Our AGM, in Glasgow on the 6th September, included a talk by Sarah Glynn on her visit to Northern Syria. We were pleased to welcome new friends and old, including James Kelman, who is a long-standing supporter of the Kurds.
On 19th August we had our usual stall at the Unison Family and Friends day at New Lanark.
And Ocalan was not forgotten in the alternative wall built for the Glasgow demonstration against Trump’s visit to Scotland.
This article, by Sarah Glynn, was first published by Commonspace on 28th August 2018
When the Kurds and their friends in the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria use the revolutionary slogan ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi!’ – Women Life Freedom! – this is no empty phrase. They are summing up the essence of a revolution that has women’s freedom at its heart, both physically and philosophically. When I visited Northern Syria with a women’s delegation in May, I learnt that the women revolutionaries were not just the young girls with guns so beloved by war photographers, but also middle-aged women in long floral dresses who are building a new society in the neighbourhoods where they live. This is a revolution of extraordinary ordinary people who are taking control of their own lives through a new bottom-up democracy. In this transformation of a traditional middle-eastern tribal society, women are involved at the centre of the new democratic structures at all levels, as well as building their own women’s organisations. There is a long history of women’s participation in the Kurdish freedom struggle, and the centrality of women’s liberation has been ensured by the political writings of PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has spent the last 19 years isolated in a Turkish prison, but, just as his portrait presides over every progressive Kurdish organisation, so his ideas provide a constant source of reference and inspiration.
Of all the achievements of this Kurdish revolution, the liberation of women has probably made the greatest difference to people’s lives. For half the population, freedom means not only ending control by Asaad’s authoritarian Baathist state, which hadn’t even recognised Kurds as citizens, but also the removal of centuries-heavy patriarchal beliefs and practices that have regulated everything from civil society to family relations. For Sara, who we met in Kobanê, when the Syrian regime withdrew control and the Kurds were able to set up their own autonomous organisations, it was ‘as though a rock had been lifted and there were green shoots underneath’. This is an image of oppression banished, but also of a new world that had long gestated in hiding, waiting for the opportunity to grow. Syria’s Kurds have nursed their revolutionary ideas over decades, especially since Öcalan and the PKK formed an exiled base in the country in the 1980s and 90s.
For those of us looking for a more inclusive alternative to the deeply-flawed democracies with which we are familiar, Northern Syria’s autonomous system, where everything is controlled as locally as possible, provides a living, if evolving, example of a different way of doing things. Although many people are still learning how to take part – which allows the main political party considerable influence via its educational and enabling role – and although many strategic decisions are made centrally, people’s involvement with the new systems and organisations demonstrates a commitment to making these more participatory structures work. Central to this is the involvement of the women. Every significant organisation or committee is expected to have active women members, and female as well as male co-chairs – and during the course of our visit we met many of these impressive women. In addition, in response both to the importance given to women’s involvement and to the practicalities of moving from a traditional patriarchal society, there is a parallel structure of women-only organisations, confederated as Kongreya Star, the organisation who hosted our visit.
Community mobilisation depends on talking to your neighbours, and women are playing a key role in knocking on doors and discussing with all the various family members. While women’s liberation is high on their agenda, they also address relations between different ethnic and religious groups. In Manbij, where we met with members of the Women’s Council, the need for both these interventions is especially acute. Manbij was liberated from ISIS by Kurdish forces and their predominantly Arab allies in 2016, and is ethnically very mixed. ISIS had encouraged ethnic division as well as the subjugation of women. Unlike in the predominantly Kurdish areas, Manbij has no history of revolutionary organisation, but the women told us how they were inspired by their Kurdish comrades, as well as by the Kurdish women of the YPJ who helped liberate them. Their palpable hope and optimism makes the current insecurity over the future of Manbij especially poignant.
Women are involved in all fields. Our meeting at the Women’s Economy Centre in Qamishlo demonstrated the ambition and potential of this revolutionary movement, but also the everyday difficulties of instituting fundamental change. While the rhetoric is avowedly anti-capitalist, and advances from big international companies have been rebuffed, economic change has so far been limited and piecemeal. The main work of the committee is the establishment of women’s co-ops. Most of these co-ops are very small, and difficulties include husbands who don’t see the need for their wives to work and question their abilities. The co-ops are meant to respond to community need rather than purely economic criteria, but at this stage their main role is to give the women involved the economic independence that can provide the basis for social freedom.
The flagship of the women’s movement is the women’s village, Jinwar. When we visited, this was under construction, with one house being used by the organisers, and the first household about to move in. The people involved were able to allay several of my concerns over the idea of a women-only village, however, there are clearly still problems to be resolved. It is intended that the village will provide a home for some of the very many women who have been widowed or have escaped abusive relationships, as well as for those who might simply chose to live in a female environment. This women’s refuge is badly needed, but I was worried about the socialisation of children brought up in such a protected environment, and how well they would be prepared for interacting with a wider world. I was therefore glad to see that there was no sense of isolation. Women and men from nearby villages were taking in active interest in the village’s construction; and the educational programmes that are planned will be addressed to men as well as to women, since both have to change in order to change patriarchal society. This still leaves questions about the future of village households when children become young men, or women find new male partners. The village is intended to be much more than a place for people to live; it will provide an example of a different way of living. Ecological considerations have prompted the choice of traditional mud-brick construction rather than the almost ubiquitous concrete of other new buildings, and the builders stress that this provides a more comfortable, as well as attractive, environment. Other plans include a centre for natural medicine. I hope that the practical approach so evident in the various places we visited will allow ‘female’ nurturing and personal care to be combined with the best of modern scientific practice.
