I recall volunteering at the Brock Mission in Peterborough in August of 2014, washing dishes and chopping onions as the news breaks on the radio took on an increasingly dark tone. ISIS militia had attacked the city of Sinjar, forcing its predominantly Yazidi populace to take refuge in the crags of Mount Sinjar. Mass graves were being filled and more were expected to happen. All media was uniform in its pessimism, as if there was an expectation that the worst was a foregone conclusion and was as good as having already happened.
In defiance of all expectations, what followed was one of the greatest acts of heroism to occur in the 21st century.
In an action comparable to the relief of Vienna by the Winged Hussars in 1683, militants from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) came down from the Zagros mountains to work alongside the women and men of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) on a rescue operation. The YPJ and YPG are the multiethnic all-women and co-ed militias which had formed at the outset of the Syrian Civil War when Damascus relinquished control over the historically Kurdish region of Rojava. The three armies charged towards Sinjar with all possible speed, carving a corridor through ISIS-held territory through which some 35 000 people were able to escape wholesale extermination and enslavement while also breaking the siege upon the city itself. Some PKK cadres were asked to remain in Sinjar afterwards to defend the city until such time as a self-defense force could be trained.
A few weeks later, the city of Kobane was besieged and almost overrun by ISIS. Once again, the YPJ/YPG rebuked them, driving the terrorists out in a fierce close quarters battle. Feminist university students and their grandmothers took up arms to keep their neighbourhoods free of fanatical death cultists and they won, in what was regarded as a modern equivalent to the battle of Stalingrad (notable because from that point on, the Nazis were only ever on the retreat). Kobane initially went to Turkey for help, asking Ankara for weapons and air support. As if foreshadowing the present nightmarish state of things, not only did the Turkish state decline Kobane’s request for aid, they tried to close the border to prevent Turkish citizens from helping the people of Kobane (Turkish activists snuck across the border anyways). It was only after being snubbed by Ankara that the YPJ/YPG went looking for friends elsewhere, from Washington to Berlin to Moscow, anyone who would give them the means to fend off a genuine existential threat. When one is confronted with a literal horde of genocidal rape cultists, one does not have the luxury of being able to be picky about who helps you fend off that foe.
Unlike FDR’s much-regretted failure to aid Republican Spain against the Francoists, Obama made the wise decision to provide air support and some advisors for the YPJ/YPG, and in early 2015, the people of Kobane were able to free their city. Nobody truly does anything alone; even Tito received help from partisans trained at Camp X. After the classrooms and streets had been cleared of IEDs, girls and boys in Kobane were going back to school. As ISIS lost villages and towns to the YPJ and YPG, it became apparent that there was something different about this rag-tag rebel army. Where other allegedly moderate groups would find themselves gradually mutated into variations on al-Qaeda or ISIS-lite, the YPJ and YPG’s radically pluralistic ideology was an integral part of its coherence as a force. By welcoming everybody into their ranks regardless of faith, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or what have you, they won friends from near and far.
It was around this time that the internationals started to arrive in significant numbers. What had begun with a handful of Dutch bikers showing up in Kobane turned into a stream of humanity. Veterans, ex-bankers, florists, journalists, students, supermodels, doctors, and workers of all kinds can be found among their number. Women and men smuggling themselves across oceans and hostile borders in ones and twos and fives and tens to help the greatest heroes of our time, like the International Brigades some 80 years ago. Trenches full of poets then, FOBs full of Weird Twitter e-celebs now.
