In theory, I am with the Rojava autonomy project, although I think the evidence is not there yet over what that project looks like in practice. I get the sense that there is some tension between the old guard, still clinging to the authoritarian tendencies of the old PKK, and the newer generation, trying to implement a radically democratic politics. But in any case, Rojava and the Kurdish militias deserve all the solidarity they can get against the gangs of Baghdadi, and in the implementation of their political project, which is certainly more progressive than anything else we’ve seen in the region lately.

But when I think about this, I also think about all the others who have been fighting ISIS who weren’t able to implement any political vision. They didn’t have the same space to operate: the Syrian Army largely withdrew from Rojava in 2012 (in a “we’ll deal with you later” move). This gave the PYD the opportunity to fill a political vacuum. So now, when they repel ISIS, they do so with a coherent political vision. But there are hundreds of other Syrians who have died fighting ISIS who didn’t have an implemented political project. They didn’t have one because they didn’t have that space Rojava had, they had to deal with barrel bombs from the sky and ISIS on the ground. It’s not because they are apolitical: it is power that didn’t let them build a new politics, and we should not penalize them for that. They are just as deserving of solidarity, even if they don’t have a radical political project.

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Graphic displaying the newfound unity of various Kurdish factions against IS

With the recent events targeting Yazidis in Iraq, much attention has been paid to the Kurds as they battle with the forces of the Islamic State. Yet, too often commentators lump Kurdish political actors into one unified group, when they are actually a coalition of several groups, many of whom were at odds until recently. Indeed, before the events in Sinjar (called Shingal in Kurdish), Kurdish political groups seemed to be hopelessly divided. But now they appear to be fighting as a united front in the face of the Islamic State’s threat against Yazidis. The follow is a brief guide to Kurdish political factions currently fighting the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan.

First, a note about the word peshmerga. Peshmerga is Kurdish for “those who confront death.” Historically Kurds used the term to refer to any of their armed fighters. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq institutionalized the term by naming their official army Peshmerga. Thus, today, it is mostly used to refer to those official forces of the KRG, as distinguished from, for example, fighters of the PKK or the YPG (although some purists would say that technically they should all be referred to as peshmerga).

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the fighting forces are split between two factions who together govern the KRG in a coalition:

KDP: Alternatively referred to by its Kurdish acronym the PDK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is a party in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. It has the most seats in the current Kurdish parliament and is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG. Fighters loyal to the KDP fight under the Peshmerga banner. The KDP advocates full-independence of the KRG and has good relations with Turkey and the United States.

PUK: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the main rival party of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan, although they govern the KRG with the KDP in a two-party coalition today. Led by Jalal Talabani (who until recently was President of Iraq), they are slightly to the left of the KDP. Because they are an official party in the Kurdistan Regional Government, their fighters are also referred to as peshmerga, however, their media outlets have been attempting to distinguish their fighters from KDP peshmerga.

(Note: there are other big parties in the KRG, such as the opposition Gorran party, but these two parties seem to be the only ones with fighters.)

Kurdish factions based outside of Iraq that are currently fighting in Iraq:

PKK: PKK is the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is based in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Led by Abdullah Ocalan (often referred to as “Apo”), who is currently imprisoned by Turkey, they are a non-state guerilla fighting force. Their ideology differs from the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan: they come from Marxist-Leninist foundations, although recently their ideology has tended towards autonomy and what they call “democratic confederalism,” an idea that stresses self-governance of local autonomous communities. This is in strict contrast to the Iraqi Kurdish factions, particularly the KDP, which aim to establish a centralized state for the Kurdish nation (or for a part of the Kurdish nation). Due to their attacks in Turkey, the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The PKK is reportedly participating in the attacks against the Islamic State and rescue efforts of Yazidis in Sinjar, although their forces are often confused with the YPG, due to their similar ideologies and use of symbols.

