Syria: Feminist hope amid multi-sided conflict

A training session for local women organisers in Derik, Cezire Canton, in the autonomous region of Rojava, 2014. Photo: Jonas St

A “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, sponsored by the United States and Russia, came into force on February 27. Only some of the internal and foreign participants in Syria's multi-sided conflicts signed on.

The air wars that the US and Russia are waging in Syria are both officially directed against ISIS. But in reality, Russia is keen to protect its ally, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, while the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have given money, weapons and logistical and diplomatic support to his opponents since the civil war began in 2011.

Iranian troops have been fighting on the side of the Assad regime, while Turkish forces have made numerous cross-border incursions and, for the past three weeks, kept up constant cross-border artillery strikes. Turkish military intelligence (MIT) has been deeply involved with some of the fractious armed opposition. Some opposition groups are essentially run by MIT.

Rojava revolution

Officially, Turkish involvement is directed at the Assad regime, although in reality it is directed at the Kurdish-led revolution in the Kurdish-majority but ethnically diverse region in northern Syria that Kurds call West Kurdistan or Rojava.

Improbably, this revolution has created islands of grassroots, feminist, ecological socialist democracy in an ocean of war, atrocities and competing tyrannies.

The principles of the self-administration in Rojava are gender equality, participatory democracy, local autonomy, religious tolerance and an ecological, socialist economy.

This includes autonomy for all ethnic groups, including the right to education in one's own language.

The constitution of the Rojava cantons embodies these principles: with parallel women-only and mixed-gender structures, a minimum of 40% female participation in all decision-making bodies, neighbourhood, municipal and district self-government, representation of all ethnic communities and multilingualism, and a system of having co-leaders of various bodies to guarantee representation of all genders and ethnicities.

All religions are tolerated but no religion is allowed to impose itself.

The revolution's strong popular base, its ability to unite across communities and its emphasis on political education are the reasons for its forces' military success despite being less well armed than its opponents.

Women's liberation

The centrality of feminism to the revolution has given it its most visible component: the all-women force, the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), which fights alongside the mixed gender Peoples Protection Units (YPG).

However, there is much more to the women's revolution in Rojava than the smiling female fighters who crush the crazed misogynists of ISIS.

“While we try to empower women, a few kilometres away [ISIS] are trying to do the opposite,” politician and union leader Nubohar Mustafa told Reuters on February 29. “We are fighting them on behalf of all the women in the world.

“Women have active participation at all political and military levels. It's a revolution within a revolution.”

Reuters reported that women's academies and foundations and 27 centres to help women facing domestic violence or financial hardship have opened in Rojava since 2014.

Despite being in the middle of a war zone, the Rojava self-administration was making world-leading legal innovations. Kobanê vice-minister for foreign affairs Idris Nassan told Reuters that exclusion from the grassroots democratic structures was applied as a punishment unless imprisonment was unavoidable.

“Not being able to participate in events or discussions is a stigma and for our society it is a big deal. Prison is the last resort. This is because we want to change the culture and not just punish the crime. We want men to understand violence against women is not socially accepted any longer,” he said.

The revolutionaries in Rojava are allied to the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkish Kurdistan and its Turkish leftist anti-government allies, causing the Turkish government's hostility.

The “cessation of hostilities” was agreed to by the Assad regime and two of the main bodies representing armed opposition groups: the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD). The al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and ISIS were not asked to participate and the truce specifically allows for continuing operations against these groups.

The HNC was created in December in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The armed groups inside Syria it represents are mainly Islamist, although on the HNC these groups' representatives are outnumbered by exiled politicians. Its leader, Riyad Hijab, was Assad's Prime Minister until August 2012.

Syrian Democratic Forces

The QSD was created in October, inside Syria, in Rojava. The YPG and YPJ remain its largest component, although it also includes groups based in the Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen communities.

The “cessation of hostilities” comes after the failure of peace talks in Geneva in early February. The QSD were excluded from these talks at the insistence of the US and its European allies.

The HNC went to the talks with the position that the precondition for a peace agreement was the removal of Assad. Russia supported its allies at Geneva by carpet bombing HNC-affiliate and Nusra-held areas around Aleppo.

