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Syria is not exceptional: interview with Joseph Daher| Part 2

Kurdish national liberation struggle
Fighters in the Kurdish YPG and YPJ | Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

This is Part 2 of an interview with Joseph Daher, on revolution and counter-revolution in Syria.  In Part 1, Daher concluded our discussion of classes, sects, and secularism in the country by saying that ‘the Middle East and North Africa is not “exceptional” – nothing prevents it from struggling for the same things that other parts of the world want, such as democracy, social justice, equality, secularism’.

There’s a sense across a variety of UK-based left-wing groups that the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (the PYD) and its military groups, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) are vitally important to that struggle – that they are, so to speak, the least ‘exceptional’  forces in Syria. And, at least some of those former groups insist on Kurdish liberation against Turkish, Da’eshi, and otherwise reactionary aggressions, whilst also criticising the al-Assad regime – hardly a friend of Syrian Kurds prior 2011, or indeed after, as Kurdish-British historian Djene R. Bajalan explained recently – and remaining at least cognisant of the more progressive sections of Arab Sunni uprising.

There is something straightforward about ‘solidarity’ – it is with all oppressed and exploited people. Syrian politics, though, are not straightforward, and non-abstract solidarity has come to demand knowledge of, and judgements on, the relations between the region’s several revolutionary, liberatory, and non-reactionary political streams. Dangers, defeat, and dividedness in the country have made these judgements much harder, and overstatement much easier – nothing’s seemed more frivolous over the last few years than Europeans’ ‘solidarity’ via a borrowed sectarianism, in notional support of groups and struggles whose even medium-term continuation appears to demand a near-opposite approach towards each other.

In the following interview, Syrian-Swiss author Joseph Daher explains the concrete relations between Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria over the past four years, and the history of Europe-based groups’ relationship with each.

JH: I’d like to ask about the campaign against Da’esh in Raqqa, fought largely by Kurdish forces between June and October 2017, and supported by the US.

Raqqa is a majority Arab Sunni city, which Da’esh had taken as its major Syrian base from January 2014. As the pseudonymous author ‘Samer’ wrote in their Raqqa Diaries, after Da’esh took control, ‘every day they make a crowd gather in the square, as if they are about to stage a play’, and then executed people.

Just over a year later, YPG/J forces broke Da’esh’s offensive against Kobane, in the spring of 2015. Following this, and after a name-change that Autumn, to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they defeated Dae’sh in Minbij, in north central Syria, in August 2016.

In October 2016, Lahur Talabany, the Director of the Zanyari Agency, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK; major political party in Iraqi Kurdistan) intelligence unit, said that ‘if there were some sort of reassurance given to the YPG and the SDF, they could very quickly shift their forces towards Raqqa’ (from 17.00, here). They did shift; I believe the SDF forces were the most important ground force in Raqqa.

You’ve recently written that ‘the last major success of the PYD [i.e., political body of the SDF’s] was the expulsion of [Da’esh] forces from Raqqa’. You recognised the ‘deep humanitarian cost for its inhabitants’, but nevertheless saw it as ‘a positive situation’.

What are the circumstances of Raqqa currently, post-Da’esh?

JD: To be clear, I said that the defeat in mid-October of the jihadist group Da’esh in Raqqa by the SDF, which is a coalition of fighters – Kurds, Arabs, Syriac, albeit dominated by the YPG – with the support of United States Air Force, was certainly good news.

But the cost in human terms, as in Mosul a few months before, has been terrible.

Between 270,000 and 320,000 people were displaced by the fighting, and were living in miserable conditions in overcrowded camps in the outskirts of the city. The majority were not able to return, because of the presence of mines and explosives scattered by Da’esh – dozens have been killed since their expulsion from the city. Only a few thousand have started to return to Raqqa in recent months to live in the city’s crowded, less-damaged districts.

In the four months of the military offensive on Raqqa in 2017, the fighting killed between 1,300 and 1,800 civilians. The members and staff of the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) are still today extracting and identifying people being pulled from the rubble. Between February 10 and March 28 of this year, the council’s Emergency Team retrieved approximately 315 bodies.

