Last night I slept in a Kurdish friend’s house here in Rojava. His daughter, brash and confident at 6, stood on a table and performed the songs she has been learning in school, as part of the first generation of Syrian-Kurdish students ever to hear their mother tongue in the classroom.
“I am a Kurd,” she sang. “I learn in my own language… I sing in my own language…” It does not seem so much to ask.
Yet it is too much for the Turkish state, ever-hungry for the extermination of the Kurds, ready “to bury the militants of Rojava in their ditches,” as their defence minister threatened this week. It is too much for Donald Trump, who this week took the decision to withdraw his forces from Rojava and leave us at the mercy of the coming Turkish invasion.
And too much, also, for many Western and international leftists, crowing over peace as though peace will now come or sneering at the Kurds for “refusing to learn from their mistakes” and accepting American air cover in their death-struggle against Daesh.
If comrades in any given global power had succeeded in installing anti-imperialist, socialist rule in their own land; if the Kurds had turned their back on offers of military protection from The People’s Republic of Wherever in favour of the Americans; then we could talk. But these days there is no such power.
Those “anti-imperialists” who sneer at the YPG/J for accepting air cover from the Americans during the siege of Kobane choose to forget the unilateral nature of imperialist ventures into the Middle East.
As Salih Muslim, the Diplomatic Relations Co-Chair for Rojava’s governing party PYD, recently said: “We didn’t invite the Americans, and didn’t tell them to leave. They weren’t here to protect us in any case. Our interests coincided, we acted together, but we never relied on them.”
The Turkish state has its jihadist proxies, who rape and torture and imprison and execute at will: but through NATO the Turkish state is itself a proxy of precisely the chauvinist, authoritarian class-interest nationalism which Trump peddles.
If Turkey seizes the oilfields and riches of the DFNS, who do these anti-imperialists think they will be doing business with? One NATO army may be leaving, but this does not mean Syrian soil is being restored to Syrian hands. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria always was in Syrian hands: Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian. It may not be for much longer.
Trump’s decision makes clear what Rojava’s supporters have been saying all along: some imperialist powers view the Kurds as vermin to be exterminated and some view them as a useful tool, but in the end there is little to choose between them.
Without expectation, we wait for an apology from those who accused us of being a willing puppet for imperialist expansion in the Middle East. Witness the canary-yellow banner of Abdullah Ocalan flying over newly-liberated Raqqa city, in defiance of the American coalition’s wishes. See how steadfastly the people here take to the street in support of the banned guerrilla, in defiance of all international-relations logic. There is no love for imperialists here, only the necessities of war.
Discussing another, briefer, revolution, the poet WH Auden wrote of habit-forming pain: the habits he describes are apathetic, hopeless. But the sense I get from Kurdish comrades here in Rojava is that if more suffering is to come, the muscle-memory of their people will respond as it has always responded.
When the people of Kobane marched on the American military bases there this week it was with anger, and photos of their many martyrs held defiantly over their heads.
The message of the people was not a plea for aid, but that they shamed the decision of the American leader (biryara Trump hat şermezarkirin, as it was described on the evening news) and demanded that their sacrifices be respected. Their action was made from a position of strength. Not military or material strength, perhaps, but strength nonetheless.
“We won’t beg anyone not to attack us, or beg to be protected,” Salih Muslim continued. “We are here, we can handle our own defence. We are resolved for a total resistance. We rely on our people and our own defence system. Everybody will fulfil their duty.”
Even if there is total war and Turkish airplanes massacre the cities and the revolution is driven into the desert and the mountains, the Kurdish movement was forged in friendless hardship and is stronger now than it has ever been.
When I spent that evening in my Kurdish friend’s house, laughing with his daughters, afterward chain-smoking and swapping dirty jokes, I remembered other lines of Auden’s which have given me much comfort in these hectic and uncertain days:
“To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder… To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette, The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert, The masculine jokes; to-day the Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.”
Here on the ground, one clearly sees how makeshift this revolution is, the home-made tanks falling apart at the checkpoints, the derelict regime outposts repurposed as women’s centres, the meals and shelter constantly offered to us by poor villagers, as we travel for our work, the cheaply-produced videos projected onto bedsheets, reminding the local youth of their long history of struggle. And one sees that this hand-to-mouth existence is the source of its strength.
In her excellent piece commenting on some reactions to Trump’s decision – which you should read in full – Kurdish feminist Dr Hawzhin Azeez writes:
“Who taught you that this was a smooth path? Have we not learned anything from the past history of betrayal? Have we forgotten that no matter what, the sheltering mountains of Kurdistan will always call us back into their defensive embrace? That the freedom fighters sit on the peaks and watch over us, committed to our inevitable liberation? At what point did we give away our power to the neocolonialists and the imperialists?”
The call she makes to her Kurdish kin, I would repeat to our international comrades. If there are American planes here to cover us, so be it. It is right that the American people, in particular, rise up against this cowardly decision by their leader.
But as internationalists we must stand together outside these lines of state force, with the tireless conviction of our Kurdish comrades. We need support, mobilization, mass anti-fascist action against targets at home in the West. We rely on our comrades, not the self-serving will of capitalist states.
Rojava has restored a sense of critical internationalism to revolutionary movements across the West, where it has long been dwindling in favour of a parochialism borne of liberal neuroses. We now call on these movements to act materially and across their own sectarian divides.
Unlike the fallen dinosaurs of state communism, we cannot offer financial or military aid in return. What we can offer is the burning of an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist hope on the horizon, uniting and driving on struggles across the globe. Do not allow it to be extinguished.