[News] Understanding the Kurdish Resistance: Historical Overview & Eyewitness Report

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 25 17:20:51 EDT 2015


  Understanding the Kurdish Resistance: Historical Overview & Eyewitness

Until recently, few in the Western world had heard of the Kurds, let 
alone their revolutionary history. Brought into the spotlight by their 
fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they have 
received a great deal of attention both from the mainstream mass media 
and from radicals and revolutionaries around the world.

Romanticized and often summarized superficially as a population fighting 
Islamists, the Kurds have a tradition of self-defense extending across 
several national borders. They have been fighting for their liberation 
since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, if not prior; the religious 
revolts led by Sheikh Said in 1925 and the uprising against assimilation 
in Dersim in 1937 are only two examples out of a long legacy of Kurdish 
resistance. But without a doubt, the most long-lasting and effective 
Kurdish rebellion has been the one launched by the PKK (Partiye Karkerên 
Kurdistanê—Kurdish Workers Party) 40 years ago. The resistance to ISIS 
in Northern Syria (western Kurdistan—Rojava)^1 1. Geographically, 
Kurdistan is defined by cardinal directions. So western Kurdistan, which 
is in northern Syria, is called /Rojava/ (West); northern Kurdistan, 
which is in southeastern Turkey, is /Bakur/ (North); southern Kurdistan, 
in northern Iraq, is /Bashur/ (South); and eastern Kurdistan, in 
southwestern Iran, is /Rojhelat/ (East). and the fight for the autonomy 
of Kurds in Turkey (northern Kurdistan—Bakur) are the culmination of the 
PKK’s decades-long struggle. Yet the PKK looks very different today than 
it did during its formation, and its aspirations have evolved alongside 
its political context.

What follows is my attempt to share what I have learned and observed 
during my visits to Kurdistan, in both Bakur and Rojava. It is a long 
and complex story filled with difficult contradictions, some of which 
will be presented below. In the face of incredible odds, the resilient 
Kurds have been able to put theory into practice alongside a 
well-crafted strategy. To understand their movement today, lets start by 
looking at how it emerged.

    The Early Days of the PKK

The PKK is the product of two different historical processes. The first 
and more fundamental one is the formation of the Turkish nation-state, a 
project based upon the elimination of all non-Muslims and the 
assimilation of all non-Turkish ethnicities. The second and more 
immediate accelerant is the powerful youth and student movement of the 
late 1960s and ’70s in Turkey.

To understand contemporary Turkish politics, be it the official denial 
of the Armenian Genocide or the repression of the Kurdish movement, we 
must recognize how deeply ultra-nationalism is woven into the fabric of 
society. It is analogous to the Baathist regimes elsewhere in the 
region, which are now meeting their expiration dates. All the 
ingredients are there: a formidable and charismatic leader, Mustafa 
Kemal;^2 2. Known as Atatürk—the great Turk—after 1934. the creation of 
a national identity, Turkishness; and assimilation into a hegemonic yet 
constructed culture. In Turkey, the formal creation of the nation-state 
in 1923 was a modernizing project in its own right. Various vernacular 
languages (e.g., Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, Greek) as well as the Arabic 
alphabet (modified and used in written Ottoman, Kurdish, and Persian in 
addition to Arabic) were scrapped in favor of the Latin alphabet; a 
language called Turkish was re-invented, by modernizing vernacular 
Turkish with a heavy dose of European influence. Forms of religious 
expression, from public gatherings to clothing, were repressed in the 
name of modern secularism. At the same time, Islam became regulated by 
the state, kept in reserve to mobilize against leftists or minorities. 
As a nation-building project, Kemalism essentially sowed the seeds of 
its own destruction; ironically, it is responsible for both the 
neoliberal Islam of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP, and the Democratic 
Confederalism of Öcalan and the PKK.

The degree to which this ultra-nationalism is hammered into those who 
live within the borders of Turkey is difficult for a Western audience to 
grasp. Every morning of her official schooling, a Kurdish schoolchild 
has to take an oath that begins “I am Turkish, I am right, I work hard,” 
only to file into a classroom with a portrait of Atatürk staring down 
from the wall, where she will hear teachers present the history of the 
Ottoman Empire and emphasize that Turkey is surrounded by enemies on all 
sides. She must go through the motions of patriotic holidays several 
times a year: the anniversary of the declaration of the republic (OK), 
the anniversary of the death of Atatürk (well . . . fine), the Youth and 
Sports holiday (seriously?), the Sovereignty and Children’s Holiday 
(give me a break). For men, compulsory military service^3 3. Although 
Turkey has universal conscription, it also has laws which permit one to 
pay nearly $10,000 to be exempt from it. In addition, those with 
higher-level education are often able to land safer positions. Thus 
those who actually fight the wars are predominantly poor. is a rite of 
passage into manhood and a precondition of employment. It’s common to 
see rowdy street rituals in which young men are sent off to do their 
military service by crowds of their closest male friends.

Nationalism comes not only from the Right but also from the Left, and 
the 1968 generation was no exception. In contrast to their counterparts 
in other countries, this generation resembled the old Left more than the 
new. Many of the most revered veterans and martyrs of the leftist 
student movement saw themselves as continuing Atatürk’s project of 
national liberation from imperialist powers. It’s telling that the most 
promising move on the part of the leftist student movement involved 
launching a failed coup of their own with dissident members of the 
military. This powerful youth movement occupied many universities and 
organized large marches, including an infamous march in which members of 
the US Navy’s 6th Fleet were “dumped in the sea” 
<http://www.turksolu.com.tr/245/konuksever245.htm>—playing on the 
mythical imagery of Atatürk’s national liberation army dumping the 
Greeks into the Aegean Sea, a fairytale often repeated to Turkish 
schoolchildren. Though it was eventually crushed by the military coup of 
March 12, 1971, this student movement left a legacy of armed 
groups, including Deniz Gezmiş’s THKO (Turkish People’s Liberation Army) 
and Mahir Çayan’s THKP (Turkish People’s Liberation Party).^4 4. Mahir 
was killed in a military raid during the kidnapping of NATO technicians 
with the demand of freeing Deniz and two others who would also be 
executed, Hüseyin Inan and Yusuf Küpeli. Deniz was hung by military rule.

