A critical time for the Kurdish struggle

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By 23 September 2014 140,000 Kurdish people had left Kobane Canton in Rojava (West Kurdistan) in Syria for Turkey. Over one hundred villages were evacuated in the face of an Islamic State (IS) attack. IS was reported to have 40 tanks and 30 armoured personnel carriers 12 miles from Kobane city. Kurdish groups were amassing a large fighting force to resist the attack. Turkish police and soldiers forcibly prevented Kurds from crossing from Turkey to fight IS. There is evidence of Turkish state complicity in the IS operation. The Turkish government and other regional powers fear the democratic and revolutionary potential of Rojava and the liberation struggle of the Kurds in North Kurdistan (Turkey), led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While the US, Britain and NATO talk of defeating IS they have hesitated to help Rojava resist the attack. Trevor Rayne reports.

In June 2014 the IS occupied Mosul in northern Iraq. The following month it attacked Kobane but its month-long assault was fought off by the Rojavan People’s Protection Units (YPG) with PKK assistance. On 3 August IS broke through the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) force’s lines to take Sinjar and Zumar in South Kurdistan (northern Iraq). IS then attacked Makhmour, Erbil, Kirkuk and Germiya, all in KRG territory. The KRG peshmerga militias retreated without a fight but the PKK and YPG forces rallied in defence of the Kurdish people and land, pushing IS back. From 15 September IS mounted its heaviest assault on the Kurdish people yet with the attack on Kobane Canton. Two trains loaded with weapons and forces were reported arriving from Turkey for IS and coinciding with the IS assault. At the same time the Turkish army reinforced its troops along the border with Rojava. As of 22 September the dominant group in the KRG, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), has offered no support to the Rojavan Kurds but the other main party, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was sending help.

Contending class forces

In July 2012 the people of Kobane rose up against the Syrian Ba’athist government and with the YPG took over the city’s borders and state institutions. From Kobane the Rojavan revolution spread to include three Cantons (Efrin, Kobane and Cizire) in the declared autonomous region of Rojava (see FRFI 237, February/ March 2014). Practising democratic confederalism, Rojava emphasises participatory democracy and decision making from the grassroots up, along with equality and participation of women – many of the YPG guerrillas are women – and it stresses the importance of ecology.

The KRG of South Kurdistan is led by capitalist and feudal classes. In the past, for example in 1992, the KDP and PUK have united with the Turkish state against the PKK. However, the KDP and PUK have fought each other, as they did between 1994 and 1997, over revenues and power. These tensions weaken the KRG peshmerga. Barzani, as President of the KRG, imposed a blockade on Rojava and has tried to weaken PKK influence in the region. Barzani and his family enjoy opulent lifestyles, largely resulting from trade with and investment from Turkey. Barzani’s son has bought a $10m residence in Virginia, US. Erbil, capital of the KRG, has plush restaurants and hotels but poor hospitals and schools. Barzani resides in a mansion while PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is held in a Turkish prison.

Barzani recently said he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. The PKK rejects the notion that independence for Kurdistan can be achieved through the declaration of a state and condemns the KDP for promoting capitalist nationalism, refuting its claim to be for independence.

When IS attacked the Kurdish Yazidi people in Sinjar in August and the KRG peshmerga put up no resistance, the YPG crossed from Rojava (Syria) to defend the Yazidis and created a safe exit route for them off Mount Sinjar. When IS attacked Erbil and Makhmour the PKK came down from the Qandil Mountains bordering Iraq and Turkey to fight them. ‘Our support is just as important for the peshmerga as these US strikes – bombing alone can’t get rid of guerrilla groups, we know from personal experience,’ explained Sedar Botan, a female PKK veteran commander (Financial Times 16/17 August 2014). On 13 August Barzani visited the PKK in Makhmour to thank them. Barzani will have been under increasing pressure to call a national congress of all Kurdish organisations across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran to mobilise for Kurdish self-defence. He will fear PKK influence growing at his own expense.

Israel, Turkey and oil

In June 2014 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, ‘The Kurds are a fighting people who have a proven political commitment and political moderation, and they’re also worthy of their own political independence.’ That same month a tanker carrying oil from the KRG arrived off Israel’s coast. The oil was piped from South Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and delivered to the Israeli port of Ashkelon. The Kurdish region of Iraq contains an estimated 45bn barrels of oil, about a third of Iraq’s total reserves. ‘Over the past five months, according to Turkey’s energy minister Taner Yildiz, 16 tankers bearing a total of 11.2m barrels have sailed from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. When Baghdad, which insists it should process the oil sales, suspended budget payments to Erbil this year, Turkey came to the rescue with big loans’ (Financial Times 22 September 2014).

For Israel, Kurdish oil would reduce dependence on Russian and Azerbaijani supplies. Turkey has more than 2,200 companies registered in Erbil and the majority of its $12bn trade with Iraq is with the KRG. Israeli payments to the KRG for Kurdish oil go through a Turkish Halkbank account. Israel has made no comment on these oil imports. The pipeline carrying the oil from the KRG to Turkey was completed in December 2013 and built by the British firm Genel Energy, led by ex-BP boss Tony Hayward (of the Gulf of Mexico disaster). Genel has discovered oil in South Kurdistan. Another British company investing in South Kurdistan/KRG oil is Gulf Keystone, headed by former British chief of defence forces Lord Guthrie. When the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy say they will arm the Kurdish forces fighting IS they mean the KRG peshmerga who ran away. Imperialism, Israel and Turkey have every interest in preserving the KRG as their regional ally and every reason to fear the PKK and Rojava.

Turkey enforced an embargo against Rojava but its border with IS-controlled territory remained open. Turkey has provided a transit route for 12,000 IS recruits and for weapons and other supplies. Injured IS fighters have been treated in Turkey’s hospitals. Kurdish People’s Democratic Party MP Demir Celik said at a press conference in Turkey’s parliament that IS forces include around 2,000 Turkish Special Forces. When IS took Mosul in June they seized 49 hostages from the Turkish consulate. On 20 September the Turkish government announced a successful rescue operation to free the hostages. The Prime Minister said the operation had been conducted after months of negotiations and that no ransom had been paid. ‘Pro-ISIS Turkish websites say the Turks were released on the direct orders of the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’ (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 22 September). The release of the hostages resulted from Turkey’s support for IS. IS has smuggled oil from northern Iraq through KRG-controlled territory for sale in Turkey.

Ocalan and the PKK had declared a ceasefire with Turkey in March 2013. That ceasefire was ended on 25 September 2014, citing Turkish support for the IS attack on Kobane. The Turkish state presents itself as seeking a democratic solution to the Kurdish question. Its connivance with IS and the attack on Rojava must be challenged. ‘Today the freedom of the Kurds and the liberation of the peoples of the Middle East from the atrocities of ISIS are intertwined. Therefore, the Kurdistan Freedom Struggle is now synonymous with the Democratic Middle Eastern Revolution,’ Duran Kalkan, Executive Committee of the PKK.

Hands off Rojava!

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014