Everywhere, the people we spoke to were clear about the scale of the task they have taken on in trying to change society. Looking specifically at the situation of the women, the difficulties, and also the necessity, of change can be measured in the growing divorce rate resulting from women asserting their freedom. But at the women’s organisations we visited, the natural and mutually respectful relations we observed between the men and women showed what is possible.
The growth of the green shoots of women’s freedom has been both remarkable and inspiring, but we need to be careful not to attribute to it powers that it cannot hope to live up to. Öcalan’s ideas have been liberatory, but they could ultimately prove a constraint. Extrapolating from his belief that women’s subjugation was the primal enslavement that led to the development of hierarchy, violence and state power, he concludes that the key to the good society lies with women, who must take over the revolutionary role that Marx assigned to the working class. These ideas are taught under the title of Jineology, from the Kurdish jin, meaning women, and are based around a fundamental dualism. Power and violence are associated with masculinity and ‘capitalism and the nation-state are the monopolism of the tyrannical and exploitative male’, while the feminine is associated with nature, emotional intelligence and communality. Jineology promotes these ‘feminine’ attributes, but it also acknowledges that this gendered division is social and not innate, and herein lies a contradiction. If our hope for a better future can be found in ideas and practices that are linked to the female sex only by convention, then this future should be achieved through the promotion of those practices, rather than necessarily in action by women; and the liberation of women, though an essential part of any liberatory movement, need not be sufficient to lead to wider revolutionary change. (As the UK’s women prime ministers have demonstrated, women are just as capable of donning the ‘male’ attributes of power and violence.) Assigning women the role of the revolutionary class on the basis of gendered characteristics risks ossifying gender distinctions, as well as burdening women with expectations they should not have to bear alone. It can also result in overlooking and failing to address the economic causes of inequality. Even if we accept Öcalan’s view that hierarchical distinction began with the subjugation of women, it doesn’t follow that the liberation of women would reverse other inequalities. The huge achievements that Öcalan has inspired must not prevent us from critical analysis of his philosophy; in fact they make this all the more necessary. The Kurdish women’s revolution is no holy grail, but it is a source of hope and inspiration for us all.
Like many other left activists, I have been on the streets to show solidarity both with the Kurds, under attack from Turkey, and with the Palestinians, under attack from Israel. So it is disconcerting and depressing to get comments from Zionists supporting my posts on the Kurds, and to see pro-Palestinian Facebook friends welcoming Turkish President Erdoğan’s autocracy. It is also understandable, because this is precisely what the Turkish and Israeli leaders have orchestrated.
Erdoğan wants to be seen as the leader of the Muslim world. Overt support for the Palestinian cause is an essential part of this, as well as a vote winner at home. But, as the Co-Chair of the leftist, pro-Kurdish, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has pointed out, for this to be more than mere propaganda, Erdoğan’s government should end Turkey’s commercial, political and military deals with Israel. In his early years as Prime Minister, in 2005, Erdoğan visited Israel aiming to ‘build on trade and military ties,[2a,2b] and in 2007, Israel’s Shimon Peres returned the visit. Relations soured when Turkey condemned Israel’s 2008-9 attack on Gaza, and Israel accused Turkey of hosting Hamas recruiters. Eventually, in 2011, in a belated response to Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara (the Turkish boat that was part of the international flotilla against the Gaza blockade) Turkey suspended military co-operation with Israel and expelled the Israeli Ambassador. However, even then, Turkey’s foreign minister made clear that ‘Our aim here is not to hurt our friendship but to return this friendship to its right track’.[3a,3b] And, although a reconciliation agreement was not signed until 2016, when difficult relations with Russia left Turkey in need of friends, none of this hindered economic ties. In 2017, Turkish exports to Israel totalled £2.52 Billion.
This May, when Turkey again expelled Israel’s ambassador in a very public response to the latest attacks on Gaza, and called Israel a ‘terrorist state’ and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu a ‘terrorist, Netanyahu was quick to point out Erdoğan’s even greater hypocrisy. He tweeted, ‘Someone who occupies northern Cyprus, invades the Kurdish regions, and slaughters civilians in Afrîn should not preach to us about values and ethics’. This, in its turn, shouldn’t be taken as showing genuine Israeli support for the Kurds in Turkey or Afrîn – or for their avowedly anti-capitalist politics, which are an anathema to Israel’s neoliberal state. In both eastern Turkey and northern Syria (including Afrîn), the Kurds have developed forms of autonomous organisation based on ideas developed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Netanyahu has made clear that ‘Israel opposes the PKK and considers it a terrorist organization’, and their main concern when it comes to Syria is the elimination of Iranian influence.
