MIDDLE EAST

"They wanted to kill everybody”: Kurdish activist explains conflict in Syria

Adem Uzum talks about what happened in Afrin and looks into the theory of democratic confederalism

Kurdish fighter with PKK flag; taking down the patriarchy is crucial for the party to end the war / Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Kurdish people are considered the largest population in the world without a State. They are about 40 million, mainly concentrated in a territory called Kurdistan, located in areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, in the Middle East. Most Kurds live in Turkish and Iranian areas, while around 2 million live elsewhere, mainly in Europe.

Since January, Afrin, a Syrian city in the border with Turkey occupied by the Kurds, is being brutally attacked by the Turkish state, under the command of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with Al-Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army. This attack means a new and bloody conflict, which has been raging for three months, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to leave the city. Acts of solidarity carried out by civil society were recorded on all continents on March 24th, expressing great humanitarian concern regarding the invasion in the area.

Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has gone through five coups, and now it has the second largest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since 1980, the Turkish State has reportedly committed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity, and has kept more than 40,000 political prisoners, including more than 140 journalists.

We spoke with Adem Uzum, a member of the Executive Council of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC), an umbrella entity that brings together different Kurdish movements and parties. Kurdish organizations have drawn attention of the rest of the world because of their resistance against the Islamic State and the Turkish State, and especially because of the role of women and their proposal for democratic confederalism as a solution to the Kurdish issue. In this interview, Uzum talks about the complexity of interests in the Afrin area and the paradigm shift in the Kurdish movement in the early 21st  century.

Adem Uzum, member of the Executive Council of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC), an umbrella entity that brings together different Kurdish movements and parties | Florencia Guarch

What is at stake now in Afrin?

It was an invasion by the Turkish State on the 20th of January this year. That invasion is against international law, against civil law, humanitarian law. Moreover, of course, against all the people who live there. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria [in 2011, after a wave of protests in the country, popular opposition to the Bashar al-Assad government grew, and after some time, many people took up arms and joined radical  groups, such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. According to the Syrian Center for Political Research, by 2016 470,000 deaths were recorded in seven years of civil war, while thousands of people left the country and became refugees. There is also a conflict involving foreign countries — Russia and Iran support the Assad administration, while Turkey, the US, and Saudi Arabia support its opponents], Afrin didn’t get involved, and remained secure, welcoming a lot refugees from other areas. In Afrin there are not only Kurds, but all identities that came together and built their own administration. In Afrin there was no Daesh [an acronym for the Arabic phrase Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], there was no presence of the central government, and it was really in peace. People in Afrin lived very satisfied with their project and their life together. Afrin is very rich, with many resources. For example, it is the center of olive farming. On the other hand, Afrin is in a Kurdish enclave and on the Turkish border. Afrin is related with other Kurd areas in Syria, which are liberated from Daesh. Afrin felt like any other canton in Northern Syria. That was not welcome by Turkey. Afrin was not supported by Russia, was not supported by the central government, was not supported by the international coalition. People from Afrin managed to live by themselves. 

How many people used to live there?

There used to be 300,000 people. But after the war, a lot of people were displaced and the population reached 500, 600 thousands. And they managed it. They managed it very well. However, Turkey was not satisfied, because they do not want the Kurds to have any status anywhere, neither in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, nor in Brazil. Because Turkey’s policy is denying others. In Turkey, we have almost 25 million Kurds who have all their fundamental rights denied. They do not have any rights, they do not exist officially. Therefore, Turkey is afraid that, if the Kurds have any status in any country, all the Kurds will want that too. It is a denial policy, an annulment policy. Turkey is blaming them for being Kurds. Turkey attacks for these two reasons: the denial policy and, second, because Afrin is rich. They are trying to take other territories from Syria with their invasion, and that is illegal. They want to get access to Aleppo, the central trade city for Syria. Turkey’s dream is to have the new Ottoman Empire, starting with Syria. Therefore, they started this invasion with the permission of Russia, which gave them the green light. The international coalition remains in silence and the Syrian government did nothing.


"After the invasion of Afrin, 200 thousand Kurds became refugees. Therefore, the European Union is giving money to create refugees."


The fight continued for two months, and, after that, the Turkish forces, with the jihadists, remaining members from Al-Qaeda, and some from ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] came together under the umbrella of Turkey — with the guns given by NATO — and came closer to the city of Afrin. So the Kurdish population and forces made a decision to withdrawal the city, because Turkey wanted to carry out a massacre. They wanted to kill everybody, it didn’t matter if they were civilians, women, children, or fighters. So there was a withdrawal from Afrin, and Turkey and jihadists destroyed everything.

