In almost four years of civil war in Syria, more than 220,000 people died and around 3 million were displaced. But in the midst of the war, in Rojava (the north of Syria), Kurds have been striving for freedom and started pursuing a democratic experiment. It was the siege of Kobani, a canton of Rojava, on October 2014 that brought the world’s undivided attention to the region, and it was not all for the right reasons. Instead of celebrating a promising democracy in the Middle East, the Western audience ended up cheering the martyrs who gave their life in the fight against ISIS, one of the greatest evils of our times.

From War to a “Remarkable Democratic Experiment”

In order to understand what is going on in Rojava and how suddenly this territory made it to the world’s political agenda, it is important to see the timeline of ISIS-related events and the Kurdish factions’ role against ISIS.

Kurds refer to themselves as the biggest nation without a state, a community of 30 million people, of whom around 20 million live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. There are Kurdish factions in each of these countries (as well as in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan), and these factions have a history of conflict with each other.

However, a big step towards intra-Kurdish co-existence was taken during the Syrian civil war. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party in Syria, signed an agreement with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to create a Kurdish Supreme Committee to govern Syrian Kurdistan on 12 July 2012. People’s Protection Units (the PYD’s militia) captured a number of Kurdish majority cities in Rojava on July 2012. This de facto autonomous region of Syria declared autonomy in November 2013. Since then Rojava has been the “Canton-based Democratic Autonomy of Rojava” as adopted by the interim constitution in January 2014, and has been referred to as a “remarkable democratic experiment”.

The only thing that was able to stop ISIS were the Kurdish forces, eager to defend their newly built democracy.

And Along Came ISIS (Armed With US-Weapons)

On 6 June 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul in the north of Iraq and the US-trained Iraqi fighters (arming and training them has cost the West $1.3 billion) fled the city, leaving ISIS to strip the main army base of Mosul, release prisoners and seize not only $480 million from the city’s banks, but also a number of US-supplied weapons, that were left behind.

In 2003, the Western coalition invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the country, to stabilise the region, and for years the coalition spent billions in taxpayers’ money on the war, resulting in hundreds of thousands of fatalities. Now, 11 years after the beginning of the War in Iraq, the West must realise that it not only bears significant responsibility for the instability in the region, but that there is also a rising extremist force, armed with US-weapons, which US-trained forces weren’t able to stop.

The only thing that was able to stop ISIS were the Kurdish forces, eager to defend their newly built democracy. When the Iraqi army fled, the Peshmerga remained the only force against ISIS’s cruelty and they were not fighting a just fight.

All Eyes On the Kurds

When ISIS besieged Kobani in October 2014, the world witnessed the remarkable democratic experiment of Rojava: pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability. The media had a chance to report on the ethnic and gender balance of the decision-making bodies of Rojava (where the councils are required to represent all ethnicities and have at least 40% gender balance), and soon it became clear that Rojava is more than just the home of Kurdish people, its significance goes well beyond Kurdistan. It is a democracy of people without a state. And its revolution is a genuine revolution.

The global media was of course most excited about the Women’s Protection Units who were protecting their new democracy from the destructive forces of ISIS. Women’s fashion magazines like Marie Claire and Elle started introducing the brave women of Kobani to their readers, while the fast-fashion clothing line H&M started to produce Kurdish female fighter inspired jumpsuits. On top of this, leftist academics and writers started publishing articles praising the revolution in Rojava.

The problem with weapons is they never get lost and they never stay unused. We can never be sure what is going to happen with the weapons that are provided to Kurds in 10 years time.

Soon the civil war of Rojava was being interpreted as a feminist, ecologist, democratic revolution. Even some anti-militarist objectors declared they were not against holding guns and pointing them at ISIS, as the war in Kobani was a legitimate fight for existence, a right to self-defence, a war to protect innocent lives. Volunteers from the West (or the “Lions” as they call themselves) went to Kobani to join the fight against ISIS. The US and EU were called upon to act to remove PKK and PYD from the list of terror organisations, to provide weapons and ammunition in order to stop the heavily armed ISIS, and even to start a military intervention. Turkey, in the meantime, was called on to open a corridor to let the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga join the fight.

And indeed, the Kurds needed help, they needed to be saved from the terrorist group that was enslaving children, raping women and beheading non-Sunni Muslims in numerous regions of Iraq and Syria.

