Syria: Why Rojava is different

YPJ fighters

The world has started looking at Kobane and the other two liberated cantons of what the Kurds call Rojava (Western, or Syrian, Kurdistan) since the resistance in Kobane liberated the town from the brutal Islamic State (IS) forces.

Their success is not good news for Turkish President Recip Tayyep Erdogan, achieving a symbolic victory against an underhanded ploy by Turkey’s regime to crush Kurdish resistance in Syria and weaken the Kurdish resistance against the Turkish state.

Meanwhile, on December 27, the Lebanese Daily Star reported the formation of the Levant Front — a new coalition of armed groups fighting the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that are also opposed to the IS.

A December 25 statement by the five militias forming the coalition said they acted out of “deference to the commands of God almighty and in answer to the requests of our great people to unify revolutionary factions.”

The largest component of the Levant Front is the “moderate” Salafist alliance, the Islamic Front.

A December 26 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, quoted by the Daily Star, said the new coalition’s formation “follows months of negotiations held in Turkey and northern Syria between the five member factions, representing a broad array of rebel forces.”

The Daily Star said the Nusra Front had been specifically excluded from the Levant Front. The Nusra Front is the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Despite this, in 2014 it made several overtures towards the West, after having allied with the Islamic Front and other rebel groups against the IS. However, the Western powers rebuffed these overtures and when the US-led coalition began bombing targets in Syria in September, Nusra was targeted along with the IS.

The Carnegie Endowment report said the Levant Front’s ideological underpinnings range from the “hard-line Salafism (of Islamic Front groups), across Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Sunni Islamist tendencies, to more or less apolitical factions linked to the Western and Gulf-backed exile structure that is loosely referred to as the Free Syrian Army.”

On February 1, Asharq Al-Awsa said the “Hazzm Movement, a Western-backed Syrian rebel group, has joined a coalition of other Syrian fighting groups,” the Levant Front.

Asharq Al-Awsat described the Hazzm Movement as “one of the few remaining non-jihadist rebel groups in Syria” and, citing “a Syrian opposition source”, said it was “likely the movement … was seeking through its membership of the Levantine Front to protect itself from Al-Nusra”.

An April 2014 report by the US pro-establishment think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Hazzm Movement had received some heavy weapons from the US and, describing the group as “a moderate/secularist faction, not an extremist/jihadist group,” recommended it as “a model for the type of group the United States and its allies can support with meaningful, lethal military assistance”.

However, Al Akbar reported on May 22 that many of the brigades forming the Hazzm Movement were explicitly Islamist. They had ties to Qatar and Turkey, the latter being the conduit for US-supplied optically-tracked, wire-guided missiles.

Al Akbar said the Hazzm Movement was competing for Western aid with “the Syrian Revolutionaries Front … the Saudi candidate for explicit Western support”.

A March 29 Al Akbar article noted both the predominance of Sunni Islamist ideologies across the spectrum of the Arab opposition in Syria and that many brigades that originated as part of the officially secular Free Syrian Army went on to join one or other of the Islamist coalitions.

Al Akbar noted the role played by in this by Western military aid (which, while insufficient to create a force capable of overthrowing Assad, has been a determinant of which groups have survived).

That Islamists have been a major beneficiary of Western aid is partially due the ideological preferences of the West’s Islamist regional proxies — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — through which aid has been channelled.

However, it is also because it is not in the West’s political interests for the masses to band together. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, both Assad and the West’s regional allies have worked tirelessly to foster continued ethnic and religious sectarianism.

The rise of anti-Western Islamist groups such as Nusra and the IS is a side effect of this. The US-led air war launched in August in Iraq and extended to Syria in September was a response to the IS invasion exposing the fragility of the Iraqi state created by the 2003-2011 US occupation.

While anti-Western jihadis pose a genuine threat to Western interests, their narrow vision, venality, and most of all, their sectarian divisiveness makes this threat containable.

Furthermore, their theatrical brutality, including against Western captives, and their noisy approval of terrorism within the West has again legitimised direct Western military intervention in the region.

The illegal oil trade also reflects the overlapping interests of apparent enemies. The November 20 Guardian reported on how the IS exports oil from the oilfields it controls with the connivance of Iraqi, Iranian, Jordanian and Turkish officials and Western oil corporations.

By comparison, the values of the Rojava resistance consist of grassroots democracy, ecological socialism and feminism. Moreover, not only is the Rojava resistance committed to freedom of religious belief and separation of religion from politics, it is committed to full equality and inclusion of Rojava’s non-Kurdish minorities, which include Chechens, Armenians, Aramaeans and Arabs.

The history of Arab chauvinism both under the Assad regime and from the opposition groups has meant that the resistance has had to work carefully with the Arab population in Rojava. In an interview published on Ecology or Catastrophe on February 1, Peoples Defence Units (YPG) spokesperson Huseyin Kocer said, “Hundreds of Arabs take part in the YPG and YPJ [Women’s Defence Units] … many of the Arab villagers support Daesh [IS] but we don’t try to harm them. Many of the villagers feel they have to support Daesh out of fear…

“We try to create consciousness of freedom and liberation. We try communicate the need for self-organisation. Not only to sustain daily life but also politically.

“In places that we have liberated, the people’s council … goes there and helps them organise … We help and support them in creating councils where they live. We discuss with them and propose to them our democratic project.”

With the odds stacked against them, the YPG and YPJ have taken back 20 towns from the IS in the past year — which is a greater achievement than the Levant Front, Hazzm Movement and Al-Nusra put together. What sets Kobane apart from other fighting militias is that their fight is more ideological than it ever will be physical — a fight not just for the liberation of Kurdistan or Syria but a fight for human liberation.