Why you should #BoycottTurkey and #RiseUp4Rojava


In the first months of 2018 the Turkish state invaded and occupied the predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Since then, Afrin has been ethnically cleansed and occupied by mercenaries in Turkish pay and with Turkish military backing. Although presenting themselves as the “Free Syrian Army”, these groups are authoritarian and fascist Islamists — many previously fought with Daesh, or the so-called “Islamic State”.

Afrin’s occupation has created over a hundred thousand new refugees, many displaced for the second time, and brought ruin to what was previously the country’s most peaceful region, with the most developed democratic autonomous administration.

In response the Kurdish Freedom Movement last year called for a boycott of Turkish tourism, joining a pre-existing call for an academic boycott following the Turkish state’s purges in 2016. After another call from the UK Kurdish People’s Assembly, this has now expanded to a cultural boycott as well as goods and services.

Earlier this month a new website, was launched, bringing together the different calls with research into British and global capitalist and state institutions’ financial and military support for the Turkish state.

Over the same period since Afrin’s occupation, radical left groups across the world have been getting organized, standing in practical solidarity with the Kurdish Freedom Movement and are getting ready to rise up for the Rojava Revolution and its achievements. The emerging radical democracy in northeast Syria is a bright light of hope to many — proof that another world remains possible and an inspiring example of how to get there.

But Afrin’s occupation showed the revolution’s precariousness, surrounded by enemies and with “friends” like the US and Russia all-too ready to exchange its achievements for business deals and the interests of their regional clients, Turkey and Syria.

Days of action

In January, for the one-year anniversary of Afrin’s invasion, the Internationalist Commune of Rojava called for days of action focused on companies and institutions that support the Turkish state financially and militarily. Following their success, a new platform was launched to build internationalist solidarity on the radical left.

Like the original days of action, #RiseUp4Rojava calls for campaigns against institutions and organizations that provide Turkish state fascism with financial and military support, especially for its actions in Rojava, but also across the Middle East and beyond. The platform now includes over 40 organizations from across Europe and is spreading into both North and South America.

The first days of action last Friday and Saturday were hugely successful, with occupations and blockades, clandestine actions, solidarity photos and demonstrations taking place across the globe.

But while some on the radical left have started to get organized the so-called “international community” remains silent in the face of Afrin’s occupation, ignoring the well-documented cases of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Likewise, the expanded invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan and the recent coups against democratically elected mayors in the three largest cities in Turkey’s Kurdish region — having already annulled the results and appointed trustees in five municipalities immediately following elections in April — have received very little attention from the media and state governments.

Clearly the Kurdish Freedom Movement and Rojava Revolution need serious media attention and meaningful, practical solidarity. But this can only emerge from a grassroots movement that forces state and media institutions to pay attention, and that movement begins with each and every one of us stepping up however we can.

In the words of Italian internationalist Lorenzo Orsetti, a veteran of Afrin killed in combat in the last days of Daesh’s territorial caliphate, “Remember that every storm starts with a single drop of rain — try to be that drop.”

How to become that first drop of rain

So here are three reasons why you should organize to #BoycottTurkey and #RiseUp4Rojava, and a few ideas for how to become that first drop of rain — they are focused on the United Kingdom, as this is where we organize and have done the most research, but let it be a call for friends and comrades in other countries to develop similar projects, such as Sweden’s Stop Erdoğan platform, and to coordinate these with #BoycottTurkey and #RiseUp4Rojava.

The reasons boil down to three basic points: this is a revolutionary project building socialism in and for our historical moment; living in or nearby the booming centers of global capitalism, we occupy a crucial role in the struggle; and if we do not get organized to rise up for the Rojava Revolution, then no one else will.

1 — The British state and UK-based companies are integral to the Turkish military-industrial complex.

Turkey is a “priority market” for UK-based arms companies. Since 2008 the British state has approved at least £1.5 billion in military export licenses, and UK imports from Turkey amounted to £11 billion in 2018, making it Turkey’s second largest export market.

