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

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


The Night passenger
Rattles in heavy iron under
Kalaidescope sky without end
As paper wasps ascend

Arcs of white, plumes of red
Incandescent verdant glow
As sleek, nocturnal turbine
Slides under watchful carbine

Great sulphuric realm extending
From frozen Sleeve to sultry Oxen
While Saturn delivers his babies
Screaming and flailing to filial Hades

And now Centennial Sentinel
Repeats under ash-filled phosphor ciel
Cometh the Night
But never the Dawn

Cometh the Night
But never the Dawn

Friday, 7 November 2014

Lest We Forget

The British Legion has censored the anti-war verses of its Poppy Song.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when the dead of war are commemorated by ceremonies of red poppy wreath-laying at memorials around the country and a two minute silence is observed. The events mark the moment that World War One officially ended at 11 am on 11th November 1918. The first Remembrance Day was in 1919, when the two minutes were known as the Great Silence, a fitting term given the absence of perhaps forty million souls carried away by the conflict and its aftermath.

This year is, of course, especially poignant given that it is just over one hundred years since that war began in August 1914, as commemorated on this blog in an earlier post, "We Will Remember. And One Day Learn".

And learn we still have to do. The First World War was once referred to as the Great War, with the epitaph "The War to End All Wars", as the socialist H.G. Wells called it, so great was the scale of death and destruction of this first truly international, industrial war. But of course it was far from the end of war; rather it presaged that even worse was to come.

And in the 96 years since it ended amidst Europe-wide chaos, civil war, revolution and a flu epidemic of historic proportions, around 150 million more people have died in wars; quite possibly more than in all the rest of history put together. We have not learned, and we have not changed.

And nor will we if, among all our other propensities to fight with each other, we choose in our very act of remembrance to forget. Yet this is what seems to be happening.

The Royal British Legion organises the Remembrance events and in doing so, it has always had a fine line to tread between remembrance and glorification of war. All the more difficult, perhaps, as in the last decade or so several hundred new names have been added to the lists of the dead from Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan - and many have felt uneasy about the nature of the Legion's commemorations, which have seemed increasingly willing to support current government policy rather than remember those who were lost. Yet whatever their views of the political decisions that have led to these wars, many have still wanted to commemorate the fallen and injured in the hope that there will be no more in the future.

But how much harder that now is when it is revealed that the Legion has accepted support from two big arms manufacturing companies - Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest arms company) sponsored last week’s Poppy Rocks Ball, while Thales (who manufacture the pilotless drones that have killed hundreds of innocent bystanders) have joined London mayor Boris Johnson in a big Red Poppy billboard at Westminster.These are companies making money - huge profits - out of wars happening right now. It is surely an affront to those who have fallen to have such events funded by these merchants of death.

But almost as bad, breathtakingly so, is the official Remembrance song issued by the Legion and sung by Joss Stone. This is a censored version of the beautiful The Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle. The original version recounts the thoughts of a visitor to the grave of a 19 year old soldier, Willie McBride, questioning the reasons for his death and it is distinctly anti-war.

The Legion, however, has cut it; as well as renaming it No Man's Land and squeezing any feeling or power from it as they turned it into lachrymose mush, it has excised two key verses (almost half the song) including:

Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again. 

Scots-born Bogle wrote the song as a reaction to the slaughter of the Vietnam War, hence his line that in the war to end all wars, "the killing and dying were all done in vain." He has criticised Joss Stone's version for diminishing the intention of the song to build up verse by verse to a powerful anti-war statement.

Our PM wears a poppy while on an arms sale promotion to Gulf rulers
Compromised by its funding by arms merchants and association with three pro-war government parties, the Legion should be seriously revisiting its purpose - its support, or often lack of support, to former service people has come under increasing criticism. It should be focusing on them rather than adopting the role of cheer-leader to the Michael Gove-view of the slaughter of the trenches being a good thing.

It seems certain that more people will follow the route already taken by many on the Left and in the peace movement and wear white poppies in their own acts of remembrance. Among them will be a growing number of war veterans, people who, unlike virtually all of our blood-thirsty political class, have been at the sharp end of killing and dying, and want no more of it. Remembrance Day was established to mark the sacrifice of the dead in part so that we would learn to not add to their number. The deaths of millions through the last century must be commemorated for, as the over-used phrase goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to relive it.

But, with the plethora of regional conflicts around us, so many eagerly anticipated by our rulers and their arms manufacturing funders, perhaps we already are.

Lest we forget.

A petition has been started to ask the Royal British Legion to apologise for censoring the words of the poppy song. You can sign it here: Petition

Meantime, here is the full version, performed by the incomparable The Men They Could Not Hang.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Today is Tomorrow

The video below is about Canada and focuses on its failure, unlike over 110 other countries, to declare the right to live in  a healthy environment as a legally binding human right. But the issues it covers - environmental degradation, resource depletion and both the threats and the possibilities for the future - sit everywhere on our planet.

Above all, it speaks to today's generation: both for our own futures and those who come after us. What we do now, shapes tomorrow. Global warming has a lag effect of between 30 and 40 years - so in other words, what we do now, good or bad, will make a difference to the world around 2045 to 2055. With the IPCC report this week showing that carbon emissions are rising faster than ever, breaking ever more records for pollution, climate change, a phenomenon that knows no borders, the need for us to act has never been greater. Not only Canada, but Britain as it plunges headlong down the route already taken by the USA to frack our countryside; or India as it commits to burning more coal that ever.

As the IPCC acknowledges, the alternatives are there and affordable - and, contrary to all the myths, China is leading the way as it now installs more renewable energy each year than any other country in the world and more than all of Europe put together. We must follow the lead from Beijing and, closer to home, Germany (which on a good day can now get as much as three quarters of its energy needs from renewables - compared to less than a tenth in the UK). As these economic powerhouses turn to clean energy for a sustainable future, the British, American and other large economies need to purge ourselves of the oil and gas lobbies and turn to the clean, renewable energies of the future - the only way, indeed, to ensure that there is one.