Total embargo!

This article by Ercan Ayboga was published by ISKU Informationsstelle Kurdistan e.V. on January 29, 2017. It also appeared on Kurdish Question, 8 August 2017.

Self-managed, mostly Kurdish northern Syria—known as Rojava—stands more than ever under embargo, from all sides…

They creep stealthily down the hillside around the military post. The group moves slowly because everyone is carrying a load on their backs. After they lose visual contact, they stop to take a breath. Then they fling themselves to the ground, because two cars are driving down the little-used road in the opposite direction…. Gone. Now let’s get down to the river, hurry…

In 2012, in the shadow of the Syrian war, the Kurds of northern Syria liberated their cities and villages and initiated a revolution. Ever since that moment, from every point of the compass, they have been treated with hostility. The various forces around them not only carry out unceasing military attacks but enforce an embargo against them. And since 2016, the embargo has taken a form that makes life extremely difficult.

Initially, after their liberation from the Syrian regime, the Kurdish people of northern Syria, known as Rojava, seemed to be on track to peacefully build the “democratically autonomous” social model to which they aspired. In 2011, led by the leftist Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) began to create council structures in the cities and villages. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were set up as defense forces. In 2014 the political structure was expanded when Kurds, Arabs, and Aramaeans (Assyrians) created “cantons” or democratically autonomous self-governments. Two years later, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated places like Manbij from Islamic State (IS), they took the next step and formed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

But around Rojava, the Turkish government to the north and the armed Salafist-nationalist organizations to the south viewed this fast-growing model an ominous threat to their own undemocratic goals. The Turkish government provided aid to these groups (like Al-Nusra and reactionary parts of the FSA) to attack Rojava, and sure enough, in 2013 the attacks began. The most brutal of these reactionary forces, IS, did not wait long for the Turkish call and has consistently carried out the most violent attacks since 2014.

And starting in October 2015, the Turkish army has been crossing the border into northern Syria almost daily. In August 2016, the Turkish army even marched into northern Syria, allegedly against IS, but its main goal was to prevent the YPG / YPJ / SDF from advancing into the north of Aleppo province; it also sought, in a second goal, to attack them in their core areas. The SDF has so far been able to hold its own against the Turkish army, not least because the international and regional powers have no interest in seeing the Turkish army deployed there. For two years, the SDF has been slowly but surely gaining ground against IS. Nor have other Islamic-chauvinist groups have fared well against the SDF. The Ba’ath regime, on the other hand, is not strong enough to mount a full attack. In short, the situation is not bad …

Their feet are wet and cold. It’s winter, and the mountain next door has snow on the summit. Some of them had not anticipated that they would be knee-deep in water. None of them has ever done such a thing. When they arrive on the other shore, they take a second break. But it must go fast … It must always go fast …

For the new social order in Rojava and the other liberated areas of northern Syria, the embargo is far more critical a threat than even the military dangers. Since January 2016, Turkey has sealed off Rojava’s northern border 100 percent. It bars even the smallest bits of aid from getting through, and not even refugees may pass. “Illegal” border crossers are turned back immediately and without warning, with shotguns. Not even the smugglers can operate much anymore.

Turkey has intensified its embargo against Rojava /Northern Syria mainly due to its increased political repression against the Kurdish freedom movement, against the Kurds in general, and against pro-democratic forces in Turkey itself. Worse, the embargo is also enforced east of Rojava, by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), where the acting president is Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). And south of Rojava, IS selectively allows only the few traders who are not politically close to the Rojava self-government to pass through, and even they may trade only to a limited extent. The prices of their goods are sky high, unaffordable by most people. The Syrian regime has had some contact with the areas held by the SDF, which is useful for the western enclave of Afrîn (northwest of Aleppo), but not for main area around Kobanê and Qamişlo, which are far away, in northern and northeastern Syria. The goods arriving from there are also very expensive. But Rojava and its inhabitants have little money …

Then they have to hurry again, even if the moon does not illuminate the landscape. Those up there could overcome their laziness for a moment and actually look down with their thermal imaging camera.

