Homage to Kobanê: how is the Left to act?

The challenge for the Left is in knowing how to respond properly to the plight of the Kurds, writes Shannon Brincat.

David Graeber’s impassioned plea in this week’s The Guardian called for assistance to Kobanê. It was a desperately needed voice amidst a sanguine humanitarian militarism and public apathy in the ‘West’. The Kurds of the unique democratic system of Rojava region are under threat of genocide. Elsewhere, Dilar Dirik has gone so far as to suggest that if we are “to be on the right side of history, it is important for everyone to act right now.”

Graeber and Dirik’s central point is mine: solidarity for human suffering must evoke action. The Left must not be complicit through either silence or non-action. Kurdish protesters across Europe and in Turkey have ignited a beacon of hope.

But the question that remains unanswered is how are we to act? How can we ensure such action is not yet another sacrifice to the altar of the liberal peace?

The West must unite with Kurdish workers

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is an unlikely but ideal candidate. The PKK, which now rejects authoritarian Marxist-Leninism, no longer calls for a Kurdish state but an autonomous zone of self-governing communities, direct democracy and municipal confederalism based on socialist libertarianism principles.

The popular leader, Öcalan, serving a prison sentence in Turkey, now emphasises “granting and applying the broadest democratic standards.” Even the Turkish state could be democratized, he claims, through a new Republic inclusive of once-marginalized groups promoting communal organization at the local level. With ethnic inclusion, everyone would be the stronger for it—except for IS.

When we couple this with the Peoples Protection Units (YPG)—responsible for protecting the lives of all residents—its effectiveness in securing a corridor for the safe passage of Yezidis, and the bravery of individuals like Arin Mirkan (Dilar Gnecxemis)) all point to a group the West could back. Surely? Surely these aspirations would be welcome turn in a region not widely know for its experiments with democracy, freedom and gender equality?

Shades of power
And yet the PKK is too ‘free’ for the Liberal International Order that is being evoked to respond in Kobanê.

The reformed PKK is still listed as a terrorist organization by most states (a determination mired in partisan, sectarian and international politicking). At the behest of Turkey, it remains unlikely this assessment will lift. Consequently, any support would be deemed illegal.

Of course, this ban of the PKK has very little to do with terrorism. It has everything to do with power.

The PKK’s re-definition of democratic self-determination raises important questions about the moral legitimacy of an international democratic project that relies upon indiscriminately dropping freedom bombs from the sky.

Power exposes the entire contradiction at the heart of Liberal International Order—and the Western Liberals that seek to so selectively enforce it. Yet it is precisely this that the vague sentiments of Graeber and Dirik may be abetted by their overarching (and perfectly reasonable) urgency to do something, now.

At play here is the cynical manipulations of international solidarity for narrow geo-strategic benefits. The key actors are: Turkey, Syria and the US. Turkey’s tanks stand idle only a few miles from the battle and could easily assist the stricken people of Kobanê. Yet President Erdoğan has stated that, for him, ISIS and the PKK are essentially one and the same. They pledge support to Kobanê, but have done nothing to relieve it. Manifesting the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’, in their attempt to destroy Kurdish self-determination in Rojava, Turkey has turned a blind eye, tolerating, even supporting IS inside Turkey and Syria.

The US, for its part, gets access to key bases throughout Turkey—of key benefit in further isolating Russia and the litany of its other strategic interests this serves in the Middle East. Obama, it is often said, does not want to be drawn in again: but the US is happy to see more arms spending. Lots more, judging by where IS actually gets its weapons as the recent report in Foreign Policy has shown.

Whilst the US and Europe are starting to recognize that the YPG/PKK may be a useful ally, particularly after Sinjar, this has not come at the cost of shifting from Turkey and the strategic benefits that flow from such ties. Recall that when the mirage of WMDs evaporated into the deserts of Al-Hajarah, the US quickly pulled another genie from the bottle: Husseins’s human rights abuses, in which the Kurds were, once again, used to justify strategic ambitions.

