Which red flag is flying? The communists defending Afrin

by Marcel Cartier    


As aspiring Sultan Erdogan’s assault on the radical democratic experiment in Afrin is repelled by Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and other nationalities who comprise a diverse, multi-ethnic region, two red flags are now flying at the front lines. One of these is of course of the occupying, fascist Turkish Republic that is fighting alongside Salafist Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, as NATO’s second largest army has made common cause with some of the most regressive figures imaginable. The other flag represents a diametrically opposed tendency, that of the international movement of the working-class. This blood-soaked banner of revolution and the sacrifice of the proletarian struggle is held up with pride by the communist internationalists fighting alongside the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) to defend the sovereignty of Afrin, of Syria, and the revolutionary ideals of the Rojava Revolution.

The Left & Syria’s Proxy War

The complexities of Syria’s war – now entering into the eighth year of bloodshed and unrelenting agony for the people of this land so connected with the genesis of civilization – have often been extremely challenging to navigate for an outside observer. For those on the radical left, this has been a conflict that has often exposed key differences between tendencies in terms of how to assess not only the region, but the world situation and character of international actors in what has been far more than simply a civil war.

 In the initial days of the so-called Syrian ‘uprising’ in the Spring of 2011, the western left largely assessed events through the lens of optimism in light of the mass protests that had already swept Tunisia and Egypt. The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, who had seemed untouchable for three decades, galvanized revolutionary forces in the west who were often far too accustomed to the idea that ‘doing the impossible’ was precisely that – impossible. History seemed to now be proving differently, showing that sometimes decades can be captured in mere days or weeks.

While some Trotskyist groups in the west had initially thrown their weight behind the mainstream ‘Syrian Arab’ opposition that was grouped around what became the ‘Free Syrian Army’, communists from more ‘orthodox’ parties (those who supported or at least defended the Soviet Union and socialist bloc until its final demise in 1991) tended to support the Syrian government and leadership on the basis of the country being a target of regime change attempts by the western imperialist powers, particularly the United States. (An illuminating example of this enduring fixation by Washington on establishing a client regime in Damascus can be seen in aa 1986 article by conservative commentator Daniel Pipes, who referred to Syria as the ‘Cuba of the Middle East’ due to its support for national liberation movements such as the Palestinian struggle -- what the U.S. would argue was support for ‘terrorism’).

Although the often bitter arguments that engulfed the western left in light of Syria’s descent into war – occurring almost simultaneously with the NATO bombing of Libya and overthrow of the nationalist government of Muammar Gaddafi – led to an even more pronounced fragmentation of an already divided radical movement, it would be inaccurate to say that the dividing line was simply between ‘pro Assad’ and ‘anti-Assad’ forces.

At the time, this is how I assessed the situation myself –  I refused to see the possibility of any ‘third way’ that went beyond the limitations of a very narrow dichotomy. This was itself evidence of the western left often having such an obsession with losing that we refuse to see beyond the bounds of what appears to be possible at the present juncture, no matter how limited and oppressive it may be. Daring to imagine has become something so abstract and remote that we cannot even begin to take it seriously.

The possibility of a ‘third way’ in Syria only became visible to most forces in the western metropoles after the declaration of autonomy in the northern areas of the country by Kurdish revolutionary forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Spring of 2012. Unlike the ‘Arab opposition’ that declared Assad the primary enemy of their cause and turned their guns toward Damascus, the so-called self-administration that was formed in the areas known by Kurds as ‘Rojava’ (for ‘west’ Kurdistan) declared that it wasn’t interested in ‘regime change’, although it did seek the democratization of the country along federal lines that would give recognition to Syria’s multi-ethnic and diverse character. This led to a degree of cooperation with the Syrian state in agreeing de-facto lines of demarcation, with Syrian Arab Army forces pulling back from the areas that fell under the control of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) in Aleppo, for instance. In other circumstances, Assad repositioned his forces away from Northern Syria to fight rebels preoccupied with overthrowing his Government. Upon this vacuum left by Assad forces, Kurds announced their own administration body, built on the principles of radical democracy, gender equality and multi-ethnic harmony. Even with the declaration of self-administration, however, it wasn’t really until the battle of Kobane in late 2014 that the Kurdish question in Syria emerged on the world stage.

