David Morgan – Struggle against ISIS in historical perspective

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The struggle against ISIS in historical perspective by David Morgan

The continuing resistance of the Kurds in Kobane against the ISIS menace is inspiring popular solidarity actions across the world. David Morgan reports.

Two months or so ago, the name of Kobane was virtually unknown outside Syria and the Kurdish region. Now, as a result of the heroic resistance of Kobane against ISIS, the name is inspiring people around the world. Actions in support of Kobane’s struggle have been held in the unlikeliest of places many far removed from the Middle East. By any estimate, Kobane has put up a remarkably formidable resistance against ISIS which has sought to conquer the city for months. It has refused to yield.

Kurds are asking why ISIS is expending so much effort to take Kobane. Why has ISIS concentrated on taking this once obscure city? It is said to occupy a strategically vital border location integral for control of Syria, but there are many other important locations in Syria and Iraq where ISIS seeks to hold sway.

Clearly ISIS is able to fight on various fronts simultaneously. At the end of October it began to pose a threat in Lebanon and it has been reported that ISIS even has a presence in Finland. But in launching its determined onslaught on Kobane, ISIS was not acting alone; at least it has not only been acting in its own interests. The fall of Kobane would greatly please Ankara which has been concerned about the success of Syrian Kurds in establishing a functioning democratic structure in the area known as Rojava, of which Kobane is a part. The defeat of Kobane would be the start of an effort to eradicate the entire Rojava “model”. This model has the potential to offer an alternative system for the peoples of the Mideast showing that they can establish a form of democracy completely unknown in the region. There are certainly tremendous vested interests principally among local rulers who would be more than content to see Kobane fall, and by extension would like to undermine the whole of Rojava. There are tangible reasons why they should fear what has been unfolding in Rojava because its grassroots, participatory democratic model poses a direct challenge to the remote, autocratic rule of the few who tyrannise over the many and callously dismiss the people’s interests as a matter of policy.

The uprisings that were quickly branded as the “Arab Spring” illustrated that the region is like a tinderbox – on that occasion a small spark had set off a great transnational movement for change the like of which the region had never before seen at least in recent history. Long established regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were toppled in quick succession; sectarian divisions seemed temporarily forgotten as the power of the people appeared unstoppable. But eventually the people became exhausted and somewhere along the line this magnificent momentum for change was diverted, halted and arguably reversed. Out of the maelstrom emerged the dark forces of ISIS which has even outdone Al-Qaeda in its genocidal intent and anti-human brutality.

It is the fear that the Rojava experience might catch on among the masses around the region that motivates the backers of ISIS. Rojava is not exclusively the concern of the Kurds and, in fact, its success truly touches on the fate of all humanity and the future trajectory that the world might take. If Rojava falls to a combination of ISIS, sectarian manipulation and imperialist forces, it will mark a grave setback for humanity’s ongoing struggle for progress, democracy, social rights for women and justice for poorer people. But, by contrast, if Rojava manages to repel the onslaught this will inspire people all over the world by sending out a message that change that is beneficial for the poor and oppressed can be won. It is not too much of an exaggeration to draw a parallel with what was at stake at a crucial historic turning point in the last century.

When the Bolsheviks took power in Moscow in 1917 Winston Churchill was prompted to declare that the new revolutionary government in Russia should be “strangled at birth”. He uttered this class-biased prejudice not because he cared for Russia or its workers. He saw the toppling of the old Czarist order as a dangerous precedent and the rise of Communism as a virus with the potential to spread rapidly to engulf the British ruling class too.

The struggle against ISIS that has crystallised around Kobane is another historic moment where two different competing world views are coming into deadly conflict: the secular, modernising humanitarianism that is represented by Kobane – a modern Stalingrad – and the forces of atavistic darkness and utterly merciless brutality represented by ISIS.

At the end of the First World War empires collapsed like that of the Ottomans and the region was reshaped by the outside interests of the West. New states emerged and grave injustices persisted. Autocracy and tyranny were resisted frequently by popular movements where the masses were mobilised. The people were inspired by the hope of a better world and securing improved standards of life. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm observes in his book Age of Extremes, the revolutions, anti-colonial struggles which marked the major mobilisations of the masses were all achieved by secular ideas throughout the 20th century. There was to be no instance of popular mobilisation by what Hobsbawm calls “traditional religious ideologies” until the 1970s. This is an enormous change that has taken place in the last few decades of the last century and into this century. ISIS represents the eclipse of secular movements in the Mideast and its international appeal is a cruel caricature of the old workers’ internationalisms that inspired the masses in previous decades. The big question is whether the hopes that these old internationalisms represented can ever be recaptured? This is by no means certain, but what is certain is that ISIS represents a deadly threat equivalent to a poison or virus and some antidote needs to be found. By contrast, the Kurds embattled in Kobane, are the modern representatives of the great secular ideologies of the past, whose light is not quite diminished and it is through their struggle that illumination stands out amid all the countervailing darkness.