The semi-feudal, pro-US regime in Iraqi Kurdistan (which operates a blockade on the Syrian Kurdish areas) is another matter. Israel has a long history of support for the Iraqi Kurds, though this has always been driven by Israeli strategic interests. In the 1960s, the Kurds were seen as a counter to the pro-Arab, pro-Soviet, Iraqi Government, and Israel provided military aid and training in alliance with the Shah of Iran. Israel continues to value the Iraqi Kurds as a buffer to Arab powers, and also to Islamic Iran; and Iraqi Kurdistan supplies a large part of Israel’s oil needs. Netanyahu publicly supported the Iraqi Kurds’ ‘aspirations for independence’ in 2014, and Israel was the only state to give open support to last year’s independence referendum. The Israeli Justice Minister explained, ‘A free Kurdistan should be established, at least in Iraq. It is in the United States’ and Israel’s interest for this to happen.’ Israeli flags were waved in Erbil, though, so far, it has not been in Israel’s interest to recognise Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent state.
Behind all the rhetoric, both Turkey and Israel embrace increasingly-blatant blood and soil nationalism, and they share a remarkably similar approach to the main ‘other’ ethnic group over which they attempt to maintain control, even though the underlying logic is different. Turkish nationalism accommodates the Kurds if, and only if, they are prepared to forget their own culture and subsume into the Turkish majority, while Israel insists that Palestinians are separate and inferior; but both countries are ruthless in their attempts to impose their dominance. Both deny basic rights and freedoms, including the right of self-determination. Both are quick to brand any and all resistance as ‘terrorism’, and to use this to justify brutal suppression. Both have no qualms about extending their classification of terrorists to include a whole population, and subjecting that population to collective punishment, including destroying homes and displacing long-established communities. Both carry out aggressive invasions under the pretence of defending their own borders. Statements put out by the two imperial leaders are often interchangeable if you swap ‘Kurds’ with ‘Palestinians’.
This similarity has long been recognised by both Kurds and Palestinians themselves, who have understood their shared colonial condition. So it should come as no surprise that the Palestine Liberation Organisation – especially its Marxist factions, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) – played a major role in training PKK guerrillas, and that thirteen PKK cadres lost their lives in the fight against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in 1982.
In more recent years, the PKK has moved from being a Marxist-Leninist liberation movement, to espousing grass-roots autonomy and Democratic Confederalism, based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin; but the main Palestinian leadership has abandoned its links with the left. The PFLP continues to promote a left agenda – and Leila Khaled was a guest at the HDP Congress in Ankara in February – however, Palestinian National Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah party follow a more ‘pragmatic’ politics, while Gaza is administered by Hamas Islamists who have no time for leftist ideas or those who propagate them. Abbas has developed increasingly cordial relations with Turkey, with Fatah’s only worry being Turkey’s closer relationship with Hamas.Hamas shares Erdoğan’s Islamist ideology, and Khaled Mashal, a leading figure in the organisation, praised Turkey’s unprovoked invasion and occupation of the previously peaceful, predominantly Kurdish, canton of Afrîn in Northern Syria. Mashal declared that ‘Victory in Afrîn was a model of Turkish will, and God willing we will record heroic victories to support our Islamic nation.’
Supporting the Palestinians’ anti-imperialist struggle is a very different thing from supporting Hamas. It is not only possible, but also necessary, to argue both for the Palestinians’ right to choose their own leadership, and against the organisation and ideology that many Palestinians have chosen. Most of us who campaign for Palestinian rights do not want to see an Islamic state. Hamas has no time for socialism or women’s equality, and it cannot claim to be anti-imperialist while acting as cheer-leader for Turkish colonialism. This is yet another example of hypocrisy
In contrast, the PFLP, the PKK and the HDP have all take a consistent anti-imperialist line on both Turkey and Israel (though it has to be acknowledged that the PFLP has a blind spot when it comes to criticising Saddam Hussein, who carried out brutal collective punishment on the Kurds of Iraq). In February, Leila Khaled told the HDP Congress, ‘You are the voice of those who resist colonialism. I greet you on behalf of the fighting Palestinian people. We also raise our voice against the war in Afrîn’. And in May, as Israel attacked the Gaza protestors, the PKK’s message of support for the Palestinians recalled their shared history, and declared, ‘The alliance and the common struggle of the Kurdish and Arab peoples will play a historical role in liberating the whole of the peoples of the Middle East.’ The HDP Co-Chair also called for a ‘common struggle for peace’, and observed that what the Turkish Government is ‘doing against the Kurdish people, the Israeli Government is doing against the Palestinian people. When you are part of the problem in these lands, you cannot produce a solution.’ 
Solidarity with the anti-imperialist struggle and with the fight for a better future for the Middle East, means solidarity with both the Kurds and the Palestinians in their struggles against Turkey and Israel, and against all the other imperial powers competing for a share of resources and control. Whether we are in the Middle East or Scotland, we need the strength that comes from working together in mutual support.
The merchants of death have set up their stalls in our back yard, courtesy of Glasgow City Council, and we brought our banner and flags to join the protest. People from many different groups came together to show anger and disgust at the presence of the arms fair in the SECC, and it was good to see Kurdish and Palestinian flags flying together. There are so many parallels between Erdogan’s treatment of the Kurds and Netanyahu’s treatment of the Palestinians, and it is important to expose the hypocrisy of both Erdogan’s professed support for the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s claims to care about the Kurds.