Syrian revolution
A multilingual announcement from the Civil Council of Raqqa | SDF Press

The situation in Raqqa in socio-economic and humanitarian terms is very bad. More than 80% of the city has been destroyed, or is uninhabitable, and most basic infrastructures are virtually non-existent. The main electricity network is not functioning, and households’ access to electricity depends on their financial resources, and proximity to communal generators.

Improvements to water, sanitation, hygiene, and health services are the most urgent immediate needs. As the main water network remains unrepaired, inhabitants are relying on trucked water of poor quality, though access to even this water was challenging for households living in uncleared, or heavily contaminated areas. The few health facilities that have reopened only provide basic services, and are overcrowded.

JH: You mentioned the Raqqa Civilian Council, the RCC, which was created just over year ago, in order to govern the town. Doubts were raised about its structure, remit, and resources by Haid Haid last October, but as a dual Arab-Kurd group, my presumption has been of it as a relatively positive force.

What has the RCC done? What does ‘dual’ mean in terms of legitimacy?

JD: Politically, it was the PYD who appointed the Civil Council. It has a dual leadership: Leila Mustafa, a Kurdish woman, from the border town of Tal Abyad, and an Arab counterpart, Mahmoud al-Borsan, a former member of the Syrian parliament, and a leader of the Walda tribe, which is influential in Raqqa.  The Council is officially in charge of administering local affairs, and overseeing reconstruction.

At the end of March of this year, the Raqqa Civil Council announced a set of new projects to improve living conditions and economic activity in the northeast of the city. The Council are focusing on the water and electricity infrastructure.

And, according to Osama al-Khalaf, a member of the RCC’s media office, since around the beginning of 2018 some services have been re-established. Most of the streets were open, and undamaged schools were operational—approximately 27 schools, for 51,000 students. Re-opened schools generally only provide primary education, and are reportedly over-crowded, and lack qualified teachers.

In Raqqa, the PYD is the dominant actor. Huge portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan are displayed in Raqqa’s central square, Naeem, while SDF commanders dedicated the victory to Öcalan, following the conquest of the city in mid–to-end October 2017.

Kurdistan Syria ISIS
SDF troops pose with a portrait of Abdullah Öcalan in Raqqa | Voice of America Kurdish / WikiCommons

I should underline a certain fear and mistrust present among certain sectors of the local Arab population against the Kurdish-led SDF – some Syrian activists have even spoken of a new occupation. In my opinion, one can and should have a critical stance against the PYD and its authoritarian practices against political rivals and independent activists – I’ve written about this on my blog, Syrian Solidarity Forever – but the comparison with Da’esh, and talk about new occupation on their model, ignores the real and massive differences between the two groups. It is misplaced propaganda.

The Assad regime has repeatedly declared that Raqqa is still an occupied city, and has promised to restore the authority of the state throughout the country. They have also established pro-regime militias in the Raqqati hinterlands, as a way to pressure the PYD-led authorities.

JH: There is a strong sense across the various leftist tendencies in the UK, which I agree with, that the Kurds are an oppressed people, engaged in a national liberation struggle,  albeit one of different and even competing political tendencies, developing across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the diaspora in Europe.

With reference only to Syria, in 2014, Da’esh’s attack against Kobane from the south compounded with the longer-standing danger from NATO-member Turkey’s regional imperialism, from the north.

But, PYD forces proved able to fight and defeat Da’esh, and, through that, were able to work within the contradictions between the US’ global-scale ‘War on Terror’ – the YPG/J became the anti-Da’esh force – and Turkey’s regional-scale ‘War on Kurds’, to the PYD and the YPG/J’s relative advantage.  Raqqa was part of that.

The feared Turkish attack against Afrin, from mid-January of this year, fighting with – apparently, commanding – some of the more reactionary tendencies of the Arab Syrian rebellion, appears to be a resolution of this contradiction, against Syrian Kurds. The Turkish-rebel occupation of Afrin seems to me a disaster.

Could you give a sense of how the various Arab Syrian opposition groups have considered the Turkish state’s assault against Afrin? Has the SDF’s participation in the Raqqa campaign affected such considerations?

JD: The Syrian Coalition, composed mainly of liberal, Islamic and conservative groups and personalities, not only supported Turkish military intervention and continued its chauvinistic and racist policies against the Kurds in Syria, but also participated in this operation, by calling Syrian refugees in Turkey to join the Syrian armed opposition groups fighting in Afrin.