The KRG, KDP, PKK and Turkey

It was reported on 28 October that the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq and Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK were on the verge of reaching a strategic pact. This would signify an enormous development and remarkable step forward in achieving a semblance of Kurdish unity, as the KDP headed by Barzani, had seemed keen to develop close relations with Turkey in recent years. Indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq which is headed by Barzani has developed close relations with its Turkish neighbour in the vital areas of commerce, trade, and infrastructure development. Huge contracts have been awarded by the KRG to Turkish firms to build new mega projects in the province. As the Financial Times reported, there are now more than 2,200 Turkish companies registered to operate in Erbil, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Furthermore, the bulk of Turkey’s $12 billion trade with Iraq is conducted with the KRG. Politically, Barzani had sided with Prime Minister, now President, Erdogan against the PKK. In 2013, Barzani even went so far as to visit Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan and a stronghold of the pro-Kurdish HDP, to praise Erdogan’s reforms and call on the PKK to stop fighting. KRG officials have lavished praise on the successes of their relations with Turkey describing it as a “long-term strategic partnership and commitment”. The FT said, “Iraqi Kurdistan became one of Ankara’s most trusted allies” in a special report, 22 September 2014. This relationship reflects their recognition of mutually beneficial links. For the KRG “Turkey is a ticket to future independence, if not political then economic”, the FT observed. Given Turkey’s hostile attitude towards its own Kurdish citizens, this is profoundly ironic indeed. The KRG’s strategic relations with Turkey have been even more strengthened through the oil trade now that oil from Iraqi Kurdistan is pumped through a new pipeline. Reflecting the truism that politics and economic interests are usually intertwined, a key aim of Turkey has been to make sure that the PKK and the KRG are prised apart and it has achieved success through these ever closer and deeper commercial links. It is hard to see that these will be easily set aside by either the KRG or Turkey despite differences over Kobane, for example. Surely a change in policy on the part of the KRG can only be brought about by pressure from the Kurdish public within the KRG itself and a sufficiently strong outcry from Kurds outside and their supporters.

Peace Process

It is perfectly possible for two people to embark on a lengthy conversation and later on to never agree exactly what was said. As far as Turkey is concerned the peace process is all about disarming the PKK once and forever. The struggle over Kobane has seen the exact opposite occurring. It has reinvigorated the image of Kurdish guerrilla fighters and given them an immediate and just cause that has to be fought. There is simply no option but to confront ISIS by force of arms. This is an enemy to whom it will never be possible to talk peace. They can only be defeated in battle. Nothing else seems at all feasible. How this will impact on the development of the peace process in Turkey between the jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan and the government in Ankara is yet to be determined. Whether the Kurdish and Turkish participants will ever be able to see eye-to-eye on the actual meaning of the peace process is another matter. A transformation in the attitude of the major Western powers towards the PKK would definitely have an enormous impact on how the peace process develops.

There are many discussions now at different levels with some emerging in the media to suggest that the US is contemplating a change in approach to the Kurds in Turkey and Syria. One recent report on CNN was headlined “Syria’s Kurds – new found allies?” The Washington Post has also speculated whether it was not now time for the US to rethink its attitude to the PKK. How times change…

However, it needs to be said that what the US opposes is not the Kurds as such but what they stand for – surely so long as the PKK has a broadly socialist perspective it will be strenuously opposed in Washington. That is not to say that situations do not change: the ANC and Nelson Mandela were once seen as the most violent terrorists by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But the political landscape changed so much that Mandela achieved a secular sainthood and every Western politician wanted to shake hands and rub shoulders with him in the apparent hope that some of his saintliness would rub off on them.

Conditions of the People

The plight of the people, their living conditions, safety, life expectations, still less their career options and fulfilment of their potential as human beings, is all hardly of great concern for those who seek to impose their wills on remote regions of the world. While the inventiveness of ISIS in carrying out atrocities has appalled the public worldwide and forced their leaders to echo the popular outrage, the sufferings caused by the misconceived intervention in Syria in terms of the millions of refugees seems to have been cruelly accepted as a “price worth paying” for achieving the strategic objective of removing Assad from power and by so doing rolling back Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, 26 October, reported on the terrible plight of child refugees in Lebanon.

