We’ve heard a lot about the role of Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State (IS) – yet the collaboration between Kurdish and Turkish forces is an unlikely one. For more than three decades, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state in a violent bid for national separatism and statehood. Although originally Marxist-Leninist, and taking inspiration for its three-stage insurgency directly from Maoist rhetoric, the PKK has recently started down a new ideological route, which may have implications for the fight against IS.
Their demi-god leader, Ocalan, was inspired by the writings of Murray Bookchin, who himself was an ex-Anarchist exploring ideas of communalism. The PKK’s new direction is more peaceful and democratic – Ocalan suggests they only use weapons when attacked, critiquing their earlier praxis of separatism and violence. Now, they are all about “protecting our community … regardless of political ideology, religion and ethnicity”, and are considered a “democratic popular militia”. They have widespread support in towns and regions where they have power, such as in the town of Derek Hamko, where they have established People’s Councils based on principles of communal living and bottom-up participatory democracy.
Kurds are the most numerous stateless minority globally: Kurdish people originate from Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but currently have no national soil. Many Kurds support the PKK and its militant wings, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and YPJ (the all-female arm), and the new democratic model of ‘municipal confederalism’ or ‘libertarian municipalism’ chimes well with people in the proposed autonomous regions of Kurdistan.
The PKK is fighting for autonomy and national identity, as well as freedom from the oppressive regime IS wants to instate. 35% of the Kurdish forces in Syria are female, according to YPG spokesman Redur Khalil, and many are young; frequently in their teens and twenties.
The female fighters of the YPJ are particularly fearless and unafraid of death – these are women who are prepared to do anything to defeat IS and defend the “revolution of the woman” as well as their cultural and political values. The fight against IS is more than a struggle against a repressive imposing force ñ it represents a struggle for autonomy, for democracy, for equality, for heritage, and for honour.
The co-chair of the Rojava People’s Assembly, Sinem Muhammed, spoke at the International Political Women’s Council about “the threat of a large-scale massacre” in Rojava, an autonomous women’s region under attack by IS. She added “the YPJ is struggling against ISIS on behalf of all the women of the Middle East and the World”. The seriousness of what is on the line, and the dedication Kurdish fighters have for the cause was revealed in recent events. Some weeks ago, reports suggested that rather than fall into the hands of IS soldiers who would subject her to torture and rape, 19-year-old Ceylan Ozalp used her last bullet on herself. This demonstrates something important: this is not just a fight against Islamic fundamentalists; it is a fight for survival.