What the Kurds Are Fighting For

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S1: I want you to picture a map. A map that to me explains just how vulnerable Kurdish people are right now. This map is like a jigsaw puzzle with Turkey and Syria and Iraq all fitting together just so but where Syria meets Turkey. There’s a whole other map a map that doesn’t have official borders doesn’t have official status. These Kurdish islands separated not by water but by land.

S2: It’s referred to by Kurds by its Kurdish name Rojava which means West Jenin could just be traveled to Rojava reported from there.

S1: I read one description that said it wasn’t just west it was the land where the sun sets which is kind of romantic when you think about it. It’s very romantic.

S3: And in fact I think from the get go.

S4: It was founded on these kind of romantic ideals of the here’s this place where Kurds can after for decades. Here’s where we can really play out our dreams of what a Kurdish society would look like.

S5: Rojava was only founded a few years back but it’s an attempt to correct history when European powers divided up the Middle East 100 years ago.

S1: The Kurds were supposed to have their own land.

S2: Instead they got caught inside those bigger puzzle pieces and that betrayal made people talk a lot about betrayal of the Kurds that has stuck with Kurds throughout the region.

S1: Picture yourself as a Kurd inside this puzzle. You could be in Turkey where Kurdish kids were kept from speaking their native language in school and even the word Kurd was officially banned until 30 years ago. You could be in Syria where Kurds weren’t allowed to become citizens or you could be in Iraq where Saddam Hussein actually gassed the Kurds with chemical weapons. You’re imagining this idea where to me to be Kurdish is to be under the influence of all of these nation states that are trying to deny my existence and that’s terrifying.

S2: Yeah it is terrifying. I mean this you know and that is that the foundation of all of these different projects of Kurdish autonomy or independence. You look at Roosevelt now and you think it’s really under peril. This experiment can’t possibly succeed. But if you look at the movement that inspired it for the past 40 years it has it has changed it has grown it has evolved. This is a long term goal for Kurds and it don’t think that there’s a chance that they’re going to give up on the idea of autonomy on the idea of rights Rojava.

S6: This western territory this land where the sunsets in the northeast of Syria for many Kurds was a start maybe it still is. It’s hard to know whether to talk about it in the past or present tense Rojava status is changing before our eyes. So today on the show is going to tell me what she learned when she travelled there to explain what the military operations now are really putting at risk. It’s not just people getting killed. It’s an idea a concept of home. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next.

S7: Stick with us to understand Rojava you really need to understand the story of the man behind this ad hoc country behind the idea of Rojava.

S1: His name is Abdullah Jalan Jalan is a larger than life figure for the Kurds. He started planning for a Kurdish state as a young man. He was living in Turkey then and his quest. It was violent. The group he founded the peak AK it’s classified as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S.. Turkey’s relationship with Jalan it’s helped to define the broader Kurdish Fight especially after Turkish officials arrested Toulon in the 90s probably the defining moments.

S2: Although I hesitate to do that as a as an American reporter but a lot of people say that this is the defining moment is the capture of Toulon and it was this really sort of spectacular events.

S8: Turkish television showed videotape of Chelan aboard the plane from Kenya with the special forces who captured him.

S2: There are photos of him and the airplane being taken.

S9: He was in Kenya at the time being taken back to Turkey where he is just you know he looks defeated the Turkish agents celebrated as they brought Abdullah Jan back on a small private jet late bound and blindfolded next to them.

S2: He was seen as the number one terrorist target by the Turkish state originally sentenced to death and then Turkey did away with the death penalty so now he’s in prison for life. He’s on an island. He’s on an island. He’s mostly in solitary confinement but from prison. He has had an extraordinary influence over Kurds across the region. But but mostly in Turkey really significantly in Turkey. And so he’s published these writings about what Kurdish society should look like what the government should look like what the judiciary should look like. Women’s involvement and these have been massively influential in the movement in Turkey and in Britain.

S5: And people who sort of see the idea of Rojava as a utopian vision. Talk a lot about how O’Fallon talks about feminism how women should be a major part of the power structure.