It is estimated that there are 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon now, many living in conditions of squalor in camps. They are forced to work for less than a dollar a day picking potatoes and other crops on farms where they are treated little better than child slaves. The Western politicians who are so keen to drum on about human rights and removing tyrants from power callously ignore the plight of the refugees in Syria and Iraq who are in truth the casualties of their policies. Equally ignored, are the Yezidi refugees whose plight was used as the trigger to allow Obama to win support for his airstrikes. The US strategy towards Kobane remains somewhat opaque and contradictory – they at last have started to bomb ISIS positions around the city, but it took them an inordinately long time to do so.

It is possible that Washington did not want to risk accusations of complicity in a massacre if they stood by while ISIS overran Kobane and carried out yet another mass bloodletting before the gaze of the world’s media. Public outrage would have been considerable and the shame would have further stained the US’s deeply tarnished reputation. Obama had been in large part selected and elected to restore America’s damaged reputation following the adventurism of George W Bush and his neo-con cohorts, the much derided Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Rice and Chaney. Few expected that Obama would preside over the same kind of humanitarian interventionism as his Republican predecessors in Iraq and Libya.

The freedoms that the Americans seek to espouse and propagate around the world are for ideological gain and frankly do not translate into material advantages for the people whom they seek to “liberate”.

A few years ago the erection of a statue to the Cold War former American President Ronald Reagan outside the US Embassy in London by Condoleezza Rice and William Hague, then the UK Foreign Secretary, was used as a cynical attempt to endorse the “regime change” interventionist foreign policy. The public were told that it was now a common sense of modern times because of the successes that Reagan had in defeating Communism in Eastern Europe. But Reagan’s view of freedom was partial, partisan, and ultimately meaningless.

He pursued a brutal policy in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East: toppling the socialist regime in Grenade through a direct invasion; sponsoring death squads to undermine the progressive Sandinista government in Nicaragua; bolstering apartheid in South Africa; and offering support to Israeli massacres in Lebanon, are just some of the horrors of Reagan’s anti-Communist foreign policy crusade to impose neoliberalism across the globe. Neo-con ideologues were later to attribute the eventual collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe to Reagan’s resolution in standing up for free market capitalism.

In the early eighties it became a commonplace to observe wryly that the only trade unions who received a sympathetic hearing from Reagan and Thatcher were in Poland, that Achilles’ heel of Soviet Communism. The weaknesses were all too evident in the Communist system: when miners had to strike in order to obtain supplies of soap, there was clearly something not quite right with the system. As it turned out the Eastern bloc proved easy pickings for a West that scented ultimate triumph. The aspirations of humanity for a better world were no longer embodied in “actually existing socialism” when the administrations could not fulfil basic requirements. But these basic human aspirations persist, looking for a new means of liberation.

These two freedom-loving leaders of the West sought to persuade the public to light a candle for Polish Solidarity and the clamour to “let Poland be Poland” was sanctified by the Vatican whose newly ensconced resident, Pope John Paul II, was himself conveniently of Polish origin. Human rights were never more degraded than during this period and in the blood-stained hands of Reagan were obviously seen as little more than a political move in a global game of chess. Aside from oddities such as North Korea, historically since the Cold War Era was in full swing, all the most repugnant regimes around the world from Pinochet’s Chile to Suharto’s Indonesia and Rios Montt’s Guatemala had been openly and covertly backed by the US. For example, Reagan insisted that Rios Montt, a military dictator responsible for a scorched earth warfare that saw thousands killed, was a “man of great personal integrity”.

Brutal terror gangs like the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola received great support from the US in the alleged campaign to contain Communism, which was really more about keeping countries part of the “free world” where markets are free and open – but where people were profoundly unfree. In pursuit of global dominance, Islamists were sponsored around the Middle East to act as a counter force to obstruct the rising popularity of Communism. Thus the seeds of ISIS were planted.