There was an impromptu speech on behalf of the Kurdish community and Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan
and we handed out close to 200 leaflets. This is what they said:
STOP ARMING TURKISH AGGRESSION
At least two of the firms exhibiting in the SECC have made weapons for Turkey. Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian. Anyone who criticises the government can lose their job or even be sent to prison for ‘terrorism’. You can be arrested simply for singing a Kurdish song.
In SE Turkey, the Turkish military has inflicted collective punishment on Kurdish towns, reducing them to rubble and displacing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians. And Turkey is intervening in both Syria and Iraq. Earlier this year, Turkey carried out an unprovoked attack on the previously peaceful, predominantly Kurdish, region of Afrin in Northern Syria. Turkey allied with radical jihadists and boasted of their plans for clearing the area of its Kurdish population. Before this attack, Afrin was a place where different communities lived in harmony and women could take a full part in community life. Now, over 100,000 Afrin residents have become refugees, and among those who remain, Kurds and non-Muslims are persecuted, women must stay inside and veil, and rape, kidnapping and looting are rife. Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS has been set back as Kurdish fighters were diverted to protect their homeland. And Turkey now threatens to move further into Syria.
Despite all this, the UK Government regard Turkey as a ‘priority market’ for arms exports. One of Teresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was helping to arrange a £100 million deal for BAE SYSTEMS to assist Turkey develop new fighter jets.
The Italian arms firm, LEONARDO has had a long partnership with Turkey and makes laser targeting systems in its Edinburgh factory. These are used on the F16 fighters that attacked the Kurds in Afrin. Leonardo has received £6 million of Scottish Enterprise funding.
These companies, and those who support them, have blood on their hands.
Members of Edinburgh Kurdish community gathered outside the Scottish Parliament on Monday to call on Iran to lift the planned execution of Ramin Hossein Panachi. Emergency protests have been taking place across the world.
Ramin Hossein Panahi’s case has been a breathtaking miscarriage of justice from start to finish. After appearing at his trial reportedly bearing torture marks on his body he was convicted in less than an hour. During the investigation period he was denied access to both his lawyer and his family, as well as to any details of the evidence against him. In a complete mockery of the judicial process, intelligence officials also repeatedly pressured him to make a televised ‘confession’ in exchange for the quashing of his death sentence. His refusal to submit to this pressure has seen him languishing in solitary confinement…
[He] was sentenced to death in January 2018 for “taking up arms against the state” (baqi). His conviction was based upon his membership of the armed Kurdish opposition group Komala, but no evidence linking him to activities involving intentional killing – the required threshold under international law for imposing the death penalty – was presented at his trial.
Chris Stephens MP has also written to Foreign Minister Boris Johnson to ask the British government to intervene:
The article below, by SSK committee member Sarah Glynn, was published in the National on Friday. We now know the results of the election, but we hope that this can still provide useful background.
Turkey on a knife-edge as elections loom
‘OUR country has reached a crucial crossroads … If you chose to vote for the AKP and Erdogan … the destiny of 81 million will be entirely at the mercy of one person.”
This warning against impending dictatorship comes from a rare appearance of presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas on Turkish state television. But Dermitas doesn’t only suffer from lack of air time. Like many other leading members of his People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and a great many other people who have criticised the Turkish government, he is shut away in prison awaiting trial.
Sunday’s Turkish election – for both parliament and president – was called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate his power. His instrumental approach to democracy was already clear in his 1996 comment that “democracy is like a tram ride: when you reach your stop, you get off.”
However, in the early years of his prime ministership, which lasted from 2003 until he became president in 2014, the Western world regarded him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model of “moderate” Islamic democracy. He made moves towards progressive reform, including lifting some of the restrictions on Kurdish cultural expression and starting peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but actual achievements were limited; and the AKP soon became increasingly authoritarian and anti-secular. In 2013, popular frustration at what was happening expressed itself on the streets of Istanbul, catalysed by the protests against the urban development of Gezi Park.
Dermitas’s HDP was formed in 2012, bringing together the campaign for Kurdish rights with other progressive and left movements, including those that came to the fore in the Gezi Park protests. Their participation in the June 2015 general election drew international interest. In the Turkish system, a party can only win parliamentary seats if it gets more than 10% of the popular vote. If it falls below that threshold then all votes given to its candidates are discounted. The HDP confounded expectations to win 13.1% of the vote, which translated into 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament and deprived the AKP of its majority.
Their resulting optimism didn’t last long. Erdogan had planned to bring in constitutional changes to increase his presidential powers, but now his AKP couldn’t even put together a government. He renewed attacks on the PKK and their sympathisers in acts of collective punishment that reduced Kurdish towns to rubble and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians; and he called another election for November. The HDP had already suffered violent attacks and bombings before the June election, for which they held the government indirectly responsible. This time hundreds of party members were arrested, and the violence was even more widespread. Their Ankara headquarters was attacked and set on fire by a mob of 500-600 people, and the bombing of a peace rally left more than 100 people dead. Some voters were frightened away. The HDP inched past the threshold with 10.8% of the vote and kept 59 MPs. The right-wing opposition also lost seats and the AKP got their overall majority.