One of the students active in the post-coup second wave of the student 
movement in Turkey was Abdullah Öcalan. Born in 1949 in the Kurdish 
territories of southeastern Turkey, Öcalan came to the Turkish capital 
of Ankara in 1971 to study. He was impressed by the student movement, 
which had gone as far as torching the vehicle of the American 
ambassador. Alongside the Turkish student movement, which left little 
space to talk about the Kurds, there was a new incarnation of Kurdish 
socialism on the rise, especially in the form of the Eastern 
Revolutionary Cultural Houses (DDKO). Other Kurdish groups had even 
started to organize guerillas in Kurdistan 
Öcalan entered this milieu and advanced his idea of Kurdistan as an 
internal colony of Turkey, quickly gaining adherents. Comprising a 
nucleus of political militants, this dozen or so people came to be known 
as /Apocular (Apoers)/, a term used for the followers of Öcalan’s 
thought to this day. Not all the members of this initial cadre were 
Kurds, but they all believed in Kurdish liberation from the Turkish state.

This core group left Ankara to foment revolution in Kurdistan. The 
ideological flavor of the day, especially with Turkey in NATO, was 
Marxism-Leninism; founded in 1978 at a meeting in the village of Fis, 
the PKK (Partiye Karkerên Kurdistanê—Kurdish Workers Party) modeled 
itself on those principles. The first manifesto written by Öcalan that 
year closes by professing that the Kurdish Revolution was a part of the 
global proletarian revolution that started with the Russian October 
Revolution and was growing stronger through national liberation 
movements. The group acquired its first AK–47 from Syria and started 
carrying out small actions and agitating in towns in Northern Kurdistan. 
Öcalan traveled constantly, presenting lengthy lectures, sometimes 
day-long sessions, which were a major component of these initial 
efforts. This form is still seen in the political education sessions 
that all participants in the Kurdish movement are expected to complete, 
guerrillas and politicians alike.

This initial phase was cut short by another military coup only ten years 
later, in 1980—much bloodier in its consequences, with at least 650,000 
arrested, more than 10,000 tortured, and fifty people hanged by the 
state. Öcalan had fled the country shortly before, and many of the 
initial cadre followed in his footsteps. Their destination: Syria. In 
fact, Öcalan crossed from Suruç in Turkey into Kobanê in Syria—two towns 
that have become symbols of the Kurdish resistance, and a crossing 
hundreds if not thousands of Kurds have made this past year to join the 
fight against ISIS. From Syria, Öcalan started his project in earnest 
and began to make contact with the Kurdish leadership in the region, 
arranging meetings with Barzani and Talabani, tribal leaders with a 
bourgeois nationalist line. He arranged for the first trainings of 
Kurdish guerrillas in Palestinian camps, and later in more independently 
run camps in Lebanon. The trained members of the PKK crossed back into 
Turkey to begin the armed struggle announced by their first large-scale 
action in August of 1984, the raids on the towns of Eruh and Şemdinli.

The PKK entered the 1990s with a guerrilla army of more than 10,000 and 
started launching attacks on Turkish military positions and other state 
interests such as government buildings and large-scale engineering 
projects. At the same time, what had begun as a concentrated effort by a 
core group of militants began to take hold within the entire Kurdish 
population in the region. Newroz 1992 was a turning point in 
popularizing the Kurdish liberation struggle.

Newroz, celebrated until recently mostly across Iran and Northern Iraq, 
represents the new year and the welcoming of spring. Although this 
celebration was even observed in central Asian Turkic communities, 
Turkey rejected it; the PKK advanced the idea of Newroz as a national 
holiday of resistance for Northern Kurdistan. Since the late ’80s, March 
21 has been a day of mass gatherings, often culminating in epic clashes 
with the police. Newroz of 1992 was especially brutal, as the ruthless 
police state that was to devastate Northern Kurdistan began to show its 
face; the killing of fifty people during Newroz 1992 in the town of 
Cizre was the opening act <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROqnwlymgEc>. 
The ’90s in Kurdistan saw the dirtiest of civil wars, with the state 
employing paramilitary groups culled from both ultra-nationalists and 
Islamic fundamentalists. To dry out “the sea in which the guerrilla 
swam,” 4500 villages were evacuated or burned to the ground. Most of the 
40,000 who have died in the war in Northern Kurdistan perished in the 

    Öcalan’s Prison Years and the Peace Process

Öcalan’s eventual capture on February 15, 1999 is a tale to be told, 
referred to by the Kurdish movement as “The Great Conspiracy.” 
Threatened by Turkish military action, the Syrian government finally 
told Öcalan that his welcome was over and he had to leave. The 
international cadre of the PKK scrambled to find him a new refuge, but 
no country would touch him. Shuttled between Greece and Russia, Öcalan 
finally found himself under house arrest in Italy. Since members of the 
European Union are not allowed to extradite prisoners to countries where 
capital punishment exists, one early morning Öcalan was shuttled to 
Kenya, where he was picked up by Turkish commandos. Drugged and tied up, 
Öcalan was flown back to Turkey; the video 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBBmvB4z-cU> of this had a chilling 
effect across Kurdistan.

A new phase of the Kurdish Struggle was at the door. The PKK had to 
reinvent itself with its leader behind bars and sentenced to death, the 
only prisoner in an island prison about 50 miles from Istanbul. In the 
end, Turkey abolished capital punishment in its quest to join the 
European Union, and Öcalan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison; 
this also meant that the Turkish state could utilize him in the future. 
Between 1999 and 2004, the PKK declared a ceasefire, although the 
Turkish state massacred closed to 800 fighters as they were attempting 
to leave the country to reach their main base in Iraq. This was the 
closest the PKK ever came to decomposition, and Öcalan’s supreme 
authority was challenged. But as he himself has pointed out, “The 
history of the PKK is a history of purges”—the PKK cadre centered around 
Öcalan survived its challengers, including his own brother.

