The Syrian War; Indigenous Rights and The Struggle for Self Determination
The ongoing war and destruction in Northern Syria has reached yet another critical turning point. On October 13th, Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from the Kurdish held areas of northern Syria. The mainstream Western media reported this decision as a major foreign policy blunder and a betrayal of the Kurdish allies. Many on the left, particularly anarchists, shared in the sympathy of the so called betrayal of the Kurds.
However, the dominant narrative surrounding the betrayal of the Kurds depicts an incomplete picture. Since 2014, the YPG, a kurdish nationalist militia has occupied oil rich areas of Northern Syria under the name of Rojava. Rojava has often been viewed in an extremely favorable light among leftist circles as a bastion of radical libertarian socialism.
However, despite the constant lamentations for the betrayal of Rojava and the Kurds, two indigenous groups of people are completely erased from the picture. I am speaking about the Assyrian and Yezidi peoples. For the Assyrian and Yezidi peoples, Rojava has been anything but a bastion of radical democratic socialism.
The struggle of the Assyrian and Yezidi peoples for self determination deserves more attention than it has currently received among the mainstream media and particularly in radical leftist spaces. I spoke to Chris, also known as Babylonian Bolshevik on twitter, to learn more about this important but neglected topic.
Chris is an Assyrian born in the diaspora. Chris spends time trying to engage with people about the Assyrian and their struggle. Chris offers a critical perspective and insight into issues and events surrounding Syria, and the Assyrian people in particular.
Kicking off our conversation I asked Chris to provide a background on the Syrian war, how long has northern Syria been controlled by the kurds. How did the Kurds find themselves in control of Northern Syria? Are the Kurds the only group of people which call the area home?
The Syrian War
“When the war in Syria started intensifying in 2012, the Syrian army began redeploying from border areas and ultimately from North East Syria itself. This was done in order to deal with the growing insurgency that was targeting more vital areas in other parts of the country.
As the government began pulling out its troops, it provided arms to groups in the region, leaving them the task of defending these areas that the Syrian army could no longer afford to defend. One such group was the YPG (People’s protection units), a Kurdish Nationalist militia that’s an offshoot of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey.
Syria and the PKK had worked together in the 1990’s due to the growing hostility between Syria and Turkey at the time. That relationship was interrupted in the early 2000’s when Damascus and Ankara had a thaw in relations, but once Turkey began supporting the insurgency in 2011, Damascus turned to the PKKs offshoot in Syria to manage Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey. So from 2012 you start to see the YPG ascending in north eastern Syria as a force.
Once we get to 2014, ISIS begins attacking the region and the YPG and US alliance comes out into the open. This culminated in the battle of Kobani when the US air force was deployed to assist in the battle. After this US special forces enter the region and bases are set up for them all across this area, with arms being sent as well as US forces embedding themselves with the YPG.
They then began expanding more and more into other areas with the assistance of the US. It’s worth Pointing out this region of Syria is not a “Kurdish region” as its often talked about. It’s a highly mixed demographic area comprising Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmen, Yezidis, Armenians etc. As the ISIS gets pushed out, the YPG declares an autonomous zone and creates a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF was created with the purpose of presenting the YPG as operating under the umbrella of Syria so as to appear multi ethnic and to not invite Turkish aggression. Turkey however. was never convinced. So in looking back, from 2012 till now we have seen the YPG come to dominate the region of North east Syria by taking advantage of the vacuum created because of the war on Syria. Also by aligning with the US, it managed to expand to areas far away from the Kurdish areas. These factors explain how it is that a Kurdish nationalist group came to dominate North Eastern Syria.”
As Chris points out the Kurdish held areas of Syria are especially culturally and ethnically diverse. Yet, little to no mention is made among western media of the other groups of people who call this region home.
Prominent anarchists such as Noam Chomsky and David Graeber have numerously praised Rojava. With Graeber stating “the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a worldwide movement towards genuine democracy.” And with Chomsky recently advocating for US ground forces to remain in northern Syria.
However, both of these famous self described anarchists seem not to be particularly bothered by the treatment of the Assyrian and Yezidi people. In fact, The only outlets that seem to be condemning the harassment and mistreatment of the Assyrians are either Christian or conservative leaning media outlets. It seems the broader left has turned a willing blind eye towards the plight of the Assyrian people in order to fetishize Rojava.