Turkey is now trying to make an ethnic cleansing over there, putting the Kurdish enclave out and bringing the jihadists and their families in. That is something totally against civil law, international law, it is something criminal. On the other hand, European countries are giving Turkey money to keep those refuges in Turkey. Now Turkey is producing refugees. After the invasion of Afrin, 200 thousand Kurds became refugees. Therefore, the European Union is giving money to create refugees. I think the invasion of Afrin is an international contradiction, it’s an invasion, it’s a crime.

Protest in Zurich (Switzerland) staged as part of international efforts in solidarity with Afrin on March 24th | ANF News

Beyond the Kurdish people's struggle, there are many geopolitical interests in the region. How do you see these conflicts?

With the Arab Spring, people stood up for their rights. However, unfortunately the leaders could not propose good projects so that people could have their rights. In addition, the international powers follow their own interests and misuse these uprisings to start a war against some countries and use those people for their own interest. In the end, the Arab uprisings didn’t change a lot of things for the ordinary people who were seeking for more rights, more democracy. One power was replaced by another. And they are all antidemocratic powers, in all Arab areas. In this period, thousands of jihadists crossed the Turkish border to join Daesh, to continue the fight over there, because Turkey wanted to use them to make its war in the Middle East. Each of the countries in the region, and other countries, want to further their interests. Syria is rich in oil and gas and is a bridge to get to Iran or Asia. The USA wants to have an air base over there, Russia wants to keep its air base there, and Turkey wants to take areas from Syria for its own territory. Iran also has interests there. Therefore, people over there suffer attacks by Al-Qaeda, by Daesh, by the central government, so they are trying to survive. Fortunately, we were able to defeat ISIS, but the defeat of ISIS made some governments afraid, especially Turkey, because they used it a lot against the Kurds. Now Turkey is by itself, with its own military forces. They are using Syria in its own interest: Russia, USA, Turkey, and Iran. 

Can you explain the role of the USA in this conflict?

At first, the USA was against Assad’s regime. They exported uprisings to the country, but realized it was not going to work. Then they tried to engage in the fight against Daesh and created an international coalition, with the goal of weakening the central government and establishing a military base in Syria. And they want to benefit from the sources they have there and hinder the influence of Iran and Russia in the region. The USA is in competition with Russia in Syria to have more influence in the Middle East.

[There is a lot of pressure from Turkey questioning the United State's support for the People's Protection Units (YPG), connected to the Kurdish movement. The US claims its support is a way to "contain the terrorist threat," as the YPG was responsible for defeating the Islamic State in the region and regaining control of the city of Kobanî in Syria in 2015. Turkey claims the YPG is linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish organization in Turkey, which is listed as a terrorist group, for its fight against the Turkish State. In turn, Kurdish organizations argue that US support in Syria is a way of strengthening the fight against the invasion of Kurdish territories and that it would be a tactical alliance, not a political alignment.]

The Kurdish people are considered the biggest population of the world without a State, around 40 million people. But the main goal is not to create a national State, but a system called democratic confederalism. Can you explain what the PKK — maybe the most important deviser of the Kurdish movement — stands for now as to resolve the issue?

The Kurds are a nation, but they do not have a national State. When everybody else was trying to establish a national State, the Kurds were very weak and could not establish their own national State. After that, when they saw liberation movements all around the world fighting for their own national State, the Kurds engaged in that too. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a heated debate on that: should we have the same approach? Should we continue on the path to fight for our own national State? And they observed other liberation movements that succeeded and got their State, but didn’t get their real independence. They are still connected to the capitalist system, to the liberal economy, to imperialism, they are still bureaucratic, still following nationalism…


"The problem is not socialism, the problem is the tool that is used to get there."


So the PKK posed a question: maybe we can continue to fight to have our own national State, but what kind of State will that be? We can try to have a socialist national State, but we have seen that the Soviet Union State collapsed. So that means the problem is not socialism, the problem is the tool that is used to get there. The problem is the State itself. Because State means nationalism, and nationalism means being homogeneous. Rejecting difference. Fighting others. Having a liberal economy, in benefit of an elite. Nationalism is based on bureaucracy. It does not accept other groups, it uses democracy only for its own nation. It’s not about protecting people, but protecting borders. Societies and ethnic groups are not subjects here. With the creation of States, we see the development of wars. People are called to fight to defend these borders and thousands of millions of people die and are killed. There are wars everywhere.

