It’s hard to believe that not so long ago the Kurds were being lauded on the international stage as victors and heroes. The plucky ones who, with international coalition support, saw off Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Whose women and men had bravely led the ground fight against IS and taken back the Syrian city of Raqqa that the extremists had made ‘capital’ of their caliphate. Who, as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), partnering with the US, drove IS militants out of their last stronghold of Baghuz in early 2019.
Young female fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were the symbol, not only the more acceptable face of the Kurdish armed struggle, but also the most interesting and media-friendly one. Rojava was viewed as a haven of grassroots democracy, based on principles of feminism, ecology, cultural pluralism, participatory politics and a co-operative sharing economy. Since 2012 it has presented a radical alternative to the nation state, articulated as ‘democratic confederalism’ by Abdullah Öcalan.
David Graeber describes Rojava’s revolutionary autonomy as ‘a synthesis of the ideas of American anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin and other authors, Kurdish tradition, and wide-ranging experience in the pragmatics of revolutionary organization.’ It had inspired people around the world. Dreams of a pan-Kurdish state of greater Kurdistan seem remote today.
Then, on 6 October 2019, Trump announced, after a phone call with Turkish leader Erdoğan, that he was pulling US troops out of North and East Syria. It gave a green light for Turkey to invade Rojava, which it did three days later. Faced with Turkish military might, Syria’s Kurds struck a deal with Assad, their former enemy, for an attempt at security.
On 22 October Russia and Turkey reached an agreement. Turkish troops would remain in the areas they had seized and Russian troops and the Syrian army would control the rest of the border. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit element of the multi-ethnic SDF had 150 hours to withdraw. Both powers agreed they would not allow ‘any separatist agenda’ in the territory.
Turkey had got away with creating a 5,000-square-kilometre, ideally Kurd-free, buffer zone within Syrian Kurdistan. The Syrian Kurds, still under attack today, had been stitched up by the great powers and hung out to dry by their former allies.
The geopolitics are complex and gives Turkey clout. Turkey is host to 3.5 million refugees, many of whom would rather go to Europe. For Erdoğan they are a weapon that can be unleashed at any time on the EU and its neighbours. The countries of Europe have domestic, populist, political imperatives for keeping migrants out that trump humanitarian (and economic) reasons for letting them in. Turkey has the second-largest army of all members and housing 50 US nuclear bombs. It’s the world’s fifth-largest buyer of arms, 60 per cent coming from the US and plenty from the UK, France, Spain and Russia. Turkey also invests lavishly in lobbying power, spending $6.6 million on influencing the US government in 2018.
What’s happening in where 15 million Kurds live affects Kurds in the wider region too. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party won the March 2019 local elections, the People’s Democracy Party , a pro-peace, pro-Kurdish, bottom-up, Left alliance, did very well in the majority-Kurdish east of the country. Erdoğan instigated another round of politically motivated trials against party members, officials and politicians, accusing them of links with the outlawed PKK, which the government designates as terrorist. Elected mayors belonging to the opposition were arrested, stripped of office and replaced by government trusties. With local democracy being destroyed, power transferred to paramilitary forces. Modelled on the hated ‘village guard’ system of government spies, ‘neighbourhood guards’ are operating in Kurdish-majority cities, armed and with the authority to search and harass locals. The so-called NGO, People Special Forces arms people to “protect” the state from its enemies. They are a paramilitary force, equipped and trained to attack opposition groups and movements. The policy is to build fear and anxiety.