In prison, Öcalan found time to read and write as he immersed himself in 
a panoply of thinkers and subjects. Many have referenced how he studied 
Murray Bookchin;^5 5. Although Western leftists are fascinated by the 
Bookchin-Öcalan connection, it is not as if Kurdish militants are 
walking around with Bookchin under their arms in the region. Sure, 
Democratic Confederalism resembles libertarian municipalities, but 
pointing to Bookchin as the ideological forefather reeks of 
Eurocentrism. he also studied Immanuel Wallerstein and his World Systems 
Analysis, as well as texts on the history of civilization and 
Mesopotamia. Under the guise of formulating his defense for the Turkish 
courts as well as to the European Human Rights Court and providing a 
roadmap for peace in Turkey 
he penned several manifestos in which he broke with his traditional 
views on national liberation, with all its historical Marxist-Leninist 
baggage, and formulated more palatable ideas under his conditions of 
imprisonment. These ideas were Democratic Autonomy and Confederalism.

A further development shifted the context of the Kurdish question. In 
late 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed to this day 
by the despotic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, won the general elections and came 
to power, ending more than a decade of dysfunctional coalition 
governments. Modeling itself as what can be termed Islamic 
neoliberalism, the AKP set about integrating Turkey further into the 
global financial system by means of privatization, enclosure, and 
incurring debt. In effect, the debt once owed to the IMF is now held by 
the private sector. At the same time, Turkey was subjected to 
desecularization by a creeping fundamentalist morality^6 6. There is no 
question that Muslims were subjected to a conservative secularism in 
Turkey prior to the AKP. Erdogan’s electoral successes capitalized on 
the resulting frustration. and the authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. 
Erdoğan presented this project as returning Turkey to its rightful 
historical place by reincarnating its Ottoman heritage and emphasizing 
economic growth for the nation.

In May 2004, the PKK once again began a phase of armed struggle, ending 
the ceasefire that had held since 1999. Kurds endured increasing 
repression by the Turkish State and cross-border operations into PKK 
positions in Northern Iraq. As he consolidated power, Erdogan came to 
realize that peace with the Kurds would facilitate his plans for 
regional domination that included petroleum reserves in Northern Iraq 
and a number of oil pipelines running through the region. By allying 
himself with the large Kurdish population, he hoped to pass a number of 
constitutional changes cementing his power. To put the plans into place, 
in 2009, the Turkish Intelligence Agency started to act as an 
intermediary in negotiations between the AKP and PKK representatives in 
a meeting in Oslo.

Despite the renewed dialogue and various other overtures, the Turkish 
State continued its repression against Kurds. Starting in April 2009, 
the KCK (Group of Communities in Kurdistan) trials sent thousands of 
people to jail <http://bianet.org/konu/kck-davasi>. Militarily, one of 
the most horrific attacks was the bombing of 34 Kurdısh peasants on 
December 28, 2011 in Roboski, Şırnak. The Turkish state claimed they 
were members of the PKK crossing the border, but then had to admit that 
they were common villagers involved in cross-border commerce. To this 
day, no one has been brought in front of a judge for those murders, and 
the victims of Roboski remain fresh in many people’s minds 

The ceasefires came and went with increasing frequency through those 
years; by the summer of 2012, the PKK had gained considerable 
territorial power. In this situation, compelled by his territorial 
ambitions, Erdoğan announced that meetings had been taking place with 
Öcalan. Three months later, during 2013’s Newroz, a letter from Öcalan 
was read in which he announced another ceasefire. This ceasefire was 
relatively long-lasting, remaining in place until July 24, 2015. But 
just when it seemed like stability was returning to Turkey, a chasm 
opened in Turkish reality on May 31, 2013. This was the Gezi Resistance.


The Gezi Resistance was the largest and fiercest social movement the 
Turkish Republic has seen enacted by its non-Kurdish population 
<https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2014/03/03/18751818.php>. A movement 
sparked by a struggle against the development of a park in central 
grew to an all-out national revolt against Erdoğan and his neoliberal 
policies. Kurds were present in the Gezi Resistance, too, especially 
after it matured into a non-nationalist and pro-revolutionary event. But 
for the first time in Turkish history, the Kurds were not the main 
protagonists of an insurrection.

The participation of the Kurdish movement in the Gezi Resistance is 
still a controversial topic. A subtle bitterness can be felt on both 
ends. Many in western Turkey felt like the Kurds were at best too late 
to join the uprising and at worst did not even want to, for fear of 
jeopardizing their negotiations and peace process. In response, Kurds in 
the region pointed to the lack of meaningful solidarity from ethnic 
Turks during massacre after massacre committed against them over the 
preceding decades. In reality, both of these positions are caricatures. 
Many Kurds participated in the clashes around Gezi from day one; shortly 
after the park was taken from the police, the Kurdish political party of 
that time (BDP) set up a large encampment at its entrance and flew flags 
with Öcalan’s face over Taksim Square—a surreal sight 
<http://www.globaluprisings.org/taksim-commune-gezi-park-and-the-uprising-in-turkey/>. Additionally, 
Kurds were already engaged in their own civil disobedience campaign 
against the construction of fortress-like military bases in their region.

In the run-up to the Gezi rebellion, the aboveground wing of the Kurdish 
movement was in the process of forming the HDP (Peoples’ Democracy 
Party) after more than a year of consultations as the HDK (Peoples’ 
Democratic Congress). One of their MPs stood in front of a bulldozer 
along with only a dozen or so people to block the uprooting of the trees 
during the first protests in Gezi, well before it became a massive 
uprising. It is no coincidence then that when it was time to select a 
logo for the HDP, they chose an image of a tree.

Regardless of grudges, Gezi forever transformed Turkey—and with it the 
Kurdish liberation movement’s relationship to Turkish society in general 
and towards the AKP and the peace process in particular. Many Turks who 
were on the receiving end of police brutality had the veil lifted from 
their eyes and were finally able to imagine the suffering taking place 
in southeastern Turkey. The media blackout of the Gezi Resistance made 
it clear to the participants that they must have been kept in the dark 
about what was actually transpiring in Kurdistan. At the tail end of the 
Gezi resistance, when a Kurdish youth named Medeni Yıldırım was killed 
protesting the construction of a fortress-like police station in 
Kurdistan, the movement saw him as one of its own and organized 
solidarity demonstrations with the Kurds.

