The myth has it that 2600 or so years ago there lived on the outskirts of Zagros Mountains a people ruled by a cruel king named Dehaq. King Dehaq was a supernatural evil as evident in the two snakes that grew on his two shoulders; snakes that demanded special delicacy for food. Thus, two children would be plucked from among his subjects, and their brains fed to the snakes.
Below the darkness of the evil king’s castle lived an ironsmith named Kawa. Kawa had sacrificed all his children except one. Dehaq ordered for the last one too to be brought for his snakes. Kawa, with the help of the king’s cook, tricked him by offering a sheep’s brain instead. Thus, his child and other children were saved and were sent high up in the mountains where they lived free and grew into a small army.
When the time came, Kawa led the small army in revolt, broke into the king’s castle and smashed Dehaq’s head with his hammer. The people were freed and the news spread around the kingdom by fires lit on the mountaintops. A new day, Newroz, was declared. And those saved children who led the people to liberation became the ancestors of Kurds.
Turkish sociologist, scholar and former political prisoner Dr Ismail Besikci criticised Kurds for “lacking sufficient national consciousness” on Sunday and today in events organised by Kurdish community in Sydney.
“For so long as Kurds do not have an independent state of their own, they will continue to suffer oppression, violence and genocide,” Dr Besikci said. He remains puzzled that teachers in Sulaymaniyah protested Kurdistan Regional Government for unpaid wages in 2015, yet there has been no demonstration demanding the KRG to declare independence from Iraq.
“The United Nations have 50 nation-states with population figures of less than 1 million each. Yet these micro states, which waged no struggle and paid no price for freedom, have more power to determine the fate of the Kurdish nation than 50 million stateless Kurds themselves. This is a problem; it must be questioned and addressed,” he added.
The author of two dozen books and hundreds of articles on Kurdish society, history and politics, Dr Besikci is the pre-eminent Kurdish nationalist alive today. His scholarly works were considered to be dangerous and criminal and were banned by state officials. He spent 17 years in prison in total for refusing to toe the line of Turkish state ideology that denied the existence of Kurds. He was finally released in 1999, following the relaxation of anti-democratic laws as part of Turkey’s negotiations to join the European Union.
Dr Ismail Besikci was born in the conservative central Anatolian town of Corum in 1939. After graduating in Political Science in Ankara in 1962, he went to complete his compulsory military service as a reserve officer in the southeastern corner of Turkey. There, he met a people who could not speak Turkish but used a strange language to communicate with other from across the border. They were Kurds who were not supposed to exist, as he was led to believe by Ankara’s official narrative.
From mid to late 1960s, Ismail Besikci studied for his PhD and worked as an academic producing papers that focused on the ‘Eastern Anatolian’ tribes. A university colleague informed the authorities of the young researcher’s unhealthy interest in the backward people of the east, and Besikci was sacked and charged with Marxism, regionalism and racism. In prison, he met better educated and politically more active, Kurds. His academic interests in uncovering the truth entered a permanent collision course with the fascistic one-nation Turkish state doctrine, and he suffered for decades without compromising his personal and political integrity.
Throughout 1970s, 80s and 90s, Dr Besikci wrote books, articles and letters that contradicted precepts upon which Turkey was founded. He argued that not everyone in Turkey was Turkish, that the state was running an assimilation policy, that the state had committed genocide, and that it continued to use brute force against a people who did not identify as Turkish. Since his publications were banned, his court hearings turned into politically-charged academic lectures that would not otherwise be on public record.
In 1984, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) started the armed insurrection for independence -later for autonomy- that is still going on today. Along with that of the Party leader Abdullah ‘Chairman Apo’ Ocalan, Dr Besikci’s writings were hugely influential among the rebels. The PKK embraced and disseminated widely his findings that Kurdistan was an “international colony” and that nothing short of statehood could ensure freedom. While Chairman Apo did a turnabout in his ideological aims following capture in Kenya in 1999, Ismail Besikci maintained his principled stand. This earned him excommunication from the PKK also.
In response to Turks’ repeated claim that there cannot be an independent Kurdistan because there has not been one before, Dr Besikci reminded that there were only 30 member states in the post-WW1 League of Nations and that even more nation-states were created from the West’s overseas colonies following the WW2.
Kurdistan however was neglected on purpose because it was a colony of neighbouring states. Unlike overseas colonies, it was easier for Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to project force and brutality in Kurdistan than for Britain in Africa, Dr Besikci argued.
“Arabs were divided too. But they were divided among various states of their own. Kurds however were divided among enemy states,” he continued, “since 1919, there has been an anti-Kurd international order”.
