An oft-quoted Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” speaks to Kurdish experiences of being repeatedly snubbed by potential allies and finding protection only in the rigid mountains of Kurdistan.
However, Rojava – as the Kurdish regions of Syria are also known – lacks mountainous terrain, which is perhaps one of the main reasons Syrian Kurds never engaged in an armed struggle prior to the 2012 collapse of the Syrian state. With the greater Syrian opposition unprepared to address the so-called Kurdish question, Kurds in Rojava began mobilizing in 2012.
Autonomy and self-defense, particularly in response to waves of jihadist groups that continue to attack the Kurdish areas, were their primary objectives, and Kurds in the region have made significant gains on these fronts. However, in large part because the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – an affiliate of the blacklisted Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – has played such a defining role in the movement in Rojava, Syrian Kurds have been dismissed not only by Western powers, but also by the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.
“Kurds have no friends but the mountains”
Regardless of the political accusations and disputes between all sides, there are ten points that should be shared about Syrian Kurds and their ongoing struggle:
1. Kurds have a long history of oppression and resistance in Syria, but these events have rarely – if ever – received any attention among Arab Syrians or the international community. Some of the more recent instances of human rights violations against Kurds in Syria have become known as the March 2004 Qamishli events, which forced thousands of Kurdish refugees to flee fearing persecution.
2. Kurds in Rojava have strategically avoided taking part in the ongoing civil war in Syria. The Kurdish strategy to engage militarily only in self-defense became more pronounced when it became clear the nationalist and Islamist Arab opposition did not intend to recognize Kurdish rights in Syria post-Assad.
3. Currently, Kurds in Rojava are singlehandedly resisting Islamist fundamentalists who are composed of both Syrian Sunni fundamentalists and jihadists who travel from other Arab countries and Europe to wage jihad with the support of regional states. In fact, as ironic as it may seem, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime also collaborates with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the main aggressor against Rojava – based on a problematic strategy aimed at portraying the Syrian revolution as a jihadist campaign to thereby convince Western powers to stop supporting calls for regime change.
4. In Rojava, Kurdish women are leading a revolutionary movement of social liberation from entrenched patriarchy. In fact the prime minister of Afrin canton, one of the three recently announced autonomous Kurdish cantons, is an Alevi Kurdish woman named Hevi Ibrahim.
5. Rojava is the only region in the world where women have organized themselves to ideologically and physically fight Islamist forces to protect civilians from fanatic religious rule. While doing so, these resisting women are effectively transforming the entire society of Rojava and setting an inspiring example for the rest of the Islamic world, and wherever women are oppressed.
6. In Rojava, minorities including Christians are targeted by Islamists, but protected by the armed forces affiliated with the YPD. Minorities have also joined Kurds in civic activities in the cantons as well as in the new administrations, perhaps most notably in Cizire canton where the co-vice presidents are an Assyrian Christian woman and an Arab man.
7. Rojava, unlike the Alevi or Sunni areas, enjoys no material or symbolic support on sectarian bases. In fact, if the Arab forces engaged in the civil war agree on one thing it is their enmity towards the Kurdish liberation movement.
“Rojava is arguably the only region in Syria where there is not popular anti-western sentiment”
8. There is a humanitarian and economic embargo imposed on Rojava by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, Turkey, and Islamist forces within Syria for various political reasons. In other words, people in Rojava are being collectively punished for their refusal to join a sectarian war that shows no promises of improving their situation.
9. Rojava is arguably the only region in Syria where there is not popular anti-western sentiment, yet Western politicians continue to ignore Syrian Kurds’ advances in the region and the imminent threat of jihadist forces on all minorities in Rojava.
10. Rojava is largely overlooked by international media due to allegations of separatism (as if there is a united Syria on the ground) and the PYD’s affiliation with the PKK.
From a secular, feminist, humanist, and humanitarian point view, Rojava deserves international support and protection. If Islamists manage to control Rojava, which is not unlikely given all the support they receive as well as the blockade on the people of Rojava, all women and entire minority groups will continue to be targeted.