By The Renegade
Following the structures of democratic confederalism proposed by Kurdish resister Abdullah Ocalan, the self-governing population of Rojava has sustained its autonomy for over a decade with the sacrifices of more than 10,000 martyrs in the fight against ISIS (Daesh), Turkish imperialism, and the Syrian regime. Both before and after the collapse of the ISIS caliphate’s territory, the Turkish state has taken advantage of the power vacuum to impose its imperialist policies on Rojava, forcing the population to remain in self-defense against a much larger enemy. Many threats have been made indicating that a fourth Turkish invasion of the region is imminent, following the Turkish state’s invasion of Jarabulus in 2016, Afrin in 2018, and Serekaniye in 2019. On November 19, the Turkish state, launched a series of attacks against civilian infrastructure in its latest attempt to terrorize the self-governing population of Rojava. As the second largest member of NATO, the Turkish state enjoys complicity from Western actors in the conflict.
In the wake of deteriorating political conditions around the world and late-stage capitalism making communities increasingly vulnerable, it is more important than ever to engage in the internationalist struggle. In Rojava, this struggle is represented in part by the international unit of the People's Protection Units (YPG International). Upheld by internationalists from across the world, YPG International has operated consistently in struggle against the colonial occupiers threatening the self-governing population. The following interview was recently conducted with a commander in YPG International on the recent developments in Rojava and the broader context of the struggle.
Renegade: The Turkish state has threatened a fourth invasion of Rojava numerous times since the occupation of Serekaniye and Gire Spi in 2019. Most recently these threats have been accompanied by a series of airstrikes deemed “Operation Claw-Sword” by the occupying forces. What is the message YPG International would like the general population to internalize from this situation?
Commander: For YPG International, the important point that we want to make is that we want people to see the reality and urgency of this threat. We want to make it clear that, when we look at the global situation right now, there are not so many existing revolutions on this planet on the scale of Rojava. For more than ten years now, developing itself and resisting, a revolution that is led by women that has achieved many things. For a lot of people, this revolution is like a light on the horizon. For the people here, this is powerful when they hear how many people around the world support this revolution. As much as people draw inspiration and hope from it, now is the time for action and practical solidarity, because this revolution is facing a big threat right now. If we do not elevate the resistance to a sufficient level, the Rojava revolution may face extinction. In a lot of places and circles around the world, many criticize the revolution for its tactical alliance with the US. For sure, this is a dangerous alliance, and today we see a lot of damage that has come from it. But this is also something that the movement is aware of. What I always try to tell people in this regard, when we look at the question of when this alliance was started, it started with the resistance that made Kobane a famous place around the world in 2014 against the fascism of Daesh that was spreading like a bushfire around the Middle East, one that nobody could stop. For the first time, the brave men and women here with little more than Kalashes were able to stop it while insisting on socialism, insisting on the values of real democracy and women’s liberation. In Kobane, this was the point where the Coalition was formed later on. This is something one has to see critically, and for us in the sense of self-criticism.
Why was this alliance made? This alliance was not made out of ideology, as the revolutionary struggle contradicts that of US imperialism. Rather, it was an alliance made out of practical necessity to protect the people here from extinction. Sometimes while discussing these theoretical questions, some forget that there were hundreds of thousands of lives on the line. In the revolutionary movement from and for the people, this was an essential question of how to protect these people. These are not just numbers on paper, these are people the revolution swears to protect. As a form of self-criticism, the alliance was also made because nobody else was there to help. No other revolutionary movement or democratic-led place around the world offered support. Now is the time where this self-criticism can be put into practice. The attacks happening right now, whether in Manbij or Kobane or Derik or Shahba, they happen in areas where the airspace is controlled by Russia and the US. This means that Russia and the US know about these attacks and allow them, for a long time now. Drone strikes kill and murder the very people who led the resistance against ISIS. Sometimes we forget, if this revolution would not have happened, the terror attacks we saw in 2014 and 2015 and 2016 would be continuing today. It was with the sacrifice of 10,000 martyrs that ISIS was territorially defeated and the revolution succeeded. If this revolution is a beacon of hope and inspiration, then that has to mean in practice that we must defend it. Now, for sure not everyone can come here, whether it be passport regulations or economic conditions. But everywhere, no matter where they are, they can become active with direct actions, or media work, or so many different forms of activism and organizing. It is important that people take this responsibility, get together, organize, and take action. Because, we have to understand that if we are not able to defend the revolution, maybe tomorrow there will not be a revolution here anymore.