Some demanded military intervention because it was a “perfect” time for the US and the West to make good for turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds. And some demanded military intervention because they blamed the US for ISIS’ advance. And many believed that this was also an opportunity for the US to fix their part of what went wrong in Iraq after 2003.

But most demanded military intervention because, as YPG put it, “The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and ISIS, it was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.”

Death Becomes a Spectacle

Unfortunately, the great interest does not lead to a better understanding of wars. On the contrary, when wars are shown in movies and TV shows, the gritty details are wiped away; war becomes a spectacle, a show that portrays a fight between the villain and the hero.[1]

In the case of Kobani, the villain was as “evil” as evil can be while the idea of a democratic revolution was so widely celebrated, that it was quite obvious who were the real heroes to cheer for.

Nejat Suphi Agirnasli was a Turkish man from Turkey, who lost his life in Kobani while fighting the troops of ISIS. His friends wrote: Nejat became a martyr in Kobani. Nejat was martyred to defend Rojava, where most of our fights have been fought. Nejat believed in revolution. Nejat devoted himself to freedom, truth, justice, internationalism, revolution; to the fight of Kurds and all the oppressed. For Kobani, for the people of Kobani, for the revolution of Kobani. Kobani didn’t fall, and will not fall with Nejat and other revolutionists at its side.

We often get misguided by these shows. We applaud the heroes and martyrs, while the cause of anti-militarism and nonviolence gets forgotten very easily. Consequently, the debates were distorted, and there was no more need for dialogue.

Picking a side, when it comes to a war like this one, is not too hard. It was definitely not as hard as it is for me to write the following sentences: Picking a side in a war only means siding with militarism. And calling for a “military intervention” to stop terrorist factions that are formed after “military intervention” that are outgunned with leftovers of another “military intervention” just proves that wars cause nothing but more wars.

The problem with weapons is they never get lost and they never stay unused. We can never be sure what is going to happen with the weapons that are provided to Kurds in 10 years time.

This Is Not a Nationalist Argument

Being Turkish and making this claim is really hard. First of all, people will criticise me for being a nationalist, because it’s the Turkish nationalists who were most vehemently opposing military aid to Kurds in fear that those weapons would be used against them in Turkey.

Secondly, my arguments will be misunderstood as being against the oppressed. After all the years of civil war and the crimes that the Turkish government has committed against Kurds, it is very hard to claim anything could be seen to go against Kurdish freedom and self-governance – especially when it is an experiment like Rojava, which has come to represent freedom driven by ecologists and feminists; freedom that creates nations without borders…

Thirdly, ISIS was just a kilometre away from the Turkish border and the Kurds were the only force stopping them from crossing. Those weapons have thus saved the lives of many Turks as well.

The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and ISIS, it was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny.

A Time for Change Can Only Come When Guns Are Silent

But being Turkish has also allowed me to witness that one can only talk about revolution, peace and freedom once the guns are silent. One of the bloodiest wars of our time, the Syrian civil war, still continues. The death toll in Syria was estimated to be 220,000 last January by the UN, and all of these 220,000 people are “shahid”, or martyrs, for one side or the other, for one cause or the other.

But when the cameras look away, when the glamour disappears, we are left with the cruelty of militarism. War, no matter for what noble purpose, is still about killing and destroying the enemy. And the dead, no matter how long their memory will stay with us, are still people who had to leave this world far too early.

In Kobani, the world turned to old recipes of militarism in order to rescue a revolution. However the real revolution will happen when people no longer have to die for peace, for democracy, for their land, or in order to protect each other’s lives. The revolution will happen when wars become taboos.



[1] Zeybek, Sezai Ozan “Sava?lar? Yeniden Yazmak: ?ehitler ve ?ktidar?n Seçici Belle?i.” “Öl Dediler Öldüm”: Türkiye’de ?ehitlik Mitleri Ed. De?irmencio?lu, M. Serdar. ?stanbul: ?leti?im Yay?nlar?. pp. 148.

Peace, Love and Intervention
Peace, Love and Intervention

The 10th edition of the Green European Journal seeks to identify what makes the Green approach to foreign affairs distinctive, and asks whether ideals of peaceful resolution can stand up against the reality of a world ridden with complexity and conflict.

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