Rojava Caught Between Fronts

It is conceivable that any movement towards Russia would sharply reduce sympathy in the West for Rojava, without anything about its political and social project having changed.

AntiNote: In recent weeks, Western legacy media organizations including the New York Times and New York Review of Books have had reporters and photographers in Rojava for what appears to be the first time since the cantons declared their autonomy and the punitive embargo imposed on them by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has made the passage of people, supplies, and information in and out of the region difficult.

For the most part, their work has been sensitive and of high journalistic quality and we welcome it (even if we would like it to be supplemented by the insurgent insights that we and our comrades have been collecting and disseminating for over a year). Good information about and from Rojava is precious.

However, a wrinkle much discussed in relation to the broader context of the Syrian war—Russian intervention—has yet to be examined with any thoroughness in its relation to Rojava in particular. Our comrades at Infobrief Türkei, Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır, have used last month’s Amnesty International report condemning the PYD as a way into just such an examination, making many observations and connections that our colleagues in the dominant media haven’t gotten to yet.

As a broadly anti-authoritarian zine, Antidote has been, is, and will continue to be very critical of both US and Russian imperialism, and reflexively skeptical of essentializing geopolitical analysis in which states are the only relevant actors. Babacan and Çakır’s particular analysis, however, neither essentializes geopolitical forces nor dismisses them—for the strategic interests of the world’s giant powers must be taken into consideration by an entity as vulnerable, unique, and independent as Rojava.

The influence of even an organization like Amnesty International can have real material consequences on the ground in a place so reliant on international solidarity for its continued survival. The same could certainly be said of Russian influence as well. So it is a matter that must be investigated with clear eyes and with the interests of the people of Rojava in mind. We do not have to “welcome” Russian intervention in Syria (and we don’t) to assess that it could provide the emancipatory project underway in Rojava more room to maneuver.

This article appeared in German at the website of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on 29 October 2015 (original post).

Rojava Caught Between Fronts
by Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır

After the battle for Kobanê there was a significant increase in international solidarity for the autonomous region in northern Syria, Rojava. Amid ethnically- and religiously-freighted wars in the Middle East, Rojava held for many a promise of equality and justice for which it was easy to advocate and worthwhile to join.

Last month Amnesty International raised serious allegations against the autonomous administration led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD stands accused of committing human rights violations in a manner approaching the level of war crimes. The People’s Defense Units (YPG/YPJ) are said to have demolished villages and arbitrarily expelled Arab, Turkmen, and Kurdish residents, even threatening some with execution.

The report arrived at a time when the civil war in Syria had taken another significant turn, with Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the Syrian government. Russia’s intervention signifies an intensification of its rivalry with the US-led coalition trying to determine the future of Syria. It has also intensified antagonisms around determining the future of Rojava, whose status is precarious.

Having come at such a critical political juncture, the Amnesty report could undermine the political and ethical basis for the international solidarity Rojava has enjoyed since Kobanê. It is already causing disruptions, narrowing Rojava’s diplomatic options and hampering its ability to determine its own future. This makes it all the more urgent to examine this report — in which the US and its associates are also called upon to take certain measures regarding Rojava — against the backdrop of the current geopolitical situation.

Amnesty International’s Allegations

Rojava consists of a narrow strip of land in northern Syria in which around three million people reside, around half of whom are refugees of civil war. Their lives and livelihoods are maintained under their own strength and with extremely limited resources, cut off as they are from the rest of the world. International aid is sparing. It is provided mainly by private humanist and left-wing initiatives who send aid and delegations, by individuals who join the defense forces, and a handful of professional aid organizations which mainly provide medical support. The embargo by the Turkish government — joined frequently but discontinuously by Iraqi Kurdistan — continues to make provision of this aid difficult or altogether impossible.

Individual statements were sufficient, apparently, to prompt Amnesty to issue generalized allegations that are serious indeed.