PYD: PYD is the Kurdish acronym for The Democratic Union Party, one of the main Syrian Kurdish political parties and the only one with a significant fighting force. They are based in Syrian Kurdistan, what Kurds refer to as “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan). Views on the relations between the PKK and the PYD vary. Some claim the PYD is only ‘influenced by’ Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology. Others say that the PYD is simply the Syrian faction of the PKK.

The PYD’s semi-official armed wing is the People’s Protection Units (YPG is their Kurdish acronym). After the withdrawal of the Syrian army from much of Rojava in 2012, the PYD has basically filled the void as the dominant political player in the area, declaring Kurdish-majority areas in Syria to be divided up into three self-governing autonomous cantons. The YPG has been fighting the Islamic State with varying success since 2013, mostly in towns and villages around the province of al-Hassakeh (but also in some places in Raqqah and Aleppo provinces).

There has been much tension between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish parties in the last few months. The PYD’s calls for Kurdish unity in the face of IS attacks against them went mostly unheeded by their counterparts in Iraq. The atmosphere was even more polarized by KRG-aligned Kurdish parties in Syria accusing the PYD of monopolizing power. Nevertheless, the YPG is participating in the attacks and rescue efforts in Sinjar. Although some are simply referring to them as the PKK, it does appear that the YPG is making a distinct effort on its own.

Deep within the valleys of cognitive dissonance, propaganda, and group think, a group of people sincerely believe that all this destruction can be blamed on those few hundred fighters that were left holed up in Old Homs. “Terrible destruction, well yes that’s the armed gangs’ fault.” Really? How? Did the armed gangs do this with all the planes and tanks they have? Has anyone even attempted to explain such a thing? No, they haven’t. Instead they victim-blame, “It’s their fault, they knew the regime would react like this.” That statist logic that it is the citizens’ responsibility to make sure not to provoke the brutality of the state, lest they be blamed for it. Instead they talk about the joy of the few hundred people who were able to return to Old Homs. Return to Old Homs? What Old Homs? Where is it? Is that it? These swathes of empty land and destroyed buildings? How can even memories survive such destruction? Buildings, streets, people, memories, these are things that make a place a place. Old Homs has none of the above anymore. What Old Homs? Is that it? Because I don’t recognize it.

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A Geneva 2 that will benefit Syrians will be a Geneva 2 that puts in place ceasefires, opens humanitarian corridors, and lifts sieges off of besieged areas such as Homs and Yarmouk camp. It is time to let Syrians breathe again. Those issues—and not the imposition of a political solution—should be the first priority.

A political solution should not be decided at such a venue. The regime is obviously only interested in preserving its power and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. The National Coalition has no legitimacy on the ground. State-backers of each side only differ on whether they want Assadism with Assad or Assadism without Assad. A real political solution should reflect the interests of Syrians on the ground, and any agreement reached at Geneva 2 on a transitional government will certainly not reflect them.

But even in practice, the formation of a transitional government would be totally unsuccessful without first creating conditions on the ground amenable to the return of politics. What is needed then is good-faith measures that allow Syrians to decide their future for themselves. As it stands now, most Syrians in conflict areas are focused on survival. Before forming a transitional government, the focus should be placed on allowing those Syrians to return to a normal life. And Geneva 2 does have the power to do this. The question is, do the parties and their backers have the will to do so? Russia can—if it wants to—restrain the regime by threatening to cut off aid and support should it not abide by ceasefires. The various state backers of the opposition can also do this. Even militias not taking part in the negotiations would be scorned by local residents for not abiding by ceasefires and jeopardizing a return to normalcy.

