What About Kurdistan?

Daniel Rombro | Geopolitics | Analysis | May 24th, 2018

A people's right to decide their own fate is undeniable. And for the majority of those on the revolutionary left, this principle (referred to as national self-determination) is a fundamental part of liberatory politics. For the last several years, one issue of national liberation has been, generally speaking, in the forefront: Kurdistan. However, to truly understand the Kurdish issue as it exists today, and to develop the correct position one should have on it, we must also understand the origins of the modern Kurdish nation and its political aspirations.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, the Kurdish nation was divided by the Great Powers among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Whereas before the Kurds had been mostly united and receiving somewhat beneficial treatment from the Ottomans, now there was division and persecution.

In Turkey, the Kurdish population was subjected to a state founded on intense nationalistic values, collected in an ideology known as Kemalism (after the nations founder, Kemal Ataturk). Kurds were not even seen as Kurds, but referred to as "Mountain Turks". Their language and cultural traditions were outlawed, all a part of a nationalistic assimilation campaign. Attempted Kurdish uprisings were put down violently.

In the predominantly Arab countries, the Kurdish people were no better off. In Syria, with the rise of the Ba'athist party, and the failure of several attempted uprisings, the Kurdish population had their citizenship systematically revoked, rendering them stateless. As well, the Syrian government initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing, forcing Kurds off their land and implanting Arabs from the South.

Iraq was much the same story, once the Ba'athists came to power. However, Kurdish revolts in response to discriminatory policies were treated differently. Instead of widespread revocation of citizenship, outright slaughter and ethnic cleansing ensued. From the years 1986 to 1989, Saddam Hussein's government committed countless massacres along with an intense "Arabization" campaign. This offensive, dubbed the Anfal campaign, included the use of chemical weapons, with the most deadly episode being the Halabja massacre. Nearly 5,000 Kurds were murdered by chemical weapons. Estimates for the number of Kurds murdered during the Anfal campaign vary, but numbers are estimated from a low of 50,000 to as high as 150,000.

Finally, there was Iran, where Kurdish organizations were suppressed and Kurds were considered Iranian, but which never quite reached the level of oppression as the Kurdish people endured in neighboring countries, with sporadic on-again off-again small scale Kurdish insurgencies.

Yet in these incredibly difficult times, consciousness still managed to thrive. Two movements of note would arise in two different parts of Kurdistan, representing very different streams of thought. In Iraqi Kurdistan, with a Kurdish populace distinct from the rest of their brothers, the traditional Sorani Kurdish tribal leadership built and led a movement founded on traditional nationalist secular values. This movement became organized into a party known as the Kurdistan Democratic Party. A later split, the more social-democratic-oriented Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, would go on to challenge the KDP for power and influence. The Kurdistan Democrats oriented themselves towards the West (mainly the U.S. and Western Europe), cooperated with political rivals of Hussein's Iraq, and launched numerous uprisings and guerrilla campaigns, culminating in the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

In the northern reaches of Kurdistan, a different kind of movement was being built. Inspired by the Turkish New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, several Kurdish and Turkish adherents of the movement took the newly-cemented position of Kurdistan as an oppressed nation to new levels.

Led by Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK) was established. With a small initial cadre, the PKK initiated an insurgency that began with nothing more than "propaganda of the deed" acts, before culminating into a full-scale war that would engulf the entirety of Turkish Kurdistan. The PKK would grow to become an organization with a strong presence in all four parts of Kurdistan along with the diaspora. However, in 1999, Ocalan was captured in a joint MIT-CIA operation (MIT being the national intelligence agency of Turkey), signaling a new turn in the PKK's political evolution. Negotiations were opened with the Turkish state, reforms implemented, and the electoral process was engaged in by PKK-supporting individuals.

The most notable change came in the ideological realm. While in Prison, Ocalan familiarized himself with the works of a former American anarchist, Murray Bookchin, and his recently-developed social theory of Libertarian Municipalism, among others. Discarding the New Left-inspired and partly Maoist-tinged "Marxism-Leninism" of their past, the party quickly adopted Ocalan's newly-adopted ideology of Democratic Confederalism, which stressed the democratic organization of the people counterposed to the militaristic nation-state.

After decades of both progress and setbacks, the PKK was finally given a chance to begin building their social project. Based on Ocalan's new theories, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK was able to storm into the mayhem of the Syrian civil war, taking control of the primarily Kurdish northern areas (Known as Rojava) from the Assad regime in a mostly peaceful handover.

