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Kurdistan: Interview with YPG militant - “We just want to democratize the Middle East”
July 14, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from The Dawn News -- In the framework of the International Festival Utopia in Marica (Brazil), The Dawn News and Resumen Latinoamericano interviewed a People's Protection Units (YPG) militant, Serhad Ayers. He talked about the situation of Kurdish people in Syria, the relationship with Bashar Al Assad’s government, the misrepresentation of female Kurdish fighters in Western media, cooperation with Arab forces, the link between Turkey and Daesh and the Kurds’ strategy to democratize the Middle East while eliminating Daesh.
What forms and methods do you use to create more autonomy in Rojava?
Autonomy in Rojava is not like we do something to generate it. Now we have a system, but in the beginning the territory came to our hands because of the ongoing war in Syria. When it started to be obvious that there was going to be a war inside of Syria, Assad decided he didn’t want the Kurds to fight as well, because he knew everybody would turn against him. This was something that came from the West. First he wanted the Kurds to help him in Syria, but the Kurds said no. So he told the Kurds “if you remain on your side, i’ll remove my soldiers from there". It was a tactical move, it wasn’t to favour the Kurds, he wanted to build a wall between himself and Turkey, and also to bring his soldiers down South, where they have a stronghold.
So what our organization did, in 2004 there was an uprising in Northern Syria, but at that moment they weren’t ready for something like that, none expected something like that to happen. So, because that happened in 2004, this time the organization was more ready. We had members in Rojava, as we call it (West of Kurdistan), when this happened, it didn’t take long until they started to work for this new project, this new system. So the territory was in our hands, but no one in the world knew about it. I didn’t know either.
But I went there in 2012 to Kobani, Arfin and Halab. Halab is a Syrian city, it’s not Kurdish, but there are two Kurdish neighborhoods. So we wanted to do the same thing Assad did when he took his soldiers from the North. We told our people in these two neighborhoods in Halab to go the North, to Kurdistan, because this is not our city, and it’s very difficult to protect you here. And the people said “this is our home, we live here”, they had been living there for a very long time. Most of them were born there. So then the YPG started a fraction in Halab, and now the toughest and the hardest wars are there, because you have Assad’s soldiers, the Islamists, the opposition… It’s a mess, but still we’re there, because of our two neighborhoods.
But in the North, when I went there, it was one of the luckiest days in my life, when I saw our checkpoints, ours, I had never seen something like that because we never had our own territories, and they are red, green and yellow. And you see this checkpoint, and you see your comrades standing there, holding the checkpoint, it was very beautiful. So I met the ones in charge, and they said to me: we can’t announce that this is in our hands today, we want to wait until we can build a strong base, and then we will announced it. So it has been in our hands for a longer time than it was announced.
So, in this way, when we announced it, no one could do anything or say anything, because it was already secured. Previously, in Barkur, North of Kurdistan, we announced not autonomy but self-governance, but we didn’t have a base, it was just an announcement, but in Rojava it wasn’t like that, the basis was there and everything was set.
The problem right now is that there’s a war going on at the same time that we’re facing the problem of generating autonomy. That’s why it’s very difficult. If we didn’t have the war, it would go faster and be much easier, but still not everyone in there is a fighter. So you have the YPG, the YPJ (Women's Protection Units) and also you have the traffic police, etc, everybody is doing their job. At the same time there are social movements, that are working for society.
It’s very difficult because the people in Rojava are not used to this system. They’re used to Assad always oppressing them and with this system it’s still hard to change some things so radically. First of all, you have to change the mentality, and this is what they’re working on, every day, almost 24/7. The comrades in Rojava barely sleep. They have a very hard time. I saw how they work with the people in those organizations, especially in the public offices there are in each neighborhood. This is where decisions are taken, and they are taken by the people. But it’s very hard to give power to the people when they don’t understand the system, so first you have to educate them, and this takes time.