Dr Besikci explained how the Soviets abandoned the Mehabad Kurdish Republic to Iran’s mercy in 1946, how Algeria, which gained liberation after a bloody war with France, hosted the Algiers Conference of 1975 that ended Melle Mustafa Barzani’s insurrection in Iraq, and how the Organisation of Islamic States conference on 18 March 1988 was completely silent on the gassing of Halabja two days earlier.
He then went on to explain some of the benefits of having an independent state: creating collective memory, economic development, less corruption, and honourable and dignified existence equal with other nations. As a case in point, he compared the KRG’s capital city of Erbil with Baghdad. Yes, there was corruption in Erbil too but nowhere near like in Baghdad because of the recent self-rule.
“Today some Kurds refuse statehood,” he bristled at the PKK’s abandonment of independence for Kurds, “without a state, atrocities against Kurds in the past will be repeated.” There was almost no one from Sydney’s pro-PKK community to listen to him in two separate public lectures in a conference hall in Olympic Park and at the University of NSW.
Dr Ismail Besikci will present several more lectures to community members in Melbourne before returning to Turkey next week.
Here is a map for the benefit of those who are confused about who controls what territory from the Euphrates to the Amanos mountains in the north of Syria.
The yellow areas in the right of the map is the recently liberated Manbij and its countryside. Until six months ago, Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) and the Kurd-Arab umbrella organisation it belongs to, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were firmly on the east bank of the Euphrates.
In a two month long campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is represented in purple, was dislodged from Manbij and was forced to retreat first to Jarablus, which is in the north of Manbij and later to al-Bab to the west of Manbij.
On the left side of the map is the Kurdish enclave of Afrin which we hear little about. The Afrin canton is also protected by the YPG and allied Arabs but its greatest advantage is relatively homogeneous Kurdish inhabitants and the mountainous terrain. The Syrian civil war has not affected those areas significantly yet.
What Kurds want is to link Manbij in the east with the Afrin canton about 100 Kms to the west so they can have a single contiguous zone along almost the entire length of Turkish-Syria border. This is necessary in order to cut off ISIS from the outside world but also to make Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) whole again.
In the Kurds’ way are, apart from ISIS, two other forces in the Syrian civil conflict. The Assad government’s Syrian Arab Army (green) and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA in brown). The regime and the rebels have long been battling over Aleppo with neither side able to inflict decisive blow.
The key town that all sides want to control at the moment is al-Bab. It is a Kurdish populated town that is currently held by ISIS which is on the run. The SDF want it because it will unite the cantons. FSA want it because it will open a new front to attack government held districts of Aleppo. The Assad regime are unable or unwilling to launch an offensive to capture it.
What Turkey wants is to get in the Kurds’ way. So Ankara has bought a gang of FSA rebel mercenaries and helped them to capture Jarablus first and now wants them to move to al-Bab. It is likely that they will not go for Manbij because the rebels don’t have the numbers to take it or to even hold it for long.
As of this moment, there are conflicting reports coming from all sides as the Turkish-backed military advance continues. One thing is clear: the areas represented on the map with al-Bab at the centre is where most of the future conflict in Syria will take place.
Like many observers in the international media, Foreign Policy magazine also states in no uncertain terms that Turkish-backed FSA jihadi rebel incursion in Syria to capture Jarablus is intended not against ISIS but to roll back Kurdish gains in the west of Euphrates.
This article as well as several other news sources have stated that the Kurdish YPG have transferred the control of Manbij to the Arab-Kurdish alliance of SDF and “returned to base” without mentioning when and how the alleged withdrawal took place.
FP also states that the FSA jihadi rebels who took Jarablus in the north of Manbij without a fight might move on to al-Bab where ISIS fighters retreated. Al-Bab is a Kurdish populated town in the west of Manbij and until a few days ago was in YPG’s sights. Kurds there must now wait longer for liberation.
If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds over Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), that is the lack of convincing ideology, disorganisation and ineptitude of FSA rebels. They are not fighting and dying for a just cause but for the money they receive from Ankara. There is not a single town under FSA control that is administered properly. They will fail in al-Bab and Jarablus too.
As for the YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij, that resembles another incident during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the time, Kurdish control of Kirkuk was also a red line for Turkey. The Peshmerga liberated Kirkuk, Turkey complained, the USA ordered withdrawal, and the Kurdish government said “we are doing it right now”, which they never did. Kirkuk is the most heavily defended city in Kurdistan now.