Idealism Perverted

The youths filled with idealistic thoughts joining ISIS today are the equivalent to the young of previous ages who were attracted to Communism. The volunteers for Spain during that country’s Civil War against Franco fascism in the 1930s – later seen as a prologue to the Second World War – often travelled covertly supported by a cross-border network of sympathisers who acted as stopping points on the journey. A vast underground network of supporters was centred on the European Communist Parties; today the party’s strategic position is replaced by that of the Mosques. ISIS is idealism perverted. A propaganda video released by ISIS from inside Kobane was fronted by a British hostage who referred to ISIS fighters as “mujahideen”. Significantly, this brings to mind how the mujahideen were forged in the US-backed war against Communism in Afghanistan. This shows that the contemporary crisis over ISIS is firmly rooted in the recent history of US Cold War strategy designed to counter the Soviet Union. But today, the struggle for Kobane goes on – after so many weeks it is remarkable that such a small number of people, besieged and under resourced, have been able to resist an assault from a deadly and determined enemy, whose forces are fanatically inspired and allegedly intoxicated with drugs.

Bankrolling ISIS

Financing terror has become a controversial issue as the atrocities have mounted and the horrific acts viewed by millions on their TV screens have seemingly become ever more appalling by the day. Some of the West’s key strategic allies and important business partners in the Mideast, namely the wealthy Gulf States, have been accused of bank-rolling ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

This is not only a deep cause of embarrassment for Western governments like the US and UK but an indication of the high-level support, materially and ideologically, covert and overt, that ISIS and other Sunni terror groups have been attracting. With such powerful supporters it is obvious that ISIS cannot be defeated by airstrikes alone or even in the field of battle. It will need to be tackled root and branch by cutting off its financial lifeline which provides its crucial material support. This can be achieved be concerted and coordinated action involving a grand alliance equivalent to what was established in the 1940s to destroy the Nazi war machine. It will mean that rivals will need to come together and temporarily set aside their differences in recognition of the essential need to unite against a villainous opponent that threatens everyone equally. However, the world is far from reaching such a common accord at least at present. It seems the magnitude of what we are up against is not accepted by everyone.

The Arrival of the Cavalry?

They don’t have white horses, but a group of peshmerga fighters from the KRG were allowed to enter Kobane to reinforce the beleaguered resistance and were greeted like all-conquering heroes. This breakthrough received the fulsome support of the US. “We welcome the deployment of peshmerga fighters and weapons from the Kurdistan Region to Kobane, which began this evening,” Brett McGurk, deputy envoy tasked by Obama with building a coalition against ISIS, wrote on Twitter, 29 October, according to France24 news agency. Once the euphoria expressed by the Kurdish people, natural in the circumstances, settles down, some hard questions will need to be addressed, such as why it has taken so long for relief to be allowed to assist Kobane? Why is it that members of the Free Syrian Army and the peshmerga are being allowed to enter while the Kurdish guerrillas more closely affiliated with the Syrian Kurds are not being permitted to help? What is the real objective of allowing Iraqi Kurds and so-called “moderate Syrian rebels” to bolster the resistance in Kobane? Is this not actually designed to weaken the political influence exercised by the Syrian Kurdish organisations? Could this not ultimately be aimed at undermining Rojava from within? Is not this latter point precisely what the Turkish Prime Minister meant in the comments he made in a BBC interview.

“The only way to help Kobane, since other countries don’t want to use ground troops, is sending some peace-oriented or moderate troops to Kobane. What are they? Peshmerga … and Free Syrian Army (Syrian opposition forces),” Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu said.

Is Turkey acting entirely alone? It has been a key NATO member for decades and was at the centre of the US Cold War against the Soviet Union and its crusade against Communist expansion; it is worthy of note that it was the presence of US missiles in Turkey that was the initial spark that led to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 which took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of its wider Syria policy, Turkey persists in seeing the PKK and the PYD as identical and that they along with Syria’s Assad, are its two main enemies rather than ISIS. It therefore continues to insist on the adoption of a long-term strategic plan for Syria which involves the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power and the marginalisation of the PYD. The Turks have been claiming that either Assad’s forces or Kurdish militants will fill the void if ISIS is simply neutralised. Following the logic of this position, ISIS cannot simply be eliminated, according to Turkey. It is in this context that the arrival of the peshmerga and the FSA into Kobane should be situated. Of course, it is to be hoped that Turkey will not get its own way in this manoeuvring and in fact there is no reason why it should succeed if sufficient international pressure is exerted.

The True Motor of Change is the People

The Kurdish fighters in Kobane have started to inspire the world, especially their amazingly courageous women guerrillas who inspire even jaded journalists, but fill ISIS jihadists with utter dread. The genuine solidarity and motor of change lies with the people at the grassroots. Solidarity activity has been extensive and it has been accelerating steadily around the world. The Kurds in Kobane clearly know that they don’t stand alone. When they insist that they are fighting on behalf of all humanity, this is no mere rhetorical gesture: it is absolutely true and their words are resonating across the globe. . .

