There’s a tendency in the west to position YPG militias fighting ISIS as the object of our hopes and dreams for a more tolerant Middle East. It’s an understandable hope but one we should be careful about overemphasising.
The ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, of whom the YPG is an ideological offspring (and contains many PKK commanders), is one which has been tempered by years of incarceration. This Adam Curtis blog on the influence of the revolutionary American writer Murray Bookchin on Abdullah Öcalan is worth reading.
This short film by Journeyman Pictures shows a similarly rosy picture of the situation in Rojava, the autonomous, YPG controlled region in northern Syria.
I don’t think it’s wise to totally suspend our critical abilities and jump on the YPG bandwagon by declaring them the ideal carrier for our liberal hopes for the Middle East. The YPG are a militia.
Certainly, from a Western point of view, this idea sounds appealing, especially compared to that of fundamentalists like ISIS or any other Salafi group. Yet we should be careful about confusing the ideal with the reality. Kurdish society is still conservative, still oppressed in Turkey, and people who have been oppressed for a long time sometimes go on to oppress others. ‘Hurt people hurt people’, as they say.
Personally, I have absolutely no problem with Macer Gifford giving a talk at any university. I don’t think that people would be so enthralled by his romantic experiences to want to go and shoot at jihadists, and I completely disagree with the relativism which would not make any difference between various sides fighting in Syria.
However, I don’t think it’s wise to suspend our critical abilities and jump on the YPG bandwagon by declaring them the ideal carrier for our liberal hopes for the Middle East. The YPG are a militia, who have been accused of forced recruitment of conscripts, using child soldiers, suppressing rival Kurdish political parties and of the ethnic cleansing of Arab areas under their control, particularly the contested town of Tal Abyad on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Of course these allegations need to be looked at critically as well. Certainly there are those who seek to paint the YPG as less than angelic. The Amnesty International report that suggests these things should not be taken at face value. At least one report by the International Peace Initiative for Syria by journalists who visited affected areas found no evidence to support the claims. The problem is that we must consider whether report findings are biased by what the YPG allowed reporters to see.
What happened in Tal Abyad is still somewhat unclear. However, it is understandable that the Arab population should fear reprisals from the YPG after ISIS ethnically cleansed the Kurdish population of the town. It’s also understandable that the YPG would be wary of IS sympathisers among the Arab population. This is a complex situation, and terrible things happen in the fog and suspicion that surrounds war.
What’s important from the position of the YPG authorities is that they continue to show they are better than their enemies, by taking claims of rights violations seriously, investigating them, allowing those who feel they have been abused the right to take up their claims and receive justice. Getting defensive and dismissing them as totally false before they have been fully investigated is an understandable impulse from those like Mr Gifford who have fought alongside them and want badly for there to be one group in the Middle East who aren’t bloodthirsty.
— Macer Gifford (@macergifford) October 18, 2015
I get that. The progressive ideology spread by Mr Öcalan, undeniable terrorist/freedom fighter as he is, represents something hopeful. But the YPG is perhaps not its best example, because they are a militia fighting a war against absolutely bloodthirsty opponents, and per Nietzsche, we all know what happens when we stare into the abyss.
However, from the time I spent in the Kurdish region of Turkey, I would be happy to support the HDP, the pro-Kurdish progressive party there. Their electoral success has prevented President Erdoğan from changing the constitution to give himself more power and has galvanised leftists in Turkey who want to see a politics which protects women, LGBT rights and minority rights, as well as Kurds who want more autonomy for their region. The success of the democratic HDP also reduces the rationale of the PKK continuing their violent conflict with the Turkish state.
Contrary to what the propaganda of Erdoğan’s AKP would have you believe, the HDP are not the political face of the PKK. They may be influenced by Öcalan’s political ideology, but they represent the attempt to move on from the use of violence to achieve their aims. I only hope that once the war in Syria is over, those in charge of Rojava can do the same, putting down their guns and working for a peace in which all minorities are protected.
John Lubbock studied International Politics and Human Rights MA at City University and now works as a freelance journalist on human rights in the Middle East.