It seems impossible. I look down from the hilltop that I’m standing on to see a very narrow stretch of river — from here appearing rather insignificant. This, I’m told, is the mighty Tigris, and on the other side of it lies Iraq. Where I stand is Syria, the war-torn country that has already endured six years of destruction up to this point. To some in my company this particular region is more frequently called Rojava, but to the even more politically correct of comrades the name Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria is used (I will from here on use the abbreviation DFSNS rather than Rojava for reasons that will be explained later in this article).
Looking down at the calm of the river ahead of me, I’m amazed. I had crossed this border a couple of weeks before, but this is the first time I’m seeing it during the daylight. When I had crossed over, I realized that the flow of traffic — all lorries — was completely one-sided, traveling in the direction of Iraq. However, it was late at night and I was eager to see what this looked like during the day. Well, here I was, and the volume of traffic wasn’t much higher at all. To be exact, I counted a sum total of zero cars making their way between the two countries over the half hour I stood there taking in the gorgeous scenery. There were a few more lorries than I had remembered seeing the last time around, but I knew one thing for sure — this was no ordinary border crossing.
This was a border that previously had been administered by the rival Ba’ath governments in both countries, but was now manned on both sides by Kurdish administrations. Yet the character of those two governing structures couldn’t be more different, to such a degree that the Iraqi side under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had decided to enact a full embargo and blockade against what was then called Rojava on March 19, 2016. It’s now just about a year later, and the embargo hasn’t been eased at all. There is no business as usual here.
A Kurdish Imperialist Project?
A few days later, I’m sitting in Qamishlo, the de-facto capital of the democratic self-administration of northern Syria. I’m trying to make sense of the dozens of pages of notes I’ve taken over the past few days while visiting civil society organizations, and while taking a break to catch up on the news in the rest of the world, I stumble across an article that a few of my Facebook friends have re-posted about how there is an imperialist project to establish a “Greater Kurdistan” in Iraq and Syria. It actually makes no difference which particular article I’m referring to. There are quite a few pieces that have been written on the topic which all more or less conform to the same thesis. I let out a chuckle at just seeing the headline, but once I get into the content of the article I’m not as amused. I think to myself that this kind of lazy analysis is all too common and that it’s unfortunate that it finds traction among those who should frankly be a bit more investigative before publishing such theories.
To be sure, if there’s one person who can understand the perspective of some self-proclaimed anti-imperialists who view the question of Kurdish self-determination as being almost entirely wrapped up with the machinations of the United States and the western powers in the Middle East, it’s myself. The first time I visited Basur (Southern Kurdistan, or northern Iraq) was in the early months of 2013. I came as a journalist who had the task of putting together a series of video stories about the development of the Kurdistan Regional Government, now operating at what appeared to be near independence from the central Baghdad government. I arrived in Erbil, or Hewler as the Kurds refer to it. Here, capitalist modernity with its influx of Turkish and U.S. capital was omnipresent in the new shopping malls and luxury housing developments. I stayed in the country for no longer than a week, and barely had the time to grasp the differences between the KDP that controlled Erbil and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that governed in Sulaymaniyah, let alone to understand what was taking place across the border in northern Syria.
It was my own inability to engage in the art of investigation, but it was also a stubbornness when it came to not daring to challenge my preconceptions of the Middle East in light of the U.S. wars of aggression that began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. The way I saw it, the U.S. had for a decade been engaged in the attempt to overthrow a number of states in the region, such as Iraq and Syria, Libya and Iran, and needless to say in those conquests imperialism was more than thrilled to use the shortcomings of the targeted governments (many times the national question and very real oppression of ethnic minorities) to facilitate its goal of regime change. No doubt this was the case in Iraq, where the KDP and PUK both took part in the U.S. campaign against the Ba’ath government, leading the PUK’s leader Jalal Talabani to become president of the country in 2005. As a result, my logic when it came to the idea that there was a Kurdish entity forming in northern Syria — another state targeted for regime change by my government — could only be that this was a new KRG that was emerging.
