the kurdish proto-state

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On the Kurdish proto-state, a state like all the others, originally published in 2016

A long overdue translation from the French –  here

This was a text produced for a debate “To put an end to anti-imperialist ideology and its residues”, on Sunday, June 26th, 2016 at 19h at the anarchist library La Discordia (now Les Fleurs Arctiques) in Paris.

I


From the beginning, the founding myth of the Syrian state was that of a state protecting religious and ethnic minorities. A predominantly Sunni country, Syria includes several confessional “communities”: Alawite, Shiite, Christian, Assyrian, Armenian, etc. The Assad family, as a representative of an Alawite minority, was supposed to protect all the others and played the card, at the slightest sign of opposition, of the threat of sectarian war in the case of its absence.


The Kurdish minority was an exception because it was the only one not to be welcomed into the family of the excluded. After the 1962 census, conducted to “combat irregular immigration”, 20% of Kurds living in Syria at the time were deprived of citizenship. About 100,000 people. In 2011, when the insurrection erupted in Syria, the number of undocumented Kurds was about 300,000 according to some sources, up to 500,000 according to others. Nobody knows the exact figures, but they were large enough to condemn part of the population to working in the black economy and particularly miserable conditions. This played a part in another specific aspect of the Kurdish minority in Syria: although the Kurdish bureaucrats and military never stop talking about Kurdistan, many Kurdish proletarians have not lived in the territories they want to control for a long time. It is enough to see the slums on the slopes of Mount Qassiun in Damascus or the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, neighborhoods far from the fantasy territory of Kurdistan, and yet very much considered as “Kurdish neighborhoods”.


This mixture of “ethnic groups” was not favorable to any separatism. Even in the “Kurdish” territories in northern Syria, Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities are numerous, and not only because of the Arabization policy led by Hafez al-Assad, as explained by the leader of the PYD , Salih Muslim, to justify the future massacres of Arabs in the “Kurdish” region (we will come back to this point). Which explains the following.


In March-April 2011, the uprising broke out in Syria. At first in Deraa, then in other cities, “Arabs”, “Kurds” and others. During the first months, Kurdish participation
was massive. Despite the particularly violent repression, the demonstrations, much less “peaceful” than the Western media represented, united not only Kurds and Arabs, but, in a few rare cases, also individuals coming from “communities” traditionally connected to the protectors of the hierarchical power of the regime: Alawites, Druze, Palestinians and Christians. There was no united demand, except “Down with the regime!”, which began to appear here and there. The social reasons for revolt were abundant: the brutality of the cops, poverty, military service, the stagnation of a community complicit with the regime at all levels of daily life, but also the formal proletarianization for some Kurds and Palestinians, the latter mostly inhabiting the ghettos, former refugee camps, like Yarmouk in Damascus.


In April 2011, Bashar al-Assad took the plunge in trying to buy out Kurdish proletarians: he signed the “Decree 49” granting citizenship to those who are registered as foreigners in the region of Hasaka, which for the most part meant Kurds. According to an Arab speaker, “it did not work”. According to another person, a Kurd, “we don’t care.”


Meanwhile, while their Kurdish “compatriots” were fighting against the regime’s soldiers and shabiha i alongside the Arabs and others, Kurdish political parties, including the PYD, were silent. Almost every one of them had an armed militia, and in the case of the PYD, well-trained, but even as the movement began to show the first signs of militarization, they did not engage in the fight. For this reason, during the period from April 2011 to January 2012, the answer to the question “Are Kurds participating in the uprising?” could be both “yes” or “no” depending on who’s speaking.


This discrepancy, which should be obvious even to the keenest parliamentarists, is manifested by direct and unresolved conflicts, before and after the constitution of Rojava in November 2013.


On June 27, 2013, for example, there was an anti-PYD demonstration in Amuda, a predominantly Kurdish city with a sizeable Arab population. A military convoy was stoned by protesters, to which YPG forces responded with live ammunition, killing three people. The night after, about 50 supporters of the opposition Yekiti party ii  were detained and beaten up at a YPG base.


