Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sisters in Arms - Kobane, Kurdistan & Women Against ISIS

Sisters-in-Arms - Women soldiers face down ISIS as Rojavans fight for a new world in the heart of the Middle East.
The news from the Middle East has been relentlessly depressing in recent months, the Arab Spring seemingly slipping away into a river of blood and fundamentalist terror. The latest atrocities have come today with a video showing the beheading of an American Muslim hostage, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, and ten captured Syrian soldiers by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Yet the Western media remains as misleading as ever about the nature of Levantine societies as it portrays a region almost passively helpless in the face of the Islamic State, preferring to ignore that ISIS is an entity galvanised greatly by the weaponry sent to the opposition in Syria by our Saudi and Qatari allies. The narrative is that they "captured" these armaments, when in truth much of them have until very recently been directly delivered to the men fighting for the "Caliphate".

Kurdish areas
But in the north of Iraq and parts of the Syrian north-east, the Kurdish people have resisted fiercely, often against the odds, although that is something they have been used to for some decades.  

The Kurds have lived in western Asia for over two thousand years. They have some historical links to Iran, but are ethnically distinct from the Persian people and the region they inhabit is currently divided between the far west of Iran, south-east Turkey, north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq (where they are the majority).In all they number about thirty million people. The first stirrings of nationalist aspirations developed in the 1880s against the Ottoman Empire, and the Kurds' story since then, as before, has been one of frequent struggle for recognition in the face of often hostile neighbours - especially Turkey and Iraq.

Alternately embraced and then ignored by the West as convenient to its geopolitical interests, many Kurdish nationalists from the 1970s onwards adopted socialist thinking as a response to social inequality and the continuing feudal conditions in some parts of the region. During the chaos after Saddam's defeat in the First Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi Kurds seceded from Baghdhad and have since developed their own autonomous government around Erbil. They finally gained political recognition of this in the new Iraqi constitution in 2005.

Similarly, when Syria fell into chaos and civil war, the Kurds living in Kobane and two nearby cantons - Erfin and Cizire - established their own self-governing region of Rojava under a multi-party administration based on democracy, civil rights, community and gender equality. Although predominantly Kurdish and Muslim, it includes significant Syriac (Christian) and Arab populations who have worked closely with the Kurdish parties. It is potentially extremely wealthy, containing 60% of Syria's oil reserves and some highly fertile agricultural areas.

The West has ignored Rojava: until ISIS hit the headlines with its appalling catalogue of brutality, its assault on this oasis of freedom was largely ignored. As late as early September, when I listened  to a Kurdish political activist at the Green Party conference describe her frantic escape from ISIS, clinging to the side of a speeding truck just a few days before,  Kobane was still barely reported.

The Green Partys' International Co-ordinator, Dr Derek Wall, has worked hard to promote the need to support Rojava (see his blog, Another Green World) , but other than the odd article in the Guardian, relatively little has appeared in the mainstream media even now -although to its credit the BBC did produce an interesting piece on its News channel. Consequently, the West sat on its hands until the city was evacuated and ISIS was batting through its streets in sight of the Turkish border post on its north side. This in spite of the rhetoric from David Cameron and others about the Caliphate being the greatest threat to civilisation in recent history.

In Rojava in particular, women are at the front of the military struggle. Around a third of the Kurdish People's Protection Units' (YPG) troops defending Kobane and other areas are women, some 7,500 in all, known as the YPJ. In the event of their capture by the misogynists of ISIS, there is little doubt about their fate, but their enlistment is not new, nor is it a reaction to the barbarity of their opponents.

Efrin, Kobane and Cizire are the cantons of Kurdish Rojava
Equality between men and women, has been a strong feature of Kurdish politics and society for decades. This is an unsurprising consequence of the socialist politics that originally underpinned revolutionary Middle Eastern politics for several decades before the more recent rise of religious fundamentalism as a channel for discontent.

The more conservative Peshmerga High Command in Erbil has formed women's battalions, but declined to deploy them to the frontline. However Rojava, reflecting its more radical culture, depends on its women fighters and the YPG/J is clearly proud to promote their role. It has used the internet and social media to promote the equal role of men and women in the existential battle against ISIS, including a Tumblir photo page with one message boasting: "Feminine and strong...The YPJ women are defying all stereotypes and they continue to shoot ISIS to hell where they belong."

Men & Women together against ISIS
Our political leaders' long disregard for Kobane until the very last moment of the 11th hour gives the lie to any claims by the West to be interested in women's rights. For while the Kurds of Rojava first warned about the dangers of arming what was to become ISIS, and then begged the world for help as the jihadists closed in, murdering their men and carrying their women off to be sold to rapists in slave markets, President Obama and others equivocated, hesitated and then equivocated some more.

The delay was almost certainly in part linked to fellow NATO member Turkey, whose treatment of its own Kurdish population has been questionable, to say the very least. Ankara is clearly nervous about a successful Kurdish state on its borders, especially one practising radical politics. But the Turkish government is not alone - Britain and the USA have a history of opposing democratic movements in the Middle East, including intervening to overthrow the Iranian democracy in 1953 - and Obama and Cameron share few if any of the Rojavans' objectives of social justice and equality. In the end, the main thing delivered by the West has been something the Kurds did not ask for - airstrikes.

So, if we are serious about the rights of other humans and especially of women, we should be giving whatever material aid we can to the Kurds - in the form of weapons and supplies, logistical support, medicine and food - not troops, which they have specifically said they don't want. Unlike our long-time, head-chopping business associates and collaborators in Riyadh and Doha, the Rojavans are the antithesis of everything ISIS stands for.

And, this time, for a change, we should choose as our allies people who share the values we like to imagine we to aspire to rather than the Kings and Presidents who pay out the most. The women and men of Kobane, Efrin and Cizire, the people of Rojava, are fighting for a new world.

We must not let them down.

WOMEN AGAINST ISIS  - Kurdish women are on the frontline in Kobane

1 comment:

  1. My hearty support to the indomitable struggle of Kurds for self-determination, democracy and non-communal coexistence of peoples and especial Kudos to the indefatigable women fighters of the Kurd liberation army.