Harry Waveney, Kurdish Solidarity Cymru (@KSCymru)
Last weekend I was on a stall at Plaid Cymru’s conference in Swansea representing Kurdish Solidarity Cymru, a collective of activists which arose around the historic 161-day hunger strike of Newport resident, Imam Sis.
Imam, along with thousands of others around the world, many of them political prisoners in Turkey, was on hunger strike against the illegal isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. The response was fantastic, with almost unanimous support for the Kurds and their struggle.
Many people in Wales have long supported the Kurds – including some big names like Dafydd Iwan and Hywel Williams – but the hunger strike campaign in particular deepened this solidarity.
The Senedd made history by being the first parliament in the world to pass a motion in support of the Kurdish hunger strikes. Politicians from Plaid and Welsh Labour loudly proclaimed their support for Imam and the Kurdish struggle he is a part of.
The solidarity goes both ways: there is a large Cofiwch Dryweryn mural in the back garden of the Kurdish Community Centre in Newport and there has been a sizeable Kurdish presence at every independence rally over the past year.
The hunger strike campaign led to a temporary lifting of the embargo on Öcalan’s lawyers but many of us knew that the end of the hunger strikes would not be the end of our support for our Kurdish friends, both here in Wales and across the world.
In North and East Syria (often referred to as Rojava for the Kurdish name for part of the region) a Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic, multi-faith coalition has been building a grassroots and feminist democracy while at the same time providing the primary forces against ISIS – and winning.
The Kurds and their allies have sacrificed so much to protect the world from ISIS. During the conflict over 11,000 fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces – a military alliance composed of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen fighters, along with many international volunteers from states such as the UK – lost their lives, with many more injured or disabled.
Thousands of lives, many of them Kurdish, were lost capturing and defending territory from ISIS. Where people had once lived under ISIS – who behead their political opponents, keep women in cages and sell them like property, persecute religious minorities, among other unimaginable crimes – they now live in thriving grassroots democracies.
Thanks to the SDF and the Rojava Revolution many minorities in Syria are for the first time ever experiencing what it is like to have political autonomy; what it means to be able to control what happens in their own lives.
Women in the region have had the most to gain. Women who were once literally caged sex slaves bought and sold in ISIS markets now find themselves in positions of political influence and leading the fight against ISIS themselves.
In North and East Syria any senior positions must have a female and male co-chair and women hold an exclusive veto over many decisions in an attempt to offset endemic sexism rooted deeply within communities.
Within the SDF there is the YPJ, the all-female fighting force formidable enough to put many male fighting forces to shame. This group strikes fear into the heart of even the most hardened of ISIS fighters.
The Rojava Revolution has massively altered politics in the region, providing a beacon of hope for democracy and women’s rights in a part of the world too often associated with the polar opposite of these.
Given the importance of this region for global politics it is not a stretch to claim that this is the most important progressive movement anywhere in the world right now. But Rojava is in grave danger.
A few days ago, seemingly on a whim, Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing its troops from North and East Syria. The US has not had a heavy presence in the area (the SDF have been the main force on the ground) but they have provided vital air support for the SDF.
Perhaps more importantly the US has acted as a deterrent against a dangerous actor in the region which has been responsible for lax border policies which have allowed ISIS at times almost unfettered access to new personnel and supplies; which has attempted to undermine the SDF’s efforts at almost every turn, forcing them to direct resources away from the fight against ISIS; which has committed unthinkable atrocities in towns such as Afrin and Cizre, including burning civilians to death in the basements of buildings; who has pursued an obsessive quest to wipe the Kurdish people from the face of the Earth: Turkey.
Turkey is a key ally of many Western states and a member of NATO. Yet Turkey acts against the interests of these two groups with shocking consistency by perpetuating instability in the Middle East and making the fight against ISIS and the religious extremism they thrive off near impossible.
Turkey claims the YPG/YPJ – the largely Kurdish male and female fighting forces which are part of the SDF and therefore allied with the US-led coalition against ISIS – are terrorists. It claims that the YPG/YPJ is a front for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), of which the previously mentioned imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, is the leader.
With the US’ withdrawal from North and East Syria the way is opened up for Turkey to invade. In a perverted twist of logic Turkey claims it must create a 30km “peace corridor” to protect itself from the YPG/YPJ “terrorists”.
This would perhaps be believable were it not for the fact that Turkey is the one who has allowed ISIS militants to cross its border into Syria, it is Turkey who works with militias with ties to al-Qaeda and ex-ISIS members, and it is Turkey who has attempted to undermine the position of the SDF time and time again, weakening their ability to combat ISIS.
Nevermind the over 8,000 ex-ISIS fighters being held by the SDF (with little to no support from the international community). In short, it is Turkey who supports terrorism. Turkey uses a decades long insurgency waged by the PKK to justify its labelling of the YPG/YPJ as “terrorists”, claiming the latter are a front for the PKK. The UK and US also list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, and this classification stretches across the EU since the supranational body largely parrots the US’ proscribed organisations list.