November 2015, residents of the Erbil refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, protested against military conscription among the YPG among others. The protest was called by members of the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of parties opposed to the PYD, close to Barzani. We do not want to make concessions to the jailers Barzani and his political affiliates (see the 1991 social insurgency in Iraq), but we can see that the way the PYD deals with its opponents is identical to that of a state.


This is no surprise: it maintains essentially coercive institutions such as prison, the police, the (popular) courts, the army (the YPJ and the YPG), even an equivalent of the ignominious shabiha intended to terrorize protesters in the street – everything is intact and even solidified by the constitution which is loosely termed the Social Contract. The jokes that promise the dissolution of the police later do not announce anything revolutionary, because under such conditions, any other protective force, even informal, would inevitably serve the same function of protecting power and capital. There is nothing missing in the state of Rojava.

For many Kurds, however, the local takeover of power – or rather the vacuum left by Assad’s power – at the beginning of 2012, was a historic opportunity for “self-determination”. The popular and rather vague feeling of belonging to a Kurdish nation – a thousand times reinvented according to historical conditions – is materialized by those who believe themselves its representatives, in this case the PYD. As one Syrian comrade said, it was almost impossible for a Syrian Kurd not to support this event at that time.


For the rest of the insurgents, it was a moment of transformation. First there was the pure opportunism of the Kurdish military-politicians: when the YPG and YPJ troops captured the areas abandoned by the Syrian army, a small part of this army remained around strategic points (such as the oil refineries close to Qamichli). The PYD categorically refused to drive out Assad’s troops. The local government was now under direct control of the PYD, but civil servants continued to receive state wages. Most rebels, insurgents and Syrian revolutionaries saw this as treason. Then the question became “the Kurdish question”. From the point of view of politicians and the military, it is not possible to say that the PYD is “with” or “against” the Assad regime, but it has become clear that the question for those who support Rojava is no longer social, but national.


From November 2013 onwards, the head of the PYD, Salih Muslim, declared that the Arabs who live in the “Kurdish” regions because of the Arabization policy of Hafez al-Assad, will one day have to leave. On 17 March 2016, the leaders of the three cantons declared that Rojava is a federal region within Syria. But alas! They do not even federate regions, they federate “ethnic groups”! The federation will not bring together territorial entities, it will bring together Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others that the powers-that-be will accept as communities under its yoke.


So much for the famous overcoming of nationalism by the PKK (and the PYD). So much for federalism. As for the democratic part of the latter, today we can already refer to the French military base which is being built, nowhere else but in Kobane.


To sum up: the most banal deceptions of the PYD are swallowed by an immense number of beautiful souls as revolutionaries; the largely social contribution to the Syrian insurgency of Kurdish proletarians is stifled to the advantage of nationalist military politicians; Syrian revolutionaries, whatever their “ethnicity”, are left to die in the hands of Ba’athist, Islamist and jihadist jailers.

II


If we speak today about Rojava and its neo-nationalist project, it is not only to criticize the politicians that Salih Muslim and his band are. It is to show that before and even at the same time that the PYD conducts its confederal state project, there is a social conflict that is not defined in national terms. Although there were Syrian and Kurdish flags that were wielded long before Kurdish power moved to the north of Syria – and this may well
have been the limit of the Syrian insurrection if it had not lead to a civil war – individuals of diverse origins participated in the same revolutionary committees, in the same “peaceful” battles (read “non-militarized”), such as the occupation through riots of the Aleppo school in July 2011 , and many other street battles that, with different intensities, continue until today.


Although Ocalan and his henchmen abandoned the project of an independent nation-state for rather pragmatic reasons, nationalism remains nonetheless present. Many Syrian rebels, some of whom are Kurds, are quite critical of the PYD, for whom it was clear that the Rojavists voluntarily abandoned the
country’s insurrection, if they’d even really participated in it, in favor of national liberation. This is also reflected in Muslim’s statements, which often stink of announcements of a civil war between Kurds and Arabs.


Nevertheless, the populist deceptions of the PYD, including the most grotesque, such as the use of the bodies of beautiful
armed women for advertising, are swallowed by various Western anti-imperialists as anti-patriarchal and revolutionary. It is remarkable that the most frightful aspects, such as internal politics forbidding romantic and sexual relations within the militia, as well as the factual complicity between the YPG/YPJ and Assad, and the well-established and formal collaboration with the American special forces, have been written off as non-essential, cosmetic, as pragmatic details involving nothing more.