With the rise of ISIS, the Liberal Responsibility to Protect (R2P) immediately sprung into action. And by action, they meant more bombs and guns. Yet this came with a startling admission by Gareth Evans http://gevans.org/opeds/oped161.html that this new intervention would not be based on beliefs as the others had, beliefs that had “later proved completely unfounded.” No. Unlike all the others, this intervention would be “completely consistent, in a way the earlier action was clearly not, with the principles of the international responsibility to protect […]” The doctrine represents little more than a unilateral universalism. Must we fall for this logic, as if third time will be ‘a charm’?

Ways forward
Both Graeber’s and Dirik’s ethical plea for action – as necessitous as it is urgent – is also unquestionably vague. In the absence of an organized, sophisticated and cosmopolitan response, they may unwittingly play into the interests that have caused this mess in the first place.

While the question of action is one of the utmost primacy, we must not forget to address the question of agency: who may act, and to what ends?

We are repeatedly told that the “the Kurds demand immediate intervention by Turkey and the West.”  The reality on the ground, however, is very different. As explained by Govand Azeez, Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK) (group of communities in Kurdistan), have, thus far, voiced their opposition to foreign boots on the ground, especially Turkish boots. KCK and the Kurds in general are suspicious of foreign boots, on the obvious account that they are essentially imperial forces to quash, derail or hamper both the revolution and the democratization process taking place in Kurdistan.

Firas Massouh has already shown that the Left had more than ample opportunity to involve itself with the brutality of Assad, and one could add, the plight of the Kurds. Yet buying-in to the propaganda of Islamofascism meant that it wrote off the revolution, indeed the region, as if all participants were sectarian, Islamic, terroristic – making the world forget that this was a struggle against injustice and repression that the left was not able to mobilize.

Before we accept fighting an Islamic Cult of Death with a liberal one, what principled alternative of action can we organize socially? Individual acts of heroism will avail little. But for an international left that has been gutted, lacking organizational structure and cosmopolitan esprit, it looks like we have forgotten the wheel and have to reinvent it. The first step has to be, what do the Kurds want?

But time is not on our side here. Kobanê cannot fall.

Shannon Brincat is a research fellow at Griffith University. Read his publications here.

Homage To Kobane: How Is The Left To Act?.

7 thoughts on “Homage to Kobanê: how is the Left to act?

  1. '... curious humanitarian war?' says:

    The U.S. is conducting a curious humanitarian war against ISIS in Syria.

    While Kobani, the largely Kurdish district that straddles the border with Turkey is being attacked by ISIS forces and facing the very real possibility of mass civilian killings if it falls, U.S. military spokespersons claimed that they are watching the situation in Kobani and have conducted occasional bombing missions but that they are concentrating their anti-ISIS efforts in other parts of Syria.

    Those other efforts appear to consist of bombing empty buildings, schools, small oil pumping facilities, an occasional vehicle and grain silos where food is stored to feed the Syrian people. Turkey also seems to be watching as the Kurds of Kobani fight to the death against ISIS.


  2. Why the Islamic State Took on the Kurds says:

    In a late night interview with Rudaw TV Mala Bakhtiar, who is a leading figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said that both his party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have shipped military equipment to the embattled Syrian Kurdish troops known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG in Kobane.

    “Both we and the KDP have done everything in our power to arm the YPG forces. We even planned to deploy Peshmarga forces but couldn’t carry it out because we have to cross 70 to 80 kilometers of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) territory to reach Kobane, and at the moment it’s militarily impossible,” Bakhtiar said…

    Bakhtiar praised Iran’s role in helping Kurdish forces to push back ISIS troops in Kurdistan in August and said Tehran had “a clearer view” of “the dangers imposed by the IS than the rest of the world.” http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/091020142

    ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – While the world watches the siege of Kobane in Syria, the war against ISIS in Iraq continues unabated, with the Kurdish Peshmerga making some minor but morale-boosting gains but Islamic State fighters gaining ground against the Iraqi army, particularly in Anbar province.

    http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/10102014 10-10-2014

    Analysis: Why the Islamic State Took on the Kurds
    By Majeed Gly 29/8/2014

    … Even two weeks before the invasion of Shingal, IS and Kirkuk Baathists, who had an agreement with the Sunni al-Assi tribe, were engaged in a fierce battle against each other in Rashad, Hawija and Riyaz.

