David Graeber’s impassioned plea in this week's The Guardian called for assistance to Kobanê. It was a desperately needed voice amidst a sanguine humanitarian militarism and public apathy in the ‘West’. The Kurds of the unique democratic system of Rojava region are under threat of genocide. Elsewhere, Dilar Dirik has gone so far as to suggest that if we are “to be on the right side of history, it is important for everyone to act right now.”
Graeber and Dirik’s central point is mine: solidarity for human suffering must evoke action. The Left must not be complicit through either silence or non-action. Kurdish protesters across Europe and in Turkey have ignited a beacon of hope.
But the question that remains unanswered is how are we to act? How can we ensure such action is not yet another sacrifice to the altar of the liberal peace?
The West must unite with Kurdish workers
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is an unlikely but ideal candidate. The PKK, which now rejects authoritarian Marxist-Leninism, no longer calls for a Kurdish state but an autonomous zone of self-governing communities, direct democracy and municipal confederalism based on socialist libertarianism principles.
The popular leader, Öcalan, serving a prison sentence in Turkey, now emphasises “granting and applying the broadest democratic standards.” Even the Turkish state could be democratized, he claims, through a new Republic inclusive of once-marginalized groups promoting communal organization at the local level. With ethnic inclusion, everyone would be the stronger for it—except for IS.
When we couple this with the Peoples Protection Units (YPG)—responsible for protecting the lives of all residents—its effectiveness in securing a corridor for the safe passage of Yezidis, and the bravery of individuals like Arin Mirkan (Dilar Gnecxemis)) all point to a group the West could back. Surely? Surely these aspirations would be welcome turn in a region not widely know for its experiments with democracy, freedom and gender equality?
Shades of power
And yet the PKK is too ‘free’ for the Liberal International Order that is being evoked to respond in Kobanê.
The reformed PKK is still listed as a terrorist organization by most states (a determination mired in partisan, sectarian and international politicking). At the behest of Turkey, it remains unlikely this assessment will lift. Consequently, any support would be deemed illegal.
Of course, this ban of the PKK has very little to do with terrorism. It has everything to do with power.
The PKK’s re-definition of democratic self-determination raises important questions about the moral legitimacy of an international democratic project that relies upon indiscriminately dropping freedom bombs from the sky.
Power exposes the entire contradiction at the heart of Liberal International Order—and the Western Liberals that seek to so selectively enforce it. Yet it is precisely this that the vague sentiments of Graeber and Dirik may be abetted by their overarching (and perfectly reasonable) urgency to do something, now.
At play here is the cynical manipulations of international solidarity for narrow geo-strategic benefits. The key actors are: Turkey, Syria and the US. Turkey’s tanks stand idle only a few miles from the battle and could easily assist the stricken people of Kobanê. Yet President Erdoğan has stated that, for him, ISIS and the PKK are essentially one and the same. They pledge support to Kobanê, but have done nothing to relieve it. Manifesting the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’, in their attempt to destroy Kurdish self-determination in Rojava, Turkey has turned a blind eye, tolerating, even supporting IS inside Turkey and Syria.
The US, for its part, gets access to key bases throughout Turkey—of key benefit in further isolating Russia and the litany of its other strategic interests this serves in the Middle East. Obama, it is often said, does not want to be drawn in again: but the US is happy to see more arms spending. Lots more, judging by where IS actually gets its weapons as the recent report in Foreign Policy has shown.
Whilst the US and Europe are starting to recognize that the YPG/PKK may be a useful ally, particularly after Sinjar, this has not come at the cost of shifting from Turkey and the strategic benefits that flow from such ties. Recall that when the mirage of WMDs evaporated into the deserts of Al-Hajarah, the US quickly pulled another genie from the bottle: Husseins’s human rights abuses, in which the Kurds were, once again, used to justify strategic ambitions.
With the rise of ISIS, the Liberal Responsibility to Protect (R2P) immediately sprung into action. And by action, they meant more bombs and guns. Yet this came with a startling admission by Gareth Evans http://gevans.org/opeds/oped161.html that this new intervention would not be based on beliefs as the others had, beliefs that had “later proved completely unfounded.” No. Unlike all the others, this intervention would be “completely consistent, in a way the earlier action was clearly not, with the principles of the international responsibility to protect […]” The doctrine represents little more than a unilateral universalism. Must we fall for this logic, as if third time will be ‘a charm’?
Both Graeber’s and Dirik’s ethical plea for action – as necessitous as it is urgent – is also unquestionably vague. In the absence of an organized, sophisticated and cosmopolitan response, they may unwittingly play into the interests that have caused this mess in the first place.
While the question of action is one of the utmost primacy, we must not forget to address the question of agency: who may act, and to what ends?
We are repeatedly told that the “the Kurds demand immediate intervention by Turkey and the West.” The reality on the ground, however, is very different. As explained by Govand Azeez, Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK) (group of communities in Kurdistan), have, thus far, voiced their opposition to foreign boots on the ground, especially Turkish boots. KCK and the Kurds in general are suspicious of foreign boots, on the obvious account that they are essentially imperial forces to quash, derail or hamper both the revolution and the democratization process taking place in Kurdistan.
Firas Massouh has already shown that the Left had more than ample opportunity to involve itself with the brutality of Assad, and one could add, the plight of the Kurds. Yet buying-in to the propaganda of Islamofascism meant that it wrote off the revolution, indeed the region, as if all participants were sectarian, Islamic, terroristic – making the world forget that this was a struggle against injustice and repression that the left was not able to mobilize.
Before we accept fighting an Islamic Cult of Death with a liberal one, what principled alternative of action can we organize socially? Individual acts of heroism will avail little. But for an international left that has been gutted, lacking organizational structure and cosmopolitan esprit, it looks like we have forgotten the wheel and have to reinvent it. The first step has to be, what do the Kurds want?
But time is not on our side here. Kobanê cannot fall.
Shannon Brincat is a research fellow at Griffith University. Read his publications here.
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