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Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”


Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.


Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.


As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March