    This worried IS, which feared facing a similar scenario in Mosul and decided to crack down on former Baathists, arresting 65 in Nineveh’s capital. Most were members of Naqshabandi, a Sunni-Sufi group led by Iraq’s former Vice-President Izzat al-Duri, which has spoken out against the extremists.

    According to US estimates, IS has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 insurgents. Assuming those figures are correct, unless IS forms a solid alliance with Sunni tribes there simply aren’t enough fighters to control Mosul and Tikrit for long.

    A potential Kurdish alliance with the Sunni tribes must have served as a wakeup call for IS leaders, even though there was never any hard evidence of a Sunni-Kurdish pact against IS.

    The second key issue is that the Islamic State needs more wars and more victories.

    … IS uses psychological warfare just as much as it engages in battle. In order to increase its popularity, especially among its fighters and fans, it needs to show that the self-proclaimed caliphate is constantly making gains. This kind of propaganda encourages hundreds of foreign fighters from Britain, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and other countries to make their way to IS and join its holy war.

    Despite swiftly defeating the Iraqi army in Mosul and other Sunni areas, IS underestimated its enemies. While it quickly and confidently declared an Islamic caliphate and pledged to take Baghdad, capturing Iraq’s capital isn’t as easy.
    Baghdad isn’t the same as Mosul, where the majority are Sunnis and people were willing to accept anyone to rid the city of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite rule.

    There are 5 million Shiites in Baghdad, and Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl Alhaq and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army will never lay down their weapons and run away in the face of an IS attack, as the Iraqi army did. They are more than willing to die. Even in Sunni strongholds like Anbar, Haditha and Salahaddin, the Islamic State is often in a defensive position and hasn’t had much success against the Shiites.

    The final point to consider is that the attack on Shingal, a town so close to the IS stronghold of Mosul, wasn’t expected, but that in itself presented the group with an opportunity. Over the past two years, most of the group’s successes have been surprise attacks. The capture of Mosul, of Tabqa airbase in Raqqa, Syria and of many villages near Aleppo proves that IS relies on unpredictable tactics. Yet when the group prepares for an operation and word gets out, it has never won a victory. The Nusra front, the Syrian regime and other opposition groups have managed to foil many planned IS attacks.


  3. The Commander of Iraqi Army in Touz-Khurma-Tu and Amerli General Mustafa al-Ta’ei said if the ISIL terrorists had the chance to capture Amerli, all people in the city would have been killed by them.

    The General further added:

    “[If] Iran had not assisted us Amerli siege would not have been broken.” “At the time that Iran came to assist us no one in the world cared about the besieged people of Amerli,” he said.

    (Note: What exactly this “assistance” was is unclear. We are assuming it was weapons and intelligence information, and influx of Shia fighters (irregulars) as there is no verifiable reports of Iranian military troops presence on the ground in Iraq).

    On Thursday (9-Oct-2014), Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi underlined Iran’s influential role in settling the regional problems and crises…

    Iran has on different occasions voiced support for both the Iraqi and Syrian governments in their fight against Takfiri militants. Iran has, however, stressed that it will not interfere militarily in Iraq, but promised to provide aid to the country in the course of its fight against the ISIL.

    See video: Amerli siege broken


    1. 'Kurds no longer mercenaries' says:

      Interesting article quoting statements by Salih Muslim, Democratic Union Party (PYD) party leader,

      Kurds will not fight in Syria on Turkey’s behalf against Bashar al-Assad, Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim has said, demanding anti-tank weapons to help save Kobane.

