Imperialism has no progressive role in Kobanê

kobane-womanThe group formerly known as Daesh (Isis), now Islamic State, entered the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobanê In the early hours of Tuesday October 7. As this statement is issued, air strikes seem to have halted its advance for the moment, street-to-street fighting is taking place and initial reports suggest that in these battles secular Kurdish forces allied to the People’s Protection Units (military wing of the Democratic Union Party or PYD) are getting the upper hand – mainly because they are familiar with the town’s layout and IS’s heavy weaponry are not as effective in street battles. That said, the town is being destroyed, its inhabitants are refugees and it is highly unlikely that Kurdish forces can win ultimately.

Who is to blame for the catastrophic situation?

First the United States and its coalition partners – not just for their role in the Iraqi invasion of 2003 that is the root cause of all this, but, more important, for their association with and support for the countries who created and financed this IS monster.

US vice-president Joe Biden recently stated: “My constant cry was that our allies in the region were the largest problem in Syria” – and he singled out the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey specifically. He added:

“The Turks were great friends, but, when it came to Syria and the effort to bring down president Bashar Assad there, those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qa’eda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State … What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war? What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Of course, in his candour the US vice-president failed to mention that until last autumn the Obama administration shared these views and tactics. Even when the US did a complete U-turn, for all the propaganda about air raids by a coalition of 40 countries, there has been no serious attempt to weaken IS in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds have been forced to leave their homes and, according to the fighters and the people of Kobanê, coalition air raids were too little and too late to make any difference.


Another culprit is the Turkish army. Controlling the heights north of the city, it stood by, as IS used heavy artillery, tanks and rocket launchers to attack the poorly armed Kurdish guerrillas. According to a Kurdish commander, Turkey hopes the fall of Kobanê will create the conditions where it can send ground troops into Syria, paving the way for the establishment of a pro-Turkish regime in Damascus. – 1 Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking on October 7, seemed to confirm this view when he called for the launch of a ground operation against IS to halt its advance: “The terror will not be over unless we cooperate in a ground operation,” Erdoğan said.

For the last two years the town had been controlled by the PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting for Kurdish freedom from Turkish rule. The PYD and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) claimed it had created a region of self-governance. Those familiar with the PKK’s authoritarian politics would consider such claims with a degree of cynicism. However, there can be no doubt that tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen from all over Syria had sought refuge in Kobanê.

The Turkish president has repeatedly talked of his country’s ‘commitment’ to fight IS, yet in reality there has been no sign of any serious effort from his state. Many believe Turkey is directly or indirectly helping IS’s rise, both by funding some of its activities and by allowing foreign volunteers to cross the Turkish border into Syria. In contrast, it has closed the border to Kurds wanting to cross into Syria and join the defence of Kobanê. In September the release of 46 Turkish hostages came after negotiations between the Turkish state and the jihadist group. And last week PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, held in prison near Istanbul, warned Ankara that the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdish rebels would collapse if IS seized Kobanê.

While PKK/YPG officials in Syria are adamant they do not want Turkey to intervene in the conflict, they have called for an easing of border controls between Syria and Turkey, so that Syrian Kurd fighters can be supplied with arms. The group’s military forces – a poorly trained group of male and female peshmergas – have only light weapons and a few captured tanks. The YPG also claims that, for all its rhetoric, Turkey has been and remains in an undeclared alliance with IS, as it is more concerned to defeat Syrian Kurdish forces allied with the PKK.

Turkey, for its part, is blaming the Kurdish group for choosing an “isolationist position”, and for refusing to join the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian opposition groups funded by Arab countries. Turkey has maintained close relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdish regional authority in Iraq. However, YPG/PKK fighters have dismissed KDP efforts in opposition to IS as half-hearted and ineffective. A claim supported by Kurdish, Yazidi and Turkmen refugees in the region.

The treacherous leaders of the Kurdish regional authority is a recipient of generous aid from the United States and the European Union. It is a living example of a corrupt, decadent, semi-colonial state. Its leaders were so alarmed by YPG’s experiments of ‘self-governance’ that they were ready to sit back and watch brutal jihadists take over Kobanê. But the problem they will face in the long term is obvious: when IS reaches Suleymaniye or Kirkuk, the major cities of the KRA, no-one will be left to defend its decadent, autocratic, misogynist rulers.

