Interview with Cihan Kendal, YPG commander, by an international YPG volunteer.
Growing numbers of international volunteers are joining the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in their fight against ISIS. Although the legal position is unclear in the various countries from which volunteers have originated, hundreds have joined the Kurdish struggle. Now, given that the Rojava revolution has become more established (it celebrated its fourth anniversary in July) and its international solidarity is ever-increasing, the recruitment process for the international volunteers has been streamlined and centralised into what will be known simply as YPG international. Sitting down on simple foam mattresses with chai and cigarettes at the newly-established international training centre whilst twenty fresh arrivals from Europe and America studied in the classrooms next door, commander Cihan Kendal explained to me its mission.
“It is an official project of the YPG open to women and men. It tries to give a new, more conscious, political direction to our work with international volunteers, on the basis of our ideological ideas: democratic, ecology, women’s liberation, and of course anti capitalism.”
I wondered immediately how this fitted in with the UK’s most well known volunteer, who had run as a Conservative council candidate on the back of the media profile he had gained.
In setting up YPG-I (YPG International), we reviewed the last 18 months. We saw that for different reasons some people came that were not the right people. Some fascists, some that were just coming to kill, and those coming to gain fame – using their profile in YPG for personal interests. They are not welcome, we don’t need these people in our fight.
What about those who fit politically, but don’t want to fight?
Everyone who comes via YPG-I serves militarily for 6 months, and then they can discuss civil society work with Tev Dem, the federation of popular assemblies. YPG is a military force though, we can’t tell Tev Dem what to do, in fact they tell us what to do.
The Rojava Revolution began in 2012; in the same time in Europe we have seen the rise of anti austerity movements like Podemos, Syriza and Jeremy Corbyn. Do you see any similarities with these movements?
Of course, as we are part of the anti capitalist struggle ourselves, we are always glad to see that people in different parts of the world are criticising the capitalist system and trying to find an alternative, to organise themselves against capitalist modernity. We seek greater links with all these movements, and hopefully will see these develop more with the establishment of YPG-I.
But when we are talking about building up a revolution, then it is clear that classical political parties that are just working in parliament don’t work. They can be a part of this movement and they can be an important part of the movement: when you are trying to build up an alternative system you can try to work in the existing system but that is not enough; the most important part is when people organise to run society themselves, go beyond the state. Abdullah Ocalan has a formula for this – “state plus democracy”
The state plus democracy? Isn’t the Rojava revolution against the state?
Yes and no. Yes we threw Assad out of Rojava, but we are realistic enough to see that for political, economic, and military circumstances we are not able to cut everything off, and we have a certain level of relations with the Syrian government, exactly because we don’t want to create another state. We say if they respect the democratic rights of the people in this region who want to organise themselves then we can also be a part of the Syrian state, the part of the Syrian state that will change all the other parts. In fact that’s the aim, to go from an autonomous region to a democratic Syria.
When we talk about revolution, it isn’t happening in the style that we thought it would happen 100 or even 30 years ago. Revolution has its violent moments when you have to kick out the state, then defend yourself with arms, but at the same time its more like an evolution; revolution is speeding up this evolutionary period; it is neither the anarchist idea of abolishing the whole state immediately, nor the communist idea of taking over the whole state immediately. Over time we will organise alternatives to each part of the state run by the people, and when they succeed, that part of the state dissolves.
Why hasn’t the media coverage of the international volunteers reflected these politics?
The media chose not to show the volunteers with political views; many have classical left radical backgrounds, anarchists, Marxists, all types of undogmatic communists. Then in some cases they chose not show the political views of the volunteers. Jordan Matheson for example – they didn’t show his real politics. When he started criticising the American state, the American media, and their relationship with NATO ally Turkey sending the army into Bakur, they cut him off, and people think he’s just a Christian who came to kill Daesh. Others that were in the media didn’t represent these politics because they didn’t have them; and that’s one of the bases of YPG – we say if you have some important democratic human values then we can fight together against the enemy. Because of that there were left radicals, but also ecologists, feminists, liberals, even some kinds of pacifists, and these people are looking on the Rojava revolution in their own way, which differs from the true nature of YPG, but we want that difference – we don’t want to control what people think about us or what they say about us; so the media was able chose who to represent, and they chose the least dangerous to their agenda. Tamam – fine. We don’t want to control this; we believe in ourselves, in our ideology, and that people will understand us, the truth about us, when they know us. However we do want to teach volunteers more than we have before, so from now there is at least a month’s training, of Kurdish language, history and culture, as well as political and ideological classes, the structure of YPG and Rojava. There is a special training too from the women’s movement about their ideology and organisations.