      “We have been in a fight against this [Bashar al-Assad] regime since 2004,” Muslim told daily Hürriyet in his Brussels office. “We were being tortured in intelligence basements while you were [dining with them] in Aleppo, Damascus and Ankara.

      Now you are saying we should ‘do this and that to the regime.’ We have a policy. We have repelled and fired them from our areas. Do you want us to fight against them in Damascus and be a soldier there instead of you? We will not do that. We have stopped being soldiers for others, which Kurds have done throughout history.”

      Stating that a ground offensive was not necessary for Kobane, Muslim said anti-tanks would suffice for the Kurds to save the region.

      “They do not need to give anything else but anti-tank weapons if they really want to help our people in the region. A ground offensive would make things worse, not better. Who would they conduct the ground war against? Is it against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]? ISIL is in Istanbul,” said Muslim, adding ISIL should first be cleaned from Istanbul before a ground offensive was conducted.

      “If help comes we will both keep Kobane and repel ISIL.” Muslim said their stance has not changed in counting a one-sided safe haven from Turkey as an occupation, claiming that Turkey had a different agenda for the region.

      “[Turkey] wants to fix these regions according to its own will and wants to demographically change the area,” said Muslim, adding that if a safe haven was formed under the guidance of international forces, they would live in their own lands according to an international agreement.

      “We do not have anything to say against that.”

      at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/kurds-are-no-more-mercenaries-pyd-leader-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=72880&NewsCatID=352

  4. Simpson's Donkey says:

    Simpson’s Donkey comment from ‘New Matilda’:

    People who have studied the pilgrimage of the Kurds for a long time — Syrians, namely — have come finally to precisely your [Shannon Brincat] conclusion.
    They are politically naive and unrealistic. They are not reliable allies of anyone.
    They are not trustworthy partners of anyone.
    Erdogan has stabbed everyone in the back from Assad, to Tel Aviv, to Egypt, to Amerika, and even his longtime secret lovers, ISIS, whom he fed into the attack on Kessab last year, only to block their retreat back to Turkey when they were run out by the Syrian Arab Army. This is the guy who harbors Ocalan promising his free YPG brothers an alliance if they will turn on Assad. Two-faced? Three-faced? Four?

    Barzani’s lot in Iraq are selling Iraq’s stolen oil to Israel et al. via Turkey. No doubt Erdogan gets a cut. So does ISIS. Among such thieves, how could they not fall out?

    The Kurds’ most likely partner in securing leibensraum would be Damascus, but on both sides there is now deep distrust. The Syrians are the folks I care more about. They have consistently opposed terrorists. Can you find a state in the region that has done that? And Syria is the real target here, make no mistake.

    Now, Syria is winning. That is what the media is forgetting to tell us, and that explains the contortions the Coalition of the Guilty is going through, with its attempts to harness ISIS’ main sponsor, Erdogan, its refusal to censure Israel in its role as a feeder of al-Nusra from the Golan, Mossad’s assistance in creating ISIS and its recent direct arming of them in Anbar province.

    It strikes me, that if Western liberals are only enforcing ‘Liberal International Order’ selectively,then perhaps their real agenda is otherwise.

    Her Loopiness Samantha Power, the putative apostle of L.I.O. at the UN, seems more inclined to ‘humanitarian bombing’ than any other means of diplomacy or statecraft. She has frequently argued for Syria to be bombed into submission, and for no-fly zones. Samantha’s husband, notorious neocon Cass Sunstein has for years had as his catchphrase,’cognitive dissonance’. Perhaps his wife is trotting out more of this?

    What I believe Australians need to do, is not be distracted by the horror faked beheadings of ISIS — or even Kobane — but remain vigilant to oppose any assistance to Washington warmongers who, if they in any way break Syria, will precipitate an almighty holocaust of millions, or trigger the Big One.