Communists & The Rojava Revolution

During this heroic resistance to the fascism of the so-called Islamic State, a considerably higher degree of attention began to be given to the Kurdish question in Syria by not only the mainstream media, but understandably so by the western left. After all, it was the forces of the YPG and YPJ who espoused the most progressive, leftist politics of all of the military formations operating in the theatre of Syria’s war.

Due to the ideology of the Rojava Revolution being linked with the theoretical points espoused by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in his ‘new paradigm’ – among them that the Leninist conception of revolution was outdated and that a ‘non-state’ system showed the path to a free, dignified and socialist society in the 21st century – this movement was deemed by many Marxist critics to be ‘anarchist’. A considerable amount of support began to be given to the Rojava project by western ‘libertarian socialists’, many hostile to 20th century socialist revolutions, and even the PKK’s original orientation as a Leninist national liberation movement. This often put revolutionary Marxists and Leninists in a knee-jerk position of opposing the Rojava experiment, and often refusing to look into it in any considerable degree of detail.

However, a substantial number of Turkish communist organisations didn’t take such a simplistic approach to the ‘democratic confederalism’ being offered by the PYD as an alternative to capitalist modernity in Syria and the region. For many of these Turkey-based formations and parties, Rojava was part national liberation movement, part radical, feminist, democratic experiment. Perhaps they didn’t see it as explicitly ‘socialist’, but it was important to engage with and to participate in.

From 2012, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), until then operating primarily within Turkey’s borders, began sending cadres to Rojava to defend the revolution. Among the MLKP fighters who joined the ranks of the YPJ was Ivana Hoffmann, a 19-year old German woman who had joined the party abroad and joined the Kurdish movement’s caravan of martyrs when she was killed in March 2015. Ivana’s example would serve as the basis for other internationalists to join not only the MLKP, but for the Party to push for the creation of an internationalist organization that would aim to build on the legacy of communists who had flocked to Spain to defend the Republic against Franco’s fascism in the late 1930s.

In the summer of 2015, the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) was officially declared at a ceremony in Serekaniye. The show of leftist unity at the announcement of the IFB’s formation is an important lesson for revolutionaries across the globe. Groups that had previously been at odds with each other in Turkey now joined hands in struggle. The United Freedom Forces (BOG), itself a coalition of leftist fighters from Turkey that had been declared the previous year, now joined the IFB on the initiative of the MLKP. There wasn’t time nor the luxury of ideological squabbles preventing the unity of forces in the face of barbarism. Other groups that joined the IFB included the Turkish Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist (TKP/ML) and its armed wing TiKKO (Workers’ and Peasants’ Army of Turkey). Beyond the region, communists from Spain played a key role in the IFB’s consolidation, with the Reconstruction Comunista (RC) sending cadres to fight in the spirit of solidarity their ancestors in the Spanish Republic knew all too well. This historical link also inspired Marxists from Britain to join the IFB under the banner of the Bob Crow Brigade, paying homage to a major figure in their country’s trade union movement.

The Hammer & Sickle on the Frontlines at Afrin

Of course, the level of solidarity expressed with the Rojava Revolution by communists across the world – both in terms of events organized at home, as well as in those actually coming to Syria to be willing to give the ultimate sacrifice – isn’t comparable in scope to the tens of thousands who volunteered to fight Francoism. Syria has been a far more complex and divisive war to grasp, on the one hand. On the other, the intervention of major foreign powers into the conflict, especially Russia and the United States, shifted the dynamics of solidarity with the Kurdish-led forces who were spearheading a women’s revolution rooted in direct democracy. For many Marxists, military cooperation with the U.S. – ‘tactical’ or not – meant that at least explicit solidarity with the Rojava experiment was off the table.

However, the Turkish communist groups operating in Rojava seem to have navigated this relationship with great nuance and a spirit of critical solidarity. For sure, the presence of the United States within the borders of Syria is a nuisance at best for the fighters of groups such as the MLKP and TKP/ML. Based on my experiences on the ground in northern Syria, it is fair to say that for many fighters of the YPG and YPJ, that relationship is perceived the same way. However, the communist groups generally take a more critical line toward this cooperation than the Apoists (supporters of Abdullah Ocalan in the PYD and PKK and their umbrella organization, the Union of Kurdish Communities [KCK]).