A Crescendo of Solidarity

People have mobilised against Turkey’s ambivalent role in surprising places. For example, it was reported that in Morocco a rally took place in Rabat outside the Turkish Embassy where people called for support for Kobane. There have been delegations to Rojava of political activists from many countries such as the UK, Italy, Germany and Austria among others. Rallies in support have taken place in India and America. Leading political parties in the UK such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru have passed motions in support of Kobane and the Kurds.

A strong message was issued by the British Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on 21 October which expressed support for “the right of Kurdish people across the Middle East to self-determination, including their right to defend themselves against attack from ISIS”.

The FBU went on to ‘’ oppose the horrific brutality of ISIS and its sectarian and murderous behaviour towards peoples of the region’’ and specifically condemned ‘’the Turkish government’s comments equating Kurdish fighters -including the defenders of Kobane- with ISIS’’.

The union stated that it could have no confidence in a US, UK and French bombing campaign against ISIS, based on the bitter experience of similar interventions over the last decade. Finally the FBU called on the TUC to raise the issue as a matter of urgency with the British government and appealed for ‘’international trade union solidarity and support for the defenders of Kobane”.

An international appeal supported by Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with hundreds of politicians, academics, writers, public figures and prominent activists worldwide, was issued on 14 October calling for a global rally in support of the people of Kobane which was to be held on 1st November. The aim was to hold as many rallies, protests and symbolic actions as possible all over the world in an attempt to send a clear message to political leaders that Kobane must achieve a victory over ISIS and that much more must be done to assist them. It expressed the belief that strong popular pressure has the potential to shame hesitant politicians into taking action even if it is against their wishes. If sufficient number of people speak out then it must be possible to initiate change for the common interest of all.

If a historical analogy may be employed, the people’s coalition against ISIS might be seen as the modern equivalent of the great anti-fascist alliance of the 1940s which brought together the Western capitalist powers and the Soviet Union in order to defeat the menace of Nazi Germany. The likes of Winston Churchill, a onetime belligerent imperialist, was transformed into a hero to many for having the foresight to realise that it was essential to form a pact with a former bitter foe, Stalin’s USSR, to achieve victory over a far more dangerous force which threatened the extinction of civilisation. ISIS today threatens to extinguish all civilised values and stands for mass slaughter and brutal oppression the like of which has not been contemplated since the Nazi death camps were uncovered to the horror of all decent human beings all those decades ago.

The statement calling for action on 1st November states the following:

“ISIS launched a major multi-front military campaign against the Kurdish region of Kobane in northern Syria. This is the third ISIS onslaught on Kobane since March 2014. As ISIS was unsuccessful on the two previous occasions, they are attacking with larger forces and want to take Kobane.

It continued, “In January this year, the Kurds in Western Kurdistan (Rojava) established local administrations in the form of three cantons. One of the three cantons formed is Kobane. The Turkish border is to the north of Kobane and all the other sides are surrounded by ISIS-controlled territories. ISIS has approached the Kobane borders, using US-made heavy weapons. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are threatened by the most brutal genocide in modern history. The people of Kobane are trying to resist using basic weapons against the most brutal attacks of ISIS terrorists, with only the assistance of People’s Protection Unit in Western-Kurdistan, the YPG and YPJ, but without any international help. Therefore a Global Rally against ISIS – for Kobane – for Humanity is vital.

“The so-called international coalition to fight ISIS has not helped Kurdish resistance effectively despite witnessing the ongoing genocide committed against Kobane. They have not fulfilled their real international legal obligations. Some of the countries in the coalition, especially Turkey, are among financial and military supporters of ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

“If the world wants democracy in the Middle East, it should support the Kurdish resistance in Kobane. Democratic autonomy in Rojava promises a free future for all peoples in Syria. In this regard, the “Rojava Model” – the secular, non-sectarian, democratic position in Rojava – is the model which practices unity in diversity.”

The appeal concluded with a ringing declaration urging “people all over the world to show their solidarity with Kobane. Go to the streets and demonstrate. Support the Resistance against ISIS – for Kobane – for Humanity!”

Turkey is standing on the wrong side of history. It must cease obstructing the historic struggle in Kobane. All our futures are at stake. Fortunately, many more people now realise this, as was shown by the huge and inspiring rallies around the world on the international day of action for Kobane on 1st November.


© David Morgan

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