Many have said that Geneva 2 is an attempt to derail the Syrian revolution and, thus, have written it off completely. I agree that an arbitrary political solution from above would be a move against Syrian self-determination, and thus, not achieve the original goals of the Syrian revolution. But that is no excuse to write it off completely when it could possibly lead to measures that will make residents’ lives better, at least in the short run. Let politics be decided in the streets of Damascus, the quarters of Homs, and the shores of Lattakia, but first, let politics return to Syria. The vast majority of Syrians want freedom, dignity, and social justice. They will not attain those things in the midst of a brutal civil war that has empowered the enemies of those things. Thus, enough dealing absolutes and refusing to compromise. If anything, it is our responsibility as Syrians outside of Syria to insist upon and support any initiative that will make the lives of Syrians inside Syria better. We can reject the imposition of a political solution while still calling for the implementation of measures that reduce suffering inside Syria and require negotiation between the regime and the opposition. We can insist on attaining justice for past crimes, but first, we need to stop future ones from being committed.

Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.

“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

“But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations. When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.”

I want to dwell on this point because I believe it is a particularly insidious claim that is oft-repeated. Let’s forget for a second that the claim that the pro-Assad protests were “equally huge” is completely unsubstantiated. First of all, those pro-Assad protests were completely centered in Damascus and took place a few times. How can you compare protests in the political center of the regime to widespread protests occurring all over Syria, from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the North, over the course of several months? The protest movement in Syria at the beginning of the uprising was scattered throughout Syria, not only from city to city, but even within cities they were scattered from neighborhood to neighborhood. How is the political capital from a few pro-Assad protests in Damascus at all comparable to people taking to the streets all over Syria everyday for weeks, even after being shot at? How are we even to compare numbers given that the Syrian anti-regime protests were scattered (and even though they were scattered they still had impressive numbers even after a year of protests and subsequent repression).

Second of all, Winstanley seems to accord some equivalence between these two, as if they are not only morally but practically equivalent. Let us assume for a moment that his claim that no one was forced into the streets for pro-Assad rallies is true. That doesn’t change the fact that these protests were regime-sanctioned protests. These were not spontaneous eruptions of popular support for the regime. These were pro-regime rallies, organized by the regime, and under the protection of the regime. Do these really deserve to be compared to the thousands who took to the streets in Homs in November 2011 at the Clock Sit-In to protest for the martyrs that were killed by regime bullets in previous protests? (Regime forces also opened fire on that protest in what is now known as the Homs Clock Massacre). Anti-regime protests were under constant threat of regime repression, and yet they still managed to have, according to Winstanley, “equally huge demonstrations.” On a practical level, the anti-regime protesters braved bullets, imprisonment and a high likelihood of death, but still had huge numbers and were ubiquitous. The regime protests did not. They are in no way equivalent.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side…

In his article, Asa frequently mocks people for believing mainstream media narratives on Syria, yet it seems that this claim itself is based on the mainstream media narrative that is hyper-focused on the armed groups. Many areas in Syria still have anti-regime demonstrations, and many also have anti-ISIS demonstrations. Here is one in Yarmouk Camp in October, here is one from Aleppo in October, here is one that took place today in Idlib, and here is one in Raqqa city against ISIS in September. I’m not sure if Winstanley is unaware that they exist, or if he is aware of their existence but is stating that they are insignificant (to which I’d respond: why?).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Here Winstanley assumes that Assad has a continued support base due to the fact that jihadis dominate the armed opposition. First of all, can we please dispel any illusions that the Assad regime is still in power because it still has a support base? This is a regime that is totally insulated from any popular support it still has. Any areas it still controls it does by militarization and force, that is, setting up several checkpoints and controlling movement of people. Thus, it owes its continued survival to regime cohesion, intervention by its allies, and military might, not some ‘mandate’ from its support base. Furthermore, if you follow the moves Assad took in the initial months of the uprising, you will see that Assad indeed made calculated moves in order to posit himself as a lesser evil. For example, in late 2011, Assad released 1400 political prisoners from prison in what was seen as a concession to the revolutionary movement. These 1400 prisoners turned out to be mostly Salafist activists, many of whom had fought in Iraq previously. The Islamist military leadership is filled with people who were released from prison in that amnesty. Are they Assadist agents? I don’t believe so. But was releasing them a calculated move by Assad? Definitely. Those prisoners he released have come to dominate the armed opposition, most notably Zahran Alloush, who is now the leader of the newly-formed Army of Islam. Which brings up another point:

