Who Owns The Syrian Revolution?
I recognized the importance of Syria in my life through my separation from it. The hours before going to the airport made me feel weak. The departure from Syria was a small but recurring trauma. I was not merely putting kilometers between Syria and myself; I felt I had travelled for centuries, travelled through galaxies as soon as I landed in Europe. Only a few hours after leaving the country, Syria felt like nothing but a hazy memory.
I do not know if I can put a claim to Syria as my home but that sunbaked, dusty country with the coincidental palm trees scattered by the roads, with the empty red bags of potato chips blowing in the gutter and the sound of Umm Kulthum owns me.
I can still conjure the warmth of the yellow taxis’ leather seats under my fingers.
The claim to a home has grown more complex with the war in Syria. On one hand, there is a wish to be united with all Syrians against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad but on the other hand, one cannot ignore the Syrian armed and political opposition’s dubious alliance with Turkey, a state that has violated Kurdish rights for decades and recently intensified its crackdown upon Kurdish civilians and fighters. Today, the mutual mistrust between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters has intensified due to the former being a loose coalition that includes several formations within the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army that have varying degrees of affiliations with groups like Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra while the latter is being accused of carrying out an expansionist agenda facilitated by U.S. and Russian airstrikes.
One of the first severe clashes between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters took place in October 2012 when the al-Tawhid Brigade entered Ashrafiyeh district in the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsud of Aleppo. Al-Tawhid, which was dissolved in 2014, is listed as having been part of the Free Syrian Army and an ally of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The death toll was 30, most of them fighters, and the rebels took 200 people as prisoners.
The situation between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters has steadily grown worse. There have been attempts at truces and recently some Free Syrian Army groups have joined forces with Kurdish-led YPG (People’s Protection Units) under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Now it seems like the tension has peaked as Kurds in the beginning of February advanced on Azaz under control by Syrian rebels, among them jihadists. The move is perceived as an attempt to cut off the rebels’ supply route from Turkey to Aleppo. Meanwhile, Turkey, one of the Syrian rebels’ most dedicated supporter, is livid at the idea of Kurds being successful in joining the areas they control on both sides of the Euphrates under the scope of Rojava, a de facto autonomous region headed by Kurds but inclusive of all ethnicities and religions.
The mistrust was present long before the YPG’s territorial gains but it is certainly more palpable today. The “expansionist agenda” was not even an issue to begin with; the anger towards Kurds stemmed from the fact that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) left Kurdish towns to bolster its own forces on other fronts in fights with the rebels.
It was not the Kurds’ ability to ensure a safe haven for the war’s internally displaced people that drew the attention of the Syrian opposition but rather that Kurds were now in control of Syrian land; something, which the Syrian regime for decades had impressed upon its people, was dangerous. After all, Syria had based its Arabization measures on the idea that Kurds were a cancer in the Arab body and the only treatment was excision. The regime also stressed that Kurds were a threat to Syria’s territorial integrity.
It is peculiar how the Syrian opposition now uses al-Assad’s propaganda to accuse Kurds of collaborating with the Assad regime.
The dictator Bashar al-Assad has an interest in making the Kurds seem like his friends to the outside world, especially his former friend Erdogan, Turkey’s president. Not even one month after the first anti-Assad protest, he granted the Kurds citizenship after a 1962 census stripped them of their citizenship. As the protests spread across Syria, al-Assad recognized the importance of securing allies. Even then, his strategy did not play well with the Kurds. Kurds have suffered under the plight of being stateless, neither recognized as a Kurd nor a Syrian yet still subjected to the double oppression of both groups of people.
It benefits an agenda to portray the Kurds as a divisive people; an agenda that early on in the Syrian uprising was furthered by the Syrian Arab opposition and Turkey, who has vehemently tyrannized millions of Kurds and denied them greater rights. It is no wonder that Kurds have no faith in the Syrian opposition to represent them in a future free Syria when they from the beginning have echoed the Syrian dictatorship’s rhetoric about Kurds.