The problem we see is the problem of anti-imperialism: as soon as a force is constituted as a nation, therefore a state, even if it is only provisional or federal, as is the case
with Rojava, it gets in touch with other states. What could previously be called “the Kurdish question”, which was a social issue (see Part One), is now a question of alliances, diplomacy, deals between those who want to crush us. In other words, we are moving from the social to the geopolitical – and here, the French, Russian or American military bases are never too far away.


What is called anti-imperialist ideology is a conceptual tool to justify
what we’ve just said: the nation, the state, international alliances and, sooner or later, the repression of inevitable revolts that have nothing to do with any sense of belonging to some identity or other. Nothing new under the sun when it comes to Rojava: the existence of prisons and courts, police, government, militarism, even the worst of sexism and patriarchy, all this is passed by through the nauseating notion of progress: let’s be patient with those who build cages they will eventually destroy them.


Behind this ideology lies even something more disturbing:
an overwhelming paternalism. While we have clearly rejected any idea of ​​a French nationiii as a pitiful and fundamentally statist joke, the poor in far-off lands, the Kurds in this case, have not yet “arrived there”, have not yet criticized nationalism. In progressive logic, they are actually considered “backward”. We hear exactly the same thing about religious people, especially Islamists. But there are many who are “there”, and who are sometimes tortured, raped and murdered for this very reason. Anti-imperialist ideology is what stifles these unspeakably courageous revolts with an excessive degree of paternalism. The question I would like to ask is this: could the abject notion of an “oppressed nation” indeed exist in anti-imperialist vocabulary, if “oppressed”, in this case, did not also mean “stupid”?

In unique situations like the Syrian insurrection, anything can overbalance. This is one of the enormous qualities of any revolt of such magnitude. The subjects which one would never discuss under usual conditions, resurface from nothing. The questions to which even the most naive revolutionaries respond with cynicism arise as if everything were to be constructed anew. Remarkable is the openness of mind that can create the subversion of material conditions.


And yet, it is also the favorite time for anti-imperialists to push everything backwards. When identities are cracking up, they tell us about nations (or about religions, as exemplified by Iran). When soldiers desert, they tell us about the state.


What is called anti-imperialist ideology is a stupidly simplistic, binary and campist representation of the world. It’s a blanket term to avoid contradiction – the reason it only works from afar. The example of Syria seems to me very telling: while the Rojavists are accepted as the new Enlightenment of the Middle East, the rest of the Syrian revolutionaries are left to die in almost total incomprehensibility. “It’s civil war” or “it’s a sectarian conflict” are just ways to cover up dead bodies, including rebels and revolutionaries. The bitter truth is that the situation in Rojava cannot be distinguished in its intelligibility from the rest of Syria. The difference is that the Rojava is more easily adapted to ready-to-think anti-imperialism, thanks to the federalist politicians of the PYD who learned their aesthetic lessons from Rage Against the Machine and their seductive manipulations from the anti-imperialists of yesteryear. The bitter truth is that the social situation in Rojava is as complex as in the rest of the world. Which also means that we will have to do our research, analyze the situation, make contacts and talk to people if we want to fight against this world by their side. At least that, rather than brandishing the portraits of a new anti-authoritarian authority.

J.L., June 2016

Notes

i Informal pro-regime militias

ii Yekiti is one of the Kurdish opposition parties in northern Syria, close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq.

iii Or an American or British or whatever nation.

22 Responses to the kurdish proto-state
  1. James says:

    “…the demonstrations, much less “peaceful” than the Western media represented…”

    I will admit complete ignorance of any violent demonstrations against the Syrian state in March 2011. If there was any demonstration of proletarian violence at this time in Syria it would be useful and pertinent for the author of this article to share this information with readers.

    In the absence of such evidence, I must remain convinced that the demonstrations of March were social democratic and “peaceful” in nature and that the participants were like lambs to the slaughter, sacrificed in preparation for the imperialist carnage that has proceeded.

