By Nick Fredman, March 28, 2017 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
Sharply different opinions have developed among the radical left in recent years towards the Syrian radical democratic movement led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — an initially Kurdish-based force which through a series of political and military struggles and alliances has recently formed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, as a model for a multi-ethnic, non-sectarian, federal and socially just alternative for the nation and the region. Some on the international left have accused this movement of human rights abuses, political repression and collaboration with the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
I was prompted to write the present notes in response to two articles by Roy Gutman in the USNation magazine (here and here). But as these articles both sum up and are fairly extreme examples of the left criticisms of the PYD-led movement, it makes sense to discuss some background and previous articles before taking up Gutman.
Socialists should not idealise any group or personality. Moreover, in undertaking the difficult task of confirming the truth amid the fog of the Syrian war, we should be open to the possibility that the PYD-led movement has authoritarian tendencies or is responsible for abuses.
But we should be very careful before casting assertions from our relatively comfortable and privileged position at those fighting and dying for the cause of human liberation. It is right to uphold high socialist norms of human rights and democracy but we also have to understand the challenges any movement will face meeting these when trying to transform a poor, traditional society in a time of war.
A particularly frustrating part of much left discussion of Syria is the immediate rejection of any information that comes from a source viewed as suspect. But when a whole range of forces — the Assad regime, the Turkish state, the Russian state, the Iranian state, the Gulf states, much of the rebels, all from their different points of view – have strong interests in distorting the nature of the PYD-led movement, we should not be surprised when dubious stories get repeatedly circulated. Instead, we should be a bit more critical before accepting them.
Probably the most serious charge against this movement is that, according to a 2015 Amnesty International report, it is responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Arab majority areas, and so presumably its socialist program and (and multi-ethnic alliance building) is cover for a Kurd-chauvinist agenda. Some on the left, just as in this article by Mick Armstrong in the Australian socialist publication Red Flag, have more or less uncritically promoted this charge.
The repetition of this charge by many mainstream and some leftist sources is no proof of the claims, especially as the Turkish state and some sectarian Syrian rebel groups have a direct interest in promoting fears of Kurdish chauvinism. The Amnesty report relied heavily on dubious assumptions about the cause of property destruction, shown in satellite photography, in areas that had been the scene of heavy fighting, and anonymous witnesses. Its charges were rejected by an investigation team from the Syrian National Coalition and by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in 2015. A recent report by the UN’s Syria commission (the report dated March 13here) found no basis to any charges for ethnic cleansing by any of the militia associated with the PYD-led movement: The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) associated with the PYD, and the broader Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The UN report criticised the movement for conscription — without mentioning conscription applies not to the YPG/J or SDF but only to the Self Defence Units (HXP), rarely involved in combat — with one case of abuse of a conscript refuser reported. It also argued that people forcibly moved out of military necessity, such as the clearance of ISIS’ masses of indiscriminately laid land mines, were not always looked after properly.
This compares with widespread indiscriminate killing of civilians, and arbitrary arrest, torture and execution reported to be carried out by the regime and some rebel groups. In essence this report concurred with a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch which was critical of the movement but concluded that any abuses were “far less egregious and widespread” than those committed by “the Syrian government and [other] non-state actors in Syria”.
Alliance with Assad?
Another set of allegations concern the PYD-led movement’s relationship with the Bashar al-Assad regime. This relationship certainly includes some openly recognised ad hoc administrative arrangements in the Rojava region operating since the movement seized power there in 2012, along with occasional military truces, punctuated by regular fighting. But some leftists see a deeper, longer-term and presumably secret collaboration, involving the Assad regime purposively ceding power in the region and forming an alliance that will led to some form of Kurdish autonomy as a pay-off.
This narrative was recently retold by Joseph Daher in Jacobin magazine as part of an article on the battle for Aleppo. There are several reasons to seriously doubt this narrative. Firstly, the story of a pre-mediated peaceful handover of power by Assad is contradicted by other sources which describe an insurrectionary seizure of power by Kurdish militia, taking advantage of a July 2012 crisis precipitated by a rebel bombing in Damascus that assassinated key regime figures (as discussed for example in the report on an academic discussion on the Rojava experience available here)
Secondly, there is no evidence of a secret agreement. Assad and various regime figures have claimed for several years that they have been arming the YPG/J, and had “documents” to “prove” it. These claims, as reported in the pro-Syrian regime media, have been happily taken up by the pro-Turkish regime media as “proof” of Assad arming the PYD-led movement.
But the “documents” have never surfaced. Perhaps running a dictatorship at war is a busy job and Assad and colleagues might just keep forgetting to click the “attach” icon on their media release emails. But perhaps we should entertain the possibility that Assad is capable of lying to suit his ends, and that the state media of the increasingly militarist and authoritarian Turkish state is capable of spreading fake news?
Thirdly, there is no proof of a recent deal for autonomy as Daher suggests — in doing so making the illogical claim that the late 2016 decision to drop the Kurdish word Rojava (for west, as in Western Kurdistan) from the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria was some kind of proof of this deal. What has happened since flatly contradicts the narrative. The regimehas continued to reject any idea of autonomy or of changing the institutionally Arab-chauvinist nature of the Syrian Arab Republic. The PYD-led movement has doubled down on its hostility to the regime and its insistence that it is fighting for a democratic, non-sectarian, federal but united Syria, and that it has no illusions in imperialist or sub-imperialist forces being anything more than temporary, partial and ultimately unreliable allies. As Syrian Democratic Council chair Ehmed put it on March 1:
“With the invasion, Turkey started to build outposts. These outposts and the invasion are a danger for Syria as a whole. These outposts are built while the [Assad] regime and Iran watch, with the approval of Russia … they want to divvy up Syria. What the regime has now will stay with the regime. The areas Turkey invaded will stay with Turkey. This policy of allocation will pave the way for the fragmentation of Syria. These people are trying to push Syria to fragmentation. That is not an acceptable situation. We as the Syrian Democratic Council will stand against this. We will try to raise awareness on this danger and we will try to organise them. We will strive to keep the unity of Syria. We are fighting and we will fight for a democratic Syria, not a fragmented Syria with each country claiming a part of it. If the regime is involved in these negotiations, that is not right, and we don’t accept that. If Russia is involved, it’s not right and we don’t accept that. If the US and Turkey are involved, that is not right and we don’t accept that.”