As much criticism rightfully exists for the Soviet Union that came out of the October Revolution, this was a big hope that was created. If we look back to the success of the 1917 revolution in Russia, this was a huge wave of inspiration to workers movements across the world. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the capitalist system declared a victory. A victory that was quite heavy and hard for leftists all over the world. We see today that very few struggles and movements were able to survive this fall, because a lot of them wrongfully became completely dependent on the Soviet Union, and were thus forced to disappear. The Kurdish freedom movement is one of the few movements that not just survived, but also ideologically developed very strongly after the 1990s. This shows the dynamic of the struggle. If we look at the struggle in Kurdistan today, we see that a few thousand guerrillas in the free mountains of Kurdistan are able to resist against the second biggest NATO army that gets support from all NATO states, and especially in this where tons of chemical weapons are dropped on them everyday, we can see that there is a high spirit of resistance, but also a high interest of the NATO countries to destroy these guerrillas. It proves today that, if the guerrilla develops in Kurdistan in the 21st century, it is able to become a tool of the oppressed people to achieve liberation. This is what NATO wants to destroy.
We can clearly see how important the struggle is today to oppose Turkish fascism, because it is not just a danger to the Kurdish people, but also a big threat to the region. We know of the Armenian Genocide and the burning of 5,000 Kurdish villages in the 90s. Today if we look on a global scale, Turkey is in all the indexes for persecution of journalists, lack of human rights, etc., because it is a fascist state that oppresses its people. Democratization of Turkey is extremely important. We see this threat intensifying everyday, hitting schools, hospitals, grain silos, killing so many people that for years fought for their freedom against the Syrian regime for the ability to govern themselves. It is important for people to take responsibility in showing solidarity with the struggle, making a clear statement against Turkish fascism and NATO imperialism. What we see today is that the strength of the system is not because of numbers, but because if we look, capitalism doesn’t work because there are so many capitalists. They are strong because they are organized through the state. So, the only answer we can give is that we have to organize, not just in one place but all over the world, with the spirit of internationalism.
We call on all oppressed people, and all people of the world, to join us in defending this women’s revolution that brought so much light to the darkness here, one that is flourishing as a symbol of self-governance and resistance. We also send our greetings to all the people resisting all over the world and wish them strength and hope that through the struggle, we are able to achieve and better, freer life, and a new world.
Renegade: From weaponizing water and targeting hospitals to using chemical weapons, it appears that the Turkish state is in a race to an ethical bottom, using every possible means to challenge the strength of the resistance. How does YPG International and the broader resistance prepare for the potential scarcity of basic resources and onslaught of chemical weapons that may emerge at any given time?
Commander: It has been several days since the 19th of November, that the fascist Turkish state, a NATO member, started a new attack. It is difficult to say that they ever stopped the attacks, especially after the invasion of Afrin and Serekaniye. Basically everyday there is attacks, mainly against civilians and targeting villages. We obviously follow the situation in all of Kurdistan. When they started a big offensive in the free mountains of Kurdistan in April of this year, we saw a huge increase in use of chemical weapons. It’s not something entirely new. Also in the 90s, Turkey used chemical weapons, which was also proven. Now in the mountains of Kurdistan, we see extensive news that a lot of freedom fighters of the guerrillas are losing their lives to these weapons. Obviously here the situation is a bit different, because if you look here where we are in Rojava, there is a population of several million people, including people who fled form the occupied areas of jihadist rebels and also those of the Syrian regime. A lot of people came here because of all the areas in Syria, these are the areas that are the most safe and the most developed in regards to democracy and freedom. In recent years, there were a lot of attempts done to challenge the situation. The reality is that it is difficult because there is this embargo imposed on Rojava and northeastern Syria. A lot of important things don’t make it through the borders. So, let’s say even if there is an awareness that the Turkish state uses chemical weapons, the most intensity is in the mountains. Even so, in Serekaniye in 2019, white phosphorus was proven to have been used against civilians, though it is not a chemical weapon. The Turkish state is very clearly aware, and also knows that if the invasion intensifies, this will happen again and will be confronted with a very intense resistance. Even knowing all this, the ability to build enough shelters or giving enough gas masks to all people is impossible given the circumstances we are in. Also given the situation, international support among revolutionaries and leftists, or even liberal democracies, the support in general is very limited. There is support in certain regions, with the example of Catalonia’s support for the Autonomous Administration. There is some support, but in general it is very low.