Women's liberation is strategic for Kurdish guerrillas and movements | Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

What is the project to oppose the idea of nation State?

What Öcalan [Abdullah Öcalan, PKK founder arrested by the Turkish State in 1999 and the party’s most prominent leader] remarks is the risk of becoming the same as your enemy when you get your State. He suggests another idea. A system where everybody can express themselves: democratic confederalism. It is a product that gathers all previous ideas in the history of human ideas, struggles, uprisings, including the national liberation movement’s ideas, marxist ideas, the real socialist experiences, the feminists, the environmental movements, the anarchists, human rights ideas, all the experiences we have and had in History come together to create a system where people can express themselves. Not only the majority, but even small groups should have their fundamental rights, their own administration, the possibility to decide for themselves. Democratic Confederalism is about saying: there is a State, I’m against the State, but it is a process It’s necessary to weaken the State, but parallel to that I can organize society. Society should not be victimized by the aims of the State. The State should not be allowed to continue to manipulate society. Let’s protect our society, with all the differences, by organizing it, even if the State is still there. If you organize society with politics and ethics, then it becomes stronger, more democratic, aware of their rights, their needs. And then society will be able to tell the State: “No, I know what is best for me.” Democratic Confederalism is the organization in society, parallel to the State, to weaken the State, to prevent the State from oppression, from war. 

It is not necessary to be a State to organize a society. Self-determination does not mean having a State. It means being able to decide for your own rights. And that means being organized, being politicized. It is the recognition that the State is not God. It is telling the State: “You can exist only when I am there.” A State cannot exist without society, but society can exist without a State. In History, societies have existed without a State. Öcalan says society is flexible; it makes changes when it’s necessary. The State will not accept that, and that’s why they attack, they are attacking now in Afrin, and everywhere. But we can defend ourselves. Militarily, politically, and through internationalism.


"A State cannot exist without society, but society can exist without a State."


This confederation already happens in Kurdistan, without touching the borders. Being a democratic nation is a state of mind, having a common value, a common feeling, a common aim. If you have that, you can be organized without having borders. In each territory, you can have federalism, confederation, democratic nation… Democratic confederalism is not only for the Kurds. In Kurdistan, we don’t have Kurds only. For example: in the North part of Syria, where Kurds are the majority, all other groups have rights at the assemblies, even if they are very small. There are 20,000 Armenians living in an area with 1 million Kurds, and they have the same right to have a representative. In a normal election, they would not be elected, they would not have enough votes, but in this system, they are represented.

We cannot narrow democratic confederalism down to only one thing. It is anti-State, ok. Nevertheless, it is also, at the same time, anti-capitalist. Anti-sexist. Anti-nationalist. Nationalism is a poison against coexistence. People can live together. People don’t have to hate each other, fight each other, become enemies of each other. They can live together, with some consensus. We are calling this consensus ‘social contract.’ We should have some agreements, about the political system, that we are calling democratic confederalism. And a democratic nation is not about the Kurds getting together. It means that all groups, all ethnic groups, can live together, can get together and be a democratic nation.

Sentenced to death, Öcalan has been kept prisoner on a Turkish prison island since 1999 | Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

Another dimension that draws the world’s attention is the centrality given to women’s issues. Why does the PKK say the main conflict in society is the oppression of women and what is its action to fight that?

When he developed his ideas, Öcalan got a lot of information from different sources: from his own experience, from [Karl] Marx, from [Vladimir] Lenin, from Latin American movements, from the uprising in Kurdistan, from Wallerstein [Immanuel Wallerstein, a US sociologist who formulates world-system theory], from Bookchin [Murray Bookchin, an American anarchist who wrote "The Ecology of Freedom" and other books]. He came to conclusion that, if you want to change something, you cannot separate things, but you have to consider them as a whole. The idea of breaking things down came from the positivist sciences, based on [an idea of] proof. If something can be proved, then it’s ok. If it cannot, then it does not exist, it is not true. He criticizes that. He talks about metaphysics. He also highlights that men have created positivist sciences, and they are patriarchal, excluding half of society, the women, from their social and political rights. Positivist sciences are more analytical, but we really miss the emotional sciences, the emotional thinking. In the past, we had that. Therefore, we need a balance between emotional and analytical. We need to stop with the separation between objective and subjective.