That Rojava became a focal point of international solidarity at all is closely bound up in its political and social orientation. Amid civil war, administrative structures were founded in three cantons under the guidance of the PYD, which together declared their autonomy from the Syrian government. Wary of opening up new fronts, the embattled Syrian government de facto accepted this declaration.

The PYD concentrated on developing and shaping these autonomous governing structures, which, like the self-defense forces as well, are characterized by gender quotas and representation of all population groups along lines of ethnic and religious identification. Town, neighborhood, city, and regional councils provide the opportunity for a high level of participation in decisionmaking among the populace. Price controls, a court system founded on the rule of law, and free education in multiple languages are further signifiers of the social contract being developed by and for the autonomous region. Under extremely prohibitive conditions, the cantons of Rojava opted to organize the provisioning of people’s lives and livelihoods on the basis of production collectives.

Amnesty’s report calls the practices of the autonomous administration into question on a fundamental level. According to the report, war crimes were committed that consisted of targeted reprisals against townspeople suspected of sympathies with or connections to the Salafi-jihadist organization called Islamic State (IS).

The crimes are supposed to have happened while the YPG/YPJ was fighting to open a corridor, up to that point held by IS, between the cantons of Kobanê and Cizîrê, which had strategic significance as a connecting passage between IS territories in Syria and Iraq. This corridor was indeed taken by the YPG/YPJ in February 2015 after heavy fighting.

In September 2015, Amnesty previously issued a report on prisons in Rojava accusing the autonomous administration — on the basis of interviews with prisoners that Amnesty was permitted to conduct unhindered — of arbitrary arrests, abuse, and unfair trial proceedings. According to assertions made by the autonomous administration, this was at a time when, of a population numbering three million, there were a total of 400 people in prison. There was no evidence of torture. But individual statements were sufficient, apparently, to prompt Amnesty to issue generalized allegations that are serious indeed.

The same is true of the new report. It props itself up on witness statements which are supposedly substantiated by satellite photos and other photos taken by Amnesty’s research team on the ground. According to its own assertions, Amnesty visited fourteen towns with the permission and protection of the autonomous administration.

In one particular case, satellite photos are said to indicate that in one village, of 225 structures recognizable in June 2014, only fourteen were still standing a year later. According to statements made by residents, it was the YPG/YPJ which demolished the village. Nevertheless, the photos do not show how, when, or by whom the buildings were destroyed. Evidence for another widespread allegation against the YPG/YPJ — that in one case they even threatened to burn residents alive if they did not leave their homes — was not presented.

The YPG/YPJ and the Asayish (Rojava’s police force which is also said to have taken part in expulsions) are themselves quoted in the report. In the time since its release, the YPG/YPJ has also separately reacted to the report. They confirm that on being presented with information about collaboration of residents with IS, they told them to leave. They justify these and other evacuations as exigencies of fighting and as security precautions. They flat-out deny targeting specific buildings or whole villages for destruction simply because some residents were not friendly to them.

Let’s sum up the situation: Rojava is in a war; bombings are a daily occurrence; entire sections of the populace stand under explicit threat of being erased. Fighting can lead to whole regions being evacuated. During the battle for Kobanê, the defense units evacuated hundreds of villages as well as the city of Kobanê in order to be able to defend and protect them and their residents against approaching IS forces. Aside from that, the emerging governing structures have not reached full maturity. It is not just possible but indeed likely that in such a situation, some individuals will have their rights violated or be handled against their will, just as it comes to these kinds of breaches in myriad other cases.

Certainly these and other testimonies to the same effect must be taken seriously. But Amnesty raises the statements of their interviewees to the level of facts implying generality, while obviously having included statements of the YPG/YPJ in the report only as a perfunctory gesture — in the conclusion they are conspicuously no longer given any weight. Unilaterally and without the opportunity for further investigation, Amnesty stretches this into allegations of a horrific, ruthless, and systematic war crime.

