One evening, during a visit to Kirkuk in Iraq in 2014, I stared into the darkness and felt nothing but dread for the Kurds of Syria. Separated from their Turkish brethren by the maps that Britain and France conceived after the First World War, and with little support from the international community, they seemed defenceless in the face of an approaching enemy.
But I was wrong.
I got word that the Kurds of Kobanî were fighting back against the relentless march of Islamic State (IS). I learned, too, that the Kurdish forces spearheading the resistance included thousands of female fighters, who were routing IS in the name of democracy, ecology and feminism.
I didn’t quite believe it and wanted to see what had happened for myself. Some years later, in 2018, I returned to the semi-autonomous region that was once known as Rojava but is now called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Everything that I had heard about the all-female militias of the Kurdish resistance was true, and more. Amid terrible destruction and death I found political ambition, radical democratic experimentation and a collective desire to forge religious harmony out of the chaos.
Travelling throughout the region most recently in September 2019, I met with Sunni Arabs participating in a democratic council system that has been established in villages and towns. I spoke with Arab women who had been elected as co-chairs of different local assemblies, and talked with people about rebuilding schools and houses.
The mood throughout the region was relaxed and there were few roadblocks or military checkpoints. I met Turkomans and Syriacs, Armenians and Yazidis, all of whom are trying to rebuild their communities and enjoy peaceful relations with others.
But all of this will be destroyed, after the US government announced on 6 October that American troops would withdraw from northern Syria, enabling Turkey to launch an invasion against the Kurds.
The Armenian genocide, when around a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman government in 1915, is well remembered by the Kurds, Yazidis, and Syriacs as well as the remnant of the Armenian community in Syria. They fear a similar fate today.
Since 2011, Syria has become a theatre of unimaginable suffering. Sunni and Alawite have engaged in mutual slaughter, beheadings and rape. Russia and Turkey, as well as Iran, the Gulf states and the United States, have provided money, mercenaries and materiel that have perpetuated the horrors. (British engagement in the conflict had long since disappeared in a mire of confusion and our diplomatic presence evaporated in 2012.) Chemical bombs and death squads became part of everyday life for those that remained in the country. Those who fled were drawn into the wider diplomatic struggles between Turkey, Germany and the EU, as millions of displaced people somberly await their fate in refugee camps across Europe and the Levant.
The situation in the Middle East seemed to reach a nadir in 2014 when IS, which had won control of the Sunni rebel forces from Jabhat al-Nusra and then al-Qaeda, fought its way across the border into Iraq. As the Iraqi army deserted, IS seized more than £1bn-worth of weaponry. More than a thousand Humvees, surface-to-air missiles, night-vision goggles and unopened caches of machine guns fell into the hands of the newly proclaimed IS caliphate, which declared Mosul as its capital in Iraq.
In 2014 its fighters came to within ten miles of Baghdad, and seized the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, where they indulged in a frenzy of rape, extermination and dispossession. A similar fate befell the Christians of Nineveh as they fled north and south for refuge in camps in the Kurdish and Shia areas of Iraq. Ancient communities were extirpated, cemeteries smashed and archaeological sites eviscerated.
The caliphate’s forces did not advance to Baghdad, nor to Erbil, but concentrated their fire on the small Kurdish population of north-east Syria, specifically Kobanî.
Hemmed in by a hostile Turkey to the north, the Kurds of Syria were a neglected and abandoned community that seemed doomed when confronted by the newly equipped forces of the caliphate. IS used its night-vision goggles to raze Kurdish villages on moonless nights in the foothills of the Zagros mountains. When visiting Kirkuk in 2014, I listened to sobering accounts from women IS had captured and then sold as sex slaves in local markets.
Then came the female Kurdish militas, sometimes known as the Women’s Defence Units, who fought as part of the US-backed, multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). With their philosophy of libertarian municipalism, direct democracy and female empowerment, the militias have been part of a broader political revolution in north-east Syria that is more radical than anything seen in the West, and is a story that stretches back to the late 1970s.
In 1979, a year after founding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan escaped from Turkey to Syria. He lived there for almost 20 years, travelling across the Kurdish enclave organising local militias and reading groups, preaching the equality of women to a community with high rates of honour killings. During these years his ideological position changed from favouring a Leninist national liberation struggle, which was the founding ideology of the PKK, to something Öcalan called “democratic confederalism”. His philosophy shifted from Marx to Murray Bookchin, a forgotten anarchist thinker from New York who, in the 1960s and 1970s, favoured democratic decentralisation and strong local assemblies.
Central to Bookchin’s thought was an “ecology” of self-governing local institutions that would flourish as a mutually supportive system. Öcalan took these ideas and emphasised how imperative it was for women to organise themselves and play an equal role in a participative democracy. He advocated local militias to defend the communes, with armed and highly trained all-female units, as well as women-only courts for cases of rape and forced marriages.