This furious yet joyous rebellion, initiated by a generation that came 
of age under successive unstable coalition governments only to become 
adults under Erdoğan’s decade-long iron rule, served to consolidate 
hatred against Erdoğan. This generation had been defined as apolitical 
or even anti-political, but in reality they were what Şükrü Argın has 
identified as counter-political 

    The Wild Youth of Kurdistan

Cizre is the epicenter of a region in Northern Kurdistan called Botan. 
The towering mountains in this region are the location of many PKK 
camps, and the towns at their base are some of the most rebellious. 
Cizre in particular continues to play an important role to this day. 
Cizre is where the 4th Strategic Struggle Period of the PKK 
materialized, shifting the point of conflict from mountainous landscapes 
dotted with guerrilla camps to urban epicenters in which cells of 
Kurdish militants organized.

In June 2013, in the town of Cizre, a group of 100 youth standing 
ceremonially in formation <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuIfo1AyNCo> 
announced the beginning of the Revolutionary Patriotic Youth Movement 
(YDG-H).^7 7. The word for “Patriotic” in YDG-H is /yurtsever/, which 
means more accurately “one who loves his or her homeland.” With members 
ranging from their early teens to well into their twenties, this new 
organization coordinated urban guerrilla activity within every major 
metropolitan center inside Turkish borders. Kurdish youth began to 
employ Molotov cocktails instead of stones. The recent spike of urban 
combat in Kurdish towns and neighborhoods can be attributed to this new 
organization. Rebellious Kurdish youth were especially effective October 
6–8, 2014, when it appeared that the city of Kobanê in Rojava was about 
to fall to ISIS. With the sanction of the official Kurdish leadership, 
Kurdish youth went on the offensive 
devastating state forces. The implicit demand in the riots was for 
Turkey to stop providing logistical and material support to ISIS, and to 
allow Kurdish forces passage across its borders—for example, by allowing 
some heavier artillery to cross Turkey to reach Kobanê from Iraq. After 
the deaths of fifty people and the imposition of curfews in six 
different cities and martial law in the Kurdish capital of Amed, the 
Turkish government finally permitted the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga of the 
KDP to reach Kobanê with their weapons.

Announcing the formation of the YDG-H in Cizre.

There are great political differences between the PYD and by extension 
the PKK and the KDP, the current regime of Kurds in Northern Iraq who 
have had autonomy since the first Gulf War in 1991. The PKK/PYD are 
fighting for a social revolution based on self-governance, self-defense, 
autonomy, and women’s liberation, with an emphasis on ecology and a 
critique of all hierarchies, most notably state power. The KDP, on the 
other hand, is cultivating a national Kurdish bourgeoisie and acts as a 
close ally of Erdoğan. In the 1990s, the KDP fought together with Turkey 
against the PKK. Tensions remain high.

The YDG-H is perhaps strongest in Cizre. After the uprising in defense 
of Kobanê, Cizre entered the national discourse again when youth rose up 
following the funeral of Ümit Kurt, taking control of the three 
neighborhoods of Sur, Cudi, and Nur. They were able to create an 
autonomous zone within these neighborhoods for two months by digging a 
total of 184 ditches around their neighborhoods 
<http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2ijq0v>. The Turkish state 
effectively lost control of this area as the youth took over, burning 
down at least five buildings belonging to the state or its associated 
interests—including a school where many of them were also students.

On a tour of Cizre, I asked some of the members of YDG-H why they dug 
ditches rather than building barricades, the traditional revolutionary 
method of asserting autonomy since time immemorial. My host, Hapo, 
explained that since the youth are armed with AK–47s, rocket-propelled 
grenades, and small arms, the police cannot exit their armored vehicles, 
but they can still plow through barricades. But again, since they cannot 
exit their vehicles, they also cannot traverse the ditches. Hapo 
described how at first they used pickaxes and shovels to excavate these 
ditches, but then they commandeered construction vehicles. /The 
construction vehicles of the municipal government,/ he said, sneaking a 
subtle smile. I realized he meant the municipal government belonging to 
the aboveground political party of the Kurdish Movement, the HDP.

The wild youth of Cizre are organized into “teams” of around ten 
individuals. Hapo told me that once the number of a team grows to more 
than thirty, they split into smaller groups. The teams take their names 
form Kurdish martyrs, often recent ones and sometimes from Cizre 
itself—an eerie reproduction of martyrdom and militancy. Teams claim 
their territory by tagging their names on walls, much as graffiti crews 
do elsewhere around the world. During the high point of clashes, each 
neighborhood establishes a base where explosives, Molotov cocktails, and 
weapons are stockpiled during the day in preparation for the 
confrontations that occur at night. The younger children are sometimes 
on the front lines throwing rocks at armored police vehicles, but they 
are always the ones who sound the alarm by running through the 
neighborhood shouting: “The system is coming! The enemy is coming!”

The division is clear for the Kurdish militants both in the personal and 
the political. There is the system, and there is struggle. Students 
leave the system (universities) in order to join the struggle. The 
system and capitalist social relations inevitably corrupt all forms of 
romantic love; hence, real love is love for your people, for whom you 
struggle. Young militants twenty years of age are not allowed to succumb 
to their carnal desires or fall in love. If they do, and they are honest 
about it, they will have to provide a self-criticism and hopefully get 
away with a punishment only involving a further, perhaps collective, 
self-criticism session /on the platform,/ as they say in the PKK.

It is clear that the PKK is at a turning point: a new generation of 
militants is hitting the streets, transforming the character of the 
movement. Perhaps the formation of the YDG-H was a way for the old guard 
to assert more control over the rebellious youth of the Kurdish slums. 
Even if such a strategy was at play, the youth are proving hard to 
control; the official leadership is acknowledging that there are groups 
acting outside of their directives. Only Öcalan himself could reign them 
in. The future of the PKK and the Kurdish movement will be determined by 
this rebellious youth: will they will follow the party line lockstep, or 
come up with their own ideas?