The failed coup attempt in July 2016 provided Erdogan with an excuse to clamp down on his opponents. Although he accused his former political ally Fethullah Gulen of instigating the coup, the ensuing purge has not been limited to Gulen’s followers. It has decimated Turkish political and civil society and fallen particularly hard on the Kurds. Nine HDP MPs and 60 elected mayors from their sister party were in prison for the whole of 2017-18. Since the coup attempt, 152,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs (including 5800 academics), 139,000 people have been detained and 79,000 have been arrested (including 319 journalists).
The AKP’s parliamentary majority enabled them to hold a referendum for granting much greater power to the president, which took place in April 2017. The changes just scraped through on 51.4% of the vote, despite campaigning restrictions imposed by the post-coup state of emergency, the acceptance of unsealed ballots, and accusations of fraud. The new powers will be put into effect after Sunday.
Of course Turkish government oppression hasn’t been restricted to Turkey’s borders. There has been considerable evidence of Turkish support for Daesh fighters in Syria, Turkey has directly invaded Syria to restrict Kurdish control and effect major and violent displacement of Kurdish civilians, and they are currently attacking Qandil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s unprovoked war against the predominantly Kurdish Syrian region of Afrin, at the beginning of this year, provided the focus for jingoistic religious nationalism, and served as a distraction from internal economic woes.
Which leads us to Sunday’s snap election. Elections weren’t scheduled to take place until November 2019, but in April, Erdogan announced the new date. He clearly hopes to benefit from the war bounce – though it was hardly the swift victory he had promised – and he probably considered that the worsening economy would only have caused him to lose more votes the longer he waited. He may also have calculated on wrong-footing a divided opposition, though opposition parties have now formed an unlikely alliance.
A recent law change allows parties to compete as groups, allowing smaller parties to evade the 10% rule, and the parliamentary elections are now being contested by two groups and the non-allied HDP. The ruling AKP is allied with the ultra right-wing Nationalist Movelment Party (MHP). Their main opposition is an alliance made up of the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), who follow in the tradition of revolutionary Kemal Ataturk; the Good Party, led by an MHP dissident, and a small conservative Islamic party. Any hopes for a more left-wing voice depend on the unallied HDP passing the 10% line, but they could be helped in this by tactical voters who see this as the best hope for depriving Erdogan’s AKP of a majority. The opposition parties are each standing their own presidential candidates, and here pragmatic (though far from progressive) opposition hopes depend on the CHP candidate making it through to a second round and bringing together the anti-Erdogan vote.
For citizens of Turkey living in Scotland, the campaigning and (first round) voting is already over. They could cast their vote at the Turkish consulate in Edinburgh, which must have been intimidating for some, and impossible for anyone who had come here to seek refuge from the Turkish state. There have been a lot of campaign events, and although loyalties are fairly entrenched, the importance of the election has produced a record turnout for ex-patriot voters everywhere of 49%. In Edinburgh the turnout was 47% – 1804 people. Of course the turnout in Turkey will be much higher.
However, emergency regulations continue to ensure that this election is taking place on a far from level playing field, and recent rule changes have compounded this further. Security concerns have been used as an excuse to move polling stations away from HDP majority areas, and to place state security forces near the ballot boxes; and unsealed ballots will again be accepted. As if this was not enough to cause concern, leaked videos purport to show Erdogan instructing party workers on how to rig the ballot boxes to keep the HDP vote below 10%.
If, despite these precautions, Erdogan and the AKP fail to win the power they crave, they will not go quietly. Recent events in Suruc demonstrate the potential for violence. When a shopkeeper refused to show support for the AKP candidate, the candidate’s retinue started a fight. The candidate’s brother was fatally wounded and the shopkeeper’s three sons were all hurt. Two of the sons and their father were later lynched by the candidate’s relatives inside the hospital. The Turkish press attempted to report this as a PKK attack.
Whatever happens on Sunday, there are difficult times ahead.
Earlier this year, the world learnt briefly about a place called Afrîn. There was even a discussion in the House of Commons, though with no motion and no vote. And the BBC was forced to interrupt its coverage of the fight between Assad’s government forces and militant Islamists in Eastern Ghouta to take note of what they termed ‘Syria’s other battle’. But once Afrîn city had been captured by the Turkish army and the jihadi militias with which it is aligned, Afrîn became old news, and quickly forgotten. Even Kurdish political activists, with their long experience of being betrayed by foreign powers, have been taken aback by the lack of response in international forums to this unprovoked invasion and occupation of a formerly peaceful region, to the accompanying ethnic cleansing, and to the replacement of secular democratic structures with a regime of terror and with constraints on women that echo those under Daesh.
I have just returned from a week in the, autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where I was part of a delegation invited by Kongreya Star, the umbrella group for the region’s women’s organisations. And everywhere we went we were reminded of the importance of Afrîn, and that the fight for Afrîn and for all that it stood for is far from over.
When the Kurds of Northern Syria took advantage of the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war to set up autonomous administrations in the area they call the West (as in Western Kurdistan), or Rojava, the district of Afrîn formed one of three autonomous cantons. Across Rojava new structures were set up to create an inclusive bottom-up democracy in accordance with the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, but we were told that in Afrîn the development of the new system was most advanced. The new forms of organisation were most widespread and embedded, women were most active in all spheres of life, and different ethnic groups were most fully integrated. The area had remained peaceful throughout the civil war and had provided a safe home to tens of thousands of displaced persons of various ethnic backgrounds from other parts of Syria.