S1: In fact if you’re leading one of these states a canton it’s one woman and one man leading each one and how part of the agreement between the Kurdish regions is that there’s a right to clean environment. It sort of sounds it sounds utopian on its face when you when you think about it. I wonder how did he come to these ideas while he was imprisoned.

S2: Well nobody has really detailed insight into what Overland’s life is like in prison or what his thought process is like in prison. So you get these letters you get these this writing and you interpret it so he will say that he read you know read Benedict Anderson whose book Imagine communities is a critique of nationalism and the nation state. And by reading that he came to the conclusion that the injustice in the Middle East or the world comes from these sort of artificial nation states that burden people with an identity that they don’t relate to and set them up to fight against people that they have plenty in common with and that Kurds for a long time who wanted an independent Kurdistan should instead step back and say maybe what we need is a place in this region where we’re from where we can exercise our rights and speak our language and run for office. But we don’t need these borders right and we don’t need a president and a prime minister. We just need autonomy and self-determination and a good relationship with the governments that are next to us. It sounds radical like almost anarchist. Yeah sure. I mean I think I think it is you know taken on its face and I think that one of the reasons that it was so well it dropped it in a place like Roosevelt is because war is in a way you know in a way or is chaotic right. So a lot of what you saw the sort of manifestation of these ideals sharing your crops if you’re a farmer with your neighbors down the street for example you know that is outlined in the in the governing documents of sort of the social contract right. But you you know I met a farmer who said No I’ve never read the social contract but come on there’s a trade embargo. This is war. ISIS is right over that hill if I don’t give something to my neighbor then they’re going to starve.

S1: So in some ways these radical ideas to stakeholders they don’t feel like losing something because the region is already lost so much.

S2: I think that’s right. And I think also a lot of people have been thinking about and studying these old Geelong ideologies for so long and have internalized the as being you know the best way forward not just for Kurds in the Middle East but for the Middle East in general for the world. This idea that if you look at the region in which they live and the oppression that they’ve suffered under these central states and the wars that they’ve been forced to fight because of these borders that they’ll look at that and say well that’s clearly the wrong way to go. We need to we need to do something different we need to do something better here’s an opportunity for us not just to try this radical Kurdish experiment but to really kind of build something that could be a better model for you know government for society in this part of the world.

S1: So with the ideas of Jalan at the core of their governing doctrine Rojava was born it grew up along the border with Syria because civil war there meant suddenly land was available so Rojava was established five years ago essentially.

S2: And the guiding document is called the social contract that lays out the way that the government is formed. It lays out certain economic principles. The most important thing about Roosevelt really is the way that it’s governed and it’s governed by these local councils each of which has or is hoped to have you know as much power as the other so that even though there is for instance a president and a co president of these cantons the president and co president do not have unending authority over the local councils and the local councils must have representation of different ethnic groups different religious groups and women alongside men. So that is really the guiding principle of Rojava is that the people have power over what happens and the power is localized in Rojava.

S1: Women were explicitly part of the political experiment. They were trained to fight. They battled with and detained members of ISIS.

S2: I met with a group that when I was there who were being trained as security forces and they had women all women and they came from all different backgrounds. Some of them had university education some of them were in their 40s and had three kids and it was it was an all hands on deck situation because it was a war but it was also kind of it was also important to their version of a project because by having those women as part of the security forces it was living up to this part of the social contract showing the world what Rojava stood for was important to its leaders not only because it made for good PR though it did do that but because it was also helping to change the narrative of their own clan inspired teachings. So there was this feeling also among the Kurds in Rojava that they were changing their reputation of sort of overall inspired Kurds. There were no longer being seen as terrorists by the rest of the world. They were seen as freedom fighters or even heroes because they were fighting ISIS.

S1: So in some ways do you see that as a success a version of where it’s changed how people see this group that they once saw as a terrorist organization.

S2: I think so. And that was one of the things or one of the reasons that I was a little skeptical when I first went because I had spent so much time reporting on the PDK and Turkey and understanding that while the peak AK was the clearest avenue to gaining rights and recognition for Kurds inside of Turkey it had also become you know a liability in a lot of ways. You had this generation of Kurdish politicians whose legitimacy was constantly being questioned because of their ties to the peak AK. And yet Jalan was a larger than life figure who loomed over everything and you could look at that as well. They have this heroic figure who has helped them shape the society and is not great or you could look at it like well he has he’s a little bit like a dictator.