It’s dangerous because it can become a formality. The system has to be for real, not just on papers. So this is what the comrades are working on, every day, to make people understand the decision-making. Today, it’s not fully democratic. It’s impossible. Because education is 100% and the war is ongoing. Because of the war, if you give full power to the people, anything can happen, and then the West can intervene and take control of it, like the coup in Brazil, and we don’t accept it now. So now, there are other Kurdish parties, and they say “there’s no democracy, they don’t let us speak our mind”. There’s no arresting, there’s no killing unless they attack. But it’s true, this is not the time to make these discussions, when the enemy’s at the front door. So first, you have to stabilize the territory and then you can discuss, if someone else has a better project than this, and the people want it, then that’s OK, but we’re a hundred percent sure that that’s not the case.
And there are very few people that don’t like this system. And those few that don’t like it, it’s because they don’t understand it, if you ask me. So, there’s a lot of difficult aspects. One of them is: I went to the police station, and they didn’t have a police telephone number at the time. It was an office number. Also, they don’t beat people who commit crimes. There were some young guys fighting, cutting each other with knives, and they arrested them. A couple of years ago, they would have beaten them, they would have tortured them in prison, but they didn’t like that. They were just building up the prison system, and they didn’t know how to do it correctly, because we talked a lot about ideology and it wasn’t easy to translate it into practice. But what happens is that, in that vacuum in between systems, people don’t understand, they say: “so, they don’t beat us now, we can do anything”. And then the comrades had to stop that. It was very difficult.
But now things are better, because I met people that had been there and they told me that. They work day in, day out, to change the oppressed people’s mentality and to educate them. Because you have to have knowledge about the system and the ideology to make it work. When you give power to the people, and you choose two representatives (one woman and one man for each seat), some think that they are leaders because they are in power, but that’s not what the system stands for, so you have to teach them: “it’s not you who is in power, you are just representatives. You represent the people”. And also the people need to understand that they don’t have to follow the leader in power, but that it’s them who are the decision-makers.
In spite of the difficulties, there are changes, and lots of things have developed. But because of the war it takes a longer time.
How is the relationship with Syria now?
As I said in the beginning, Syria withdrew their soldiers —not all of them, they keep some in points across Rojava —, and we want to keep it like that as well, because in one of the larger cities they have the airport and some other areas, and it’s safer for us to keep them there. We had some clashes with soldiers in that cities. They killed some of ours, we killed some of theirs, and then it stopped. Same thing happened in Halab, it’s been back and forth like that. Something happens, and then things go back to normal.
And Daesh says that we work together with Assad. That’s not true at all. In the beginning, Assad wanted to show the outside world that we were with him, that was one of the arguments that Daesh used. But the main reason is that the West doesn’t want a system like ours to exist. So they created Daesh. Daesh’s soldiers may be unaware of this, but from the top, this is a project to destroy this system, and they’re doing all they can to eliminate the system. With alternative Kurdish parties, with Daesh, with whatever they can. But we made the base really stable, so it’s very difficult for them to change it now. It’s been too many years.
But the relationship with Assad has never been good. Before, our leader, Abdullah Öcalan lived in Sham, in Syria, and although he didn’t have a good relationship, he had a deal with Assad’s father. Later, Assad’s father said he had used them. He’s a very smart man, Abdullah. He had to do that. It’s politics, they are not allies. The same thing happens with the American soldiers in Rojava. Some people think that we’re allies, and that we made a deal with the US, and we’re with them. It’s not that. It’s just a coalition for the moment. It was either them or the Russians. Because we don’t have the money or weapons to fight Daesh. They’re funded by the West and by many Arab countries, but we don’t have those resources. So we have to make some decisions to stabilize the area.
In the last few months, the relationship between Assad and the Kurds has gotten worse. He bombed the Kurdish areas in Halab with airplanes and also with chemical weapons. Also, when Turkey said they would never accept the system of Rojava, Assad said he supported that position. So no one wants to see this system: Daesh, the opposition, the West, they all agree on that. Because it’s very dangerous to the nation-states and the imperialist states because it gives power to the people. Because if we succeed in implementing this system in the North, maybe the South will want to do the same instead of following Assad. And they know that this is going to be an example.