But on the 20th January, after getting the green light from Russia who controlled the air space, Turkey began an all-out attack. Without air-power of their own, the defenders of Afrîn could not hold back the second biggest army in NATO. The war that Turkey’s President Erdoğan boasted would take just days, lasted for nearly two months, but by 18th March the flag of the Turkish invaders flew over the centre of Afrîn city. Attacks on civilian areas had been relentless, but much greater casualties were avoided by the mass evacuation of the civilian population just before the city fell. Now, thousands of Kurds and their former neighbours are struggling to survive as ‘internally displaced persons’, while Turkey moves Arab families – including families of the violent jihadi groups bussed out of Eastern Ghouta – into their former homes. But, as our hosts from Kongreya Star made clear to us, resistance in Afrîn is not over, it has taken on a new guerrilla formation.
One of our first meetings was with the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Just as the SDF brings together the Kurdish defence forces – the YPG and female YPJ – with allied forces, so the Council combines representatives from different parties and ethnicities. The Council’s co-president (every organisation has dual heads, male and female) is from Afrîn and has family among those displaced. She talked about the conditions being suffered by people left in Afrîn, where occupying Turkish and Jihadi soldiers rape and kidnap for ransom, and regard women as existing for the service of men. In contrast to Turkey’s pre-planned displacement of population by ethnicity, she stressed how the Kurds were bringing all ethnicities together in a system that they have put forward as a future solution for the whole of Syria. She had no illusions in any of the imperialist powers intervening in Syria – nor in Assad’s Baath party, with its history of Kurdish exclusion and suppression, and of Arab ethnic nationalism – and observed that foreign governments that should have been speaking up for the Kurds all shared interests with Turkey. The Kurds are aware that they are only valued for their crucial role in the fight against Daesh, and she observed, wryly, that those countries that were the quietest when the Kurds were under attack, are themselves the most subject to Islamist terrorism. The world’s silence on Afrîn and on Turkey’s previous intervention into Syria has given her strong grounds to believe that Turkey will act on its current election rhetoric and launch further attacks.
One of the other board members summed up the process that Northern Syria has been going through as parallel threads: resistance and struggle alongside creation and construction. They are establishing a community-based democracy, and the full participation of women is central to all that they do. This means not just changing the rules, but also changing people’s way of thinking in what is still a very patriarchal society.
All these points were to recur in future meetings during our intensely busy week.
We had hoped to be able to visit the Berxwedan camp in Shahba Canton to meet some of the displaced families from Afrîn, but Shahba has to be reached via a strip of land controlled by the Assad government, and we didn’t get the requisite permission. This was especially disappointing for the Kongreya Star member who was with us, who had hoped to be able to see some of her family. Her sister was killed in Afrîn and other family members are now distributed between different places in Syria – a situation that will be familiar to many Kurdish families. The Assad government has made it difficult for aid to get through too.
Conditions in Shahba are harsh. The massively overstretched administration has just produced a report that includes a census of over 100,000 displaced people from Afrîn. The area is badly damaged by war, and already accommodated people displaced from Turkey’s earlier incursions. As well as the camp, people are living in schools and mosques and whatever buildings could be found, including buildings that have been partially destroyed. Many lack electricity, sanitation, and even drinking water, and medical facilities are woefully inadequate. The local administration notes, ‘International relief organizations have so far provided no support to these displaced people, except for some aid from the Syrian Red Crescent’. The people in the camp have refused offers of help from Russia who they blame for their situation.
The Afrîn family we visited in Kobanê – one of 300 who have been found homes in the city – was relatively lucky. They had been sent on from Shahba because they needed medical help that wasn’t available there. The father had an injured leg, and he and his mother-in-law both needed surgery. The mother had given birth to twins the day after they arrived in the city. They told us that when the autonomous administration had taken over control of Afrîn in 2012 they had been very happy. They could use their own Kurdish language and live the way they wanted. When Turkey attacked they had moved from their village into Afrîn city, only leaving for Shahba when the SDF told all civilians that they should evacuate. With the mother heavily pregnant, the grandmother unable to walk, the father injured, and a young child in tow, that was not easy.
Despite their own troubles, when this family learnt that one of the members of our group was the aunt of Anna Campbell, the English woman who died fighting in the YPJ in the defence of Afrîn, they were immediately solicitous over her loss. They told her that when they get their home back they will hang a picture of Anna on the wall. Respect for those who have given their lives, and support for their families, are central tenets of this revolution.
The SDF’s decision to evacuate Afrîn must have been especially hard when they knew that removal of the Kurds was Turkey’s declared aim, but the invading forces were threatening genocide; and, dreadful as life is in Shahba, for those who remained in Afrîn, or who went back to recover their land and animals, the situation is worse. There have been detailed accounts in Kurdish news sources such as ANF News – not that we could read these when we were in Syria as the internet connections came from Turkey, and these, along with much other material including Wikipedia, are blocked by Turkish censorship. The Information Centre of Afrin Resistance compiles weekly bulletins of what is happening: abductions and disappearances, torture, kidnapping for ransom, looting, women forced to cover their heads and only go out accompanied by a man, Yazidi parents forced to teach Islamic prayers, the killing of a folksinger and his son.
