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Fake news about the Rojava revolution


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 US Nation 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.


Ethnic cleansing?


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 13 here) 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 regime has 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 as this 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’s eyewitness 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.




All very well done. But what is the source on your claim that they didn't hand over Manbij? I thought they did. Who has Manbij now then?

Thank you.

Manbiq seems still under control of popular committees not Assad

Hi, thanks for your comment. The sources I've seen indicate that the SDF after liberating Manbiq facilitated the development Manbiq Military Council as a popular defence force and popular committees to run the area. E.g. I understand that in a number of liberated areas there's a compromise between insisting the PYD's program of women's liberation and allowing local democracy.

Syrian Democratic Forces, US and Russia

The revolution in northern Syria, which began in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and is spreading to other areas, has brought big advances in democracy, women's rights, and equality between ethnic and religious groups.

But one thing that is causing some Western leftists to have doubts about the revolution is the military cooperation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US armed forces.

It is understandable that this would cause concern. But I don't think it is a sufficient reason to write off the revolution. It just means the situation is complicated.

The US and the SDF currently have a common enemy in the ultra-reactionary "Islamic State". This creates a basis for cooperation between the US and SDF. How long this will last is unknown.

There is also some cooperation between the SDF and Russia.

US support to the YPG/YPJ, and later the SDF, began when the US became alarmed by the advances of ISIS in Iraq - notably the capture of Mosul in 2014. This was a threat to the prospects of building a stable pro-imperialist regime in Iraq. ISIS was also a threat to the stability of pro-imperialist regimes in the broader Middle East.

Also, public opinion in Western countries was sympathetic to a movement that was fighting against ISIS and for women's rights. This put pressure on the US to support the YPG/YPJ.

US support has been limited in two senses. Firstly, it has been military, not political support - the SDF has not been invited to peace talks. Secondly, the main form of support has been aerial bombardment of the ISIS forces fighting against the SDF. This support could be cut off at a moment's notice if the US so decides. The threat of cutting off aid could be used as a means of pressure on the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria to change any policy the US does not like.

In a recent interview, PYD co-president Saleh Muslim talks about the relations between the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States and Russia:

Discussing the SDF's relations with international powers, especially the United States and Russia, Saleh Muslim says:

"Our relations with international powers are based on mutual interests. We are....independent and based on our own force. Our relation with these powers is in the scope of the fight against ISIS terrorism. ISIS is an enemy of ours and theirs....

"We have our project of Democratic Federal Syria that aims to democratize Syria. They also say that they want a democratic Syria....In the future, there may be disagreements and we may find ourselves in a different scenario....

"The US and other forces have wider regional goals.....Because of their interests with Turkey, they may choose to end their relations with us. We are aware of this reality. However, we do not know yet what they will do. But we want our relations to continue on the basis of mutual interest. Still, we are not and will never be anyone's servant."

Asked about reports that Moscow has mediated between the north Syrian revolutionary forces and the Assad regime, Saleh Muslim says:

"Yes, Russia mediated between us and the regime. The issue is that our problem is about democracy, not whether the regime will remain or not. If there is democratization and the federal system develops, the regime will not remain as it is anyway....The present regime does not have the mentality to accept us yet. Its mentality is the same as before and has not changed. It shares the same mentality with Turkey and Iran. They do not recognize the existence of Kurds. It is not possible for us to live with this regime and mentality."

Some readers may wonder why the revolutionaries would want to have any contact, even indirect, with the Assad regime, given its anti-democratic nature, its record of mass murder, and its hostility to the Kurds. Saleh Muslim does not explain his thinking in detail, but he seems to hope that the regime can be pressured to relax its repression and allow some democratic rights, which might provide an opportunity for progressive forces to organise.

We could compare it with the peace negotiations in Colombia. FARC has been willing to talk with the Colombian government, despite the latter's record of violent repression and mass murder. The Colombian peace agreement has not up to now ended political violence, but many activists hope that it will create more space for progressive movements. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. And of course Syria is a long way from any similar agreement.