Continuing our discussion I asked Chris to dive into greater detail about the historic relationship between the Kurds, Assyrians, and Yezidis. What kind of relationship has existed between these groups of people? How has the historic relationship influenced contemporary events?
Relations between the Kurds, Assyrians and Yezidis; Past and Present
“Assyrians are indigenous to not only this part of Syria but northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey. Our history with Kurds has been a painful one, several of their tribes and nationalists have taken part and in some cases led the way in massacring Assyrians and displacing our people, with many of those areas we used to live in now taken over by Kurds. Despite all this our people stood by them whenever they were being targeted by Arab or Turkish nationalists. Our fighters joined their forces in confronting Saddam Hussein in Iraq several times, only to then be betrayed once the threat from Saddam was removed.
For Assyrians, the realisation of an ethno-state, a “Kurdistan” is the culmination of centuries of massacre, displacement and colonisation of our areas and history. We remain opposed to this the same way indigenous people across the globe remain opposed to any type of colonial structure.
Everyday we find our history and identity being appropriated into Kurdish history and identity. Our relations with Kurds therefore can be tense when dealing with these issues. The drive to achieve an ethno state is a danger to our existence in the region and so long as this aspiration is sought, Assyrian-Kurdish relations will be fraught with problems.
Yezidis are also indigenous to these areas and they stand as a distinct ethnic and religious group with a long history. Having been caught in the middle of Arab and Kurdish disputes, they’ve faced years of attempts to absorb them by both sides. Yezidis and Assyrians mostly see eye to eye when approaching the issue of Kurdish nationalism. Both have been on the receiving end of erasure by ethno nationalists and both see in “Kurdistan” their appropriation and permanent status as a second class.”
Clearly the relationship between the Kurds, Assyrians, and Yezidis has been fraught with conflict and strife. Perhaps the current relationship between these people has improved in the libertarian socialist Rojava. Do the Assyrians enjoy in power sharing with the Kurds? Has Rojava brought about equality for the Assyrians and Yezidis?
Indigeneity and Rojava
“Sadly the Rulers of the political structure referred to as “Rojava” (rojava translates to “west” in Kurdish thus implying West Kurdistan), treated minorities as subjects rather than as equals. For the YPG, this project they attempted was one aimed at replicating the Kurdish zone that exists in Northern Iraq, with the ultimate aim of achieving a separate state at some point down the line with US support. In doing this, a clever deception was made, using an age old tactic in this region, they hoisted token individuals from other communities to present themselves as a multi ethnic force.
The Syriac union party and its military arm Sutoro, was the tool they used to portray themselves as having the consent and support of Assyrians. In truth, these shadowy groups have no real grass roots among Assyrians, their aim has been to follow Kurdish nationalists wherever they are, without really specifying much about their purpose or ideology.
When Assyrians did try to have an independent voice and force, they were met by fierce hostility and were silenced. One such force was the Khabour Guards militia. Created by Assyrians to secure their areas, its resistance to being absorbed into the YPGs front bodies made it a target. Years of intimidation, including the assassination of its leader David Jindo by individuals from the YPG, eventually led the force into submission.
Assyrians who criticised the policies of this pseudo state, were arrested and punished, with Suleiman Youssef being a prime example of a journalist who was silenced for voicing criticism. Schools who refused the curriculum, which was filled with Kurdish nationalist ideology, were shut down and labelled as agents for the “Assad regime”.
When an Assyrian neighbourhood in the town of Qamishli was targeted by ISIS bombing several times, its local force the Gozarto Protection forces (aligned to Damascus) attempted to increase security checkpoints to prevent further attacks. As it did so, the YPG attacked it killing some of its members. The local Assyrians in Qamishli now speak of this episode and question whether security was deliberately ignored and fiercely deterred, so as to accelerate the fleeing of Assyrians out of this region.
Whether that’s true or not is really besides the point, the actions of the authorities have clearly demonstrated the attitude towards minorities and caused a great deal of tension in the region. It’s robbed them of their agency and sought to dictate terms to them by any way necessary.