While Turkey was exulting in displacing the Kurds, persecuting Yazidis, and making women prisoners in their homes, we learnt more about the Democratic Federation’s completely opposite and inclusive approach when we visited Manbij. Manbij was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in August 2016, after 2 ½ years under Daesh control. Unlike the Rojava cantons, Manbij is not majority Kurdish. At the Manbij Women’s Council we met with women from different ethnic communities: Arabs, Turkmen and Circassians, as well as Kurds. An important part of the council’s activity consists of reminding people how different ethnicities have lived together in the past, and encouraging people to acknowledge the ethnic mix within their own families. Members told us how they go round from house to house knocking on people’s doors to find women from all ethnic groups who may never go outside their homes. They try to get them involved in public life and help them to find paid work that gives them a measure of independence, and they also help them to resolve the inevitable conflicts within their families. This is not easy work and requires patience and persistence. They explained that although many of the women they visit know what they want, they are afraid to act. Living under Daesh control has made them fearful and suspicious of public activity; and, unlike in the Kurdish areas where Öcalan’s ideas had inspired a strong underground movement that was ready to break free, they were not used to challenging patriarchal cultural traditions.
One of the Arab women told us that she had been inspired by the way the Kurdish women worked together when they were living under Daesh, and had resolved to continue with this activity after liberation. Another wanted to express her thanks to the YPJ and SDF for liberating them from what felt like the end of life. In order to change social attitudes, the activists try and talk with all members of a family, including the men. A third Arab woman acknowledged the support she got from her own family, who shared her thinking, but not all families are sympathetic. We were told that there is a lot of educational work to be done before it will be possible to bring in even such a basic rule as outlawing polygamy. It was noticeable that the only women we saw in Manbij with uncovered heads – outwith the strangely anachronistic mannequins in the shop windows – were the Kurdish Women’s Council members. For society to change, a lot of hard work has to take place on the ground, and the women of Manbij have already set up three mala jin, or women’s houses, where women can go for support and to try and get family disputes resolved.
During our week’s visit we went to places where the new democratic structures are much more fully established, such as Kobanê, where we met with one of the sixty-five local women’s organisations, and Qamishlo, where we discussed the steps they are taking to develop an economy based on community need – but Manbij is important because it demonstrates how the ideas developed by the Kurds can be taken up in other places and form an effective counter to the dominant Middle-Eastern narrative of ethnic strife, patriarchal oppression, and religious intolerance. Manbij is also the next place in Turkey’s sights, though what happens here is complicated by the presence of US troops. Afrîn demonstrated that none of the foreign powers who are happy to see the Kurds attack Daesh will lift a finger when the Kurds themselves are under attack. And these powers certainly won’t want to promote a system that sees itself as an alternative to capitalist modernity. Manbij’s future will depend on what the US sees as its strategic interests – and talks between the US and Turkey are coming to the crunch.
As we were flying home, UK Prime Arms Dealer, Teresa May, was abasing herself in front of Erdoğan, and mentioning the Kurds only as ‘terrorists’. Our government will not be forced to change tack unless the Kurds can be seen to have wide popular support. Building this will be a major task, but, as the experiences of Afrîn and Manbij demonstrate, history is at a crossroads, and the different paths lead to very different futures.
Sarah Glynn is a committee member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, whose website can be found at www.sskonline.org.uk. There will be an opportunity to show support for the Kurds and protest British arms sales to Turkey at the demonstration against the Glasgow arms fair at the end of June.
SSK committee member, Sarah Glynn, is just back from a week in the democratic Federation of Northern Syria, where she was part of a women’s delegation organised by Peace in Kurdistan and hosted by Kongriya Star, the Kurdish women’s organisation. She will be giving talks and writing about what she saw. Below is her first article (from The National) and an interview with Common Space.
Resistance is life: The Kurdish fight for freedom
THE names Tigris and Euphrates resonate with ancient history, but today this “cradle of civilisation” has become the battleground for civilization’s future. Locally, people already describe what is happening here as a third world war: an acknowledgement not just of the scale of the fighting, but of the magnitude of the issues at stake.
Neoliberal capitalism has been accompanied by neo-imperial competition for power and control, while warring gangs, fired up by a bastardised religion, take advantage of the chaos. Neither militant jihadists nor the military-industrial complex offers hope for the future. But the very chaos of the civil war has opened up cracks and made space for the growth of a society with a totally different value system. I have been observing these developments from afar, but this month I had the opportunity to go and see them for myself as part of a women’s delegation to the autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Despite the area’s long history, its towns and cities are relatively modern clusters of reinforced concrete; however the city of Kobanê has earned a legendary status. It was here, in a battle lasting from September 2014 to January 2015, that Daesh suffered their first significant defeat, forcing the world to ask: who are these Kurds who have defended their city against all the odds, and what gave them the strength where much better equipped armies had failed? Clearly, part of the answer lay in the lack of any alternative. Although most of the civilian population evacuated temporarily to Turkey, they knew that as Kurds they had no future there. But the Kurds were, and are, also driven by a revolutionary force for the creation of a new society.