The British state views the arms trade as a key industry to support, providing billions in subsidies. Ironically, subsidies hide the sector’s limited profitability, and reveal its real purpose as imperial foreign policy and leverage for the British state in the wider interstate system. Even after Erdoğan’s politicide of Turkey’s left — including both Kurds, Turks and others — and mass purges of journalists, public sector and educational workers from 2015 on, Theresa May visited Turkey in 2017 to negotiate a £125 million fighter jet deal for BAE Systems.

Likewise, when Erdoğan visited the UK last year, May promised support against “Kurdish terrorists”, in June 2019 international trade secretary Liam Fox visited Turkey again, and our current prime minister inexplicably defended Afrin’s invasion last year as foreign minister by pointing to Turkey’s right to “defend its borders”, which now extend deep into Syrian sovereign territory.

The UK-Turkey arms trade thrives despite the fact that arms sales to the Turkish state break both the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, and UK arms export laws. Nevertheless, known — and the emphasis here is on the known — UK export licenses for military equipment rose by £466 million between 2013 and 2016, and continue to rise.

This is unsurprising; a court ruled export licenses to Saudi Arabia illegal earlier this year, and yet a Saudi delegation will be at the DSEI arms fair in London this September. When it comes to the arms trade, the British government refuses to abide by its own laws, imperial foreign policy always comes first, maintaining the UK’s pathetic middle-man role in the imperial interstate system.

The deep integration of British capital and state institutions with the Turkish military-industrial complex has recently resulted in an initial agreement to sell British Steel to the Turkish military’s pension scheme, OYAK. This shameful act represents more than just strong interstate relations, it spotlights the British and Turkish states’ complementary complicity in each others’ internal class warfare: the British state is selling the historic defeat of some of its most unionized and militant workers, in the process helping the Erdoğan regime maintain the support of Turkey’s state aristocracy, the military elite.

The pension fund was created in 1960 after the first of four post-war military coups, and this deal would help it stabilize even as the Turkish economy tanks. So it is a paradigmatic example of what we are up against in an age of globalized capital and an imperial interstate system, and why we occupy a crucial position in the struggle to defend the Rojava Revolution’s achievements and the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s survival.

2 — The Kurdish Freedom Movement and Rojava Revolution are building socialism for our historical moment.

Recently the reality of impending climate catastrophe has begun to hit home. Over the last year or so there has been a dramatic rise in grassroots mobilizations, with new campaigns and groups like YouthStrike4Climate, Extinction Rebellion and Earth Strike.

But at the same time, the rising consciousness of climate catastrophe’s reality makes it all the more important to have a strong radical analysis — otherwise there is an all-too-real threat of racist, even fascist explanations focused on “overpopulation” becoming common sense.

And a strong radical analysis is exactly what the Kurdish Freedom Movement provides and the Rojava Revolution is putting into practice. Drawing inspiration from Murray Bookchin’s social ecology, founder, figurehead and political philosopher of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Abdullah Öcalan, has theorized a libertarian socialist and feminist understanding of ecological destruction.

Bookchin argued that ruling classes’ utopian attempts to dominate and control nature, originates in the real fact of their domination and exploition of human society. This means that fixed hierarchy and centralized states are key to ecological destruction, even before capitalism, but especially when coupled with capital’s need to constantly accumulate or collapse.

Reading Bookchin, and with a lifetime experience of revolutionary struggle against a capitalist nation-state causing huge levels of ecological destruction, as well as having encouraged and seen the remarkable dynamism of the Kurdish Women’s Movement, Öcalan deepened Bookchin’s analysis further: if capitalist states based on hierarchy are the general problem, then patriarchy is the particular one.

Bodies gendered as female and disciplined into patriarchal relations as women, form the first exploited class, the first colony, upon which all subsequent systems of exploitation and domination are founded.

So Öcalan’s perspective can be summed up as something like this: if we want, indeed, if we need to overcome capital’s catastrophic assault on the climate, then we must address the problem of centralized and hierarchical states — and if we want to overcome them, then the only option is to abolish patriarchy.

This is why Rojava’s revolution is often simply termed the Women’s Revolution. Self-organized women are leading the way in liberation and the fundamental principle of abolishing patriarchy is woven into every part of the emerging radical democracy’s social fabric.

This is seen in the military structures — the fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) are the most common symbols of the revolution abroad, and it is structurally impossible for men in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to give women an order.

Less commonly discussed is the fact that women’s self-organization and governance is essential to all civil democratic structures as well, with autonomous and veto-empowered parallel women’s assemblies at every level, a co-chair system for every position of power, and a minimum of 50 percent gender balance in every meeting. It should be a sobering lesson for every active radical in the UK, indeed across the Global North, that without doubt they have been to countless meetings that would not pass the test in Rojava.

The Kurdish Freedom Movement’s robustly ecological and feminist non-state politics already sets it apart from many, if not most revolutionary liberation movements of the 20th century. But their commitment to building socialism and a free life for our historical moment does not stop there.

Decentralized, direct and participatory democracy is to be developed in the face of the current world-system of centralized, hierarchical states. Radical democracy is also set against the nation-state’s violent homogenization of people and culture, a recognition that we all have multiple identities, and that a singular, homogenized concept of “the nation” is nothing other than the God of the modern state, justifying its extreme violence.

But most importantly, for the Kurdish Freedom Movement building radical democracy is a pragmatic task that begins now, within the currently existing nation-states — the challenge is to surround these hierarchical structures with real democracy, co-federate across borders and make them irrelevant. Rather than flowing from a central government down, sovereignty starts with the local commune and goes up only as much as necessary.

The same radical but pragmatic approach is taken to dismantling capitalist institutions, those that can are subordinated to the communes, in other cases the capitalists are the ones subordinated, and where possible new forms of collectivized, cooperative production are set up, with a view to a long social transformation where real democracy always comes first.

But the pragmatism of the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s politics should not blind us to the radical content. Providing deep analysis and practical solutions to ecological destruction, capitalist exploitation, centralized state domination, nationalist and patriarchal violence — as well as real world examples attempting to build this in practice across the different parts of Kurdistan — means that everyone who truly believes in the possibility of another, truly democratic and meaningfully socialist modernity, must stand ready to rise up for the Women’s Revolution.

3 — Kurds have more friends than the mountains, but none of them are states.

A common Kurdish idiom goes “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” This has not entirely been the case; in the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s forty-year history there have been notable exceptions to this rule, and shining examples of revolutionary internationalism and solidarity.

Nevertheless, until the Rojava Revolution and during the invasion of Afrin, this idiom has often seemed true. At the same time, however, especially since the dramatic victory over Daesh at Kobane, the revolution’s remarkable achievements have sown the seeds of a global solidarity movement, and regenerated traditions of internationalism — but if we are to prove the old saying wrong then this desperately needs to grow.

Yet many on the radical left are reluctant, even opposed to standing in solidarity with the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Some name it nationalist for organizing around Kurds’ oppression as Kurds, either ignorant or dismissive of the fiercely anti-nation state politics and the analysis it is based on. Others label it “Stalinist”, and attack Öcalan, again apparently ignorant of the movement’s critical discussion and rejection of state socialism and its many, profound failings.

With such profound levels of ignorance in these apparent critiques, it is difficult to take them in good faith. Rojava and the Kurdish Freedom Movement simply serve as foils to reinforce a pre-existing “revolutionary” position, from Marxist-Leninist through to various stripes of anarchist, predicated on an idealized idea of what revolution looks like, underpinned by the pessimism that this is not really possible anyway. Indeed, such critiques make one wonder whether the people making them would ever think to learn from a Middle-Eastern revolutionary movement.

But the most common arguments are a result of the radical left’s enduring Cold War hangover. The dogmatic state-centered geopolitical perspective of many so-called “anti-imperialists” leads them to support vile states and regimes, with only the barest relation to “socialism”, racist and orientalist positions dismantled in a recent book.

Others attempt more nuanced perspectives, drawing the line at the tactical alliance with the US-led coalition, the non-aggression agreements with the Syrian regime, or some other red line that distinguishes their “full” from “critical”, but certainly never practical, solidarity.

Unlike the “anti-imperialists”, however, global capital and empire recognize the Kurdish Freedom Movement and Women’s Revolution for what they are — a profound revolutionary threat. Whilst the US, Russia and European states have been happy to support the YPG/YPJ and broader Syrian Democratic Forces against Daesh, they remain implacable enemies of the Women’s Revolution.

That is why Russia allowed the invasion of Afrin, why Trump was ready to exchange northeast Syria for a canceled Turkish-Russian missile contract, and why now the US, Russia and the Syrian regime are trying to use the threat of a Turkish invasion to get concessions and, ultimately, capitulation. As radicals debate whether to risk their pure revolutionary aesthetic, the interstate system is recognizing the threat to their imperial order, and coordinating to crush the movement through blockade, co-option and occupation.

So it is imperative that the radical left, in the UK and beyond, take on these arguments, and build practical solidarity with the Kurdish Freedom Movement. The Women’s Revolution has no friends in the interstate system, we are all it has got — but collectively, and with committed organizing, we can become more than enough.

The parliamentary left has a role too, visible and material support offered by elected representatives creates space for radicals to continue to raise awareness and deepen knowledge about the revolution. The twofold goal is to both legitimize the project in Kurdistan and to translate the politics into our own conditions. So radicals organized in institutional left organizations and trade unions should use every opportunity to make these tactical vehicles for this strategic direction.

The good news is we are not starting from scratch. Across the world, radical movements have worked with Kurdish communities for decades. In recent years, eight UK citizens have lost their lives fighting with the YPG and YPJ, while many more have traveled to Rojava to learn from the revolutionary movement there.

In the UK, Kurdish activists have been integral to feminist organizing, trade unions and the Labour party, as well as many other left-wing mobilizations. The Freedom for Öcalan trade union campaign has, since 2016, grown to include 14 national trade unions including TUC, GMB and Unite. The campaign was hosted as the 2018 international theme for the 134th Durham Miners Gala, as well as at this year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs festival. Many trade unionists have called Öcalan the Nelson Mandela of the Middle East, recognizing the necessity of his freedom for peace and democratization.

In short, there are plenty of encouraging starts and potentials to grow — now we just need to get organized.

How Can You #BoycottTurkey and #RiseUp4Rojava?

  1. Talk to your friends, family and colleagues about #BoycottTurkey and ask them to reconsider holiday plans to Turkey or using Turkish companies. It is important to remember, however, that this is a boycott of corporations and organizations which support the Turkish state financially and militarily, not your local Turkish restaurant or corner shop. The problem is the Turkish state, Erdoğan’s regime and its financial and military supporters, not Turks in general, and the Kurdish Freedom Movement is a movement for the liberation of all Turkey and the wider Middle East, not only Kurds.
  2. Write to your MP or councillor, or submit a motion to your CLP, Momentum or union branch, declaring support for the #BoycottTurkey campaign — and keep an eye out for letter and motion templates you can adapt in the near future. If you’re in a group on the extra-parliamentary left you can get in touch with RiseUp4Rojava to affiliate at: riseup4rojava@riseup.net
  3. Follow the Kurdistan Solidarity Network and RiseUp4Rojava for updates, attend events run by local groups, and share posts widely. If there is no KSN group near you then start a solidarity group in your area! KSN organisers are happy to help, get in contact at: kurdishsolidaritynetwork@riseup.net.

Nik Matheou is a social historian specializing in nationalism and political economy, and a member of Plan C. He is also an organizer with London Kurdistan Solidarity, the London local group of the Kurdistan Solidarity Network.

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