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

This actually isn’t the case. In fact many of the Islamist units have been distancing themselves from ISIS. The Army of Islam was formed as a counter-weight to ISIS, with many of the biggest Islamist factions joining it. While accurate numbers are hard to obtain, word on the (Syrian) street is that most Syrians have left ISIS and ISIS is now mostly composed of foreigners. In fact today, an even bigger anti-ISIS Islamist coalition was formed, the Islamic Front. I am in no way implying that these are the revolutionary forces in Syria or the progressive sectors of the armed struggle. Yet the nuances are important: these are Islamist reactionary forces, but they are not allied with al-Qaida or al-Zawahiri, and they are against ISIS. Simply painting al-Qaida and ISIS on one side and the Assad regime on the other is inaccurate.

Winstanley prefaces a list of crimes committed by the Islamist opposition armed groups with:

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.

Is Syria a mess today? Certainly. The most reactionary armed groups seem to have the most resources and the most weapons (thanks to Gulf donors). Many Syrians in the “liberated” areas feel trapped between regime airstrikes and scuds, and jihadi rule. Yet when you view the Syrian conflict through this dichotomous prism of jihadis vs Assad, of course you are going to conclude that there is “no longer a revolution,” although Winstanley goes further by claiming there “never was a revolution.” I agree with Winstanley that none of the revolutions have been successful yet, but I disagree that this means that there is no longer a revolutionary process or revolutionary forces. Revolutions are a long-term process, and there is a long-term revolutionary process in Syria. They consist of mostly unarmed activists, but many armed groups as well, and they are still working all over Syria today (I have spoken about the grassroots revolutionary movements in Syria previously here, and you can read more about them here on Tahrir-ICN and here on the Syria Freedom Forever blog).

The real revolutionaries of Syria, to be frank, probably will not emerge victorious out of this latest conflict as they are pushed to the sidelines and left without resources. Yet they exist, and their existence deserves to be acknowledged. The revolutions in the Arab world have not been fully successful yet, but it is not our place on the outside to despair and write obituaries for the revolutions, but to support a long-term revolutionary struggle. And the first step to supporting that is to acknowledge and identify it, not to write it off and claim that ‘there is no revolution in Syria, there is only Assad and ISIS,’ just because the most powerful forces in Syria today are counter-revolutionary forces.

I agree that the short-term political future of Syria seems bleak. I also can agree that perhaps Syria would really benefit from a ceasefire, giving the Syrian people a chance to breathe and also perhaps the Syrian revolutionaries a chance to regroup and flourish. Yet, I don’t understand why this view needs to be paired with the “there never was a revolution” claim. I believe in a Syrian revolutionary process, and I believe that the short-term political future of Syria won’t necessarily fulfill that process, but I also have long-term optimism for Syria as I know that so many Syrians have been radicalized by that revolutionary process, and those Syrians and that process won’t go away once the dust settles and the war is over.

I’ve always been a fan of Banksy’s work. One of the images on the right side of this blog is an image of a Banksy work. But I’m honestly just baffled by this latest video that’s supposed to be a comment on Syria. It seems devoid of any kind of substance. Either that, or all of us are missing something.

But what is clear is the imagery Banksy uses is offensive, no matter the intent. The imagery is, on the one hand, Orientalist: the buffoon-ish Arabs, savagely celebrating killing a poor animal, while one jumps atop of it and the other is kicked in the shin by a child, amidst screams of “Allahu Akbar.” On the other hand, the context of the video given the imagery is offensive as well. The audio was pulled from this video, a video of a rebel attack on a Syrian warplane in Mennegh air base, near Aleppo. In the Banksy video, you can clearly discern the words “Governorate of Aleppo” being uttered at around the 15 second mark. Mennegh air base was a base that the Syrian regime used to launch airstrikes on Aleppo, causing immense destruction and ravaging the city. So what exactly is the message? That the Syrian regime warplanes are analogous to poor flying elephants? That the rebels in Syria are a bunch of ragtag buffoons going around trying to kill even the poorest creatures?