That force extends well beyond the fighters of the People’s Protection Units – the YPG and female YPJ. It was evident in so many of the people we met, but nowhere more so than with the two bubbly, middle-aged women Sara and Adile, who recounted to us how they had cooked the food for the fighters during the siege of Kobanê, and washed the dead bodies – including those of the Daesh attackers because that is the ethical thing to do. Despite the horrific conditions and unbearable violence, Adile told us that they were happy because their work was vital.
The force for change took root long before the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. During the 1980s and 90s, Abdullah Öcalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were given refuge by the Syrian regime (who had no love for Turkey), bringing with them their radical leftist programme for secular democracy and women’s liberation. Adile explained that Öcalan provided them with an ideology and philosophy and a way to organise themselves, and he helped women to take charge of their own will. Under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad there was no room for any open opposition. Kurds could not even celebrate their spring festival of Newroz and, as another woman explained to us, photographs of political leaders had to be kept buried and only taken out at night. But, when the civil war created a power vacuum, Syrian Kurdish organisations were ready to take over control. Then, as Sara put it, it was as if a rock had been lifted, exposing green shoots underneath: the will of the people had built up, and now it could explode.
Öcalan’s teachings gave them the strength and purpose to begin to build a new humanistic society, but the rocks that crushed them were not all placed by the regime. They also had to free themselves from the traditional patriarchal structures within their own culture and families, and the liberation of women has become increasingly central both to Öcalan’s ideology and to the Kurdish revolution. This includes ensuring women’s participation through quotas and co-chairs in all the new structures, and through separate women’s organisations.
IN the organisations that we visited we saw plenty of examples of relaxed and respectful relations between the sexes, but the shift in social consciousness that is needed is very large. As women are being supported to stand up against domestic abuse, we heard the (male) complaint that divorce rates have gone up.
The society that is being created is a bottom-up democracy that encourages as many people as possible to take an active part in moulding their community. We were taken to a local women’s organisation, or commune, that brought together women from 11 streets and was one of 65 similar communes in Kobanê. We met in their small plain hall, with concrete floor and plastic chairs. On the walls were pictures of “martyrs” who have been killed fighting for the freedom to make a better society and who, together with the martyrs in the women’s own families, act as a constant reminder of the principles they died for.
Women come here to organise and learn, and to share and resolve problems and disputes. In the economic sphere, the new society prioritises social need and the increased involvement of women. A women’s bakery co-op has recently been set up in the area. In their long floral dresses and head-scarves the commune women look unlikely revolutionaries, but there was no doubting their commitment and solidarity. They didn’t defer to a leader – our questions were answered by different people. One told us that they had come a long way and feel empowered, but still have a long way to go.
Every city has its martyr’s cemetery where the community can gather to show respect for the fallen and support for their families. The cemetery in Kobanê is striking not just for the number of people who lost their lives defending that city, but also for the growing rows of graves of people from Kobanê who have gone on to die for the liberation of other places, such as Manbij and Raqqa. For the people of Kobanê, the Kurdish motto, “resistance is life”, is more than just a metaphor.
By the time Daesh had been pushed out of Kobanê, three quarters of the city had been destroyed. Rebuilding has been impressive, especially with the difficulties of getting building materials, however the area that bore the brunt of the attack has been left as a museum, complete with abandoned makeshift tanks. New street names recall the men and women who died there. It is a brutal and stark memorial, but overlooking all is something even more frightening. Just a few hundred metres away, across the Turkish border, a big red flag with a white crescent provides a constant reminder that the Kurds and their revolution face an existential threat. The Turkish government gave active support to Daesh and made no secret of their disappointment that Kobanê survived the siege.
This year, Turkey carried out an unprovoked invasion of Afrîn, the westernmost canton of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Up until then Afrîn had provided a haven of peace, welcoming refugees of all backgrounds from other parts of Syria; and it was here that the social revolution had been most fully developed.
Now, most of Afrîn’s Kurdish population is in refugee camps and scattered, while their homes are given to jihadi families and Arab refugees as part of a planned ethnic cleansing. Those families that remain are suffering under a rule not very different from that instigated by Daesh. And Turkish election rhetoric boasts of plans for extending the invasion to Kobanê and beyond. Yet, at the same time that we were in Syria, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being given a state visit to the UK and welcomed by ministers desperate to make trade deals and boost British arms sales.
Without wide popular resistance, Western governments will continue to bow to Turkey’s demands.
The Kurdish-led struggle for a better world demands to be known and understood, before it is too late.
Sarah Glynn is a member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, who are contributing directly to the rebuilding of Kobanê by raising funds for a “Scottish” primary school (see sskonline.org.uk). The delegation she went on was organised by Peace in Kurdistan and Kongriya Star (the Kurdish women’s movement).
At our last meeting we agreed the following statement:
SSK sends support to the peaceful Palestinian resistance in Gaza. Support for human rights cannot be limited by ethnic or religious boundaries. It must include the right to equal treatment regardless of ethnic or religious affinity, and the right of refugees to return to their homes. The brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators by the Israeli forces should be condemned by all who claim to believe in democracy.
The photo of our co-convenors, Roza and Stephen, was taken at the STUC conference.