  5. Gona Saeed, Kurdish and Middle Eastern Womens Organisation, speaks out says:

    ‘Women’s and Workers’ Struggles in Kurdistan: a Kurdish Socialist Speaks’
    London AWL forum: 7pm, Wednesday, 15 October, 2014. University College London, Pearson Building G17

    As war against ISIS in northern Iraq rages on, the situation for ordinary people in Kurdistan – and in particular for refugees, working-class people, women and minorities – is grim. But at the same time, the Kurdish workers’ movement and the left are fighting for their lives, and for justice.

    GONA SAEED, an activist with the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Womens Organisation will speak on the struggles of refugees, workers, women and the left in Kurdistan, and lead a discussion on how we can make solidarity with those movements from the UK.

    All are welcome to take part in this Workers’ Liberty London Forum.

    University College London, Gower St, Pearson Building, North East Entrance

    Contact: awl@workersliberty.org

  6. 16 Oct 2014: IS(IS) is retreating from the city of Kobane. IS has been attacking Kobane for fifteen months without success.

    US was waiting eagerly for the town to fall. There were all sorts of reasons for this, and none make any real sense. The two biggest are: (a) The hick Islamists running Turkey tilt toward IS and hate Kurds, all Kurds, with the same insane virulence that Turks hate all their neighbors, and especially any minority that dares to identify itself as non-Turkish; (b) The YPG militia defending Kobane is linked to the PKK movement, which is nominally “Socialist,” and American apparatchiks, no matter who’s officially in charge, have never un-learned the anti-Commie nonsense they learned at Georgetown; and (c) The “brave, doomed defenders of Kobane” were worth much more dead than alive, much more in defeat than in victory. If they lost, they’d be beheaded by the vicious loons in IS, and those severed-head videos would be great US agitprop, a great little way to put more pressure on Turkey over the theatre the US really cares about—Iraq…

    The U.S. finally got so embarrassed by the Kurds’ heroic defense that it had to get serious. DC people have thick hides when dealing with jibes from pundits or opposition senators, but when your own SecDef/CIA boss calls you out for ducking the enemy, you have to tell the USAF to start actually hitting people. Which it did, and because IS is too stupid to retreat quickly as the NVA would have done in this situation, they’ve been getting wonderfully zapped for more than a week.

    Which was apparently enough even for these “fuckin’ amateurs,” to use Walter Sobchak’s crude but accurate characterization. They’re leaving the trenches around Kobane, which will be hard to spin as a victory even for IS, which is good at online agitprop (and nothing else).

    So, when you stand back and squint at this whole amazing story, you’re left with a third, final, biggest reason Kobane didn’t fall: Because the YPG/J wouldn’t let it.

    They just fought on.

    And for all sorts of tangential reasons, from DC politics to jihadist incompetence, they won. It’s the kind of story that keeps me writing war stories. War is horrible, boring and mean and stupid; it’s that woman’s head, carried by an IS goblin grinning like an idiot. But sometimes—very rarely, actually—people who’ve been pushed into war against their will come out of it as something more than the rest of us. Kobane was just another dusty town when Syria blew up a few years ago. No one in Kobane was strutting around trying to be a hero, which is more than you can say about the Ali-Jihadis in IS. All the Kurds of Kobane were trying to do was keep their town alive. And, to everyone’s surprise—and most of the big players’ annoyance—they succeeded. It’s the rarest thing in the world, a truly heroic story. But that’s what this is, and you can’t do much but be awed by it.

    Gary Brecher, 16 Oct 2014, The War Nerd: Nobody could have predicted Islamic State’s retreat from Kobane (except me), http://pando.com/2014/10/16/the-war-nerd-nobody-could-have-predicted-islamic-states-retreat-from-kobane-except-me/

    See also http://www.newsweek.com/2014/10/24/kobane-diary-four-days-inside-city-keeping-incredible-and-unprecedented-resistance-277509.html

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