From the mouth of Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, it sounds something like this:

“In its fight against IS, the autonomous administration appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle. We saw extensive displacement and destruction that did not occur as a result of fighting. This report uncovers clear evidence of a deliberate, coordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group.”

Furthermore, the report peaks with the call for

all states supporting the autonomous administration or coordinating with it in military operations, such as those that form part of the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria, to: Publicly condemn unlawful demolitions and forced displacement practices that violate international law; Take urgent measures to ensure that the provision of military assistance, including military coordination with the autonomous administration, is not being misused to commit violations of international humanitarian law, including unlawful house demolitions and forced displacement.”

So the report appeals directly to the “US-led coalition” to mete out consequences. Before going into this call any further or making any conclusive evaluation of the report as a whole, it is necessary to cast our gaze upon the current position of Rojava in the context of the Syrian civil war. To this end, and in light of Russia’s recent intervention, it is also appropriate to make an appraisal of the US’s Syria policy. Ultimately, the US not only leads the named coalition and is therefore the country Amnesty is mainly addressing, but it is also the most powerful — if surely not the only — actor driving developments in the Middle East.

Syria, the Global Battlefield

One need not be a supporter of the Syrian government to observe that parallel to the social and democratic uprising in Syria in 2011 there was also an explicit desire for regime change finding expression in the actions of the US. The emancipatory elements of the uprising were ground up, very early on, between the millstones of the Syrian government and its ostensible opponents supported from abroad — but the US goal of regime change survives today.

Under the label “Friends of Syria”, the US forged an international anti-Assad alliance whose core members consist of NATO and the Gulf states. Their attention has turned to building an opposition outside Syria under the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (Syrian National Council, or SNC) and to equipping the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Parallel to equipping the allied opposition, the “Friends of Syria” have been pushing for a UN mandate to bombard Syria from the air as in Libya.

Another great hope – that the US will exert pressure on the Turkish government to resume the aborted negotiations with the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which is closely associated with Rojava – has gone as yet unfulfilled.

The approach hasn’t really worked, as Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed such resolutions in the Security Council. Syria has strategic significance for Russia just as it has for the “Friends of Syria.” It is in Syria that Russia has its only military base outside of the former soviet republics, which provides them access to the Mediterranean. This base, next to offshore gas fields, probably plays into their calculations.

But much more than such specific material interests, the larger question hanging in the air is the one over hegemony — of who gets to exert control over borders, markets, workforces, and natural resources in the Middle East. On this question, an unmistakable polarization has crystallized. Russia is in league with Syria, and Syria in turn with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as Iran. Together they form a counterweight within the region to the main allies of NATO: Israel and the Gulf states. Iraq is split, and shifts between the poles.

Facing a potential outcome in Syria that could nudge this regional polarization in favor of NATO, force a rollback of Russian interests in the Middle East, and signify a consequential shift in the global balance of power, Russia has been able to prevent the international air intervention being floated in Western circles. It has not, however, been able to prevent indirect intervention on the ground.

Still, in spite of the military and financial backing that the “Friends of Syria” have provided their associates, the Syrian government is still hanging on. One thing it still has going for it is the support of substantial parts of the Syrian population. This does not change the fact, of course, that the Syrian government is a dictatorship that responded to a broadly peaceful uprising with massive violence. It does, however, contradict the expectations of the Syrian government’s swift collapse owing to an overwhelming majority of the population standing against it.

Another factor has been that the interventions of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran on behalf of Assad helped prevent a complete military breakdown in Syria under the pressure of Salafi-jihadist fighters flowing into the country from all over the world.

The rise and gathering strength of the jihadists proceeded not necessarily under the control of but rather with the toleration and tacit approval of the “Friends of Syria” — even the Western ones — whose covert arms deliveries also ended up in the hands of jihadists. Until recently, after nearly five years of war against the demoralized Syrian Army, these jihadists — having come to widely dominate the field of opposition — were on the advance. The direct entry of Russia into the conflict on behalf of the Syrian government once again prevented its collapse.