Syrian Civil War, Da'esh, and Developments in Iraq

Forming a political entity, today named the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, the PYD (the PKK's Syrian affiliate) quickly went to work securing their statelet and implementing Democratic Confederalist values, which included a commitment to ethnic and religious pluralism, women's liberation, and a form of cooperative economics. Yet, for both the PKK and KDP projects, the ability to finally realize their deepest aspirations would only become possible when everything around them began to crumble and burn. In 2014, amidst the Syrian Civil war and a continued armed Iraqi resistance, the region was shaken to its very core. An Iraqi Salafist group, commonly referred to as ISIS, or Da'esh, launched a blitzkrieg style offensive, seizing nearly half of Iraq and, later, half of Syria in a matter of days and weeks.

ISIS declared war on all foreign involvement in the region, along with every other government, religious group, and social strata that didn't fit its image of an ideal fundamentalist caliphate. A wave of reactionary brutality was unleashed against the peoples of the region that was truly heinous. And yet, in the midst of this lightning advance, the Kurds were able to secure their best hope for a bright future.

In Iraq, the KDP/PUK-led forces were able to secure disputed areas between them and the Iraqi government, whose forces collapsed rapidly in the face of Da'esh's offensive. The most notable gain among these areas was the city of Kirkuk, often referred to as the "Kurdish Jerusalem", whose surrounding oil reserves are some of the largest in Iraq.

Syrian Kurdistan was a different story however. Newly established, and without western support, both factors that the KDP/PUK had going for them, the PYD and YPG (the PYD's military arm) were militarily unprepared for what came next. Declaring the Rojava administration to be atheist communists, ISIS launched an offensive into Kurdish-held lands, seizing much territory and culminating in the battle of the city of Kobane, with some observers said was reminiscent of the battle of Stalingrad. As all looked lost, and the defenders of Kobane were pushed to the brink, the tide turned.

With international pressure mounting, the U.S.-led imperialist Coalition, sensing an opportunity to expand their influence in the region, which had previously been maintaining its interests in Iraq, intervened directly in a large scale manner in Syria for the first time. With continuous American air strikes, and an influx of Kurdish volunteers from across the border, the YPG managed to push Da'esh out of Kurdish areas, and then, under the direction and leadership of the Coalition, eventually seized Raqqa, ISIS's self-declared capital, as well as many other Arab-populated areas, effectively spelling the end of Da'esh's territorial rule. Kurdish-held and administered territory was at its peak in modern history, and it looked as though the survival of the existing Kurdish projects was assured. But nothing is ever certain, and Kurdistan was no exception.

In late September 2017, the KRG, the KDP/PUK-led autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, held a long desired independence referendum. With a participation rate of over 70 percent and a "yes" margin of over 90 percent, the Kurdish people's choice was obviously clear. Despite this, the position of the Iraqi government remained firm, and the government itself threatened harsh consequences if the referendum was held.

The KRG took these threats in stride, hoping that their aid in the war against ISIS and years of Western support would translate into support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Their hopes were misplaced; the Western powers were more concerned with maintaining influence and some semblance of control over a united and federal Iraq. With no fears of foreign government intervention, Iraqi federal forces and Shi'ite militiamen invaded KRG territory several weeks later, routing Kurdish military forces that remained and negotiating for others to withdraw. The disputed areas were secured, Kirkuk lost, and the KRG brought to heel. Any hope for an independent Kurdish nation in Iraq was squashed for the foreseeable future.

Across the border in Syria, their compatriots fared little better. The offensives into ISIS-held lands had pushed far enough west that there seemed to be a distinctly strong chance that Rojava's westernmost outpost, the area around the city of Afrin, would be united with the bulk of land held to its east. This possibility was violently struck down however when the Turkish government, fearing a PKK-linked independent Kurdish entity on its borders, invaded in conjunction with Syrian opposition forces the area around the city of Jarabulus, dashing any immediate hopes for uniting the Kurdish areas. For months, this situation remained static, with brief skirmishes occurring along the Manbij-Jarabulus border area.

On January 18, 2018, however, Turkey finally launched its anticipated offensive into Afrin, after years of blustering. The timing made sense, as the imperialist Coalition was less likely to intervene due to Da'esh being all but defeated. The offensive itself was brutal, with reports of hundreds of civilian casualties, chemical weapon use by Turkish forces, and the enforcement of Sharia law by Syrian rebels, who made up the bulk of the invading manpower.