Perhaps this wasn’t his intent. Perhaps the video is an exercise in “art for art’s sake.” But that is hard to believe given Banksy’s penchant for social commentary in his works. He’s obviously trying to say something, and unfortunately, if there’s a deeper message that we are all missing, if it does happen to be about the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn or whatever, it is overshadowed by the very superficial picture painted on the surface.

Banksy’s previous works that focused on the Middle East weren’t as baffling. On the apartheid wall in Palestine, he drew pictures of “paradises” beyond the wall, and one of a little girl patting down an Israeli soldier. These were celebrated as witty, daring works. He even paired these works with anecdotes, such as this conversation he had with a Palestinian man while painting the wall:

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.
Banksy: Thanks
Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.

That’s why this latest video is so confusing to me. The video just seems to be a desperate attempt to weigh in on something for the sake of weighing in on it, and by doing so, led to this analysis that at best is ambiguous, and at worst, victimizes the Syrian regime by analogizing it to a poor cartoon animal.

The Syrian revolution is a revolution that began as a struggle for self-determination. The Syrian people demanded to determine their own destiny. And, for more than two years, against all odds, and in the face of massive repression and destruction from the Assad regime, they persevered.

In the course of the revolutionary process, many other actors have also appeared on the scene to work against the struggle for self-determination. Iran and its militias, with the backing of Russia, came to the aid of the regime, to ensure the Syrian people would not be given this right. The jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and others, under the guise of “fighting the Assad regime,” worked against this right as well. And I feel the same way about any Western intervention.

Some would argue that we have come a long way from that, that it isn’t even about self-determination anymore, but rather, simply stopping the killing. This is a position I cannot support. If it was simply about stopping the killing, then I would’ve supported the jihadis when they came in, because, no one can deny, they were the best armed and the best equipped to challenge the Assad regime. But I didn’t, and many others didn’t, because we knew that despite their ability to challenge the regime, that they did not share the goals of the Syrian people. They wanted to control the Syrian people, and stifle their ability to determine their own destiny. Because of this, they were counter-revolutionaries, even if they were fighting against the regime.

And now in the face of a possible Western intervention in Syria, I hold the same position. Many would say I’m being ideological, and that I should just focus on stopping the killing; but those people are ignoring that, even on pragmatic terms and within their own line of reasoning, their argument holds no sway, after repeated US insistence that “these will only be punitive strikes” and they “do not intend to topple the regime.” What indication is there that these strikes will do anything to stop the killing, or “solve” the Syrian crisis?

I don’t care about sovereignty. Syria has become a land for everyone but Syrians nowadays. The myth of Syrian sovereignty is not why I oppose Western intervention. Neither is the prospect of the destruction of Syria, for it has already been destroyed by this criminal regime. I oppose Western intervention because it will work against the struggle for self-determination, that is, against the Syrian revolution.

Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. I have no doubt about this. And this could have been prevented if the Syrian resistance was actually given weapons that could have tilted the balance against the regime. But foreign powers sat on their hands, not wanting Assad to win, but not wanting the resistance to win either. They couldn’t give weapons to the Syrian people to defend themselves, they said, who knows whose hands they might end up in? They might accidentally end up in, say, the hands of Syrians who wanted to determine their own destiny despite foreign interests!

So we’ve come full circle. No one armed the Syrian resistance, so they were killed by the regime, or forced to put up with jihadi infiltration. So Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrians, and the West wants to respond to teach Assad a lesson, a response that still guarantees that Syrians have no say in the matter of their future. And the regime will probably live through any “punitive” Western intervention, and the killing will probably not stop.

But despite all that, the Syrian revolution, and, at its heart, the Syrian people’s struggle for liberation and to determine their own destiny, will live on.

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