    • This is a reply from the author of this text, translated by me:

      “The riots in Aleppo were described in a rather transient way here: https://hourriya.noblogs.org/post/2016/03/28/ciao-mondo/

      But my sources are friends who were there when everything started in Syria. Those who do not recognize themselves in the democratic (in the sense of Western-style democracy) movement put the beginning of the movement in Syria in March 2011, when teenagers in Darra wrote anti-Assad tags on the walls of their school, and were later tortured by the cops. For many, it was this event that triggered everything, not the appeals by the democratic opposition, of whom a good part of the rebels were wary from the start.

      This is illustrated by the fact that the actions in Damascus at the very beginning were only sit-ins in front of the great mosque of Damascus – which did not not bring a lot of people together. While the spontaneous demonstrations in Darra as a result of the tags were massive and popular. If this action is not an authentic “proletarian” action, well – I do not know one that could be.

      I cannot elaborate on the degree of violence of these demonstrations. However, the eye-witness accounts that were shared with me – that it was raining not only molotovs, but also sweets filled with gas and other improvised explosives (not to mention stones) are believable from the mere fact that the army was on the job from the very first tentative steps at revolt. The story of the Free Syrian Army is also important: at first there were some improvised (and not formalized) militias which protected the “peaceful” (non-armed) demos with weapons looted from the barracks – before becoming armed forces in the true sense of the word. Once again, I want to see what actions could be more authentically “proletarian”, as the commentator said.

      Leila al-Shami wrote a little bit about it, I believe ( https://leilashami.wordpress.com/author/leilashami/ ). I do not have the link at hand. These included the use of the term “civil” opposition “in English translations from Syria at the beginning of the uprising. “Civil” did not mean “peaceful” nor “democratic”. “Civil” referred to the fact that the participants were not members of any armed group when the first formations appeared within the opposition movement.

      And what’s more, though I can’t be bothered to look it up, there were a lot of reports of the comicos [police stations] being burnt during the first demonstrations. A similar situation was better known in Egypt, when a few dozen comicos were burned the night of the first big demonstration in Tahrir, in Cairo alone!

      In addition to that, I do not quite see how the precise degree of the violence should be important. I challenge anyone who wants to explain to the Syrian rebels that the first protests in Derra and Damascus were not violent to get away with it with all their teeth intact! This above all. What’s more, since when do we measure the subversive scope of actions by their degree of violence? Very obviously I do not mean that the insurgency in Syria was exclusively anti-authoritarian and without contradiction (by the way, has there been a social insurrection which was?). It was social and popular, period. It has not even been recuperated in any true sense – rather it’s been overwhelmed in an extremely tragic way by the war. This ideological way he proclaims, from his armchair, that everything was decided in advance just disgusts me, pure and simple.

      PS
      I didn’t make it precise, but the comparison with Egypt is that the first demos in Tahrir were also reported by the media as “peaceful”, above all by those who from the start were pretty much sympathetic to the uprising. This despite the fact that there were something like a hundred public buildings set alight in the city! “

      • Thank you for so lucidly clarifying the events of March 2011: between the proletarian/revolutionary aspects — but not, as you say, “anti-authoritarian” — and the social democratic aspects of the Democratic Opposition. You have certainly now dispelled my previous ignorance on this matter. Perhaps in future you will include these crucial details in the article above for the benefit of us in our Western armchairs.

  2. James says:

    The author has certainly demonstrated that the March protests were against the authority of the Syrian state and it’s foremost bourgeois, Assad — hence, not popular in the sense of including all sections of the populus.

    I think that a firebomb or a molotov used offensively against the forces of Order has an inherent authority about it, and cannot be said to be anti-authoritarian.

    • You’re being uninterestingly pedantic – playing with words. It’s obvious that “anti-authoritarian” in the context of this text means opposition to external authority, not the “authority” of proletarian desires/critiques. And when he says “popular” it’s also obvious that he means “working class” in the sense I often use when mentioning “a popular estate” or “a popular area of town”. Dotting “I”s and crossing “T”s – even when these “i”s and “t”s have already been dotted and crossed – is something that those who have nothing to say but repeat stale ideologies pretend to themselves that they’re saying something original.