The fog of war prevents us from observing the YPG’s withdrawal back to the east of the Euphrates. What we know is that if the FSA rebels want Manbij, they will have to fight and die for it like Kurds did to liberate it from ISIS barbarians.
In the Middle East, fortunes can change in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they change for the better as slow as shifting sand dunes. Other times they can change overnight like an earthquake. One moment we nearly had a Kurdistan on the map as was the case in the aftermath of First World War. Then came a century during which all traces of Kurdistan were lost except to those who could still dream of it.
Instead, we had in Syria a nation state re-invented by the French who empowered the minority Alewites over and above Sunnis and Kurds. And where Kurdistan was supposed to be, we had Iraq, a nation state invented by the British who made Sunni minority the overlords of Shias and Kurds.
Take now the changing fortunes in Syria’s civil war. No one thought Assad regime would last when the uprising began in 2011. No one thought Free Syrian Army rebels would be so radicalised as to be indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. No one expected the rise of an even worse jihadi outfit in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
And no one gave much chance to Kurds, who were the weakest and the most marginalised community in Syria when the civil war began, to emerge as the fiercest of all fighting forces with the international coalition’s air power above and the world’s goodwill behind them. The Kurds were not only the best fighters, men and women alike, but represented the secular democratic values that civilised nations held dear as well.
The ever shifting alliances in Syria’s four-sided civil war make the three-sided global wars involving Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s 1984 look like a simple game of checkers. Unlike in 1984, however, this is not a ruse to keep the populace occupied with war. This is a real existential battle to stay alive as individuals and as communities.
Each one of the four sides, the Assad regime, the FSA jihadis, ISIS and the Kurds, have found themselves on the brink of defeat at some stage of the war, and yet they have managed to recover. Each one of them have had to fight the other three at the same time at some stage.
Today it is the Kurds’ turn to face attacks from all three sides. Having recovered from the brink of defeat in Kobani a year ago with the late-coming US air support, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab allies went on to inflict ISIS a series of defeats. Manbij was liberated only two weeks ago.
Now, however, the YPG is warding off assaults from the Russian-backed Assad regime in Hasakah, Turkish-backed FSA jihadis near Jarablus and Saudi-backed ISIS in al-Shaddadi. And now Kurds cannot count on the US-led coalition air power any more because the US has just decided to shift its support to FSA jihadis again.
By abandoning the Kurds, the USA is repeating their mistake in Iraq. Not the historic mistake that Henry Kissinger made in mid-1970s when he betrayed promises to the Iraqi Kurdish leader Melle Mustafa Barzani. That mistake ended up strengthening Saddam Hussein and hastened the end of Shah of Iran, both of which proved wrong and very bloody in the long run.
The mistake the USA is repeating today is the one that they made after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003: not investing in a Kurdistan as a lasting reliable western ally and not placing sufficient trust in the regional government (KRG) to the benefit of untrustworthy partners in Baghdad. That too have come back and will continue to come back to haunt the USA.
For example, during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mosul and many nearby towns were captured from Saddam and later from the Sunni insurgency with the KRG help. Yet, the US forced the Kurds to hand them over to the Shia Arab government in Baghdad. In June 2014, the Iraqi army rapidly surrendered those towns and several billions dollars worth of arms back to the ISIS-led Sunnis.
Now it seems we are about to watch the same movie in Manbij. The USA is ordering the YPG to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates after liberating the city from ISIS. Why? Because the FSA jihadis are at hand to take over the crucial crossroad city that the Kurds and their Arab allies took at the cost of 300 lives.
Assuming the YPG did that, sooner or later the myriad of FSA jihadis will fight among themselves for full control of the city, or ISIS will return to capture it, or even the regime will march re-take it. And then the US will again ask the Kurdish forces to go liberate the city from whichever extremist group controlling it, just as it is likely to happen again across the border in Mosul.
This must stop. This vicious cycle must be broken. In Syria as well as in Iraq, Kurds must refuse to surrender lands they liberated from Assadist fascists, Sunni and Shia jihadis, and from medieval ISIS barbarians. I am heartened with the YPG’s statement that “in the west of Euphrates [we] are in our own country. We will not withdraw because Turkey or someone else wants it.”
For us Kurds, our once-in-a-century opportunity to establish an independent state is in danger as regional alliances have once again shifted against our national interests. We owe it to future generations to not let this opportunity slip away.
Now it is time for a greater Kurdish national unity. Now we must put aside all party politics and all petty tribal and personal squabbling, and speak to the world in a single united voice: “We are here in our own land and we are not giving it up without a fight!”