Asked about the recent arrival of Russian troops in Efrin, Muslim says the SDF agreed to this because of ongoing attacks on Efrin by Turkey and the Syrian groups it supports:

"Attacks on Efrîn never stopped. Gang groups backed by Turkey continue their attacks. There have occurred clashes in which we lost some fighters. Turkey continues its attacks from the border as well....

"Cilvegöz Border Gate [on the border between Syria and Turkey] is close to Efrîn's Jinderes district. This gate and its surroundings, as well as the area around Atma camp, is the transit route of gang groups. Atma camp serves as the training center of al-Nusra. There are many different groups here and they sometimes clash with one another, which result in explosions and deaths. This area is close to our region. Russia wants to fight against these groups....

"These groups attack us as well and we want them to be cleared in this area. Russian troops came to the region within the framework of this agreement....

"Turkey is the biggest threat for us. Turkey's Kurd-phobia is dangerous....They see us as an enemy".

Thus in Saleh Muslim's view, the aggression by Turkey and the groups it supports, including Jabhat al-Nusra, has created a need for the SDF to cooperate with Russia, just as it cooperates with the US against ISIS.

The role of the Russian troops in Efrin is not yet clear. Some reports speak of a training role, but Saleh Muslim's comments seem to imply a more active role.

Muslim also seems to imply that the SDF (and the Russians?) will not merely defend Efrin against attacks, but will aim to capture territory currently held by groups such as Nusra.

Undoubtedly many people living under Nusra's tyrannical rule would welcome the arrival of the SDF. Some of the SDF fighters used to live in the areas now controlled by Nusra. In 2014 Nusra attacked and wiped out the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a secular rebel alliance in Idlib province. Some of the survivors fled to Efrin and later became part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. No doubt they want to liberate their home towns from Nusra.

Idlib province is also the site of the forced religious conversion of the Druze people under Nusra rule. This illustrates the oppressive regime they impose on the people of the areas they control.

How should we view the collaboration between the SDF and the US and Russia?

It is not unusual for a national liberation movement faced with a more powerful oppressor state to seek outside intervention. For example, in 1999 the East Timor independence movement, unable to defeat Indonesia militarily, sought the intervention of the Australian army to halt a massacre and ensure East Timor's transition to political independence. Of course, the Australian intervention was not altruistic. Australia grabbed a chunk of East Timor's oil.

I don't think we should automatically condemn the SDF for seeking US and Russian aid to counter the attacks of Turkey and the groups it supports, including ISIS and Nusra. But such collaboration can cause serious problems and dangers.

In Syria, US and Russian aid to the SDF may do more harm than good in some cases. For example, US and Russian bombs often kill civilians. This could alienate the population of the affected areas from the SDF.

There is also the danger that military collaboration could lead to political co-option. The US undoubtedly hopes to co-opt the SDF or a section of it. This is a real danger, but I don't think it is inevitable.

Re: Syrian Democratic Forces, US and Russia

A belated response to Chris' comments, which I've just sen when checking my article for something. Chris as usual provides a very fair and well-documented of complex issues, in this case the relationship between SDF and the US and Russia. This is something I hadn't taken up in my article at all, and couldn't really if I wanted to finish it at all contemporaneously with some of the recent articles I was criticising (Roy Gutman anyway isn't concerned with US imperialism, being a slavish supporter of US imperialism). I'd be happy to append Chris' comments to make a more rounded article. One detail though: it's very true that Australia grabbed a chunk of East Timor's oil after independence. But it was, I think, a considerably smaller chunk than it would have got from its previous deals with the Indonesian state. Certainly the East Timorese people are seeing a much bigger chunk, from zero to the majority, even with exploitation from Australia. Perhaps analogously revolutionary Rojava or a future democratic Syria will be obliged to make economic deals with the US or Russia that may not be optimum, but may be better than that available if under the control of a more proximate exploiter, particularly Turkey. This by the way I think is an example of how the category of "sub-imperialist" is pretty accurate and useful in a range of cases. Related to that I really disagreed with the parts of Renfrey Clarke's recent article on Russia as it related to Syria. It's very economically reductionist to deduce from a nation state's lack of classic imperialist features, its role in regional affairs. Such an approach explains next to nothing of Turkey's terrible role in Syria and Russia's at best very contradictory role.

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