Last year’s battle for Aleppo was for some another occasion to criticise the PYD-led movement, in this case for allegedly coordinating operations to enable the regime to retake the city (such asthis article about the “practically constant” collaboration between the SDF and the regime, which for one thing falsely claimed the town of Manbij, recently liberated by the SDF from Islamic States’ medieval brutality, was to be handed over to Assad). However, there is strong evidence that the SDF’s operations in Aleppo were of a defensive nature. An Amnesty report, for example, cites evidence of a starvation siege-like operation by rebel groups against the largely Kurdish and poor Arab Sheikh Maqsod area and indiscriminate rocket attacks there on civilians, including the use of chlorine gas. Of course we need to critically assess all claims about abuses in Syria, but unlike the Amnesty report on the PYD-led movement, this report relied on video footage and a doctor’s statement, rather than primarily satellite photography.
At least informally on social media I saw some clutching at any straws of evidence to implicate the YPG/J and SDF, particularly in references to imagery allegedly showing YPG and regime flags flying together. These smudgy photos and brief smudgy videos, on Assadist and Russian sites, may be legitimate, or they may be the result of a few minutes work with Photoshop and After Effects to create fake news propaganda. The fact that in this key Assadist example the image of the flags together is in long shot and smudgily low-resolution, while the same article includes a number of hi-resolution close-ups of Syrian Arab Army troops, alone, suggests the latter possibility is the correct one.
The Nation’s fake news
The reductio ad absurdum of left criticisms of the PYD-led movement must be the aforementioned two recent Nation magazine articles by Roy Gutman (again, here and here). These paint a lurid picture of brutal ethnic cleansing, aggression against peaceful neighbours, unscrupulous secret deals masterminded by shadowy figures, and “iron fist” crushing of internal dissent (there isn’t anything discernibly leftist about Gutman, but the left liberal Nation did choose to run the articles).
The “War Nerd” blogger John Dolan usefully details some of the articles’ key lies, distortions and absurdities and Gutman’s past form and agenda here: two sources have complained about Gutman lying about their quotes, a practice he has previously been accused of; Gutman’s utterly distorts the 2014-15 battles of Kobane, in which Gutman claims the YPG/J handed over villages to ISIS as some kind of secret deal with their most vicious enemy, and of Shinjar, in which the YPG/J’s heroic rescue of 50,000 Yazidis is portrayed as an act of aggression, narratives contradicted by innumerable sources; and Gutman absurdly portrays the Turkish state and its allies in the corrupt, right-wing leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan as innocent parties threatened by an aggressive regional “terrorist” current led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and simply forced to blockade and attack Rojava.
I would add that Gutman completely fails to substantiate his strident charges of ethnic cleansing or of a PYD alliance with Assad, despite a spicy tale of an Iranian secret agent masterminding the deal (allegedly told by a pseudonymous former Assad regime source, if never substantiated by anyone else).
As for Gutman’s “iron fist”, it is probably true that all the parties and groups active in Rojava might not always enjoy the rights to communication and organisation we might see as the norm for a fully-functioning socialist democracy, at least in times of peace. It should at least be noted that a key “opposition party”, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, is allied with the KDP regime in Iraqi Kurdistan (bitterly hostile to the PYD-led movement), and to Turkey, effectively at war with Rojava.
Contradicting Gutman’s Stalinist nightmare, numerous sources — such as David Graeber’seyewitness reports and the visits that led to the book Revolution in Rojava — attest to a level of popular participation and control, and debate, that is extraordinary for a poor region at war.
Such leftist visitors do not shirk from criticism and concerns. Recent visitor Rahila Gupta for example questioned some of the ideas of the PKK current, developed since the 1990s as it jettisoned Maoism for an idiosyncratic version of libertarian socialism, such as a somewhat essentialist view of gender relations and a lack of understanding of the need to struggle against the oppression of human sexuality. Gupta also gives a fair account of abuse allegations. But she places these concerns in the proper context of an overall positive dynamic that should be helped to survive and develop further.
Gupta also avoids the arrogant view of much of the western left that our role in relation to such struggles is to pass our expert judgement; she recognises we might actually learn something from leftist forces who have been far more successful than us in building popular organisation and support for socialism, despite differences and concerns. Her brief discussion of how a socialist-led feminist movement in a poor, traditional society is tackling domestic violence through mass organisation is probably of more use than much of the rest of the Western left discussion of Rojava put together.
In my opinion, from the evidence available so far, the PYD-led movement is, politically speaking, head and shoulders above anyone else in the Syrian quagmire, and, along with the PKK-allied current in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, head and shoulders above any other force with mass support in the region.
Those who do not like to admit the extent to which democratic and progressive forces in the Syrian rebellion have been sidelined by jihadist forces, or who do not like to anoint any political force with the holy oil of socialist truth unless it adheres to their specific brand, seem to want to find every fault they can with this movement. But there should be no contradiction between extending solidarity and support to other democratic and progressive forces opposing Assad (limited although I think these now are), campaigning against international support for Assad, helping the victims of war and repression in Syria, particularly refugees, and showing solidarity with the PYD-led movement.
By Nick Fredman, March 28, 2017 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal