Rojava, Kurdish autonomy and peace-building efforts in Syria: Report from a roundtable discussion

Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) organised a wide ranging discussion of Rojava, Kurdish autonomy and the attempts to build peace in Syria on 30 June 2015. Held in the Houses of Parliament, the event was hosted by the independent cross-bench peer Lord Hylton. Lord Hylton has recently returned from Rojava and is the first member of the UK parliament to visit the self-declared autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria. The meeting was well attended and included people from the region and surrounding countries, along with British people and others with varying levels of familiarity with the Kurds and some who had little background knowledge but had been inspired by the resistance of Kobane.  

The human rights barrister Margaret Owen, who is also director of the NGO Widows for Peace through Democracy, and the journalist and writer John Hunt, both recently returned from Rojava, also recounted their impressions of developments in the autonomous region. Lord Hylton, Margaret Owen and John Hunt each gave enthusiastic assessments of the social and democratic processes underway in Rojava, supporting their positive conclusions with evidence and anecdotes. What they stressed is that the self-administrative system being constructed is political organisation whereby decisions are made and implemented from the bottom up; a grass-roots democracy. Lord Hylton emphasised that the Kurds were not seeking to form a Kurdish state in northern Syria and that there was no intention to impose a primarily Kurdish identity on the region. Rather the intention was to ensure that each ethnic and religious group present in the region would be of equal status and able to manage decisions in their own communities’ interests. This was a model for overcoming the sectarian strife that is plaguing the Middle East and especially Syria today.

Lord Hylton, Margaret Owen and John Hunt specifically noted the integration of women into all decision making bodies at all levels of Rojava society. John Hunt reported that four of the military commanders directing the liberation of Tal Abyad from Kobane were women. Speaking for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) UK Dr Alan Semo said that with the liberation of Tal Abyad the main Islamic State (IS) route from Turkey into Syria had been cut. The response was IS gangs entering Kobane at 4am on 25 June killing civilians randomly. As of 28 June 231 people had been killed, many of them women and children. Dr Semo observed that Turkish President Erdogan’s statement on 26 June showed where he stood; Erdogan said, ‘I am talking to the whole world, regardless of the price we might have to pay we will not allow a Kurdish state in North Syria, to the south of Turkey.’ Dr Semo warned that Turkey wants to establish a ‘buffer zone’ along its border and into Syria. One contributor to the discussion made it clear that any such ‘buffer zone’ would end the peace process between the PKK, the Kurds and the Turkish government and state in Turkey.

Margaret Owen and other speakers pointed to a growing body of evidence showing Turkish government and state forces complicity with IS. The conclusion that the Turkish President Erdogan prefers IS to Rojava is increasingly difficult to avoid. John Hunt remarked that Turkey is preventing aid from reaching Kobane and so delaying its reconstruction.

An Iraqi MP contributed by describing the close ties that Turkey has to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. He said that KRG President Barzani sought to present himself as leader of all the Kurds but that this was impossible and not least because of the corruption associated with the KRG leadership. Other contributors noted that while the British media had focused on the IS murder of British and other European tourists on the beach in Tunisia, the killing of a chemical plant manager in France and Shia worshippers at a mosque in Kuwait, very little coverage was given to the far greater slaughter by IS of Kurds in Kobane. One contributor said that the British government was in a state of denial: denying that IS was getting stronger when it is, and denying that Turkey is collaborating with IS when it is. These denials have contributed to the slaughter in Kobane and 30 dead British holidaymakers on a beach in Tunisia. On 19 June the British Royal Air Force concluded the NATO exercise Anatolian Eagle with the Turkish army, but to maintain this NATO alliance Britain is turning a blind eye to Turkey’s complicity with IS – this cannot continue.

Concluding the discussion, Estella Schmid for Peace in Kurdistan emphasised that the current Kurdish struggle is grounded in a 35 years old history, practice and ideology of resistance inspired by the writings of Abdullah Ocalan. Estella called on individuals and organisations to visit Rojava and to organise delegations. She also called on the UK government to send an official delegation to Rojava! Also useful would be a delegation composed of cross-party MPs. Urgently and as a humanitarian gesture there should be all forms of support for the Kurdish efforts and projects for rebuilding Kobane. Echoing a growing voice of protest Estella Schmid said that we must support the call for an international investigation into the massacres of Kurds in Kobane on 25 June 2015. In keeping with the sentiment of the meeting she called on the British government to recognise Rojava and the autonomous self-administration as a legitimate political force in the struggle for a democratic Syria and said that there must be a campaign to ensure that the UK government invite legitimate representatives of the self-administration in Rojava including the PYD to any future peace conference in Syria.

During the discussion one contributor asked if others speaking could restrain their use of acronyms or at least explain what they all meant (PYD, KCK, PYG/PYJ, PKK and so on); she said she really did want to learn more. The roundtable discussion drew in guests from different backgrounds, countries and age groups. It is testimony to the worldwide respect that the Kurdish people and their supporters have earned.

Report by Trevor Rayne, on behalf of Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

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Contribution by Lord Hylton, member of the House of Lords

Last month, following a visit to IDPs in KRG, I crossed the pontoon bridge over the Tigris River from KRG into Jezira Canton. This is the easternmost part of the three Cantons of Rojava.

I was warmly welcomed by an official reception group. They took me and my interpreter via Qamishli to a comfortable guest-house in Amouda, where we had supper. Later we visited Qamishli, two other towns, and a large refugee camp. I met the Executive of the Canton, the speaker of the Assembly, several members and representatives of all the political parties. The refugee camp had people from Sinjar and nearby, mostly Yezidis, with Arabic speakers from Rabiah. This is a place on the KRG/Jezira frontier. The canton seemed to be working very well with the UN Agencies, and I was told that relations were good between the immediate neighbours and the camp residents.

The whole atmosphere seemed calm, harvest was well under way, sheep and lambs were being exported to Iraqi Kurdistan. I felt very safe with a military driver and escort. There were check-points on the main roads and the approaches to towns. News came through that the YPG had driven ISIS from a large mountain in western Jezira. This was followed, when I had returned here, by the liberation of Tal Abgad. This was an important victory as it linked up Kobane and Jezira.

ISIS, as you may know, counter-attacked by car-bombing Kobane and breaking in to parts of Hassakeh, a major city. There is serious evidence of collusion between the Government of Turkey and ISIS. It will be harder to keep this up, now that the Cantons control most of their side of the frontier. It also remains to be seen what kind of Government emerges in Turkey.

I was impressed by the fact that Jezira had managed to hold its own elections and was self-administering itself. Its pledge to have equality for women was being put into practice. I met young people, men and women, being prepared for democratic roles, and their quality was very high.

I have spoken twice in the House of Lords about my visit. I urged our Government to visit and see for themselves (as a group of MEPs has already done). I have put it to Ministers that Jazira has drawn up a brilliant constitution and Social Charter, for Common Citizenship between Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs and other small groups. If this can be fully implemented throughout Rojava, it will provide a model for Syria, and could be an example for many parts of the Middle East.

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 Contribution by Margaret Owen, Patron of Peace in Kurdistan, Director of WPD, international human rights lawyer

It is 18 months since I last visited Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan. Since then there have been many exciting developments, especially in the practical mechanisms operating to implement its populist, anti-State, pluralistic Charter, illustrating, in a variety of ways, how its democratic experiment can truly empower people to have key roles in decision-making at every level, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, educational attainment or income,

I was happy to return to Rojava because what is happening there, in North Western Syria, represents a bright ray of hope in the region’s otherwise dark landscape. The Syrian Kurds, inspired by the ideology of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, offer the international community a model for the future peace of all of Syria.

Rojava impresses me also because Gender Equality here is no mere “add-on” or “frill” but utterly central to the Ocalan philosophy and the policies of the PYD. Here we have a charismatic male leader, intent on peace, justice and equality, who from his prison cell declares that there can be no democracy without the liberations of women. (Even Mandela never came out that strongly on behalf of women). We were able to see at first-hand how these policies work on the ground, both in the civil, military, legal and educational spheres. Therefore, the Rojava democratic experiment could be usefully adapted to other countries emerging from conflict, revolution and sectarian strife.

I and my French colleague, Dr. Carol Mann, were in Rojava at a critical and highly symbolic time, for during our visit the Peoples’ Defence Units (the YPG and the YPJ – the women’s defence unit) brilliantly defeated ISIS fighters clearing a number of Syrian villages, and thus joined together Kobani and Jezira, two of the hitherto non-contiguous three provinces that make up this independent autonomous democratic federation (Afrin, the westernmost canton, remains unconnected to Kobane to its west). They had beaten ISIS out of Tel Abayed (in Kurdish Gire Spi) which ISIS had held in the Raqqa Governate since June 2014. They had brought out the remaining inhabitants, to avoid civilian casualties.   That day every home and office we visited showed the videos of triumphant celebrations, but also of the funerals of those young people, men and women, who had died in the battle.

The international community, especially now the Coalition, the UN and the EU should recognise and support Rojava, both its military role as “boots on the ground” against ISIS, and its civil humanitarian role in its providing refuge for over 1.8 m IDPs, and for embracing the values of pluralism and respect for all beliefs and ethnicities, whether Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen, Christian, or Kurd and irrespective of gender.

  1. The Peoples Defence Unit – who defended Kobani, rescued the Yezidis from Mount Sinjar (while it was widely reported that the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were responsible for this, it was in reality the YPG, YPJ and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters that committed themselves to this rescue, saving thousands of lives), ousted ISIS from Tell Abayad, and will go on, with certain militias from the FSA to take Raqqa itself and possibly Shahdici (through the Euphrates Alliance) – must be provided with essential modern armoury. They are mainly still reliant on ancient Kalashnikovs. Much is spoken in the corridors of power about “boots on the ground”, but when Kurdish fighters are mentioned, it is the KRG Peshmerga who seem to get the diplomatic, logistical and armed support and not the YPG and the YPJ.
  2. Rojava is home to over 1.8million internally displaced people (IDPs) and it is the only relatively safe part of Syria. 80% of these people are women and children. Since my last visit one camp has been constructed but that holds only a few hundred. Most of the IDPs are living precariously in half constructed buildings or damaged offices vacated by the regime. As the epidemiologist on another delegation last December noted, there is an urgent need for food, medicine, education, and other help.[1] UNHCR have established a camp for some 8,000 Yezidis of Shengal, but even there, where UNICEF has some projects, water, food, electricity and education facilities are lacking.
  3. In the Yezidi camp and among the IDPs we met some of the women and girls among the very few who escaped from ISIS. We heard the most harrowing accounts of their experiences, so horrifying that I cannot write them down in this note. We met a woman who had been held of 25 days, raped, and sold to be raped again and again. Yet the UN SR Zainab Bangura, whose brief is to address sexual violence in conflict and who was sent by the Security Council into Syria and other countries in the region, could not go into Rojava because it is not recognised as a state. Indeed, Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative emphasises “no impunity” for perpetrators of sexual violence and yet as with the UN, no team has entered Rojava to assess this. Local women’s NGOs such as SARA and the Rojava Women’s House and Academy which address the medical, legal, and psychological needs of these women and girls should be provided with the training and resources so that these crimes can be properly documented so as to provide admissible evidence in any future tribunal or court.
  4. The UK now provides scholarships to students in the KRG. But there is a glaring need to provide education including degree and post-graduate education to Kurdish young men and women in Syria, many of whom were forced to leave their studies in Damascus or Aleppo because they were Kurds at risk of imprisonment by the Assad regime. Rojava needs these people to be able to finish their degrees, in engineering, medicine, law, geology, IT, so that they can best contribute to their country, rather than be forced to take on manual low paid work because they have been deprived of obtaining formal qualifications.
  5. The Science and Technology University has now opened and is teaching law and languages (the official languages are Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian), but it desperately needs books, in all three languages, as well as volunteer professors and lecturers to come and help develop the modules for new courses.
  6. As for popular democracy, we were able to see it functioning on the ground. Assemblies are the ultimate decision-making bodies and at all levels – councils, juries in courts, reconciliation committees for domestic violence cases – from the top to the bottom must have a man and a woman represented. Moreover, each must have a Kurd, an Arab and an Assyrian or Armenian Christian. Illiteracy is no bar to being a member of such a body.

I should stop here. I could describe more fully the quite unique and extraordinary ways in which the Rojava women’s police units, and the women’s’ NGOs are addressing domestic violence, honour killings, polygamy, and under age marriage – always attempting first to “re educate” the men, rather than take them immediately to court to prosecute and punish. The law code prohibits capital and corporal punishment, and the courts’ verdict and sentences are also decided by a peoples committee. They are even rewriting the law, attempting to make it “dynamic” and flexible, to address changing challenges and situations.

Perhaps we can all learn from the Rojava experiment. I was sad to leave.

I pray that we can dispel the erroneous myths about Rojava so that we can all look forward to a peace for all of Syria. For this to happen we need to see the terror tag given to the PKK lifted; obtain the release of Ocalan from his island prison; and support the YPG and YPJ with the weapons to defeat ISIS. In addition, The UK and its coalition partners should be sending expert assistance to help Rojava to rebuild.

The Peoples Defence Units may have lost over 500 young martyrs, but they have killed over 4000 ISIS militias even though the latter have all the modern US made weaponry they got from the run-away Iraqi army.

POSTSCRIPT

Tragically, a day after my return, ISIS fighters, disguised in YPG uniforms, invaded Kobani at 4 am in the morning, massacring some 145 men, women and children as they slept in their beds. This war crime was committed just when civilians were beginning to return to their homes and work was beginning to repair and reconstruct this Kurdish town so badly damaged in the previous 134 days battle that the People’s Defence Units had won with their ancient AKs, and little else.
A further development of concern is the possibility that the UK Parliament may decide to bomb ISIS in Syria. This would be a highly dangerous initiative and since ISIS is so embedded across the country within the civilian population in villages and towns, there is bound to be huge numbers of civilian casualties that could trigger increased recruitment to ISIS. It is also illogical, given that the “local boots on the ground “, the YPG and the YPJ, along with certain FSA militias remain unsupported yet are the crucial forces able to defeat ISIS.

[1] http://roarmag.org/2015/01/statement-academic-delegation-rojava/

Contribution by John Hun, journalist and contributor to Kurdistan Tribune

I visited Kobane and Tel Abyad for nine days in June and left six days before the last terrible massacre in Kobane. The city had already undergone 70-80% destruction during last winter’s ISIS siege, due to truck bombs with TNT, car bombs, mortar attacks and the impact of the US air strikes. Everywhere you go, you see devastation. But this is not a city on its knees because people stayed to defend it. At one point it’s estimated there were 5-7,000 people left in the city (most families were evacuated as refugees at this point), facing more heavily armed opponents, and this core included all of Kobane’s elected leadership; people like foreign minister Ibrahim Kurdu, who said to me, “How can I be a representative if I don’t stay to defend my city?” You meet people in Kobane who proudly show you their Iphone photos of when they were involved in the defence of the city, along with their photos of the shaheeds – martyrs – who fought alongside them.
Now people are returning to the city and the villages of Kobane canton, although the process has probably slowed since the massacre. Kobane is suffering from a blockade by Turkey which means, for example, that bomb disposal experts from the NGO Handicap International are diffusing unexploded bombs by hand because they are not getting the equipment they need. Kobane Co-President Anwar Muslim has called for a Europe-wide campaign for Turkey to lift the blockade and open the border gates to aid. We should campaign for foreign delegations to be allowed to visit the city. The US should provide material aid alongside air strikes.

Having visited Tel Abyad and several villages along the route from Kobane, it was clear that there was no ethnic cleansing of Arabs by the YPG: that is the opposite of the YPG’s intentions. There was a serious effort to involve units of the FSA in the Tel Abyad campaign and I met an FSA commander who had come with his men from Idlib to join the offensive. In Tel Abyad local Arabs spoke of three people being beheaded with long knives by ISIS in the town square. They spoke well of the YPG (“They have been good so far”) while also expressing concerns about the lack of electricity, etc. (ISIS has cut the power coming from Raqaa).