Therefore, I believe I understand almost completely the perspective of the western anti-imperialists who have been weary of the Syrian Kurdish polity that has developed since 2012 under the banner of the Rojava Revolution. After all, this weariness and skepticism was a major part of my position for several years before I made the decision to commit to a deeper level of investigation. What I’ve found, both through research and through my trip to the DFSNS, is that there are some very basic misconceptions of the Kurdish question in Iraq and Syria that need to be addressed. Here are some of the fundamentals.
1. The Kurds’ Do Not Have an Identity of Political Positions
“The Kurds.” This has been one of the most troubling expressions that is used not only in the mainstream media, but also by a number of so-called leftists. It’s as if the entirety of the region can somehow be lumped together as one people with a single position on what should become of the area known historically as Kurdistan. The reality is far different, as the tensions between the KDP and the Rojava self-administration under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) show, or even within Iraq where the KDP and PUK are currently at loggerheads over how to deal with the DFSNS (the PUK has been more supportive of Rojava than the KDP, for instance). There are conservative Kurdish parties and social-democratic ones that have political orientations that gel well with imperialism, and there are at the same time organizations that have revolutionary and socialist politics that cannot possibly be reconciled — at the least the long-run — with western interests. This is fundamental and important to grasp.
2. The Narrow Nationalism of Barzani’s KDP Plays Well With Imperialism
The KDP under the leadership of Masoud Barzani can be said to have an orientation that is representative of the comprador'bourgeoisie in Iraqi Kurdish society. Here, feudal tradition is combined with the glitz and glamor of the ascendancy of capitalist development. It is none other than the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has had the coziest of relationships with Barzani and the KDP. While Erdogan is engaged in a ruthless war within the borders of Turkey against the Kurdish population there, he welcomed Barzani to Istanbul in late February, affording him the red carpet treatment as the flag of the KRG flew at the airport.
In addition, it was Barzani who announced in early April that the KRG would be seeking to hold a referendum on the independence of the region from Iraq sometime in 2017.
3. Democratic Confederalism is a Break with the Nation State
By contrast with the narrow nationalist and capitalist orientation of Barzani, the Kurdish Freedom Movement that is grouped around the Kurdistan Communities Union (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, or KCK) have a radically different perspective on how the region should be organized. The KCK functions as an umbrella for all of the parties in the four parts of historic Kurdistan that follow the theoretical positions developed by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The other groups in the KCK today are the PYD (Democratic Union Party) that leads Syria’s revolution in the north, the PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party) that operates in Iran, and PCDK (Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party) which organizes in Iraq.
The PKK and Ocalan considered themselves as part of the international communist movement from the time that the party was founded in 1978 and the armed struggle against the Turkish state began in 1984. However, in the aftermath of Ocalan’s imprisonment in 1999 and the crisis of international Marxism, Ocalan began to critically reflect on the concept of national liberation. In his new views on the question, he began to see the nation state as being insufficient, and even oppressive in its very nature. As he saw it, there was the possibility that a “free Kurdistan” would create the same problems for other oppressed ethnic groups (Armenians, Assyrians, etc) as the Turkish Republic had for the Kurdish population. Therefore, he developed a new paradigm, announced in 2005, that advocated for a non-state, libertarian socialism in which local assemblies would be the basis of a new power.
4. Rojava’s Revolutionaries Are Not Separatists
The PYD, as part of the KCK, upholds this ideology of democratic confederalism. Organized in 2003, five years after Ocalan left Syria and four years after his arrest in Kenya, the PYD had to compete in the Rojava region for political support with the other Kurdish parties that had traditionally organized in Ba’athist Syria, namely the Syrian branch of the KDP, known as KDP-S. In 2012, the PYD positioned itself to be able to take advantage of the chaos of the war in Syria to declare autonomous self-government in the majority Kurdish areas.
Contrary to the view often incorrectly expressed that holds that these revolutionaries are separatists, the ideology and practice of the so-called democratic self-administration since 2012 has been very different. There has never been the slightest hint that the region could declare independence, and documents such as the Social Contract have made clear that the areas under PYD and Movement for Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) control are and will remain a part of Syria.