We need to see things in whole, not in pieces. The system itself, which is attacking us, is a whole. Capitalism, industrialism, and nation States are acting together and dominating society, and you cannot attack just one of them. That is why it is necessary to create a new idea to face that. The first attack on society was towards women. Five thousand years ago, men wanted to get more powerful and they first attacked women’s rights. Women became the first slaves, the first oppressed class, the first [to be treated as] objects. With that, the system — the feudal system, the capitalist system — is trying to keep its power. If we make women’s rights visible again, women’s struggles, the emotional thinking, and women’s science, then the patriarchal system will become weaker and women — and society — will become empowered. What I mentioned earlier about society and the State is now the same with the patriarchal system and women. The State is male, and because of that, it is creating war, it is creating invasion, aggression, but by empowering women’s society, they will become weaker. This way we can have a balance. Especially in the Middle East, where feudalism is so strong and women have no rights. The organization of a women’s movement can break a lot of barriers, a lot of dogmas, a lot of male structures, bureaucracy. Women’s struggle is the core, the center of democratic confederalism.


"Women’s struggle is the core, the center of democratic confederalism."


But democratic confederalism, on the other hand, is not only satisfied with advancing women’s struggle and women’s empowerment. It is the idea of having a new science for that too: Jineoloji. ‘Ji’ in Kurdish means ‘woman’ and ‘life’ at the same time. So it is women’s science, a life science – the same, in that sense – and that science is saying: “I have to touch everything. I have to have an alternative for everything. Because the sciences, the economy, the State, and nationalism have to be seen through women’s eyes, from women’s perspective.” And Jineoloji is trying to have an answer for all those areas. It is new, and it is not only fighting patriarchy, but patriarchal sciences and economics as well. And war practices too.

Self-defense is an important issue as well. And it is not only about the military, right?

Self-defense means to have a common mindset. In your mindset, you have to be self-defense. We practice self-defense when we are politicized. Moreover, we are politicized when we know about our needs, when we have a moral and ethics. This way we can know what direction to follow and we will be our defense. To prevent from attacks we can do many things, on different levels. We can have self-defense in military terms – and the Kurdish movement is well organized in that side too – but we can also have self-defense in society, when society is organized in different assemblies, in different communes, in different councils, in different movements. So they can defend their area, their environment. If you have an ecological mind, an ecological way of thinking, an ecological theory, you are against power. So to be ecological means to be against power and it means self-defense too. You can defend yourself against positivist science, which is trying to dominate society. If you develop new sciences, you can have a self-defense approach to agriculture, not putting everything in factories, in industries, building eco-industries. If you organize in cooperatives, in a social economy, that’s self-defense as well. So self-defense means organization, it means new sciences, it means military, it means having common values, it means knowing your history.

In the 2000s, the PKK experienced what has been called a “paradigm shift” away from Marxist views. You have talked about differences with the Marxist theory and the role of the national State, about society’s main contradiction — women’s oppression —, and also about criticism over the idea of progress in different time periods in History. How does this paradigm shift look at the class struggle issue in the big picture?

The theory of democratic confederalism, the PKK or Abdullah Öcalan are not against Marxism or socialism. They see themselves as socialists. The ultimate goal is democratic socialism. But, of course, they express fair criticism to develop the theory. They don’t accept the theory as a dogma. Even Lenin did not do that. Even Marx wanted to continue to develop the theory. But, unfortunately, real socialism took the theory as a dogma, and they implemented bad methodologies in some areas. They have analyzed capitalism very well — perfectly — but the way they found to fight capitalist was to have their own strong State. But the State is a tool of capitalism itself. Therefore, that could not last. But it could be different. We are criticizing that part and, on the other hand, saying we need to involve society in discussion. Not only one nation, not only individuals, not only one class, but society. If you do not put society into different categories and see the whole picture, you can better convince society. We are not rejecting class, we are not rejecting differences, but class and differences are oppressed by the nation State and by capitalist modernity, together.

Workers and non-workers?

Yes, together. Because things have changed. We don’t have only the working class anymore. We have other classes too, who are oppressed too. We criticize the positivist approach to transformation, materialism, and the view of history in separate pieces. With the theory of quantum physics and new theories and sciences, we can have socialism without capitalism in our areas; we don’t have to wait to have socialism after we have capitalism. We are not postponing women’s issues and women’s liberation for after the revolution, saying: “Ok, after the revolution it will better.” If we want to do something, we have to do it now, in parallel. We cannot wait for good days to come. We are not sacrificing ourselves for the future, for something that is always in the future, in the future… If you want a democratic system, you have to be democratic now. You have to implement it now. If you want to have a cooperative system, a social economy, a green industry, you have to do it now. You have to implement theory and practice now, including each one in your behavior. It is not about competing with nationality-modernity to see which is stronger, but about trying to include society and individuals in the discussion. I can say that the main difference for this theory, this new paradigm, is women’s liberation, democracy, and ecology. These three are the pillars of democratic confederalism. And they are not in contradiction with Marxism. Nevertheless, the methodology and the tools are different. We are not seeking, with these three pillars, to have a strong State. No. We can have it within our society, with ourselves. Without borders, with our differences. Therefore, we criticize classical materialism with this new approach. 