      • James says:

        When phrases such as “anti-authoritarian” appear on these pages I am compelled to highlight these remnants of anarchist ideology for what they are. The same goes when proletarian action is described as “popular”. These are not matters of semantics.

        • Given the context in which they were used, both “anti-authoritarian” and “popular” are clearly not examples of a confusion about whether or not in Syria the social movement was asserting its “authority” against external authority. Or was expressing “popular” feeling in a way to mean something other than a vague working class antagonism – certainly not “popular” in the sense of “popular culture” or whatever. Typical ultra-Left communist way of asserting some stale “theoretical difference” as if this way of using terminology was important. You merely counter “anarchist ideology” as if the term “anti-authoritarian” is in itself innately wrong, and you have to wag your finger so as to teach readers the intellectually “correct” expression just like some Leninist or other. I could equally dismiss the use of the term “proletarian” to be just another jargon word of Leninists if I wanted to be as pointless as your comment. And often those (not necessarily you) who “critique” the use of the term “anti-authoritarian” do so because they believe in playing authority roles amongst themselves or towards other proletarians and don’t feel the need to undermine these roles of domination and submission, of rivalry and complicity.

          Countering ideology is not a matter of affirming some counter-ideology competing with anarchist or some other ideology. Countering ideology means looking at the contradictions in any situation/person and their history and looking at when ideological expressions are a significant barrier to the development of a subversive communication and when they are just some petty tweaking of language. Countering ideology does not mean playing the teacher role that you “feel compelled” to do to give yourself, and I suspect only yourself, the illusion that you’re somehow contributing to anything other than an empty semantic question.

  3. James says:

    I believe the term “anti-authoritarian” IS inherently wrong because it confuses our goal, which is to impose the authority of our class over the authority of the capitalist class.

    Equally, with the term “popular”, if it is applied to proletarian insurrectionary action, as described by the author in the comment above, it is misleading. Our class action is not popular.

    • If we’re going to get into a fruitless definition-tweaking discussion then I’d point out that “our goal” is to rid the world of authority relations, of relations of domination and submission, the world of the commodity, of hierarchy and reduction to equivalence, which, whilst repressing the authority of the bourgeoisie and/or bureaucratic class, must also repress authority relations within the social movement itself. So definitely anti-authority/anti-hierarchy. But then you only say what you say to repeat petty differences between “correct” expressions orginating from marxism and “correct” expressions orginating from anarchism. Really – only you take the use of these expressions outside of the context in which they’re used, to pretend to yourself that you are saying something significant, when you’re repeating something stale that was said long ago and is merely a petty difference intended to hide more important ones.

      But this is a clearer response to virtually all your comments:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jf_ajEi8mc

  4. James says:

    I don’t wish to rid the world of authority relations therefore we do not share the same goals, me and you. I accept the authority of an offensive animal and submit accordingly.

    The bourgeoisie has no authority — only brutality — but again we differ in our understanding of the terms we are using.

    CORRECTION:

    ‘I believe the term “anti-authoritarian” IS inherently wrong because it confuses our goal, which is to impose the authority of our class over the authority (hidden brutality) of the capitalist class.’

  5. So to sum up: “our goal is to impose the authority of our class over the authority (hidden brutality) of the capitalist class which has no authority” says James, the authority on a goal he says is ours’ at the same time as saying “we do not share the same goals”. The authority of no authority and “our” goal which is not ours’ but is James’ definition of “our” goal.

    Is Edward Lear James’ alter-ego?

  6. SK says:

    Sam — having read through these comments and the thread which ended in you banning your interloper, I wonder why you even bothered to spend so much time and effort responding to him in the first place. His first comment had the merit of soliciting a detailed and very interesting response from the author. All further comments about semantics were so vapid as to deserve nothing but silence, as the author wisely chose. Anyway, there are numerous good accounts about the revolutionary uprising outside Syrian Kurdistan, Leila is one such, another is this one about the anti-nationalism of the Syrians provoked a Palestinian to question her own nationalism

    https://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/how-the-syrian-revolution-has-transformed-me/

    • V says:

      While I share all your criticisms against PYD and the still now invisible Rojava experiment, I don’t see the problem here. AFAIK, Turkish-backed people are jihadis with almost the same rotten ideology as Daesh. They are not refugees seeking shelter, they came with their guns and rule the zone where they retreated after having been defeated by Assad and his friends in Ghouta. How could they be welcome as fellow Syrians while they carry through the Erdogan’s general policy against Kurds?