What’s your opinion on the influence of the Turkish state on the Kurdish territory with the support of Daesh?
In the beginning, we thought that Turkey was only funding them, but now we know that they provide integral support in every area, and maybe even it’s them. Because we saw a lot of Daesh soldiers with Turkish IDs. A lot. And also our comrades have found Turkish special forces, with their uniforms, inside Daesh. Some dead, some alive. Turkey can’t intervene in Rojava because of the West, so they go undercover as Daesh.
For us, Turkey and Daesh is the same thing —not Turkey as a country, but the AKP party, the right-wing party. They’re treating Daesh soldiers in their hospitals. When I was there, I saw with my own eyes a Turkish ambulance in Rojava, in the Daesh area, in Serekaniye. There was a ceasefire of a couple of months between the YPG and the Al-Nusrah Front. So I went to the Al-Nusrah areas and I saw them from a car. They showed me around, and I saw a Turkish ambulance. Some think it’s a conspiracy theory, but for us, it’s a fact, because we see it every day.
Transportation of weapons, of soldiers, and the worst thing for Turkey was this strip between Kobani and Afrin. Why? Because that’s the line to Raqqa, the capital of Daesh, and without that it’s impossible for Raqqa to stand, after a couple of months they will fall because they have nothing. The way goes through Turkey, through that strip, and now the YPG has advanced. When they started advancing, the whole issue blew up, and Erdogan went crazy and said “I’ll never accept you doing this” and the West wants the strip to be a safe zone. “Safe zone” means “his zone”. No the shortcut agreement they have made with the US troops so that Turkey can’t intervene. So now the YPG are advancing from Afrin (West) and from Kobani (East) to connect both YPG regions. Because Daesh is in the middle. It isn’t between the YPG and the US but between the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] and the US. The SDF is made up of YPG and other Arab fighters against the US. Slowly they will come from Afrin and Kobani and unite them. Under that strip is Raqqa. They don’t have to take Raqqa, they just have to take that strip and Raqqa is going to be finished. So this is now the offensive that the Kurds and the democratic arabs are carrying out in Syria.
Could you explain a bit more the struggle of the Arab fighters with the YPG?
It’s a very new thing, so I don’t have too much information about it. I haven’t discussed this with the comrades yet. It’s been a couple of months.
There’s a city called Manjib, where there’s a war going on right now, and the SDF has taken control over almost all of the city, and the people there are Arabs, and many people from the outside thought that they might be with Daesh. But when their forces came there, all the people were so happy, and you can see pictures now on Facebook, on the internet, with women dressed in black, Arab people, supported these forces and were waiting for them to come save them. And it means more to them when it’s Arab forces, because a lot of these cities are afraid that their city will be under Kurdish control and this is not the question. Before, our forces didn’t even go to Arabic cities, we just took our own cities, and this was a mistake because this allowed Daesh to be much stronger in this cities.
So now, the offensive of the YPG is not in Kurdistan but in Syria, in Arabic territories. But this is a must, because if we don’t finish Daesh, they will always be a threat to our territories. So now, this offensive is to finish Daesh.
The relationship with the Arab people is amazing. However, it’s fairly recent. What can you tell us about that?
Yes, but it’s because of the system. Because, in the beginning, it was the same with the minorities. Not all of us are Kurds, we also have Syrian fighters. A minority of them are Christian. And in the beginning, it was very difficult for them to understand. They thought “OK, now the Kurds are coming, and they call this area Kurdistan”. They called it Behnam. And other have other names for it. And this is why we don’t want a nation-state. Because in a nation-state, it will be the same: we would be oppressing these minorities. And it’s very difficult for them to understand that we don’t want to oppress them, we want them to come in, take power and decisions. So it took a long time to clarify this.
We don’t want everything to be Kurdistan, we just want to democratize the Middle East. Not only for us, but for all of the Middle East. Because if our neighbors are under a dictatorship, if they are under oppression and fighting, what are we going to do with our system in Kurdistan? We need to democratize the nation-states around us as well. Some people ask why we work so hard in Turkey. Why don’t you just focus on self-govern? How are we going to self-govern if they don’t accept this system? We have to force them to accept it, otherwise it’s impossible. But to make them accept it, we have to democratize the region, otherwise we will be surrounded by enemies and it will be very hard to work. So this is now the greatest task, to democratize the Middle East.