This succeeded in dislodging the armed opposition groups (and killing and displacing thousands of civilians in the process), but QSD forces occupied many of the targeted areas before Assad regime forces were able to.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has alleged that between September 30 and March 1, Russian air strikes killed 1733 civilians, 1183 ISIS fighters and 1492 fighters from Nusra and other Syrian and foreign Islamist and rebel groups.

Both the QSD and regime forces halted their advance after the “cessation of hostilities” came into effect.

“By and large the cessation of hostilities is holding, even though we have experienced some incidents,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on February 29.

That the HNC agreed to the truce at all is a move away from the position they took to Geneva of no peace while Assad remains.

However, all sides have alleged ceased fire violations by their opponents. Both the US and Russia have continued air strikes against Nusra and ISIS, as permitted by the “cessation of hostilities”. However, several of the Islamist groups represented by the HNC have had varying degrees of battlefield alliances with Nusra.

The US and the HNC have alleged that Russian air strikes and regime and Iranian ground forces have continued targeting HNC-affiliated groups under the guise of targeting Nusra. For their part, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have alleged that Nusra and ISIS have been launching attacks from HNC-affiliate held territory.

Al-Jazeera reported on February 29 that regime forces had allowed aid convoys to access opposition-held communities it was besieging around Damascus.

Brutal sieges have been used by both pro-regime and Islamist forces in the conflict. This has added starvation to the causes of civilian deaths in a conflict that has killed about 300,000 people and displaced about 11 million, including more than 4 million who have fled overseas.

Firat News Agency (ANF) reported on February 28 that the YPG had accused Nusra and the HNC-affiliated Ahrar Al-Sham of attacking Êfrin canton and a Kurdish majority neighbourhood in Aleppo that has long been held by the YPG.

“Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham and collaborator groups acting with them are continuing their uninterrupted attacks against the civilian population in Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood of Aleppo,” ANF said. “27 civilians died … as a result of the attacks. Gang groups … escalated their barbaric attacks after the beginning of the ceasefire.”

Turkey's attacks

More worrying for Rojava's point of view was the February 25 comment by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu: “We won't recognise the truce in Syria.”

In the early morning on February 27, the day the truce was to start, ISIS forces attacked the Rojava town of Girê Spî from across the Turkish border.

“Turkish soldiers brought these gangs to the border and then enabled their crossing into Girê Spî to carry out this attack,” ANF said.

“This activity at the border was witnessed by a number of local people living in the area. Turkish soldiers continued to support the gangs by shelling YPG and SDF [QSD] positions with artillery fire …

“Those gang members that survived the confrontation did cross back into [Turkey] through the paths opened by Turkish soldiers. A YPG/SDF fighter [pursuing] the ISIS gangs fleeing towards the Turkish border was shot and martyred by Turkish soldiers.

“It was big and broad attack where they were targeting nearly thirty military points of our troops, but our forces foiled their attacks within 24 hours and killed 291 terrorists,” YPG spokesperson Rêdur Xelil told a March 2 press conference.

He said that 23 civilians lost their lives at the hands of ISIS in this attack. This included an Arab family of 15 who the terrorists massacred. He said the QSD lost 43 fighters, 19 of whom were Arabs, 10 belonging to QSD affiliates other than the YPG/J.

“We are convinced United States knows about the negative role Turkey plays,” he said.

Since late 2014, the US has had a tactical alliance with the Rojava forces, coordinating airstrikes with YPG, YPJ and QSD ground offensives. The military effectiveness of the Rojava forces — they are the only forces in the Syrian war to consistently defeat ISIS — combined with their feminism and democratic values has been skilfully used by Rojava's revolutionary diplomats.

However, Turkey remains a NATO ally of the US, and a huge recipient of military US military aid. The Turkish government has been pressuring the US to cease its links with the QSD.

To counter this, the Rojava forces have also made diplomatic overtures to Russia. In Syria on the pretext of fighting ISIS and Nusra, Russia is painfully aware of the military limitations of their main allies, the Assad forces.

But through all the international manoeuvres and tactical alliances, the profoundly democratic and feminist politics of the Rojava forces provides a needed beacon of hope.

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