As for the water, obviously this is also a big challenge. With climate change and the situation that every year gets warmer, we see a decrease in rainfall across the Middle East, and also here in northern Syria. The harvest is getting worse, and the blockage of the Euphrates River by Turkey does not make it easier. Obviously the blockage of the water raises a lot of problems, because a lot of people here live from agriculture. The north of Syria has been used like a colony of the Syrian state. If we look at the situation, all the grain, oil, and raw material resources come from the north, but all the manufacturing and refineries are placed in the west close to the coast, where the regime is very strong. In this context, it is also important to understand that the struggle here is still an anticolonial struggle. There are clear remnants of the colonial politics weaponized against Kurds and other ethnic minorities in Syria. So now, given the situation, there are attempts at digging more wells and retaining more water in the sense of agriculture, but with the embargo and limited access to certain things it is obviously a lot more difficult to implement this. There are a lot of new methods and attempts from agriculture, cooperatives, and the Autonomous Administration to do things differently, but on a larger scale, to provide enough food for 4 to 5 million people is really not easy. Understanding the scale of this revolution, this is not just a small place. These are millions of people living in areas that are self-governed.
Renegade: Surely the current priority of YPG International is resisting Turkish imperialism, but other regional hegemonic powers such as the Iranian state, for example, may also become a greater threat in the future. How do YPG International and the broader structures of Rojava tend to perceive the Iranian state and the ongoing popular uprisings against it?
Commander: If we look at the situation on the ground in Rojava, we see that it’s surrounded by different forces and factions. In the north, we see the fascist Turkish state in its project of Misak-i Milli, trying to return to a self-proclaimed new Ottoman Empire that consists the whole areas in the north of Syria but also Kirkuk and Mosul, which they claim as Turkish. On the other hand, there is still a Syrian regime that tries to gain control of all of Syria once again. Iran has an alliance with the government of Bashar al-Assad. So we have different powers that are active here in the region. For two months now, we see that in Iran, after the killing of the Kurdish woman Jina Amini, a huge uprising that’s supported by a large part of society, one that is led by women, and mainly Kurdish women. Even though we see that a large part of the protesters are Kurds and Baluchis, and other ethnic minorities in the Iranian state, we see also that a lot of Persians take part. We see that there is a large number of people who want a more democratic and equal form of life. This is something we see as very positive. If we look at the slogan Jin Jiyan Azadi, which got famous all around the world, this is the same slogan that was used by the women here who started the revolution on the 19th of July 2012 that led to the self-governance of Rojava and northeastern Syria. We can see that, in all these areas, Kurds play an essential role. Because of this, regime systems see them as a threat. The Iranian state, the oldest state in this region, has the interest of creating a Shia theocracy. There is no doubt that the Iranian regime, like Turkey and the other states, is a colonial state uninterested in the destiny of its people.
With the struggle going on right now, this uprising is very important, showing not only the anger of the women but the people as a whole living under the Iranian state. We obviously have to take into consideration that states like the US and Israel have a big interest in the regime to fall and install their own governments, as they have done in the past. We also see this in much of Western support that comes to the uprising, ignoring the struggle of women and self-governance, and instead supporting the state’s interests and agenda in opposing the regime. If they would really support women’s liberation, self-governance, and democracy, they would also support the revolution in Rojava, which they generally don’t. So I think it’s important to understand why certain actors are interested and pushing certain agendas. For us here, we observe the situation in general in the Middle East a lot, because things change very fast. It’s important to continue the struggle, and therefore understanding what’s happening around us. Obviously the Iranian state has some contradictions with the Turkish state, contradictions as old as the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Such contradictions continue, and go with narratives of who is the main force in the Middle East. We know that they support the Syrian regime a lot more than they support us. This is clear in that they tried to divert the front away from their mainland with the establishment of Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria like Hashd al-Shaabi. They basically try to fight for control of the Middle East outside of their own territory. We saw recently that the Iranian state made a statement that they condemn the Turkish attacks on northern Syria. This follows a similar logic that they may oppose the Turkish state, but in the end, what they do to the Kurdish population in Iran is not very different. Maybe it’s different weapons, maybe it’s different governments, but from the logic and mentality, it is the same. It is still this idea of genocidal politics against the Kurds. In this they are very similar to each other.
Renegade: Internationalism is a key reason why YPG International exists. It is one of the ideational foundations that brings so many resisters across the world together in a common struggle, following the legacy of structures such as the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. How does YPG International define internationalism, and how does this idea propel the structure?
Commander: For us, internationalism means that we fight together, first of all, against the threat of fascism. Like it was in the 1930s, today there is again a big threat to humanity. As you mentioned, we try to continue this legacy of antifascist resistance and antifascist internationalism. Internationalism in the tabûr is linked to socialism. It is a socialist tradition that comes from the tradition of the workers that unite everywhere in the world against oppressors. You can see here how friends from all over the world, from very different backgrounds, unite in the fight against the fascism of Daesh and Turkish fascism. We struggle together for a life of freedom and a life of equality. In this regard, the values that the friends share that come here are very similar. For sure there are friends that come from anarchist traditions, there are friends that come from communist traditions, there are friends that come from other traditions. Also in other times, people came that maybe didn’t have so much ideological motivation, more of like a material motivation. There is enough examples that we can see that such people underwent a big change, and some of them gave their life and became martyrs in this struggle. So, we can see that internationalism is a key factor for revolutionary movement. It is a key factor in creating a new form of life.
