Sanitising imperialism — The problem with 'The Daughters of Kobani'

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice
By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Penguin Random House, 2021

Even before it was released and became a New York Times bestseller, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book The Daughters of Kobani made headlines.

It was announced in January, that Hillary Clinton would co-produce a mini-series on the book alongside her daughter Chelsea, raising eyebrows in some corners, cheers in others, and outright disgust in many more.

The fact that Clinton, a former United States Secretary of State and 2016 presidential nominee, is poised to dip into the world of television to tell the story of Rojava's Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) appears at first glance a baffling move. That is, unless one understands that the point of her decision is to present a sanitised and revisionist version of US policy in Syria, and the Middle East more generally.

Now that Lemmon’s book has been released to much fanfare, it is incumbent on those of us who support the Kurdish liberation movement to analyse it critically, and raise some important questions. Who is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon? Why is this book heralded by many in the US foreign policy apparatus as the definitive account of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and YPJ’s war (and by extension Washington’s war) on the Islamic State (ISIS)? What is the ultimate aim of the book? Does it do some good or more harm for the cause of the Kurdish liberation movement?

To tackle the first question, we need to understand that Lemmon is not a neutral observer, but an active participant. She is a writer with a long track record of doing the bidding of the US imperialist establishment. Lemmon wrote a Newsweek cover story In 2011 touting the role Clinton was attempting to play ”Championing opportunity and equality for women”. Furthermore, she is an adjunct fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and acts as the Chief Marketing Officer of Shield AI, a company responsible for building drone technology.

Lemmon has been something of an indispensable pen wielder for the US War on Terror, writing two other NYT bestsellers, Ashley’s War, in 2015, and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, in 2011. These books largely extol the alleged virtues of the US intervention in Afghanistan in the post-September 11, 2001, world, highlighting the role of women in US Special Operations and an Afghan woman entrepreneur, respectively.

In the foreword, Lemmon writes that she was approached by a member of US Special Operations who was in Syria in early 2016 to see for herself what was taking place there. As she was told, the active participation of women fighters on the frontlines of the war against ISIS was “unbelievable”. With that, Lemmon couldn’t resist her impulses to witness this women’s revolution.

Lemmon is clearly a proficient writer and a talented storyteller. She weaves the stories of YPJ fighters and commanders with a great deal of skill, in a way that does justice to contextualising what their lives were like before ISIS, and their indispensable and heroic role on the frontlines. In this regard, the book is an engaging and powerful read.

Lemmon provides a decent level of historical background on the YPG and YPJ, the Rojava Revolution, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Ocalan, who serves as the ideological inspiration for the Kurdish liberation movement. She even mentions the US role in Ocalan’s  imprisonment when  captured in Kenya in 1999. Lemmon also provides a historical backdrop on the national oppression of Kurds in Syria that rendered up to half a million people stateless.

However, there are undoubtedly political problems with the book — or perhaps, they are political statements of intent.

It is said that the YPJ and the broader Kurdish Freedom Movement follow a left-leaning ideology, and it is implied that it is because of the ideological turn of the PKK in the mid-2000s from Marxism-Leninism to democratic confederalism that women’s liberation is prioritised.

Although it is true that jineologi — the science of women, advocated by Ocalan, has been greatly developed since the PKK abandoned Leninism, the origins of their emphasis on this question precedes this. Women have played a valuable role in the movement since the launch of the armed struggle in 1984, and a central and prioritised role in the movement since the 1990s, when a separate women’s army was founded.

It may be too much to expect that a book of this sort would extoll the virtues of communism in women’s emancipation. Throughout the book, the Americans involved are shocked and moved by the ability of women to play such an equal role with men.

However, the YPJ’s war against ISIS is far from the first time women have actively participated in such a way on the battlefield. For instance, in World War II — another time that the US allied with a “red army” — women snipers of the Soviet Union were putting the US to shame when it came to showing women could equal men on the battlefield. There is the participation of women in the Cuban Revolution, the women comrades of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua who picked up arms, or even Mao Zedong’s famous phrase “women hold up half the sky”.

In all of these cases, aside from the Soviet example, the US actively opposed the movements utilising women’s participation. It’s not so surprising that an author like Lemmon or US Special Forces would react with such shock at women playing such a role  — they never would have witnessed them on their side anywhere on the planet. Lemmon’s previous books certainly parrot the “Taliban bad, US good” line, but it was the US that helped bring the Taliban to power in the first place by helping to crush a revolution that was both socialist and feminist (Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution of 1978).