Could the Kurdish philosophy be used by other countries or struggles? How?

Democratic confederalism is not only for the Kurds. The Kurds have a specific problem. They are oppressed, they have their identity denied, they have their fundamental e democratic rights denied, their lands are occupied. Kurds are dealing with this, this is the Kurdish issue. But democratic confederalism is about dealing with other contradictions that other people are dealing with in other areas. For example, women’s issues, human rights, environment, economy, and ecological rights are not specifically Kurdish issues. We see these issues in Latin America, in Africa, in India, in China, in the USA. Everybody is trying to deal with those contradictions and trying to find answers and projects to tackle them. And democratic confederalism is trying to give answers and propose solutions for those contradictions. Therefore, its ideas on women’s rights, ecology, economy and sciences are a contribution to the debate about global problems.

We are now seeing a crisis in the system. It is not a crisis in capitalism. Capitalism always faces crises, and it even produces crises to survive. They can manage crises. But the whole system — which we are calling capitalist modernity, based on capitalism, nation State, and industrialism — is going through a crisis. It is a crisis of modernity. And this modernity cannot find a solution. The solution they present is populism, bureaucracy, terror.  It is making people feel afraid, in order to keep them under obedience. That is not a solution for a crisis in capitalist modernity. Because of that, people are looking for new solutions, new projects, and new resistances. Therefore, we are proposing global projects for global problems, which are affecting all of us together. That is why it is becoming increasingly easier to get closer to groups in Latin America, in Africa, in China, in the USA.

The aim of democratic confederalism is: act locally, think globally. This way you can have a global democratic platform, in which you can discuss with all other groups, all other ideas, in an autonomous way, coordinating with each other, coordinating experiences, to become stronger. Why is there an European Union, for example, while we cannot have a global democratic platform to come together and discuss and engage in a common struggle? Why can the world’s capitalist leaders get together in Davos and we can’t discuss our economy globally to solve our problems? Society is asking us to do that. Democratic confederalism is proposing a global platform to discuss all these issues. As the Marxists did with the first, second, and third International, we are proposing now a global democratic platform, to discuss and share these experiences to help us organize.

Do you have a special message for the people of Latin America?

When we started our national liberation movement, we were inspired by Latin American experiences, by the leaders in Latin America, and they were — and are still — our heroes. The way they rose and struggled against occupation was an inspiration to us. And we took a lot from them, and we are thankful for their struggle. Also, they succeeded somehow — maybe not everywhere, but there were victories — and they achieved things that we are still building in our areas, like experiences in cooperatives, in women’s liberation, in agriculture, a lot of experiences that can help us a lot. And we want to share these experiences to learn from each other, because democratic confederalism is an open process, it is open to experiences and criticism. Maybe with these experiences we can also learn from criticism, from what didn’t work. The social struggle in Latin America is strong and has influenced the international discussion, so it is very important for us to bring it together. In the last few years, we have had good contacts. And I can say that people in Kurdistan are always paying close attention to what is going on there.

But we have criticism too. We expected some groups to be anti-imperialist. They are anti-USA, ok, but that’s it. Some groups are still not against occupation in our areas and still look at the Kurdish movement through the eyes of the State, saying: “Iran is anti-USA, so let’s support Iran.” But they don’t see that Iran is occupying [our territories]. The same thing happened with Saddam [Hussein, former president of Iraq], with [Bashar al-]Assad [president of Syria]. Ok, Iran, Saddam, and Assad were and are under attack by the USA, but that doesn’t mean they are not occupying States. We do not want to separate Iran, Syria, and Iraq into different pieces. Our idea is to have one State, a more democratic one. And we expected Latin American movements would support us for a Free Kurdistan in Democratic Syria, a Free Kurdistan in Democratic Iraq, or a Federative Iran, Federative Syria. If these countries were democratized, they would be stronger in the struggle against the USA. 

Edition: Aline Scátola