Sometime later, the YPJ and YPG were able to kick ISIS off of a significant portion of the Turkey-Syria border after victory at Tel Abyad, ensuring the cities of Kobane and Qamışlo could trade with each other, and alleviate some of the scarcity that came with the war. As war raged, co-operatives were formed, keeping people fed and keeping the war effort supported in spite of being caught up in the embargo against Syria, while also providing dignified employment for millions of people. An informed, robust, and radically pluralistic grassroots democracy began to flourish, forcing obsolescent superstitions and ways of thinking into retreat. For the first time in the region, women are in the driver’s seat. As Kobane and other cities within the jurisdiction of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria rebuilt(looking at recent photos of Kobane, one can barely tell a war had been fought there), the YPJ and YPG moved from strength to strength, crushing their enemies, seeing them driven before them, and hearing the lamentations of their social media accounts. Many people began to realize that they did not need to risk their lives fleeing to an increasingly reactionary Europe to be safe from ISIS, the Kurds had created an oasis of relative peace and freedom amidst the crucible of war. A victim of their own success, authorities in the DFNS are dealing with their own refugee crisis.
I say “relative peace” because along with periodic harassment from ISIS, it was only after the battle of Tel Abyad that the Turkish state got involved in the Syrian Civil War. They claimed their intent was to “destroy the terrorists,” and the assumption was that they were going to be going after ISIS. Observers were quick to note that Turkish air power was almost exclusively directed at the YPJ and YPG, with a token handful of air strikes falling upon isolated ISIS elements. Given the fanatical nature of ISIS recruits, combined with a litany of instances of ISIS-Turkey collusion, it does not seem unreasonable to think that ISIS willingly sacrificed a few of its people to allow Turkish aggression to wear a mask of legitimacy. YPJ/YPG fighters would leave home in the morning to go on patrol, and return in the evening to find that home and family were gone, replaced with craters and the suggestion of bodies, courtesy of Ankara. As the YPJ/YPG evicted ISIS from more and more territory, their fighters began to notice two odd phenomena: there were an awful lot of Turkish military ID’s among captured and dead ISIS bandits, and increasing amounts of Turkish war materiel were turning up in ISIS arms caches, sometimes with shipping manifests. Far more war materiel than would be in such stockpiles as a result of a shady quartermaster or two selling LAW rockets and uniforms off the back of a truck to fund an anime body pillow habit.
In December of 2015, Turkey’s President Recep Tayiip Erdogan went on record praising Adolf Hitler as a model president during an AK Party convention. On April 20th 2016, The AK Party also hired skywriters to fly over New York City to spray numerous messages denying the Armenian Genocide and attacking those who acknowledge that it happened. Then there was the failed (false flag?) coup in 2016, culminating in the rounding up of opposition parties and a consolidation of power not seen in the region since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Recent reports indicate those rounded up are being tortured and executed with dreadful frequency.
Within hours of the Pulse massacre happening, the YPG’s press office announced that efforts to confront homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny would be redoubled, swearing to fly the Pride flag in Raqqa when the city was liberated. Compare with media outlets that are closely aligned with the AK Party who responded to the tragedy by calling the dead perverts and saying they deserved what happened. One of Donald Trump’s “broken clock telling the right time twice a day” moments was when he authorized the arming of the YPJ/YPG, which hastened the liberation of Raqqa. LGBT volunteers proudly displayed the rainbow flag in the city centre shortly before the last ISIS holdouts in the city were defeated. Again, as in Kobane, kids in Raqqa were put back in school as soon as classrooms could be cleared of traps. It looked like the end of the so-called caliphate was near.
The last six weeks have seen news feeds fill with reports of constant air strikes on civilians, torture and rape of prisoners, destruction of ancient historical ruins, and mutilation of the dead. All of these things are standard operating procedure for ISIS, but this is all happening at the hands of the Turkish military and its proxies. In discussions with Turkish media concerning Afrin, members of the ruling party have made it crystal clear that thy consider everybody living in Afrin to be terrorists, that people loyal to Ankara will be moved into the region when Operation Olive Branch is complete, and that they don’t intend to stop until they reach the Iraqi border. A dog whistle announcement of ethnic cleansing, and they have been making good on it.
As of this writing, Afrin’s water supply had been cut off by air strikes, and the city is encircled. Media from the city has gone silent, replaced with short video clips from the Turkish side depicting a multiplicity of war crimes set to a soundtrack of cruel laughter.
We are living in a time of heroes and monsters. The heroes are facing annihilation at the claws of the monsters. Which side are we on?