They have called for Turkish military intervention for a long time, and have encouraged Arab chauvinism and racism against the Kurds, while even justifying and supporting the presence of Islamic fundamentalist movements. The Syrian fighters in Ankara have multiplied racist speeches and violent behaviours – assassinations, looting, and so on – against Kurds, since the beginning of the military operation and occupation of Afrin. They are also cases of attempts at demographic change – replacing original Kurdish inhabitants by Arab populations from other other areas.

Most of the Islamic fundamentalist movements – from salafi movements, to the Syrian Islamic Council, to the various Muslim Brotherhood groups – have openly supported the Turkish invasion. They’ve cheered it.  This is rooted in an old Arab chauvinism and hatred of Kurds. We saw videos at the beginning of the military operation showing racist speeches against the Kurds from fighters, as well as slogans in favor of Saddam Hussein and Erdogan.

Has Assad won in Syria
Syrian revolutionaries in early 2012 | Freedom House / Flickr

The Syrian opposition groups participating in the occupation of Afrin, mostly Islamic fundamentalist groups, have not mentioned Raqqa, but rather justified their involvement by saying the Kurds were actually the al-Assad regime’s allies. Some have mentioned the military assistance provided by Russian airplanes to SDF forces fighting against Arab armed opposition groups in Arab-majority towns, including Tal Rifaat, in February 2016. The capture of the city of Tal Rifaat by the SDF led to the displacement of the local Arab population, around 30,000 persons, who fled to the Turkish border. Only a small number of them, approximately 1000, were allowed to come back by YPG forces in the following months

Several Syrian leftist and democratic groups and activists supporting the uprising have condemned the Turkish military invasion of Afrin, but they remain, unfortunately, a minority.

Of course all Kurdish political groups have, despite their rivalries, condemned the military assault on Afrin. The Turkish-led attack against Afrin increased the popularity of the PYD among Kurds, or at least their reliance on them – they are seen more than ever as the defender of the Kurds.

No solution for the Kurdish issue, or an inclusive Syria, can be found without recognizing the Kurds as a proper ‘people’, or ‘nation’ in Syria, and providing unconditional support to the self-determination of the Kurdish people, in Syria and elsewhere. This does not, however, justify being uncritical of any negative PYD policies, or YPG or SDF operations.

JH: As I’m sure you are aware, the YPG/J are indeed strongly supported, rhetorically and otherwise, by various tendencies of the left in the UK, from anarchists, to autonomists, to CP-style communists.

Could you give a sense of the history of European support for Kurdish liberation, and perhaps broach why support for Arab Sunni liberation – excluding Palestinians – is less developed?

JD: It’s a difficult question to answer, regarding the support for the PYD, and the YPG/J. Firstly, obviously, I am in support of the self-determination of the Kurdish people in the four countries of the Middle East – Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq – and think everyone should celebrate the support provided to people that suffer from harshly violent, racist, authoritarian policies, for decades, by these states.

The non-diaspora European support to the various Kurdish groups comes after decades of activism in European countries from Kurds in leftist, trade unionist and other progressive circles – and those leftists’ support did not come from the sky. They have been advocating for their causes in these milieus for decades, producing important knowledge about it.

This is a major difference from Arab progressive opposition individuals and groups. A few came as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, but who most who have arrived came recently, again, as refugees. This work is starting, but is still very much at its beginning – of course, the help of European progressive forces is needed.

Another problem is that the main Arab opposition bodies in exile, dominated by the liberals and the Brotherhood, are unfortunately the ones with the greatest opportunity to access the media, and the various services provided by the Western government. They are allied with Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and are not appealing, – rightly so – to progressive networks in Europe.

These are not reasons for leftists to not support the Syrian uprising, and progressive groups from Syria, but it does not help this, especially as there is a general lack of knowledge on this country amongst Western leftists.

JH: You’ve given reason to be less optimistic about Arab-Kurdish power-sharing in Raqqa. Would you go further, and agree with Donya Alinejad and Saskia Baas, when they write thatdespite shared grievances against the Assad regime and a common interest in rising up against it, Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences’?

We’ve gotten a sense of how that ‘split’ has developed politically and militarily over the last four years, and of the circumstances in which European leftists have come to understand the revolution, or revolutions, in the region.