Ultimately, Öcalan had to intervene for the ditches to be closed on 
March 2, 2015. When I brought this up to Hapo, who consistently 
expressed skepticism about the official leadership of the HDP and the 
peace process, he said that Apo is the line they don’t cross, and that 
their insurrection in Cizre has strengthened his negotiating hand within 
prison. I was left wondering how much of the leadership cult around 
Öcalan has to do with his imprisonment, and whether the democratic 
structures being put in place constitute an attempt to abolish himself 
as the leader.

On September 4, the Turkish military and police invaded Cizre and 
declared a curfew which would last for nine days. They enforced this 
curfew by placing snipers on the minarettes of mosques to shoot anyone 
out on the streets. The siege was only broken under the pressure of a 
march organized by Kurds from surrounding towns, which was joined by the 
HDP's parliament members. When people finally entered the town, they 
found 21 civillians dead, 15 of whom died on the spot after being shot; 
the others died from their wounds or other illnesses because they could 
not get to the hospital. Among them was a 35-day-old baby and a 
71-year-old man who had attempted to get bread during the curfew. The 
three rebellious neighborhoods of Nur, Sur and Cudi were riddled with 
bullets and larger ammunition. The state blamed the PKK for the deaths, 
although not one member of the state forces was injured—giving the lie 
to the pretense that the neighborhoods were filled with “terrorists.” 
This latest massacre in Cizre will be remembered for a long time and 
fuel the Kurdish movement.

    The Revolution in Kurdistan

Like the movements that preceded it, Gezi took great inspiration from 
the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Arab Spring that were able to 
topple dictators swiftly. Although Erdoğan still sits on his throne in 
the palace he built for himself for over a billion dollars, Gezi was not 
a complete failure, as it opened a new space for joyful revolt in 
Turkey’s future. Syria, another country that rose up during the Arab 
Spring, seems to have experienced a similarly bittersweet outcome. 
Bashar Al Assad crushed the rebellion in the central cities of Syria, 
while the periphery was thrown into a brutal civil war that opened up 
the stage for jihadist groups from Iraq and elsewhere to arrive and 
eventually converge under the banner of ISIS.

The silver lining in Syria was supplied by the Kurds in Rojava, who had 
been organizing clandestinely for decades to support the PKK in the 
north and to establish their own political and military structures. As 
in Turkey, the Assad regime did not permit the expression of the Kurdish 
identity or education in the mother tongue, underscoring the similarity 
between Kemalism and Baathism. A massacre in the city of Qamishlo, in 
which the Syrian regime killed 52 people after a soccer riot on March 
12, 2004, is often cited as the forebear of the Rojava revolution.  The 
main Kurdish political party, the PYD, is for all intents and purposes 
the sister organization of the PKK; Öcalan’s portrait is ubiquitous in 

The PYD and others organized under the banner of Tev-Dem (Movement for a 
Democratic Society) took advantage of the approaching instability in 
Syria to declare autonomy on July 19, 2012. It was a relatively smooth 
operation, as preparatory meetings had already taken place in mosques 
throughout the region: more of a takeover than a battle. They organized 
themselves into three cantons running along the Turkish border, 
separated from each other by primarily Arab regions. These cantons are 
Afrin in the west, Kobanê in the center, and Cizire in the East. It was 
almost unbelievable that after decades of fighting, the Kurds—now in 
pursuit of Democratic Confederalism—had claimed their own territory.

Öcalan’s Democratic Autonomy and Confederalism is the vision being 
implemented in Rojava. Autonomy, ecology, and women’s liberation are the 
three central points of emphasis. The most basic unit of this new 
society is the commune. Communes exist from the neighborhood level to 
workplaces including small petroleum refineries and agricultural 
cooperatives. There are communes specific to women, such as the Women’s 
Houses. All these communes are organized into assemblies that go up to 
the cantonal level. The current economic model in Rojava is mixed: there 
are private, state, and communal properties. In the Rojava Social 
(something akin to their constitution), private property is not fully 
disqualified, but it is said that there will be limits imposed upon it. 
It is a society still in transition; so far, it is much more anti-state 
than anti-capitalist, but it is undeniable that there is a strong 
anti-capitalist push from within. Time will show how far the 
revolutionaries of Rojava are willing to take it.

The revolution in Rojava is a women’s revolution; the Kurdish movement 
for liberation places women’s liberation above anything else. In 
addition to having their own army and autonomous women-only 
organizations, almost every organizational structure from the municipal 
governments to the armed PKK formations is run by co-chairmanship of a 
man and a woman. Quotas are imposed for memberships and other positions, 
so that equal participation from both genders is ensured. March 8, 
International Women’s Day, is taken very seriously by Kurdish women, and 
even more so now with the women’s resistance exemplified by the YPJ 
(Women’s division of the People’s Defense Units—the YPG). In his 
writings, Öcalan recognizes patriarchy and the separation of genders as 
the first social problem in history. Perhaps paradoxically, many Kurdish 
women militants attribute their liberation to Öcalan and his thought.

    The Fighters

Even though the Kurdish seizure of power in Rojava went smoothly, the 
honeymoon was brief. After capturing a large amount of military 
machinery from Mosul on June 10, 2014, ISIS pushed north in Iraq and in 
Syria. With its advance came stories of massacres, enslavement, 
displacement, and rape. A month and a half later, in August, ISIS 
reached the Yazidi population, a non-Muslim Kurdish speaking community 
near the Sinjar Mountains, where they killed thousands and displaced 
near 290,000 people, 50,000 of whom were stranded on mountains without 
food or water 
<http://tr.sputniknews.com/ortadogu/20150804/1016919391.html>. ISIS 
fighters seemed especially keen on wiping out this population belonging 
to a pre-Islamic faith with many animistic aspects, who had been 
persecuted for centuries as devil worshipers, withstanding more than 
seventy massacres in their history. The Iraqi Kurdish Regional 
Government lacked the agility to intervene with its peshmerga forces—in 
contrast to the PKK, who mobilized rapidly, traveling across the country 
from its main base on the Iraqi-Iranian border in Qandil. In coming to 
the rescue of the Yazidi and arming and training this population for 
self-defense, the PKK gained credibility in the region run by Barzani 
and his KDP. Despite the tensions between regional Kurdish forces, all 
the stories and images ISIS circulated through social media had the 
effect of unifying the once disparate Kurds, as the PKK/YPG joined with 
the KDP in an uneasy alliance.