Öcalan’s was a politics of “non-domination”, and through nearly 20 years of relentless organising in the small east Syrian enclave of Kurdish settlements, his ideas and practices took root.
Not that anyone paid much attention. Even though the PKK renounced the idea of national self-determination in 2007, Turkish governments still categorise it as a secessionist, communist party. When the relationship between Hafez al-Assad and Turkey thawed in 1997, Öcalan was expelled from Syria and subsequently captured in Nairobi, Kenya in a joint Turkish, American and Israeli operation. He has been held, primarily in solitary confinement, on an island in the Marmara Sea ever since.
Yet it was Öcalan – and his political and historical analysis of patriarchy – who understood before anyone else the threats posed by the monotheistic violence of a movement such as IS. The Syrian Kurds knew the stakes in 2014 and were ready to fight to the death. What no one could have foreseen when I was in Kobanî at that time was that the Kurdish militias would fight IS all the way to Raqqa and end up governing a third of Syria.
After their victory, the SDF imprisoned what was left of the caliphate’s forces in a camp near Baghouz in eastern Syria. Al-Hawl is one of the largest refugee camps in the Middle East. It is a cramped, unsanitary compound of more than 70,000 people. IS has refused to accept defeat and its supporters raise their flags in the camp each night. One girl took off the chador and a day later she was found dead, beaten with a hammer.
Members of the Hisbah, the IS vice squad, are fully operational in al-Hawl. They stab guards, stone aid workers and burn down their tents at night. Thirty thousand of those in the camp are from Iraq and would probably be killed if they returned home. Another 30,000 are Syrian, and Bashar al- Assad would certainly kill them if they went home. The others are foreigners – mostly Chinese, Russians and Chechens, but also Europeans.
It is a desolate place of hate, defeat and abandonment. Black-clad women sit alone on dusty stones, swatting flies. The UN has contracted an American NGO to administer the camp.
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria governs all 60,000 square kilometres east of the Euphrates, yet the US, Britain and France have refused to recognise it. It was not represented in the 2017 peace talks in Geneva. The Kurds were convenient military partners, but with IS defeated, the Western nations refused to recognise them as political or civic allies. We prefer to chase unicorns, searching for the “moderate” Sunni Arab partners to share power with Assad. With Turkish forces launching an invasion from the north, the Kurds cannot hope to control the al-Hawl camp. IS fighters will be free once again.
Turkey previously invaded Afrin, Syria, in January 2018, expelling most of the Kurdish population and replacing them with Syrian and Iraqi refugees along with Islamist death squads. Cemeteries were destroyed, women raped and family homes stolen. We know what is coming with Ankara’s latest invasion; this is the modus operandi Trump has sanctioned.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot abide an authority that he considers a PKK terrorist front to exist freely on Turkey’s southern border. Although a five kilometre buffer zone between Turkey and the SDF had been created on the Turkish border, and was jointly patrolled by Turkish and American troops, this was never enough for Erdogan. But the SDF could not have done more to pacify Turkey’s concerns.
When I was in eastern Syria last year, I could not escape the face of Öcalan. He was on every other lamp post, in all political and military buildings; he stood next to dead martyrs on posters. Today he is barely visible. The SDF did everything it could to avoid a Turkish invasion that would remove people from their homes and replace them with Islamists far more closely aligned with the geopolitical strategy of Ankara.
We all have reason to be grateful to the courage of the Kurds in Kobanî, and the multi-ethnic interfaith army that pursued IS all the way to Raqqa. They were fighting fascists, with a strong affinity to Nazism in their singular cult of merciless violence and pursuit of total domination. They wished to obliterate the living and the dead.
In direct contrast, Öcalan’s democratic confederalism offered a basis for the survival and flourishing of all the different communities of Syria. But those hopes will end now that the bombs are falling.
The UK has abandoned an ally and betrayed a great promise in eastern Syria. It would be in our mutual interest for the UK to be the champion of the Kurds. As the Americans move out their only hope is that the UK, as a Nato ally of Turkey, will move in. But we won’t, and the Kurds will once again be murdered, dispossessed and expelled. Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph in August 2014 that “it would be an utter tragedy if we did not defend the Kurds”. He went on: “My old friend the Kurdish journalist Hazhir Teimourian used to tell me sorrowfully: ‘There is an old proverb – a Kurd has no friends’ [but the mountains].”
So what will Britain do and say now?
There is no sign so far that Johnson will do anything. It is our first taste of a post-Brexit foreign policy, subordinated to the whims of a fickle American president who did not let us know that our long-standing partnership with the SDF was over. Impotent and humiliated: this is how we are treated by our friends. It is also how we treat our friends. The Kurds sacrificed their lives to fight IS and build a democracy, and now we look on as the citizens of Kobanî are bombed out of their homes.
It brings to mind Thucydides’s remark in the Melian Dialogue that the powerful do what they can and the weak suffer as they must.
Maurice Glasman is a peer and co-founder of Blue Labour