On the Kurdish proto-state, a state like all the others
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.
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.
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
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.