If IS defeats the Kurdish guerrillas in the Kobanê street battles, it would gain control of most of the Syrian-Turkish border – Kobanê is already flanked by two IS-controlled towns to the east and west. This would be a strategic victory for IS, as it would then be able to control the key Raqa-Kobanê route. That is why, irrespective of its political differences with the PKK and YPG, for the left in the region, Kobanê is in the eye of the storm of the fight against IS.


In Tehran on October 6, 14 well-known left/liberal activists began a protest hunger strike in solidarity with Kobanê – a little strangely. Left and centre-left websites and social media are full of messages of support for Kobanê fighters. Photos of the heroes of the war – the men and women guerrillas who have given their lives to defend the city – are prominent, including that of the young mother, Arin Mirkan, who launched a suicide attack on advancing jihadists on October 5.

The attitude of the Iranian left can only be explained as a leftover from the early 1980s – a period when it romanticised the Iranian Kurdish resistance: the brave fighters in the mountains were going to pave the way for the overthrow of another Islamic state – Iran’s Shia republic – and establish ‘socialism’! However, an ill-equipped army of brave young men and women faced reactionaries who were armed to the teeth, financed by wealthy, powerful forces and determined to die for Islam has little chance. Unfortunately, it is not hard to guess who will win the current struggle in Kobanê. We should leave the suicide attacks to the Islamists (Shia or Sunni) – for the left this is no way to fight, however desperate the situation gets. But the politics of vanguard activism, which created such illusions in Iranian Kurdistan in the 1980s, is fostering similar illusions about Kobanê, at least amongst sections of the Iranian left. This does not mean that in the Middle East, and especially in the west, the left should not support the fighters in Kobanê, who, as secular, leftwing forces, remain a source of hope, a progressive force fighting reactionary Islamists. Our comments are directed at those sections of the Iranian left who seem to have become obsessed with promoting YPG guerrilla heroism.

Who and why

For all the talk of a ‘US-led coalition’, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, none of these states are serious about stopping the funding of the jihadists or preventing the financial transactions of banks and institutions in IS-occupied northern Iraq. Who is buying the oil IS sells? Turkey. Who is allowing international transactions from Mosul banks? Qatari, Saudi and UAE banks are laundering money from their counterparts under IS control in northern Iraq.

Is international capital incapable of stopping the flow of funds to IS? Of course not. We know from the recent example of sanctions against Iranian banks that the world hegemon power, the United States, is capable of closing down all international monetary routes. It is capable of tracing the smallest transactions between individuals associated with ‘rogue states’ and punishing banks who fail to comply. Yet we are expected to believe that it cannot do the same when it comes to the northern Iraqi cities controlled by IS? The reality is that a disorientated US does not want to confront its allies in the Arab world.

The ability of IS to maintain and expand its influence is due to a number of factors – not least the reputation it has gained as a force that does not (ostensibly) compromise with the west.

For all the religious statements issued by Sunni clerics denouncing the group’s brutal methods, many young Muslims still join it. Its brutal methods may be medieval, but IS has shown considerable ability in managing the cities it has captured.

According to the Irish Independent newspaper:

“The ‘Islamic State’ group, infamous for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executions, provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques. While its merciless battlefield tactics and the imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law made headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern …

“Civilians who do not have any political affiliations have adjusted to the presence of Islamic State, because people got tired and exhausted, and also … because they are doing institutional work,” one Raqqa resident opposed to Isis said.”

So far, the US-led bombing operations– which rely on long-distance engagement (to ensure minimum risk to military personnel and warplanes) – have largely only succeeded in gaining new allies for IS. Imperialism created the horror that is currently engulfing this region of the world: it is madness to think it can now drop bombs on it to provide a solution.

Is the US serious about defeating IS or is Iran right to believe that there is a ‘stage two’ in the US-led action against IS – one dedicated to overthrowing Assad from above, with Turkey waiting patiently in the wings? And is this ultimately aimed at regime change in Iran? The situation is confused and tense, but Hands Off the People of Iran is clear:

  • Imperialism has no progressive role to play – no to the bombings!
  • Defend Kobanê against IS barbarism!
  • The only force that can bring peace, progress and socialism to the region is the working class!

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