But Russia’s entry has also limited the operational capacities of the entire anti-Assad alliance, as it has been directed at all opponents of the Syrian government. Among these, alongside IS, are the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) as well as other jihadist groups directly supported by the Gulf states and Turkey — and fawned over by leading US media — such as Ahrar ash-Sham.

As world society began hearing of the Russian air bombardments in Syria, it was also learning of CIA-trained fighters — according to US media, thousands of them — active in Syria. Earlier reports of arms deliveries and secret CIA programs were thus reinforced. And the CIA-trained fighters hit by Russian fighter jets in the first days of bombardment were in an area where no battles with IS were taking place. This does not merely demonstrate that Russian bombs were dropped on groups other than IS, a point that no one disputes, but also suggests that the US-allied fighters were deployed against the Syrian government and not against IS — a point which has commonly been denied by the US. Meanwhile, the reaction of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the intervention of Russia has been to announce an expansion of their support for their associates in Syria.

Rojava in the Crossfire

Russia has set up diplomatic relations with Rojava, which has maintained a posture of openness towards Russia not shared by US-affiliated and other rebel groups within Syria. Indeed, Salih Muslim, co-chairperson of the PYD, welcomed the Russian intervention. For one thing, he said, it could have the effect of dissuading Turkey from direct military action against Rojava. For another, he once again reaffirmed that the PYD stands for a free and democratic Syria and the departure of Bashar al-Assad — but that the toppling of the Syrian regime must not happen at the hands of “Islamists,” as this would lead to an even greater disaster than the current one.

This is an important point at which the PYD’s stance departs from that of the anti-Assad alliance. The latter prioritizes the toppling of the Syrian government, regardless of internal differences among its favored actors. To achieve this narrow goal, they are willing to throw their lot in with jihadists without much concern for the future of the Syrian people irrespective of which camp they belong to.

The PYD is not trying to open any new fronts in the Syrian war. For Rojava, the jihadists simply present the most pressing danger. In the region around the northeastern Syrian city of Haseke, the YPG/YPJ are fighting IS alongside the Syrian Army. At the same time, it is cooperating with the US by providing coordinates for its airstrikes against IS. This cooperation with the US also deters Turkey from directly attacking Rojava.

But another great hope — that the US will exert pressure on the Turkish government to resume the aborted negotiations with the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which is closely associated with Rojava — has gone as yet unfulfilled. Quite the contrary: the amicable silence of the West on the most recent wave of repressions in Turkey and the bombardment of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) installations in northern Iraq shows that cooperation with Rojava can somehow be neatly separated from Kurdish politics in Turkey.

Beyond that, the US has, by all indications, reassured Turkey that it will not support Rojava’s effort to connect its westernmost canton, Efrîn, with the other two. The narrow corridor around the city of Tell Abyad which connects the easternmost canton of Cizîrê to the middle canton, Kobanê, was only wrested from the hands of IS by the YPG/YPJ over the summer. That corridor had functioned as a resupply route for weapons and other goods and as a gateway for foreign fighters from Turkey into Syria. The western canton Efrîn is still cut off from the other cantons by a corridor serving much the same function.

Rojava is being confronted with how quickly it can be discredited and isolated. This makes it all the more important for the internationalist left to construct counter-narratives and refuse to allow dominant political forces to set the agenda.

But the US is currently attempting to push Rojava in a different direction: they want to see, first and foremost, the retaking of Raqqa — IS’s capital in Syria — by the YPG/YPJ and other forces. For this task, tens of thousands of fighters have supposedly been equipped and formed into a new military alliance, the “Syrian Democratic Forces.” For the YPG/YPJ, however, taking part in such an operation on non-Kurdish ground presents a considerable risk. They have potential high losses to reckon with, in a battle that does not immediately serve the self-defense of Rojava — and all the while the Arab population there could well come to regard them as an American-Kurdish invading force.