It is not only the Syrian opposition who has taken it upon itself to portray Kurds as an outsider of the Syrian revolution. Recently, there has been an increase in articles and tweets by commentators and analysts on Twitter who are arguing against the Kurdish role in the Syrian war. Iyad El-Baghdadi, who describes himself as an Arab Spring activist from the United Arab Emirates, is one of them and he tweeted the following (PYD is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria).
— Iyad El-Baghdadi (@iyad_elbaghdadi) February 13, 2016
It has been five years since the uprising began and I have yet to see that the Syrian revolution is about more than overthrowing al-Assad. It is justified at this point to argue that getting rid of the regime is essential because the death, abuse, terror and starvation that it has inflicted upon the people cannot be described in words. But can the efforts to achieve this goal be described as revolutionary? Is it radical enough to remove murderers from the presidential palace? It will surely end the current nightmare that is the Syrian war but will it radically change, is it currently revolutionizing society so that it can absolve itself from the Baath regime’s propaganda and make every youth, woman and man independent and free?
If the revolution of the mind and society is not happening during the war, it will not happen after the war. Again, one may argue that now is not the time and the focus is to stay alive. It is a fair point but the counter-argument is that the Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters can benefit from each other because the ideology inspired by the Kurdish resistance movement that emphasizes the importance of women’s independence and freedom, the protection of the environment and equal rights can readily be shared. Likewise, Kurds can learn from the Syrians’ grievances. It is unfortunate that efforts have instead been put on keeping Kurds out of peace conferences and that Syrian and Kurdish diaspora activists have not joined forces in an efficient manner.
The argument that “Kurds should have joined the Syrian opposition and not done their own thing” is a weak one simply because you cannot demand of someone to snap out of their oppression and take the backseat to a revolution that is being helped along by Turkey. You cannot enforce societal change by demanding it done. That is the flaw of this uprising: it is taking place in a superficial sphere and has yet to reach the deeper level of a revolution. Radical change is not bombing a governmental institution. It is education of the people.
Kurds did right in going their own way. No one has ever sided with them or alleviated their suffering unless it has benefitted them and, even now, the great powers will end their collaboration with Kurds the second they can. The Kurds bring true revolution to Syria because our force comes from within the Kurdish freedom movement where our notion of freedom has been challenged and evolving for decades because we have been in a state of hostility and low-simmering war with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Our history has been that of resistance; every day is a revolution. Simply speaking our language publicly was followed by harassment, arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances. The mere existence of Kurds has been an act of terrorism in the eyes of these regimes and so consequently being a Kurd is an act of resistance.
So when someone like El-Baghdadi who to my knowledge has no profound connection to Syria, if any at all, thinks he understands the situation and can offer an answer to who is backstabbing the revolution and who is not, he is simplifying and mocking an important conversation about a revolution that people are sacrificing their lives for.
A Syrian activist recently tweeted: We are victims to this brutality yet you ask us why we are radicalized?
It is a good point and it is a subject that Kurds are all too familiar with. We get it. We understand the notion of being radicalized and not being able to do anything about it. My generation of Kurds is born political and radicalized. We have been subjected to countless massacres, some happening in present time and they go without the slightest condemnation from the international community. The oppression in four countries has been both systematic and arbitrary, causing a terrorizing uncertainty that has traumatized our ancestors, our grandparents and our parents. I learned in medical school that trauma can be part of our genetic material. Obviously that does not guarantee awareness of the injustices inflicted upon someone but awareness follows an effort to recognize trauma and injustice and that is what the Kurdish identity is about. Kurds have had decades to become aware of and to reflect upon the treatment of them as a people.
The struggle to become aware is part of the struggle for freedom and that is what is lacking in the Syrian revolution.
The Kurdish resistance is like the hermeneutic circle: new aspects of the revolution make one re-define the meaning and purpose of the struggle and reveal a new context or a more extensive context. That in turn leads to looking at the puzzle pieces of the struggle in a new light. It is a dynamic process, one that cannot be fathomed by people who are outside the context simply because they live in a completely different context. This is a note to people or think tankers to whom the Syrian war is a job, something they get paid to have an opinion on.
We own the Syrian revolution: those of us who consider Syria our home.
The photo by Joey L. featured in the post is part of a project called “Guerrilla Fighters of Kurdistan” and can be viewed on the photographer’s site here.