S3: I mean they a little bit can’t get out of the gaze of this man. And so in Turkey you would hear these stories a lot people who would say I wish that we could proceed with the sort of legacy of the peak AK but separate ourselves from it and have you know more have an easier time being Kurdish politicians being Kurdish academics being Kurdish activists. So when I heard that there was this a lot inspired you know quote unquote utopian northern Syria I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just completely won over by the promises of femme feminism and seeing female fighters on the battlefield and all of that.

S2: And I try to remember that the peak AK was a much more complicated and storied organization than that.

S1: But is it too starry eyed to look at Rojava and look at it as an attempt to run a country a different way. I mean I’m curious how how the Kurds in Rojava treated Arabs in Rojava you know like what is it true that this was always the best government for everyone right.

S2: No. And version of I was is deeply flawed and has been criticised for a number of really legitimate things. One of them is the participation of Arabs of Christians of other minorities and saying it’s so little bit tokenism that they don’t actually have any real power in the pew I.D. the the political party I spoke to Kurds who were in Iraqi Kurdistan because they felt like they had no authority in pure white controlled areas because either previously they had supported other Kurdish parties in Syria. So they were viewed with some kind of with suspicion. So yes it is really important not to romanticize what’s going on. And it’s really important to be aware of all of the criticism and all of the flaws and all of the changes that needed to happen in order for it to actually live up to the standards that are outlined. But I think it’s also important to be aware of the extreme circumstances in which this was taking place and be aware of the potential that it had not not just for Kurds in the region but for the region as a whole. And it was young and I I hate to refer to it in the past tense because it still exists even though it’s being attacked but young and fragile and possibly never going to succeed.

S1: And yet it really was this vision for something so different that you can’t help but look at it and feel like it deserves some sort of support and attention when American officials went on TV this weekend to talk about the conflict between Turkey and Syria and the Kurds they used very specific language. The secretary of defense didn’t call the Kurds are allies. He called them partners.

S2: Jenna says that distinction it’s meaningful the relationship between Kurds all across the region and America. I mean it is complicated and fraught because the US has often named Kurds as allies and almost always in a sort of in a military light right. So leading up to the invasion in 2003 the Kurdish situation in northern Iraq was used as a justification or one of the justifications for going in. And then once we were in there during the occupation they were really touted as our allies and the success of Iraqi Kurdistan is kind of evidence of our success freeing them from Saddam but that hasn’t had its limits. And you saw one example of that in 2017 when Iraqi Kurdistan had a referendum for independence and the West in support that they supported the central state as they always have more than the Kurds. And then of course in Syria the military alliance which was very important in fighting ISIS that alliance between the US and Kurds stops once Kurds try to shift from a kind of military acumen into political development. Why. Well I just don’t think that the U.S. wants to go into battle with the Turkish allies in supporting a project of Kurdish autonomy fighting ISIS is one thing but recognizing the value of these Kurdish political systems and sacrificing your relationships with the Turkish state with the Iraqi state potentially and doing that. I just. That just doesn’t seem feasible. That doesn’t seem like something the U.S. would want to do and time and time again they’ve shown that they’re not interested in really doing that.

S1: I wonder what you think we lose when we allow a place like Rojava to be graced that’s a really good question.

S10: I think we lose we further lose the ability to argue that our our greatest intention in the Middle East is to support democracy is to support women I think lose a lot of the legitimacy of that argument.

S11: That’s one of the things that I wanted people to recognize is to look at the look at Curves not just in Syria but across the region as being people not entirely defined by their relationship with the US not entirely looked at as military allies or as great fighters right but as people who have visions for what they want their region to look like and what they want their role to be in the region that they are pretty determined to follow through on. With or without U.S. support.

S12: Jennifer Jessica thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Jenna Karpinski is a reporter at the fuller project. It’s a news organization that reports on issues that most impact women. You can follow her and the organization’s work at Fuller project dot org. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt Mara Silvers Jason de Leone and Mary Wilson. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.