Communism is mentioned again when the book discusses how Ocalan adopted many ideas from the works of US ecosocialist Murray Bookchin. Citing Bookchin’s political journey from the Communist Party USA to libertarian municipalism, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is mentioned. Lemmon writes that “the pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin was too much for him; he could not be part of a party that aligned itself with fascists”.

This would not have been such a terrible point to make, if the book added more context, given that it is true that Bookchin left the CPUSA for this reason. But it is also a fact that at this point in history — even after more than 75 years — many Americans still don’t know that the Soviets did the brunt of the fighting and dying to defeat fascism. The equating of Hitler and Stalin may further serve to deceive people, and to distort history.

Looking at the complexities of the Syrian war, the book makes a point  of portraying every other actor in the Syrian war as reactionary, bloodthirsty, or criminal. Russia, ISIS, Hezbollah, the Syrian state, and even China are all painted with the same brush. The 2016 liberation of Aleppo is referred to as “a savage, months-long bombing campaign by Russia”. Lemmon goes on to say that “each time the United Nations Security Council took up a resolution to speak out against the regime’s violence, Russia and China vetoed it.”

When discussing the US bombing campaign that saw the YPG, YPJ and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberate Raqqa, she does mention humanitarian concerns — but civilian casualties are not referred to as the consequence of a “savage” campaign. One could make the argument that the US bombing of Mosul in the same year was similarly horrendous. Russia certainly made such points to spite the US in response to their accusations of Aleppo’s violent liberation, which seems sensible enough if we want to avoid lapsing into hypocrisy.

Lemmon’s book also, bizarrely, doesn’t mention Afrin’s 2018 Turkish-backed occupation by many former members of ISIS who had been rebranded. Perhaps it would be too embarrassing to point out that the US was clear from the beginning that it had no desire to aid its supposed “partners” in Afrin (or west of the Euphrates River) — or maybe it was because there was collaboration between the YPG and the Syrian government.

For an apolitical American, reading the book will reinforce notions about the supposed “goodness” of US missions in the Middle East. Although Lemmon does mention the ISIS origins in the US war on Iraq, morphing from al-Qaeda in Iraq into the more brutal version it was to become, any link to the US war machine  is not made. Instead, we get empty platitudes about how the 2003 invasion was good for the Kurds in achieving greater autonomy.

There is no doubt of the decisive impact  US special forces had on the liberation of Kobani, as well as the subsequent operations in Manbij, Tabqa, and Raqqa described in the book. For the YPG and YPJ — and more importantly for the Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen and other peoples living in those regions — this was a matter of life and death.

However, the book does not mention US geostrategic interests, aside from the fact that the former Barack Obama administration deemed it necessary to fight ISIS, which is to be taken for granted by the reader. A deeper investigation into the wider interests of the US empire is never brought forward. But again, this would be too much to expect from such a book, which is clearly written to sanitise the grim history of US involvement in the region.

The Syrian Democratic Council (the political wing of the SDF) supported Lemmon’s book to the extent their office in Washington, DC, hosted a book event to celebrate its release. This isn’t just an active collaboration between the SDC and a journalist or writer; it speaks to a deeper strategy of the SDC wanting an entrenched relationship with the US, which is clear given the interests Lemmon represents. Whether the SDC realises it or not, the results of moving from tactical military cooperation to any deeper political cooperation can only end in disaster. There can never be true liberation under the auspices of imperialism.

In this regard, it needs to be said that any prolonged involvement of the US in northern Syria cannot have a positive impact. History has shown that the last thing the US ever wants is for nations to be self-determining, unless those nations decide to stake their future on the side of the empire, in which case they will be subjugated.

The concessions made by the SDC to the US recently (such as the 2020 oil deal with Delta Crescent) are deeply troubling, and run a great risk of putting their entire project on the line. There is no question that Washington has zero interest in supporting any socialist-oriented projects around the world, even if Lemmon or certain US soldiers were amazed by what they witnessed while there.

The Daughters of Kobani is worth reading for the intense and often beautiful stories of YPJ fighters and their will to fight for a society beyond the bounds of capitalism — even if the author makes a silly comparison in saying they are fighting for an ideology “to the left of Bernie Sanders”. A more acute observer or supporter of the Kurdish liberation movement will know it is so much deeper than that.

All in all, this official US government-sanctioned account of the war against ISIS in Syria is an engaging read. At the same time, it is one that must be taken in with a vigilant and critical eye, lest we forget that the YPJ and the US are supposed to represent fundamentally opposing and irreconcilable visions for the future.