Surely though, you would like to lay some of the rumours to rest and answer some of the critics? Is Rojava ‘a PKK dictatorship’?
Somebody who really wants to understand what is going on in Rojava can do this by following what the actual institutions say, and not believing every shit storm that is coming over, because of course there are many people that are trying to discredit us. Rojava is for sure not a PKK dictatorship – that’s something anyone can see quickly when they come to Rojava – there are so many contradictions in the revolution its clearly not a dictatorship of any kind. There is no connection with the PKK; Ocalan is our philosophical and ideological leader, but there is no PKK here, no offices or forces. They are PKK and we are YPG. Then there are the far left claims which are as bad as the critical rumours, like that we don’t have a police force – of course we have a police force, how else would it be possible to defend the security and defend the necessary order in society without a police force? But as well as our first police force the Asayish, there is the HPC, Society Defence Force – they are civilians, your mother, my sister – getting trained in conflict resolution for problems that happen in their community, feuds, domestic problems, but not in the style of ‘law and order’ and punishment and all that stuff. They try to solve problems, not to create new ones by punishing people and sending them to jail. But there are jails of course too, for crimes against society. And people would know this if they looked, it’s not a secret – but there is a little bit of fantasy as soon as people come across the language we use and our ideals.
Last month American soldiers were filmed wearing YPG insignia. This upset Turkey but also lots of the left of the world too, who consider America responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, which many argue lead to the creation of ISIS. What is your relationship with America?
“If you follow the official statements of the different institutions here, the main party PYD, Tev-Dem, the women’s movement, then you can see that everybody in Rojava clearly understands the interests of America in Syria, we all know what he US wants and what it doesn’t want, and their responsibility for groups like ISIS and Al Nusra. It is more than they destroyed Iraq and so forth, they took a role in directly creating them, then they lost control of them, and now they have to fix the problem they created. So naturally they want our help. Our relationship to them is again open and official, not a secret – it is tactical, not strategic. They want to use us and we try to get the best out of it. We have to, we have lot of enemies and we have to defend ourselves. It is a practical and political necessity to find our place in the balance of so many big players around us, because everyone has interests in Syria, so we try to defend the interests of the people. And that’s not possible when you just say ‘No, no, no!’ and start conflicts with all enemies at once.
Their main regional allies are of course Turkey, Barzani’s Peshmerga forces, and still parts of the FSA who they are training with the British Army in Lebanon. Turkey is attacking Kurds here, in Bakur and clearly aiding ISIS, and the Peshmerga are badly trained and motivated, whilst the YPG has been the most effective force against ISIS on the ground, so America has to be seen to be helping us as well. In fact we forced them, though building up a strong military position, to cooperate with us. That gives us the possibility to make the position of this revolution stronger and that’s something that we need. Revolution is nothing that you can defend by talking about it, you have to give something to the people, you have to protect them, you have to give food to them, you have to give infrastructure to them, and if you are isolating yourself completely from everyone else, you can’t do that.
America would like to have us as a main ally, but they know that is not possible; militarily we are cooperating at times, but ideologically we are enemies. America is the avant-garde force of the capitalist system, and we are the avant-garde force of the alternative. Maybe not today maybe not tomorrow but one day in the future this will come to a head.”
The discontinued Lions of Rojava initiative presented a very male image of international volunteers; would you like to see more women?
“Right now the fact is there are not so many women volunteers but that is something we will change. Now we are working on building up structures specifically for women volunteers, and we believe that in the future, the numbers will increase. I personally believe that, let’s say in a month, let’s say in a year, the number of women coming to Rojava will be bigger than the number of men. The main force of this revolution is the women’s movement and their ideology; so more women have to come, have to see it, and take part in their own emancipation.
The same is true of our cooperative and ecological economy, which is still in its infancy; the structures needed require people to organise and run them, and we are fighting a very heavy war, and sometimes we don’t have enough people for everything we want to achieve. But there is one way to help out – which is coming to Rojava yourself and helping us build these structures. You can criticise the Rojava revolution, and we will listen to you, but if you want to make it a constructive criticism, come here, and show the value of your criticisms under the circumstances of practice – we are waiting for you”.
Classes have broken up for lunch, and as we wander into the kitchen a huge Croatian ex-soldier is discussing the collective cooking with a group of Germans, patiently, as they are practising the Kurdish they have just learned. An Irish volunteer announces a truck has arrived with the first fresh vegetables they have had in a week, and the volunteers enthusiastically form a chain to the storeroom. Soon another truck will arrive that will take them to their battalions, and from there to the front line of the war. After that another truck will bring more volunteers.