Does that history of the various diasporas in Europe, and the more recent cleaving in the region, mean solidarity will remain ‘split’?

JD: I would not say that you have a truly Arab-Kurd power-sharing in Raqqa, although officially, yes, the Raqqa Council is managed by an Arab and a Kurd. The PYD are the true rulers. I largely agree, yes, with the statement of Alinejad and Baas.

I am, personally, in the middle of two different spheres in regards the Kurdish issue.

On one side, on the Syrian scene, we have to struggle radically against the Arab chauvinism present among large sectors of the opposition. Especially as someone with an Arab origin, I have a specific responsibility to confront this issue.

On its side, the PYD, with the benevolent attitude of Damascus, used the opportunity of the uprising to become the dominant Kurdish political actor in Syria. They concentrated on building their own institutions, on organizing society with an effective military force, with many advances and achievements in certain aspects, including the secularization of laws, and the inclusion and participation of women and religious- and ethnic- minorities in state institutions. But, they had authoritarian, repressive policies against rival Kurdish organizations, and on some occasions against civilians, notably Arabs.

Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees waiting to be registered by police on Lesbos, Greece | Freedom House / Flickr

In the West, the issue of solidarity is different again.

My main problem with some sections of the left – not all – is the selective solidarity. I am in critical support of the PYD and PKK, and acknowledge their  achievements on women’s issues – on rights and participation – and their secularization of laws and institutions, their including of religious and ethnic diversity. But, I do this without forgetting their authoritarian policies regarding rival actors.

I expect a similar view towards Syrian Arab progressives, towards the democratic parts of the Syrian uprising – this is a key issue for all internationalists. Some sections of the left in the West have had a very bad record regarding Syria, even sometimes silencing those progressives forces of the uprising.

‘Selective solidarity’ involves selective learning, and a selective knowledge of the uprising – lots of our experiences are missing from progressive networks in the West.

JH: This is my last question, I think.

In On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin sees an ‘avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion’ – and sees ‘the working class [as] the role of the savior of future generations’, thus giving a sense of contemporary revolutionary politics as not only possibly generating different futures, but retroactively giving meaning to the struggles of past ‘failures’.

Do you think this theological thinking is valuable, or has ‘past injustice occurred and is completed’, as Benjamin’s friend, Max Horkheimer, wrote to him?

Memories of the previous periods of repression were not at the core of the protest movement, although mentions of past crimes were made, especially regarding the Hama massacre.

One of the main differences from the past is the large documentation of the uprising, something that has never been seen before in history. There has been significant recording, testimonies and documentation of the protest movement – the actors involved, their modes of action.

In 1970s, Syria witnessed strong popular and democratic resistance, with significant strikes and demonstrations throughout the country. Unfortunately this memory was not kept, and was not well-known by the new generation of protesters in 2011. But, the Syrian revolutionary process that started in 2011 is one of the most documented. This memory will remain, and will not only be there to [allow people to] look at the past, but [to allow them to] seize this past to build on [for] future resistance. The political experiences that have been accumulated since the beginning of the uprising will not disappear.

Revolutionary processes are, indeed, long-term events, characterized by higher- and lower level mobilisations. They can even have periods of ‘defeat’, as the uprising in Syria is, in my opinion, witnessing, with the advances of al-Assad regime, and the domination of Islamic fundamentalist movements outside regime-controlled areas.

Self-organisation has suffered so much from these two counter-revolutionary forces that it is surviving now only with very limited capabilities, in some isolated areas.  The near-‘dual power’ arrangements at the beginning, with local councils working with ‘Local Coordination Committees’, both with democratic aspirations – regarding women’s rights, minorities’ rights – in addition to the mass protests challenging sectarianism – they are nearly all defeated.

The conditions that allowed for the beginning of these uprisings are still present, and the regime is very far from finding ways to solve them. However, after more than seven years of a destructive and murderous war, no group can transform these into political opportunities.

No opposition body, with a significant size and following, offered an inclusive, democratic project that appealed to large sectors of society. The failures of the opposition bodies in exile, and of the armed opposition groups, left frustration and bitterness. The effects of the war and its destructions will most probably weigh on us for years.