Twice now a Brussels court has ruled that the conflict between Turkey and the PKK should be viewed as an “internal armed conflict” between the two actors, not a terrorist campaign against an innocent state. The history is that the Kurds have been horrifically persecuted in Turkey since the founding of the state in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire (and before that too). Turkey has time and time again attempted to wipe the Kurds off the face of the Earth.
When a state uses force we call it legitimate self-defence; when a stateless people uses force to avoid annihilation we call it terrorism. There have no doubt been awful things done by actors on both sides. This happens in almost any war and is distinct from terrorism. There have been calls over the years for the delisting of the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
In the past, the Kurds in Turkey have been imprisoned for using their own language. It was an offence for a parent to name their child a Kurdish name. Even wearing traditional Kurdish dress could be viewed as treasonous.
Recent atrocities by the Turkish state in Afrin and Cizre, such as burning civilians to death in basements, are nothing new in the history of the Turkish Republic. Turkey has embarked on large scale operations of forced displacement and assimilation, often by levelling Kurdish villages.
The Kurds have their political parties banned. Even parties which are not exclusively Kurdish, such as the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party; the third largest party in Turkey), have their democratically elected politicians deposed and replaced with regime puppets, as recently happened to the mayors of the HDP held municipalities of Diyarbakır, Van and Mardin (all within Bakur, the part of Kurdistan inside Turkey’s borders).
These are but a selection of the crimes of the Turkish state against the Kurds. The Kurds have tried every route to protect themselves and Turkey has attempted to outmaneuver them at every stage. In the face of genocide it is no wonder Kurds picked up weapons and formed the PKK. If they had not they would have faced obliteration.
The source of all of this conflict is Turkey’s fascist quest to homogenise the whole of Turkey under a singular Turkish identity. The Kurds just want democracy. This is what they have been building, along with their local allies, in North and East Syria. Turkey wants to crush these efforts because it views democracy as a threat to its tyrannical and anti-democratic rule.
The scale is vastly different but many people in Wales identify with this experience: a dominant state which would rather you didn’t exist, which would rather you stopped speaking your language, which would rather you have either no or ineffectual political institutions representing your interests.
It is perhaps for this reason that Wales has been such a strong voice supporting the Kurds and the Rojava Revolution. But this does not mean we can congratulate ourselves and relax. As I write this it has just been reported that Turkey has begun its first assaults upon North and East Syria.
This is the beginning of Turkey’s invasion and, make no mistake, this signals another large scale push in Turkey’s unending quest to wipe the Kurdish people off of the face of the Earth and, with them, perhaps the most important revolution the Middle East has ever seen. A revolution which we could learn a lot from here in Wales.
We must stand with our Kurdish friends stronger than ever. We must use every opportunity available to us to demand that Turkey halt its unjustifiable invasion. Things we can demand of the UK government – and which the Welsh Government can demand of the UK government – are:
- The establishment of a no-fly zone over North and East Syria
- Deny intelligence support to Turkey; do not aide Turkey in its invasion
- Support the SDF who have been a loyal ally of the coalition against ISIS; the people of North and East Syria protected us from ISIS, now we must protect and support them
- Use NATO to force Turkey to stop its invasion, including by denying Turkey the ability to invoke Article 5, which would cause other NATO nations to assist Turkey in their fight against the SDF (which would amount to the UK and US turning on a force they were allied to until a few days ago)
- Put political and economic pressure – including sanctions, as are being explored by prominent Republicans in the United States – on Turkey until it halts its invasion
These are just some of the responses which are being called for in recent days. These are things politicians can work on implementing and demands which can be demanded by the rest of us as we pour out into the streets and into every politician’s inbox and constituency office.
Use this website to find and contact your MP, calling on them to oppose the Turkish invasion of North and East Syria and implement the above demands. Use this page to find an email for your AMs and ask them to do the same.
The Kurds and their allies have already received support from politicians in Wales, from Plaid and Labour, but this can only be the beginning. The hunger strikes were a big deal in Wales and we achieved an incredible amount in solidarity with Kurds like Imam Sis.
But this fight against Turkey will make that campaign look pale in comparison. This is an existential threat to the democratic society in North and East Syria, a grave threat to the stability of the Middle East, and the coming conflict is likely to cause the re-emergence of ISIS as a regional and international force.
Go out and get active. If you would like to work with Kurdish Solidarity Cymru contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our Twitter, @KSCymru. If you want to link up with the international campaign to defend Rojava then get in contact with RiseUp4Rojava.
They are calling on any and all organisations to work with them to make this the biggest international solidarity campaign ever seen. If you think you can help in any way, get in touch with them or us or – and we definitely encourage you to do this – plan your own autonomous actions.
History will look kindly on those who stand with the Kurds and their allies at this critical moment. The people of North and East Syria want what you and I want: peace and freedom. Turkey is standing in the way of that, enabled by the actions of the United States and inaction of the United Kingdom.
We can change all of these things. Another world is possible.