      • You may well be more knowledgeable about the situation than I am – I hadn’t realised that these people were jihadists (are you sure that they all are there at the behest of Erdogan?). I somehow assumed, quite probably wrongly, that this was part of the PYD’s policy of making Rojava purely Kurdish – ie when Salih Muslim declared that the Arabs who live in the “Kurdish” regions, because of the Arabization policy of Hafez al-Assad, will one day have to leave. However, even if you are right, as you probably are, this might well also become a pretext for the PYD’s Kurdishization policy, no?

        • V says:

          In Ghouta the main rebel group was Jaysh al-Islam. Officially they were salafist but not anymore, which is per se a funny idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaysh_al-Islam

          They negotiated with the regime to leave Ghouta and were allowed to bring the light weapons. I can hardly imagine Turkey allowing buses full of armed people to enter its zone without being sure it can control them.

          Afrin is already mostly Kurdish, so there is almost nothing to do in this regard. But maybe we can understand this PYD statement differently, if we consider that 1) Assad wants all the North back and is ready to fight Turkey, 2) the guerrilla in Afrin is already led from the surrounding Regime-controlled area, 3) there are ongoing negotiations between the Regime and PYD to reintegrate the territories of the later in Syria (US support, which is vital but has not protected PYD from Turkey might totally vanish if Poutine and Trump finally get along about Iran in Syria), 4) the people from Ghouta are the ones who refused Assad’s amnesty proposal. If the PYD finally decides to save the Party instead of the virtually dead Rojava, it makes sense that the Regime’s foes have nothing to do in the new Syria which the future holy union will soon set “free”.

          Of course my information are second hand and it’s mainly speculation. There are so much agendas there, it’s always very tricky to understand who do what with who for what.

          • Thanks for that – can’t add anything more as i know far less than you do about the situation.

            • V says:

              Also notice that PYD chose Turkey in Afrin. They could have let the Regime control back the region, which would have forced Erdogan to stop the invasion (at worst Russia would have closed back the Syrian airspace). So, now they cry because of Sharia and ethnic cleansing, but that’s the direct consequence of their policy: the Regime back* in the heart of Syrian Kurdistan would have condemn their Rojava wet dream, hence they preferred temporizing with this brilliant guerilla strategy which exposes civilians to disgusting counter-insurgency methods (but hey, every family is proud to give some martyr to the Revolution, isn’t it?). When the above main article speaks about building cages to then better break them, I can’t agree more.

              * YPG members would have been integrated into the Syrian army to defend the zone. The Regime has for sure proven to be a fierce merciless dictatorship, but it would have had no interest in spending its forces in a such large-scale repression while it was still under fire in Damascus.

              • Siddiq Khan says:

                I have to call bullshit on this comment. If you are being invaded by A, anyone who says that you could always ask to be invaded by B, your enemy’s enemy (who is equally your own enemy), if you really wanted to stop the invasion of A, so ipso facto you are choosing to be invaded by A — is talking with more than one corpse in their mouths. It’s like arguing that the loyalists in the Spanish civil war “chose” fascism because they could have asked Stalin to annex Spain if they really wanted to beat Franco. Or like Orwell when he used similarly twisted doublethink during WW2 to say that those who openly declared “no war but the class war” were “objectively supporting fascism” because at that stage all action that did not actively support the allies passively supported their enemies. History is rarely determined by such simplistic false choices, which are better suited to politicians than to those who claim to be seeking for an exit to this suicidal disaster of a world and its various false oppositions.

                • V says:

                  True, if you forget the PYD first called Assad to defend the Syrian borders and accepted the help of the NDF:
                  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Defence_Forces

                  Assad and Erdogan are not equally the enemy of the PYD, precisely because PYD says Rojava is Syria when it arranges them. Here they obviously didn’t care of population, just like the worse politicians. All my point is here: according to the links they keep with the Regime (they almost never fought), they could have protected people.

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