Almost two weeks into Erdogan’s misadventure in Syria, the hollowness of U.S. ‘support’ for the YPG and YPJ has been made blatantly obvious. This hasn’t surprised the Kurdish movement in the least bit, as the writing already appeared on the wall for the U.S. to ‘drop’ the Kurdish forces after the liberation of Raqqa. Although still cooperating in Deir ez-Zor with the YPG, the tacit approval of Washington for Erdogan’s bloody, genocidal incursion into Afrin has spelled out that although the U.S. and YPG may have had mutual, overlapping interests in Syria for the short-term, there was no more of a potential long-term unity that existed as there had been between the Soviet Union and western imperialists who united against Hitler’s fascist aggression during the Second World War.

This should reveal to communists around the world that the fight to defend Afrin is a struggle to safeguard the basic principles of the oppressed, and their efforts in establishing an ecological, grassroots, feminist democracy. Marxists should support such a fight and vision of society, even if having some ideological critiques of the model of ‘democratic confederalism’.

Fighters from the International Freedom Battalion are now flying the deep crimson flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle at the frontlines in Afrin. Daring to defy Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations in Rojava as they defied his government’s fascistic and assimilationist policies in Turkey and Bakur (northern Kurdistan), Turkey’s red militants fight shoulder to shoulder with their YPG, YPG, Syriac Military Council, and other progressive anti-fascist forces.

In an interview with ETHA News Agency, MLKP commander Viyan Ä°syan described why his Party is taking part in the resistance in Afrin, saying “This revolution is an example to the peoples of the Middle East. Our fundamental duty is to defend the Rojava revolution by any means necessary. The defence of the revolution and its gains will also carry the revolution to the peoples of the Middle East…Defending Afrin is defending honour. Defending Afrin is defending the future. Defending Afrin opens the way for other revolutions…We want them to not surrender to ErdoÄŸan's fascism, we want them to set the streets on fire. We call them to press against the borders of Rojava. Because these borders are unnatural. We call our peoples to action. The resistance of Afrin is a historical resistance. We call on our peoples to uphold this historical resistance…We want it to be known that we will not abandon Afrin. The YPG/YPJ and the people of Afrin will not abandon Afrin. As communists, we will not abandon it. We are here until the end, no matter the cost. Victory will be ours.“

Echoing the sentiment expressed by the MLKP, the TKP/ML vowed to crush Turkey’s occupation and attempted stifling of the revolution by calling all oppressed people to the ranks of the resistance. In a video message, the Party’s military formation TiKKO declared its role in fight against Erdogan, saying “In its attempt to occupy Afrin, the fascist and genocidal Turkish state has shown itself to be the enemy of the oppressed Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen peoples, and the working people as a whole. After being subjected to occupation and massacres by the ISIS fascists, the peoples of Rojava are now undergoing occupation and massacres at hands of the fascist Turkish state with the invading Turkish troops bombing villages and murdering innocent children and civilian workers.”             

The Critical Need for Internationalist Solidarity

At this moment in which the imperialist powers have made clear that they have no genuine regard for ‘democracy’, in which their support for NATO’s second largest army has trumped any possible semblance of half-hearted support for a Kurdish radical movement that aims to sweep aside capitalism, the left needs to reassess its relationship to the Rojava Revolution.

Communists are taking part in the heroic resistance in Afrin, aiming to protect a society being reshaped along egalitarian lines. The spirit of internationalism which is present in this struggle isn’t necessarily one of full ideological unity – there is plenty of struggle taking place within the Rojava Revolution between Apoists, communists, anarchists, and other leftist forces. Where the revolution is headed is being fiercely debated, but in an atmosphere of mutual solidarity and respect, not the hostility and narrow-mindedness that often permeates the leftist environments and movements in Europe and North America. This revolution’s vibrancy and richness of diversity is being defended at the frontlines. This result of this struggle will have major ramifications for the future of the international communist movement, and for humanity more generally.