The Kurdification of this region has undoubtedly been the outcome of YPG rule. Kurds fleeing other areas in Syria have been resettled in this region in a way refugees of other ethnicities have not. Even now, as I see my friends on the Left speaking about this region, they continually see it as Kurdish, as “Rojava”, they proclaim solidarity with Kurds and stop at them. This demonstrates exactly the point myself and eminent Assyrian writers such as Max Joseph and Mardean Isaac have made, that this political structure was created by Kurds and solely for Kurds at the expense of indigenous groups like Assyrians and Yezidis.”
Unfortunately I was completely unaware of the treatment of the Assyrians or Yezidi people. In fact, I didn’t even know they existed in that particular region. At one point in time I was under the impression that Rojava was an experiment in radical democracy. But then I slowly started to learn more about the actual situation on the ground and the destabilization that has taken place.
The US pullout from Rojava received wide media attention and condemnation from the left, right and center. The IWW even changed their social media logo to the colors green, yellow, and red and accompanied the logo with the hashtag #riseuprojava. Headlines from the Economist, NPR, and the Guardian all touted the “betrayal of the Kurds.” None of which had one word to say about the Assyrians or other people who call the region home.
To be clear, the Kurds are in very real danger from the Turkish army, and that threat should not be trivialized. However, the question remains how did this situation arise in the first place? Chris elaborated on how the US pullout has altered the current state of affairs in the region. What does this geopolitical shift mean for the various ethnic groups in northern Syria?
US Withdrawal and Destabilization
“The US pullout has completely changed the dynamics of north eastern Syria. It’s worth noting before we talk about the future, the YPG effectively subordinated itself to the US in the region hoping to gain a permanent ally with the dream of it leading to a separate state. This destructive alliance has proven deadly for the various ethnic groups in the region.
The US traffics in propping up and selling out people for its own purposes. The region as a whole, is littered with the corpses of those used and abused by imperial powers such as the US. It is unbelievable to have witnessed people ascribing to “rojava” revolutionary leftist credentials, meanwhile “rojava” acted as a vehicle for the US occupation and theft of Syria’s oil resources.
More to the point, the US forbade the YPG from dealing with the Assad government for years. Even as it was becoming clear the Turkish army was preparing to invade, the US still kept the YPG back until the US decided to redeploy out of this area. This put groups like the Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and Yezidis in the most existential danger possible. It left them hostage to a toxic alliance with the US, which opened the door to a Turkish invasion. At best, Turkish rule spells harsh repression against these groups and at worst it spells the end of their presence in the region.
The YPG tried desperately to persuade Americans not to pull out rather than work to negotiate with Damascus, which is the only actor willing and able to confront and deter the Turkish army. Up until now it was seeming like they would rather lose to Erdogan than win with al Assad.
An all out Turkish invasion would decimate the Kurdish areas as well as Assyrian areas. The fact that this was allowed to happen is unforgivable. People have been killed by this Invasion and others were left staring into the abyss. The YPG in the end couldn’t even save their own people. The reason I emphasise all this is so people can understand exactly how much damage this group has done, and how it’s absurd to hold them up as a revolutionary force given all these problems.
Now that the US has decided to partially pull out, and now that the YPG has finally made the right choice and begun negotiating with Damascus, the Syrian army is in the process of entering North East Syria with the aim of confronting this invasion. This is a win for all groups in this region and has spared Assyrians from being permanently removed, as the Turkish state has never hesitated to massacre and displace Assyrians.
It appears a more long term deal is also being worked out to allow Kurds further political rights, and the integration of their forces with the state forces. We can be cautiously optimistic at this turn of events, however Syria has seen plenty of twists and turns over the course of the last few years, so being guarded with this optimism is absolutely necessary.
What this could mean for the various groups of Syria is a chance to engage on an equal basis. A common response I get from people is that I am anti-Kurd and that I want them to suffer and be repressed. It’s an extremely gross way of responding to these issues.
Indigenous groups wherever they are, are often accused of wanting to turn the tables and carry out some kind of sick vengeance. It’s a disgusting but common way of silencing Indigenous voices. To be clear, liberation is important for all, Including Kurds. Liberation has to be total though, it has to include Assyrians and other minorities. It has to do justice to the centuries of colonisation that has occurred against the minority groups.”