This is a daily reality on the border between the KRG (which Kurds call South Kurdistan) and Rojava/Northern Syria—that is, between two self-managed Kurdish regions! While South Kurdistan has been governing itself since 1991, Rojava has been doing so only since 2012. After centuries in which states occupied their country, the Kurdish people in these two places have finally managed to free themselves. They are the two smaller parts of Kurdistan. According to normal human logic, South Kurdistan, which has been free for 26 years now, should be helping the more recently  liberated Rojava in many points. At the very least, it should not be enforcing an embargo against it. Open borders would only benefit both sides, all Kurds and all democrats in the region.

It is so dark that they can hardly see where they are. Sometimes they find themselves in the wet and muddy earth of an agricultural field. Sometimes they step on rocks. A moment of inattention means a bend, a slip, and finally a fall. And this happens again and again, every five minutes. The man who leads them immediately makes them stand up against signs. It is not much farther. In fact, after an hour they are through. Done! Everyone is very happy, some are starting to sing …

Unfortunately the KDP does not want an open border with Rojava. On the contrary, its goal is for the new political project there to fail, or to intervene and dismantle the new system’s progressive and revolutionary content. Just because the KDP has a different ideological cast from Rojava does not logically mean it must participate in the all-embracing embargo. In this world there are many open borders between areas with opposing political systems. The inhumane embargo between the KRG and Rojava is comprehensible only when one takes into consideration the pressure exerted by Turkey. For years the KDP has maintained the friendliest political and economic relations with Turkey, its largest trading partner and purchaser of its subsidized petroleum.

What Rojava cantons and the newly proclaimed federal system wish from the KDP is neither financial support nor permission to sell oil and wheat—they have both in abundance—on the world market. Rather, they wish the KDP to open the border for so that food, medicine, medical equipment, machines, and spare parts, can be brought in, as well as items essential for basic care and services, as well as books and such.

Although the Rojava-KRG border crossing at Semalka (Faysh Khabur) has been repeatedly closed since 2012, it has been largely open for some goods. The KDP claims that it was closed for only three months in the spring of 2016, but the reality is something else. Today,only persons and companies from South Kurdistan that closely cooperate with the KDP are allowed to bring goods to Rojava and sell them there. The many traders in Rojava cannot earn anything from the border trade; they are de facto unemployed. Because the KDP imposes high taxes at the border, the goods transported into Rojava are very expensive. Their range is extremely limited—some food, small electronic devices such as cell phones, and clothes, but no medical supplies or materials for the improvement of infrastructure or essentials for basic care and services (such as water and the electricity supply). The number of trucks crossing into Rojava is very limited, often only five per day into an area where up to 4 million people live.

The embargo also targets people. Since March 2016, almost no foreigners have been allowed to enter the country, thus limiting international solidarity. Journalists, interested people, and activists were formerly allowed to enter at least once, but no more: now only a handful of journalists from the world’s largest media can sometimes get through. Journalists tied to KDP are allowed to through. People in Rojava may leave and reenter only on an emergency basis. Some KDP members have formed tight-knit mafia structures that smuggle young people from Rojava for money.

People who try to cross the border anyway, and then are discovered, are often imprisoned, usually for a month. Not infrequently they are beaten by KRG “security forces”; cases of systematic torture have also been reported. Rojava’s border with the KRG is not as thoroughly closed as is its border with Turkey, so some people do manage to cross, mostly smugglers, or people from Rojava making family visits or seeking medical treatment. People interested in Rojava’s political project are also affected. As an example of how serious the embargo is: several ambulances donated by Europeans have been awaiting permission to enter for months. Walking through the streets of Rojava, one finds that not only traders or shopkeepers but even ordinary people on the street express much bitterness about the KDP.

The land of the Kurdish people, Kurdistan, is portioned out inside four states. For those states to want to close borders against their Kurdish minority populations is logical and somehow understandable, because of their desire to suppress, assimilate, and exploit them economically. But for Kurds to put pressure on other Kurds with an embargo—and thereby to consciously accept the illness and deaths of many and the flight of thousands—is not at all understandable. All Kurds have been suppressed until recently, but Kurds have also achieved successes in all four states, which in these years gives them the unique opportunity to finally overcome the oppressive political system. If Rojava fails, the KRG too will soon fail. For the Turkish state will never accept the KRG as an autonomous region (let alone a Kurdish state) and will let it bleed to death if Rojava is destroyed.

If the KDP could overcome its feudal character and become a “normal modern” nationalist party, it would not continue the treachery that it has committed against the Kurdish people for the last forty years. This state of the KDP is celebrated by Turkey, which goes all out to preserve it.