Of all of the Kurdish armed forces, the YPG is the newest. The people’s 
defense forces were formed shortly after the revolution, and their 
numbers quickly swelled with volunteers joining to defend Kurdish 
territories from ISIS. This wartime mobilization is also supported by 
conscription, which has started to create tension among young people who 
are not interested in fighting or who say they have already done their 
military service with the Assad Regime. But beyond this simmering point, 
in places such as Kobanê, the YPG and the YPJ are comprised of people 
defending their own towns and cities.

Kobanê became ground zero in the resistance as ISIS closed in little by 
little, taking villages on the outskirts of the city thanks to their 
recently obtained military superiority. ISIS was especially keen to 
capture Kobanê, as it occupies the most direct route between the Turkish 
border and the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. In addition, Kobanê was 
also the launching point of the revolution in Rojava. The YPG and YPJ 
offered a heroic resistance with the little firepower they had, mostly 
small arms supported by rocket-propelled grenades and the higher-caliber 
Russian /Dushkas/ mounted on the backs of pickup trucks. As they 
retreated further and further into the city proper of Kobanê, the YPG 
and YPJ reached near-celebrity status, thanks in part to the West’s 
romanticization and objectification of YPJ women fighting the bearded 
hordes of ISIS. Everyone from prominent leftist academics to /Marie 
Claire/ magazine, who featured the YPJ (to the snickering of YPJ members 
in Kobanê), started singing the praises of the Kurdish fighters.

One has to admit the neatness of the contrast on the Rojava battlefield: 
a feminist army courageously resisting misogynist bands of 
fundamentalists. Apparently, many fighters within ISIS believe that if a 
woman kills them, they will not enter heaven as glorious martyrs. This 
belief is known by the members of the YPJ and used in a form of 
psychological warfare on the front lines. The women of the YPJ make it a 
point to sound their shrill battle cry, a well-known Kurdish exclamation 
of rage or suffering called /zılgıt,/ before they enter into battle with 
ISIS. They are making sure the jihadists know they are about to be sent 
to hell.

Hundreds of Kurds from Turkey crossed the border to join the YPG forces 
defending Kobanê alongside PKK guerrilla units that moved into the 
region. Turkish leftists also started making the journey, becoming 
martyrs themselves. In one case, Suphi Nejat Ağırnaslı, a sociology 
student at one of the most prestigious universities in Istanbul, 
influenced in his own writings by the French journal /Tiqqun,/ went to 
Rojava only to be martyred <http://hayalgucuiktidara.org/> after a few 
weeks. The nom de guerre he had chosen was Paramaz Kızılbaş, a synthesis 
of the name of a well-known Armenian socialist revolutionary executed by 
the Ottomons and the Alevi faith, historically repressed in Turkey. This 
exemplifies the character of solidarity in the region: a Turkish 
revolutionary, assuming the name of an Armenian one, going to defend the 
Kurdish revolution.

As reported in the Western media, many Americans and Europeans also made 
the journey to join the ranks of fighters in Rojava. Some integrated 
into the YPG or YPJ; others joined other units, such as the United 
Freedom Forces (BÖG), comprised of communists and anarchists 
Apart from international revolutionaries arriving in solidarity with the 
Kurdish struggle for liberation, there are also ex-military or military 
wannabes from the UK or the US who believe that the war against Islamic 
extremists that they were tricked out of by corrupt British and American 
governments has finally arrived. Some of these internationals have 
started to warm to the political philosophy of Democratic Autonomy as 
practiced by their comrades-in-arms; others quickly got out, realizing 
they were among “a bunch of reds.” 

The international revolutionaries fighting alongside their Kurdish 
comrades will return to their homelands with strategic experience in the 
battlefield and a renewed sense of inspiration and perspective on what 
is possible when people commit themselves to liberation.

In the middle of fall 2014, it appeared that Kobanê was about to fall. 
Solidarity demonstrations were held globally. Riots shook Turkey to 
pressure Erdoğan to stop supporting ISIS. In the meantime, meetings were 
held between the regional powers to figure out a response. YPG members 
in Kobanê recount that it appeared to be a matter of hours before the 
city would fall; they retreated to a central part of the city, gathering 
their ammunition to be destroyed rather than captured by ISIS. It was at 
that moment, rather than a month earlier when ISIS had not even entered 
the city, that the much-promised US and French airstrikes finally began 
in earnest.

Beyond a doubt, without that aerial support, the minimally-armed YPG 
forces would not have emerged victorious. The fact that the bombardment 
came at the very last possible minute shows that, aside from whatever 
backroom negotiations and deals were taking place, NATO countries did 
not want an ISIS victory; but at the same time, they apparently wanted 
the Kurds to inherit a completely destroyed city.

NATO assistance in the Kurdish self-defense is a touchy subject, to say 
the least—especially considering that the capture of Öcalan was 
understood as a NATO operation. When this reality is brought up among 
YPG members in Kobanê, they first joke about “Comrade Obama.” Pushed 
further, they point out that while the US and Israel are bad, they 
aren’t nearly as bad as the Arab Regimes. But really, at the end of the 
day, it is simply a matter of survival. Ideally, the YPG would be able 
to obtain the necessary weaponry to mount their own defense; but lacking 
that, if the question is between ideological purity and survival, the 
choice seems clear.