It’s notable that five of the seven YPG commanders on the Tel Abyad eastern front were women from the YPJ. The YPJ is an autonomous section of the YPG but women and men often fight together in the same brigades.

Despite everything there is a vision to build a new Kobane and the EU conference on 1 July will contribute towards this. As Kobane deputy foreign minister Idriss Nassan has put it, “Rebuilding is also a form of resistance to terrorism”.

USEFUL APPENDICES

[1] Report on the roundtable in Telegraf, the UK’s Turkish-language newspaper, with some short videos and pictures included:

http://www.telgraf.co.uk/britanya-parlamentosunda-rojava-konulu-yuvarlak-masa-toplantisi.html>

[3] Resources List. This list of useful resources brings you a wealth of information about the origins, ideas, development and struggle for the revolution in Rojava. It is updated with new links, videos and articles on a regular basis: https://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/resources/kobane-the-rojava-revolution-and-the-kurdish-struggle-useful-resources/

[3] International Mobilisation to Rebuild Kobanê Conference: FINAL RESOLUTION

1 July 2015 / European Parliament

On the 15th of September, 2014, Da’esh launched a major offensive against the Kurdish Canton of Kobanê in Syria. The Kurdish people, led by the Kurdish defence forces (YPG and YPJ), staged a large scale resistance against the attacks. The international coalition supported the resistance of the Kurdish forces with aerial bombardments. Thanks to this resistance and support, the Kurdish forces were able to liberate Kobanê on the 134th day of the attacks.

The conference considers the resistance of the men and women in Kobanê against Da`esh as a struggle for democracy, human rights, a joint future and the empowerment of women.

The liberation of Kobanê was celebrated by all democratic forces around the globe, and mostly by the 200,000 refugees that had fled Kobanê. It is of the utmost importance that these refugees can return on a voluntary basis in a safe manner and with dignity. International support is crucially needed to demine, and reconstruct basic infrastructures, and help restore crucial services in Kobanê.

To galvanize efforts in support of the people of Kobanê, Members of the European Parliament, undertook the initiative to organize an international conference for the reconstruction of Kobanê. The conference was held on 1st July, 2015 in the European Parliament, under the auspices of President of the European Parliament M. Schulz.

The conference was attended by representatives of the city of Kobanê, activists, senior representatives of EU Institutions, UN agencies and international NGOs already involved in the reconstruction of Kobanê, and the wider donor community.

The conference welcomes the EU`s commitments: including, but not exclusive to, supporting the return to normalcy in areas of reduced violence in Syria, and in areas liberated from terrorism. Facilitating access to basic services for all people is an important part of international efforts to promote an incremental reduction of violence and sustainable stability in Syria and the region.

The conference is a crucial step to strengthen a durable partnership with the EU, and the local authorities in order to facilitate the needed support for humanitarian and political aid.

The conference also encourages a deepening of the humanitarian and political support given by the EU to all areas liberated from Da’esh.

The conference acknowledges that during the fight for Kobanê, Da`esh has placed thousands of mines and other unexploded devices to prevent the population’s return. The conference also called on all international anti-mine organizations to be part of the clean-up operations in Kobanê

Kobanê is almost completely closed off, and entirely dependent on the Turkish border. The people of Kobanê need this corridor urgently through which they will be able to receive the help, which has been offered by the international community, to supply, protect and rebuild their city.

The conference also condemns the recent despicable and cowardly massacre in Kobanê against unarmed civilians committed by Da’esh, between 25 -27 June 2015, as a blatant crime against humanity.

The conference calls upon the UN and the international community to take an immediate initiative to form an investigative committee, and to shed light on the massacre that took place in Kobanê. The perpetrators of this crime, together with their financial and political backers, must be held accountable and brought to justice before an international court.

The conference concludes with the NGOs and the representatives of the political parties in the EU reiterating their commitment to pledge further and continuing support for Kobanê 

[4] Visit the Help Kobane website for up-to-date information on reconstruction efforts and Heyva Sor, Kurdish Red Crescent, for information: www.helpkobane.com // http://www.heyvasor.com/en

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