In fact, even the use of the word Rojava (meaning “west” in Kurdish) has been officially removed from use and replaced with the aforementioned DFSNS as of late 2016. The reason is clear: such an expression as ‘Rojava’ is Kurdish-centric, and will only help to create long-term tensions between Kurds and the other ethnic groups of the region such as Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and others.
5. The Relationship of the KDP and ENKS to the DFSNS is One of Hostility
Not only as the PYD been staunchly opposed to such a move to separate from the rest of Syria, but in 2011 it was one of the founding members of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCB), a group of political parties that many members of the Syrian National Council and other Arab-dominated opposition organizations declared to be an “Assadist” internal opposition. Whether these allegations have any merit is the topic for another discussion entirely, but what’s most noteworthy about the NCB is that it initially included a number of other Kurdish parties. However, these parties soon left to establish another umbrella organization, the Kurdish National Council (Encumena Nistimani ya Kurdi li Suriye, or ENKS). ENKS is funded by Masoud Barzani and functions as the primary internal opposition to the democratic self-administration in northern Syria.
The relationship is tumultuous, to say the least. The same day that I crossed from Iraq into Syria, the military wing of ENKS, known as Rojava Peshmerga, attacked the KCK-linked Shengal Resistance Units (YBS) in Shengal (otherwise known as Mt. Singar). The terrible political calculations of Barzani for such a move cannot be overstated. It was Shengal that came to international attention in late 2014 as the fascist forces of Daesh were engaged in massacres of the Yezidi population there. The PKK was the primary force that facilitated the liberation of Shengal from Daesh, and in the aftermath the YBS was set up a self-defense organization for the people there. Just over two years on, here was Barzani using weapons provided by Germany to attack the very people who defended this land from the forces of darkness. It was a political move that showed subservience to both Turkey and revealed clearly that the interests of the Barzani ideologies and Apoists (those who advocate Abdullah Ocalan’s positions) could not be more different.
A Greater Kurdistan Is Incompatible with the Rojava Revolution
It’s worth noting that while the United States and the YPG/J coordinate their efforts militarily in northern Syria, there has been no political support forthcoming from the U.S. toward the PYD. Time and time again, the PYD has been sidelined from the Geneva peace talks, and in November 2016, Deputy Spokesperson for the Department of State Mark Toner said of the prospect of a federal Syria, "We don’t want to see any kind of ad hoc federalism or federalist system arise. We don’t want to see semi-autonomous zones. The reality is, though, as territory is liberated from Daesh, you got to get some kind of governance back into these areas, but by no means are we condoning or – any kind of, as I said, ad hoc semi-autonomous areas in northern Syria."
That being said, the idea that the United States and western powers would like to see the balkanization of the region is hardly beyond the stretch of the imagination. The carving up the Middle East into statelets that can be easily managed and which would be too weak to put up any substantial resistance to the penetration of foreign capital seems a sensible task if you’re sitting in the halls of power in Washington or London. However, finding the forces who are willing to go to bat for you in a political way on the ground is something much more complicated. Barzani and his KDP have proved their loyalty to this imperialist project over recent decades. The federal system in Iraq has been the pathway to what almost certainly looks like an independent, hyper-capitalist, Kurdish micro-state that will soon manifest.
Yet, the idea that the socialists who find themselves forging a revolutionary path in northern Syria — who have a vastly different concept of how to organize society — could be partners just as loyal seems to lack the prospect of coming to fruition. Washington is obviously nervous about what the idea of a new radical society such as Rojava can represent in the region, and for this reason the buck stops at limited military support. As a YPG commander Cihan Kendal told Plan C Magazine early this year, ‘’America would like to have us as a main ally, but they know that is not possible; militarily we are cooperating at times, but ideologically we are enemies. America is the avant-garde force of the capitalist system, and we are the avant-garde force of the alternative. Maybe not today maybe not tomorrow but one day in the future this will come to a head.”