Going forward, now that the US has withdrawn most material support for the YPG, what does the future hold for the Kurds, Syrians, Assyrians and other minorities in the region? What could potentially be the best outcome for all parties involved? Also, how can those of us aligned on the left show our support and solidarity for all-ethnic and cultural groups in the region in a principled anti-imperialist manner?
Looking Ahead; Principled and Pragmatic Solutions
“For the immediate future, the primary focus will be on resisting the Turkish occupation. The Syrian army together with several SDF/YPG units are coordinating a resistance against the Turkish army which is a positive development. This has curbed the initial ambitions of the Turkish government and blocked them from expanding as far down as they had hoped. The occupation though is now a factor on the ground and so resisting it from expanding is one thing, but the areas the Turkish government holds won’t be surrendered. Therefore dealing with this occupation will be something that will stretch out for some time.
As for the US, Of course, the US withdrawal has been amended to only withdrawing from certain areas. The oil rich area continues to be controlled by US forces in coordination with other SDF/YPG groups in the province of Deir Ezzor. So unfortunately US forces will remain and play a destructive role like they always do, utilising proxies to carry out their imperialist ambitions.
In the long term, for all their faults and there are many, Syria and Iraq still have the potential to be people’s republics, not Arab ethno states as Ba’athists have tried to make them. We are more than willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Kurds in order to make that a reality, however it must be on an equal basis. We do not seek to engage in a costly struggle, only to usher in someone else’s ethno state over our people’s heads.
The more principled and at the same time more pragmatic way forward, is to struggle for a region that is a home for all ethnic groups. The states of Iraq and Syria should not be the sole expression of one ethnicity over another. That is far more realistic, desirable and actually achieves the goal of liberation for all these different groups.
I urge people on the left, wherever they are to be cognisant of these issues, and to avoid lionising false heroes. To give voice to indigenous groups like Yezidis, Assyrians and others, who have been erased throughout history, stand on the brink of extinction in the region and are still being removed from the narrative.
My wish is for leftists to understand how vital Anti Imperialism is. Whenever the US is propping up and packaging a force to garner your support, alarm bells must ring and you must avoid falling into this trap. Furthermore, please be aware that this region is far more complex than just Arab, Kurd, Sunni and Shia. Minorities who have been through hell are still suffering in silence, their voices have to be heard and their stories must be understood.
The Turkish invasion is undoubtedly an attempt at ethnically cleansing Kurds so activists shouldn’t retreat from standing with them, however other minorities are also facing the exact same threat and so it’s important to be aware of this as well so as not to contribute to their erasure. Understanding them and giving voice to them is what the Left should be about. Recognising the complexities involved and avoiding being drawn into supporting regressive ideas, at the expense of indigenous groups, is a must. Speaking to Red Flag and others about this gives me hope we can get those points across and change the dynamic here. Thank you for giving Voice to an Assyrian perspective”
Echoing what Chris articulated above, the situation in Syria provides an excellent case study of why a principled materialist and anti-imperialist stance on politics and current events is of the utmost importance. By now those of us on the left should be extremely wary of any movement or country to which the US lends support. Especially when that support comes in the form of troops on the ground, army bases, and air strikes, which in turn lead to the destabilization of an entire region.
The death and destruction wrought upon Syria by the US and US proxy forces has not lead to a more peaceful or progressive region. The establishment of the highly lauded “Rojava” has not lead to equality, democracy, or socialism for the Assyrian and other indigenous people. In fact the Assyrians and Yezidis have all but been erased from the picture and widely ignored in mainstream discourse.
One just has to look at how the United States treats anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist. countries such as Cuba, DPRK, Venezuela, and Bolivia in comparison to “Rojava.” Actually existing socialist states like Cuba and DPRK have historically suffered immensely from the boot of imperialism. Whereas in the case of Rojava, which had received substantial support from the United States. The contrast is incredibly stark and should raise major warning flags to anyone with a principled stance on imperialism.
The solution to the complex crisis in Syria lies not in the continued destabilization of the region, rather the solution lies in the very real prospect of Syria becoming a home for all ethnic and cultural minorities. This should be the hope of all of us on the left and beyond. In the meantime, all of us who are concerned with the threat of imperialism should do our best in listening to indigenous voices and raising those voices up.
Coverage of Rojava and the Kurds