If we reflect on the ideas of the struggle here and of democratic confederalism, Abdullah Ocalan's ideas have a lot of capability in their relation to internationalism. Why? Because it’s not dogmatic, it’s not an aesthetic idea that dictates what must be. We can see how the implementation in northern Syria could never be the same implementation in New York or Rome or Nairobi. The underlying ideas and values of women’s liberation, ecology, self-governance, are aspects that, in the broader spectrum, bring all people together. Different from examples of internationalism limited to solidarity work and limited to a certain role that is given, what we see here in Rojava is that the struggle here invites internationalists to be part of the struggle and contribute with their own ideas. The basic idea is that this is also your revolution. If you come here, if you work here to contribute with your own thoughts and ideas and effort, this is something very valuable. With all the experience that friends bring from different parts of the world, with the achievements that were made, the struggles that were made, the hardships, the shortcomings. It is not necessary that we repeat the mistakes of the past over and over again. If we talk about internationalism, we have to see it in a broader sense. Obviously YPG International is a military structure that was created to unite and form a place for internationalists to take part in the defense of this revolution, to oppose fascism and to take an active role. At the same time, it is obviously much more than a military structure. There are a lot of discussions that take place here. There is this space where friends from around the world present the struggles that exist. It is also very rare that so many people from so many different places in the world come together and exchange the experiences of their struggles. All of this obviously enriches the struggle in Rojava, but also enriches the struggles in all the other places of the world.
Renegade: With ideation also comes the question of internal structuring. In YPG International, work is distributed and rotated among the internationals to ensure no one has an unfair share of responsibility. How does YPG International reconcile command structure hierarchy with communal democracy, from sûbay (organizer) to reveberi (leadership)?
Commander: First of all, what we have to clarify sometimes to answer the question properly, is the difference between hierarchy and authority as they often get mixed up in these discussions. The other part is, we have to understand that whatever military we talk about that wants to function has a hierarchy. There is no way around it, as much as a lot of us and people in the world see the beauty of democratic decision-making. In the event of an attack, if you are a small team on the frontline, you don’t have the time to make a tekmîl or a meeting and discuss for half an hour. We have to understand that a certain form of hierarchy is inherent to military structure. But obviously the question is how can we make it the most democratic way possible? In talking about this, we have to try to understand it in that there are a lot of different responsibilities that exist in YPG. Internationals get changed and rotated from lojistikci (responsible for organizing needed goods and supplies at base) to securitici (responsible for organizing security at base) to other tasks around the base concerning our lives. We understand communalism in this regard. We don’t do every task together, but we try to rotate. For example, one day one friend is cooking and the next day someone else is cooking.
At the same time, what we have is a system of tekmîl. To describe in short, a round of reflection. Every evening, every team has a tekmîl, and there are also monthly meetings. This is a space for criticism, self-criticism, and also proposals. What we see here in this form of direct criticism or self-criticism, but also in the form of reports or discussion, that there is an attempt to make this hierarchal structure as democratic as possible. Maybe it doesn’t dissolve all hierarchies in daily life, this is a long struggle. To understand the perception that exists in this framework is important. In the women’s structures there is also a framework of criticism. Through tekmîl there is a mechanism to counter patriarchal behavior. The women’s structures have the ability to make decisions for the general structures, and the general structures cannot just make decisions for the autonomous structures. Contrary to state armies, a lot of people here don’t necessarily want positions of hierarchy. Though obviously, there is no ordination, there are no stars on the jacket. If you look at the uniforms, from the member that joins today to fighters that have been in the military structures from the beginning, everyone has the same uniform. There is no bling-bling on the uniforms. It is not uncommon that someone who has been here for ten years goes to an education organized by someone who just joined a year or two years ago. Bringing it down to the small aspects of our structure, for example, we have the sûbay (organizer) that changes everyday. Sûbay takes responsibility for security at the base and orders things to coordinate activities. We also have team commanders that regularly change. So, we see that it is one task to learn, it is another to lead and be a good commander, and it is also another task to follow orders. One thing we notice a lot is that people that come from a background of anti-authoritarianism or anarchism have more difficulty self-organizing communally. I think often where we come from, self-organizing is a term that does not have so much of a practical function in daily life. But here, everything we do we do ourselves, from cooking to cleaning. Living with a lot of people together, one can see that self-organization is not as easy as it seems. Especially as men, growing up in a patriarchal society, reproductive work is something that does not come so easy.