We’re not going to wait for it to happen. We’re fighting and at the same time we’re working for it. Even if we’re not accepted by the West, we still open something similar to embassies, in Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Russia. Thus we force the West to accept us, to admit that Rojava exists. In the Geneva talks, they didn’t invite us, but this time we got an invitation, thanks to that strategy.
Now the situation of Rojava sets an example for other countries and other peoples. The relationship with Arab people, and the joint struggle of the Arab people is amazing to us because it’s a novelty. What’s the role of women in Kurdistan? This is amazing for countries in Latin America. This didn’t occur in other countries, this is a true revolution in the model of the political left.
If you ask me, if there was a woman comrade here, she would answer this question herself. But it’s also our question, one hundred percent. Because the thing is, they’re so autonomous in the organization. This changed everything in our organization. But you say it’s a new thing, actually, it’s not a new thing. I was born into the organization. When I was in my mother’s tummy, in Sweden, she was interrogated by the Swedish state security, because they thought she was responsible for the European branch of the organization. I was born into the organization, I don’t know anything else. I’ve seen these strong women since I first opened my eyes.
Now, after Kobane, the whole world sees this —and I love it, I’m very proud of this, but the way they portrait them is wrong. They put these pictures of beautiful girls in newspapers, and H&M copies their clothes to sell —that’s what capitalism does, it takes something and uses it for its own benefit. The way they see these women that are there, fighting, is the opposite to what she wants and what she is. She’s not there to be on a magazine, she’s not there because she’s beautiful. She’s a fighter, and that’s what her life is about. Everybody is in awe saying “oh, she’s a woman”. No, she’s a fighter. We’re past that.
But this wasn’t easy at all in the beginning. Because we Kurds live in a society where people are Muslim. And it was also hard to erase the feudal clan system. We had to install new traditions, because Kurdish women didn’t use to be like that. If you ask for my personal opinion, a lot of people come from Islam. But it’s a patriarchal mentality. It’s like that everywhere, but it’s even harder with Islam and with the clan system in Kurdistan. So the liberation of the woman has been very difficult.
But we started with this in the organization, because that’s where it needs to start, and then it replicates outside. In the 90s it was very difficult when women said they had to be an autonomous group within the PKK. Many man told them they were traitors for wanting to make a new organization outside the organization. They wanted it to just be a commission, not another organization. It took a very long time for it to happen. Now, all of the women of the organization are simultaneously members of the women’s organization, which has its own leadership. There are cases where one is doing groundwork in one organization and is a leader in the other. It’s completely separate. And they succeeded in this way. I’ve never been to their meetings. They have their own education, apart from the mixed education. It’s their struggle.
My comrade told me that when they built their own mangas [mountain dwellings], the men didn’t help. They said: “if you want to be on your own, then we won’t help you”. Today it’s not like that. Men understood as much as women that they must work for this objective. And, in a way, this is harder for the men. Because they have to, as our leaders say, “kill the man” inside you. It’s very difficult, but our comrades are working with this every day, fighting the man inside of them. This patriarchal mentality comes from men, but it’s not only within men. Some of the women also have this mentality. So when we say “kill the man”, we don’t mean it literally, of course. We’re talking about killing the man inside, in the mindset.
This is something I noticed here in South America and also in Europe. Feminism is not becoming like a man and fighting in their system. It’s being a woman. That’s why when you see our women, they’re not trying to act like a man. Not because this is a problem, because we have transgender people who choose that, but I’m not talking about that. It’s just be yourself. You don’t have to look and act like a white, middle-aged man just to take power. Be as you are and take power.
What we have is “unity of differences”. At first, the slogan was equality in rights for all people, across classes, gender, etc. But we don’t want all people to be the same, in terms of their looks, their way of life, etc. So this slogan expresses that we’re different, but we come together in this system, and it’s beautiful.