Afrin remains under Turkish/Syrian rebel occupation, with sporadic unconfirmed reports of Kurdish guerrillas attacking occupying forces. Erdogan, Turkey's president, has threatened to move east into more Kurdish-held territory. Whether he will follow through waits to be seen.

Kurdistan and the Western Left

What is a revolutionary's response to these recent events? What is a revolutionary's response to the wider Kurdish struggle? The radical left is hardly unanimous.

Some, those often guilty of wholehearted unconditional support to anti-Western bourgeois regimes, blow the Kurds off as nothing more than shills, undeserving of nationhood and deserving of whatever abysmal fate eventually befalls them. These leftists, labelling themselves as "anti-imperialist", more often than not forget those basic tenets of revolutionary thought. They point to the horrifically corrupt and nepotistic tribal run regime of Iraq Kurdistan as justification for condemning all Kurds. They argue that since the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are nothing more than a puppet government of the western imperialist powers (which is indeed true) and that the Rojava government has essentially become a base and partner of U.S. imperialism, that any hopes, desires, and fight for nationhood among the Kurdish people only serve to strengthen western imperialism in the region, at the cost of other powers.

To deny a people's right to self-determination, for the notion that this will somehow strengthen western imperialism's hand, is nothing less than coddling the ambitions of the anti-western capitalist powers they hold so dear. To this we must say, did Lenin scream for the Kaiser's victory? Did Luxemburg plead for French soldiers to march into Berlin? One must be against their own nation's imperialism first and foremost, yes! But not at the cost of becoming nothing more than a shill for different capitalist nations' bloody conquests.

At the other end, however, is a crime that is even more unforgivable in the history of the revolutionary movement. Some so called "leftists", seeing the destruction and slaughter that a carefully built up national arsenal can reap on a people, declare their support for imperialist intervention by their own nations! When the Kurds are used as the tools of imperialist powers, seizing Arab areas, infringing on the Arab nation's right to self-determination, they cheer it. "Who cares? It is only reactionaries and murderers whose land they take."

These leftists are fools and poor students of history at that. It matters not what reason your own nation's imperialism justifies itself, what matters is that it is indeed imperialism! And if there is one elementary position above all in revolutionary politics, it is that imperialism must be defeated at all costs.

What is counterposed? What is the alternative? First and foremost is that basic principle, sewn into the very fabric of revolutionary politics by Lenin, of national self-determination. Kurdish military forces and political organizations, protecting and representing Kurdish majority areas, must be defended. Kurds have a right to decide their own fate, as an independent nation or otherwise, against all who would oppose them.

When Kurdish soldiers defend Kurdish lands, we raise our voices in support, and will do everything in our power to aid their cause. When Afrin is invaded by Turkish military forces and their cronies, we should all say: Turkey out of Syria, victory to Kurdish forces in self-defense! We say the same if Turkey threatens to move into other Kurdish-populated areas. We say the same if Iraqi forces move into Iraqi Kurdish lands! We call for the defeat of invading forces, we call for support to Iraqi Kurd forces! Yet no political support to the feudal Barzani regime. Kurdish history is one of blood and betrayal, a nation is the least they deserve.

We must also speak up when mistakes are made. When Kurdish forces are used as mercenaries in the service of imperialist agendas, when they host large contingents of imperialist troops, when they sign long-term agreements with imperialist governments (as the Rojava administration has done as well), we must speak up!

When Arab national self-determination is violated, it matters little if the government that dominates them claims to be multi-ethnic and multi-religious when their administration is dominated by Kurds in all aspects. We must voice our opposition to Kurdish complacency and cooperation with imperialism. This is said with the truest hopes for Kurdish nationhood in our hearts, as the closest friends and strongest allies. You will never be free and safe so long as imperialist hands guide your decisions.

The Kurdish nationalist movement faces the utmost danger. Danger of both war and defeat, but also danger of being led astray down paths that put a different sort of chains on their people. While leftists can only do so much, it's important that we are right and correct in our positions according to revolutionary theory and history. We cannot tarnish our past if we hope to build a brighter future.

Daniel Rombro is a revolutionary Marxist who served with the YPG and Turkish comrades in Northern Syria for 6 months, from January to August 2016, in a military capacity.