restrict its direct military involvement in Iraq and Syria to airborne attacks, so needs allies on the ground. The YPJ, YPG and other left-wing Kurdish-led forces are the only local force to have had significant military successes against the IS.

When the IS invaded Iraq, forces of the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) fled rather than fight.

Iraqi pro-government militias based in the Shia community have been more willing to fight the IS but their communalist violence against Sunni civilians has hampered them militarily and politically.

The pretext for the US-led military intervention was ISIS's capture of Sinjar in Northern Iraq in August 2014 and their genocide of the Kurdish population who belonged to the Yazidi religious minority. The IS killed at least 5000 Yazidi Kurds, systematically slaughtering the men and literally selling the women and children into slavery. Their cruelty enabled Western leaders to overcome domestic opposition to a new Middle East war.

However, it was neither the Western forces nor their local allies who liberated Sinjar. It was the YPJ, YPG and their allies from Turkish Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The failure of the IS to capture Kobane in the September to January siege was their first significant defeat.

Since the siege of Kobane, Western forces have sporadically coordinated their air strikes with YPJ and YPG forces on the ground. However, this tactical alliance has stopped short of responding to YPG requests for heavy weapons.

In Iraq, both the US and Iran back the Shia communalist parties of the Iraqi government and the right-wing parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which are hostile to the left-wing Kurdish-led groups.

In Syria, the West openly backs the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which is officially the external representative of anti-government groups fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In reality, it is a collection of exiled politicians with little connection to the internal opposition.

Western military aid has gone overtly to the FSA and covertly to Sunni Islamist groups, including the Nusra Front.

Iran supports Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian regime, the SNC and the Sunni Islamists are all hostile to the YPG and YPJ, as well as to each other and to ISIS.

The political basis of the YPG and YPJ's success helps explain the hostility they face from other forces based on ethnic or religious communalism.

The YPJ and YPG are the armed forces of the autonomous cantons in Rojava, where a unique experiment in grassroots, participatory democracy is taking place. Their democratic, egalitarian and feminist program give them deep-seated popular support. Their multiculturalism and religious tolerance means they can appeal across communal lines.

To go by the West's rhetoric, this support for democracy, women's rights and religious tolerance should make them ideal partners or the West.

But the West's commitment to democracy and feminism is purely rhetorical justification for its interventions. The West needs religious sectarianism as a means of divide and rule – and therefore seeks other reasons to justify refusing a closer alliance with progressive forces.

Turkey's role

Furthermore, Turkey, a NATO member, rules over the largest part of Kurdistan. Since 1984, it has been fighting a brutal counterinsurgency war against the PKK.

Since 2013, the PKK and the Turkish government have been engaged in peace talks. But such is the Turkish fear of democratic autonomy in any part of Kurdistan that during the siege of Kobane, Turkey allowed recruits and material to reach ISIS while maintaining a blockade against the YPG and YPJ.

In June 7 national elections, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered setbacks at the hands of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP is a Kurdish-based left-wing party that united national and religious minorities, feminists, LGBTI activists, socialists, environmentalists and civil society activists in a rainbow coalition.

The HDP campaigned in solidarity with the anti-IS resistance in Kobane and made the AKP's collaboration with the IS an election issue.

The AKP government has been a staunch enforcer of Western-promoted neoliberal economic policy, while the HDP likened its approach to economics to that of Greece's anti-austerity SYRIZA party.

Less than two weeks later, forces from the YPJ, YPG and allies captured the strategically important town of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad), linking two of three Rojava cantons for the first time and cutting off the IS from the Turkish border. They began advancing Raqqa, the principal Syrian stronghold of the IS.

The June 25 attack on Kobane was partly a military response to draw forces away from Raqqa. Many of the terrorists attacked from across the Turkish border. The YPG has alleged the Turkish military colluded with the IS in the attack, claims supported by journalists, activists and other eyewitnesses on both sides of the border.

The IS attack was preceded by a campaign by AKP politicians and pro-government Turkish media denouncing the YPG and YPJ as terrorists. They made false allegations that the groups were planning to create an independent Kurdish state and were engaged in ethnic cleansing of non-Kurds.

The allegations of ethnic cleansing have been repeated by the SNC, but refuted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On June 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “I am saying this to the whole world: We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria. We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.”

The June 28 International Business Times said Turkish pro-government media reported that the Turkish government was planning to send troops into northern Syria to create a buffer zone. Ostensibly this will be directed against both the Kurdish-led forces and the IS, although the evidence of Turkish involvement in the June 25 attack suggests otherwise.

Both the YPG and the HDP have accused the Erdogan government of supporting the June 25 attack on Kobane partly as revenge for the HDP's electoral gains.

Turkey is part of the US-led “anti-IS” coalition, while the left-wing Kurdish-led forces are excluded. The US and other Western countries — including Australia — continue to list the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

While the PKK's allies in Rojava are not specifically listed, it still makes support for the YPG and YPJ by Western citizens legally ambiguous.

The official Western and Turkish policy to create an effective anti-IS force in Syria aside from the YPJ, YPG and their allies involves a new force, officially under the FSA umbrella but trained by the West in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On July 1, Firat News Agency reported that an Egyptian captured by the YPG in the June 25 assault on Kobane appeared to be part of this new force.

A supporter of overthrown Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, he had trained in Turkey with what he believed was the FSA. But he said the Turkish military sent his “FSA” group to be part of the IS's assault.


On June 27, Australian citizen Reece Harding was killed while fighting as one of a small but growing number of international volunteers in the YPG. He was killed as his unit advanced towards Raqqa, a July 1 YPG statement said.

Harding and another Australian who joined the YPG and died in February, Ashley Kent Johnston, are the only two Australians killed by the IS. However, if Harding and Johnson had not been killed and returned to Australia, they would have faced possible jail and loss of citizenship.

This is telling in two ways. Firstly, it shows that while the IS are a serious threat to peace and human life in the Middle East, they are not, as Abbott claims, “coming for us” in Australia.

Secondly, the US-led coalition that Australian forces in Iraq are part of is playing a complex geopolitical game in which fighting the IS is more of a pretext than purpose.

The reality is, it is the YPG, YPJ and their allies who are the real opposition to the IS terrorists.

Neither draconian domestic “anti-terror” laws nor the US-led military interventions will make Australia or the world safer. But if Australia was serious about helping rid the world of the IS, it would decriminalise the PKK and pressure its NATO allies to rein in Turkey.

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