Besides the potential calamities of this sort that Rojava’s cooperation with the US exposes it to, there is also growing (and justified) doubt that the US will, at some point in the indeterminate future, stand up in favor of a secure political status for Rojava. The US has welcomed the military cooperation of the YPG/YPJ, but has as yet not supported a political revaluation of Rojava. In contrast, Russia has long insisted on the participation of the PYD as an independent party to international negotiations over the future of Syria. Moscow is even said to have offered Rojava a permanent diplomatic envoy as well as a partnership against IS. And most significantly, Russia is also in a position to put pressure on Damascus to turn the de facto autonomy of Rojava into its official legal status within Syria. The parts of the Syrian opposition built up by the US and their partner Turkey have to this point consistently refused to entertain the notion of any upgrade in Rojava’s political status.

Increasing International Pressure

Thus, barely a year after the battle for Kobanê, Rojava finds itself in a sticky situation. The war has not diminished in intensity. Tactical military and geostrategic concerns determine the course of events. The PYD sees itself as forced to navigate between the interests of powers whose military and financial resources far outstrip their own. That being the case, it is trying — in the absence of truly emancipatory forces on the international stage — to maintain a balance that at least leaves it room to maneuver. Considering the makeup of the anti-Assad alliance and the US’s catastrophic foreign policy in the Middle East, the PYD does not wish to become dependent upon cooperation with this alliance. Nods and shrugs in Russia’s direction emerge out of this trepidation — and do not mean that Rojava is throwing its arms around Russia or the Syrian government.

Insurmountable differences between the US and Rojava over the setting of priorities, or a further escalation of the civil war — or the still not entirely discountable eventuality of a direct confrontation between the US and Russia — could force Rojava once and for all to throw in for one side or the other. It is conceivable that any movement towards Russia would sharply reduce sympathy in the West for Rojava, without anything about its political and social project having changed.

In front of this backdrop, the Amnesty report should be regarded very critically. Hardly reliable research serves as a basis to accuse Rojava of war crimes and as a pretext to call for sanctions by the US-led coalition. Above all it is the US, whose consistently hawkish role is plain as day and who is acting in contravention of international law in Syria as we write, that Amnesty has chosen to be the guardian of international law. And let us take a moment to consider that the other coalition members to whom this request is addressed — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey — are actors that themselves have not balked at directly supporting IS or other jihadists whose own war crimes require no enumeration here. Amnesty is calling on these states, within each of which some degree of repressive regime holds power, and for each of which democratic standards and the rule of law are foreign concepts, to institute punitive measures against Rojava.

Assuming this isn’t just a tasteless joke, it can only be explained by Amnesty wanting to stand, with high-handed certainty, on the “right side of history.” The suspicions of some commentators who have assessed the report politically are of a similar stripe: they see the report as directly connected with a US policy to discipline Rojava and increase the pressure on it to follow the US’s preferred priorities. And the right-wing media in Turkey was particularly delighted with the allegations of an international human rights organization being in line with the Turkish government’s own allegations of “ethnic cleansing” by the YPG/YPJ. Ultimately, even if there is no direct connection, Rojava is being confronted with the bitter experience of how quickly it can be internationally discredited and isolated.

This makes it all the more important for the internationalist left to construct counter-narratives and refuse to allow dominant political forces and organizations to set the agenda for them. In the present situation and considering the inability of the global left to influence government policies, the organization of direct aid to the populace of Rojava should remain the primary concern.


In the name of all comrades involved in international solidarity, this article is dedicated to those who, under the nose of the Turkish state, were murdered in the bomb attack by an IS sympathizer at a meeting in Suruç aimed at organizing reconstruction aid for Kobanê.

Translated by Antidote

Featured image source: kurdishstruggle (Flickr) via the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

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