Immediately after its liberation from ISIS, Kobanê was a war-torn ruin 
in which most buildings had lost their upper floors to artillery fire. 
Aerial bombardment by coalition forces also did significant damage. 
Mahmud, a friend and comrade from Kobanê, showed me around the city he 
had never left in his life; his eyes filled with tears as he remembered 
all his friends who died in those streets. We were walking in a ghost 
town where the only people we saw were fighters or the small number of 
holdouts who had stayed behind or just returned from refugee camps in 
Turkey. They could be seen digging through the rubble, trying to salvage 
anything from the wreckage. Unexploded munitions and booby traps left 
behind by ISIS continued to kill even after their departure, with at 
least ten dead in the first two weeks following the city’s liberation. 
Despite the high toll paid by the Kurds—the number of fighters killed 
was above 2000—there was a sense of excitement and victory in the air, 
as news came in daily of ISIS units being pushed back further and further.

Mahmud is one of three brothers, all of whom are members of the YPG in 
one role or another. Like practically all of the YPG who have been 
through the conflict, they have shrapnel in their bodies and hearing 
loss from explosions and gunfire. An experienced machinist by training, 
he found a role in the ranks as a gunsmith—not only fixing weapons, but 
also manufacturing new designs, especially long-range sniper rifles. Yet 
he was only able to play this part until ISIS entered the city limits of 
Kobanê. After that, everyone took up arms to fight, including his 
13-year-old shop assistant.

Stories of heroism are everywhere, from the sniper who blew up an ISIS 
tank by shooting his round into its muzzle to others who gallantly 
climbed on top of another tank to throw a grenade down its hatch. 
Stories pile upon stories as Mahmud takes me through the city streets, 
narrating the months-long battle of Kobanê. During one stretch, he 
didn’t sleep for five days straight—not only because they were under 
consistent attack, but also because he was so afraid. He said that at 
one point he wanted to die just so it would be over. From his platoon of 
about a hundred people, only four are still alive; we spend many hours 
looking at pictures of his fallen comrades on his phone. Many of the YPG 
have smartphones, including Mahmud and his brother Arif, who would be 
reprimanded by their commander for checking Facebook while they were 
engaged in trench warfare. His brother Arif was a sniper. But he left 
the YPG after the trauma of shooting a comrade by mistake.

The stench of death was strong in some neighborhoods, with bodies still 
under the wreckage and the corpses of ISIS fighters rotting alongside 
roads littered with abandoned tanks destroyed by the YPG. To prevent the 
spread of disease, the bodies of ISIS fighters were usually burned; but 
the sheer number of corpses made it impossible to deal with all of them. 
Even surrounded by all this death and carnage, joyful moments were 
common, perhaps due to the news of advances arriving from the front. We 
spent our evenings hunting chickens with M16s for dinner, then smoking 
/nargile/ after /nargile,/ singing around a fire, waiting for the sun to 
rise over the Turkish border in the distance.

    National Liberation from Borders

Surreal as it was for US planes to assist radical leftist fighters, the 
aerial bombardment started to shift the tide towards the YPG as they 
took back territory from ISIS bit by bit, eventually pushing them to the 
western bank of the Euphrates and coming within 40 km of Raqqa. On July 
1, 2015, joint operations between the Free Syrian Army and the YPG 
liberated Tell Abyad from ISIS. The significance of this was multifold. 
First, this was the most coordination to occur yet between the FSA and 
the YPG, perhaps appeasing some of the concerns of Syrian 
revolutionaries who regard the Kurds as pro-Assad. Second, an important 
ISIS border access point into Turkey was captured, closing a corridor 
they had been maintaining into Syria and Raqqa 
But perhaps most significantly of all, the taking of Tell Abyad 
connected the Eastern canton of Cizire with Kobanê, creating an 
uninterrupted stretch of Rojava and breaking the isolation of Kobanê for 
the first time.

The Kurds are one of the many casualties of borders crossing the peoples 
of the world—in their case, the borders drawn by Sykes-Picot at the end 
of the First World War. These borders between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and 
Iran are the ones the Kurds are attempting to remove, and it is this 
experience that informs their critique of borders everywhere. The Kurds 
are often mentioned as a people without a nation-state; the PKK led a 
national liberation struggle for decades, and the Kurdish liberation 
struggle can still be classified as such—but not in the classical sense. 
It is almost like national liberation updated for the 21st century. Both 
in Turkey and in Syria, the Kurdish movement is trying to provide a 
common fighting platform for all oppressed peoples, leftist 
revolutionaries, and others—a collective of peoples they often refer to 
as “the forces of democracy.” This platform resembles the 
intercommunalism of Huey Newton in that it promotes solidarity and 
common action while preserving the autonomy of each constituent.

This is evident in the politics of the HDP and, more significantly, in 
the self-governance structures in Rojava—especially in the eastern 
canton of Cizire, where Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians live together, 
participate in communal-self governance, and mobilize fighting forces 
within the YPG. For a region plagued by ethnic division, the Kurdish 
proposition is a third way. This is how they refer to their project to 
contrast it with the choice between ISIS and the Assad regime on one 
side of the border, and between the AKP and Turkish nationalism on the 

This proposition presents democratic modernity as an alternative to 
capitalist modernity and self-governance via confederalism as an 
alternative to the nation-state. The Kurds are not the only ones 
attempting to break the borders of the Middle East. In addition to ISIS 
who has successfully redrawn the map, Erdoğan also has his own ambitions 
under the rubric of the “Great Middle East Project,” in which Turkey 
would assume its rightful role (neo-Ottomanism) as the dominant regional 
power. Already today, most of the foreign business in Barzani’s Kurdish 
Region in Northern Iraq is Turkish capital. A strong PYD and PKK in the 
region would be an obstacle to this project.

    Elections and a Massacre

For thirteen years, the AKP has won overwhelming victories in Turkish 
national elections, holding power as a single party. The HDP was able to 
harness anti-Erdoğan sentiment with a clever political strategy during 
the run-up to the historic elections of June 7, 2015. The Turkish 
electoral system has a 10% threshold: unless a party receives 10% of the 
national vote or above, it cannot enter parliament, and votes cast for 
it are effectively void. To sidestep this, the Kurdish movement has 
usually run independent candidates who, after winning a seat, would 
become party members. While this run-around strategy helped to get about 
thirty-five representatives into parliament, receiving more than 10% of 
the vote would secure at least twice as many positions.

The election of June 7 presented the possibility to displace the AKP and 
sabotage Erdoğan’s ambitions of increasing his powers by means of 
constitutional changes that would make him the ultimate patriarch of 
Turkey. Selahattin Demirtaş, the youthful and charismatic co-chairperson 
of the HDP, made “We won’t let him become president!” one of his main 
campaign slogans. The hatred of Erdoğan that had culminated in the Gezi 
uprising intersected with discontent over Erdoğan’s support of ISIS and 
enthusiasm inspired by the resistance of Kobanê. Consequently, the HDP 
secured 13% of the national vote and 80 MPs, creating a situation in 
which no single party could form a government by itself and 
necessitating that a coalition form to assume power.

The relationship between the armed PKK and the electoral HDP is delicate 
yet complementary. The HDP must strike a difficult balance: they receive 
their legitimacy in the eyes of the Kurdish population as the 
aboveground wing of the armed struggle, but they also need to distance 
themselves occasionally in order to play the political game successfully 
on the national scale. Erdoğan and his cronies, who are shrewd and aware 
of this, stoke the fires wherever they can by pitting the HDP against 
the PKK and both of them against Öcalan, whom they portray as more 
levelheaded—an easy task, when communication with him is controlled by 
the state and no one has heard from him in five months. The HDP is in a 
precarious position as a legal and unarmed political party often subject 
to the same repression as PKK members.

Following the election, no one could work out how to create a coalition 
government. As everyone’s attention was focused on the electoral 
stalemate, Erdoğan made it clear that he would push for early elections 
to give the population another opportunity to bring the AKP to power. 
Then came the massacre in Suruç <http://bianet.org/english/2015/7/22>.

It was just another delegation of young leftists from Istanbul to 
Kurdistan. This one was organized by the Socialist Youth Associations 
Federation with the goal of giving a hand in the rebuilding of Kobanê, 
bringing toys to refugee children, and planting trees in the region. On 
the morning of July 20, 2015, SGDF organized a press conference at the 
Amara Cultural Center, the de facto convergence center for volunteers 
traveling to assist with the refugee camps. In the midst of this, a 
suicide bomber killed 34 people. This massacre shocked the whole 
country, setting in motion a downward spiral of events. Two days later, 
Erdoğan cut a deal with the US to allow them use of the Turkish Incirlik 
Air Base against ISIS in exchange for their tacit support of a new 
campaign of annihilation against the PKK. Seizing upon the murder of two 
police officers the day after the bombing for justification (a 
retaliation later explicitly disowned by the official channels of the 
PKK), the Turkish government began a massive air campaign against PKK 
positions in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. In addition, raids 
took place across the country, resulting in more than 2000 arrests and 
continuing to this day. So belligerent were the actions of the AKP that 
they even arrested one of the injured from the socialist delegation 
bombed in Suruç.

The AKP claimed that it was going after all the extremist terrorists in 
the country: the PKK, ISIS, and the Marxist-Leninist group DHKP-C (The 
Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party - Front). Of these three, the 
DHKP-C does not hold a candle to the others in terms of numbers or 
effectiveness; it seems they were thrown in for good measure. While the 
AKP and Erdoğan claim in the media that they are also going after ISIS, 
in reality this is nothing but window dressing. Of the 2544 arrested by 
the end of August, less than 5% 
were arrested on allegations of belonging to ISIS, and many of those 
were later released. Of the bombing campaign totaling approximately 400 
only three targeted ISIS 
These airstrikes are targeting PKK camps, especially the central one of 
Qandil—but civilians have also been killed, such as ten in the nearby 
Iraqi village of Zelgele 

Although the Suruç bombing targeted the Kurdish movement, it is being 
used as an excuse to decimate it. As of this writing at the beginning of 
September, according to the Turkish Human Rights Association 
more than 47 civilians and 47 PKK guerrillas have been killed. The PKK 
is hitting back hard wherever it can: as of now, at least 92 policemen 
or soldiers have been killed, and 24 officials of the state or security 
forces kidnapped.

In response to this repression, Kurdish towns and cities rose up with 
demonstrations and riots in every single town for many nights in a row. 
The response by the state was brutal; media pundits observed that the 
country had regressed to the bloody 1990s. While this was certainly the 
case from the standpoint of the state, the Kurdish movement has evolved: 
Kurds in more than sixteen towns took the initiative of declaring 
autonomy from the state and began to emphasize their right to 
self-defense. These declarations were met with more brutality and 
arrests. Especially in the towns of Silopi 
<http://www.imctv.com.tr/silopide-keskin-nisanci-endisesi/> and Cizre 
the state responded by using snipers to go after children and citizens 
who weren’t even directly involved in the conflicts. House raids and 
extrajudicial executions soon followed. Bombings of the countryside have 
resulted in catastrophic forest fires, inflicting yet another form of 
anguish on the region. Many towns in the region are still declared 
special security zones, a designation akin to martial law; curfews and 
operations by special forces are widespread.

A new early election has been called for November 1, 2015. It is already 
clear that the run-up to the next election will result in escalations 
from the AKP and Erdoğan, who has shown that he is willing to do 
anything to hold on to power, even thrust the country into civil war. It 
is possible that he will use his executive powers to postpone the 
election for a year on the grounds that there is a security risk for 
elections to take place. The successes of the Kurds on both sides of the 
Turkish-Syrian border, their smart political choices and heroic fighting 
maneuvers have pushed the AKP and Erdoğan to a breaking point. If the 
current drive for a truly fascist police state is any indication, his 
fall from power will be as brutal as his reign.

I am inspired by the perseverance of the Kurds who are attempting to 
break out of stale leftist dogmas while still insisting on revolution. 
The transformation of a social movement of millions does not occur 
overnight, but they have begun to implement new social relations and 
structures that aim at abolishing the state and other hierarchies, such 
as men over women or humans over non-humans. From my observations, I 
believe that this stubborn multigenerational struggle has the potential 
to transform the world’s most sectarian region into autonomous zones of 
cooperation and solidarity. As long as they are able to survive ISIS and 
the Turkish State and continue constructing their revolution from below, 
they will have much more to teach those of us fighting for liberation 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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