The Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) united much of the Arab World for centuries. In the 19th century, however, it began to decline, and the imperial powers of Europe tried to ensure their own political influence in the region. The UK, for example, occupied Egypt in 1882 to ‘protect its interests’ in the Suez Canal.
When the empire finally collapsed, following the end of the First World War, the UK and France had already agreed to divide the old Ottoman territories between themselves. Russia was going to participate in this carving up of the Middle East but, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the country renounced its imperialist claims in the region. This arbitrary imperialist division of territory was the root cause of many of the conflicts we see today in the Middle East. In particular, the Kurdish community was left without a country, with its land being shared out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – under whose governments the Kurds would be marginalised, excluded, and repressed for decades.
The UK, in its search for allies during the First World War, had promised both a united nation for the Arabs and a nation for Jewish Zionists – promises that were clearly contradictory. It tried to install monarchies throughout the region to protect its interests, and allowed thousands of Zionists into Palestine to help ‘westernise’ the Middle East and divide the Arab population. These actions logically saw significant opposition from the local populations.
One of the monarchies supported almost from the beginning by the UK was that of the Al-Saud dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula. In the 18th century, the founder of ‘Wahhabism’ (a violently puritan and discriminatory current of Sunni Islam) had formed an alliance with the Al-Saud tribe, which saw the strict ideology as a means of assuring its own political domination in Arabia. Their brutally extremist coalition was soon suppressed by the Ottomans, but would re-emerge after the fall of their empire. This time, however, it would be more successful, thanks to its commitment to more ‘stately’ means of spreading its marginalised school of thought. As a result of this change, the Saudi monarchy managed to attract the support of the UK early on.
Although Wahhabism dominated Saudi Arabia, it would only spread further afield after the discovery of oil in 1938. After the Second World War, the USA stepped in as the colonial master of the region, and helped to transform the Saudi kingdom into an important regional power, exchanging weapons and money for unrestricted access to Saudi oil, and Wahhabism quickly spread in Muslim nations as a result of Saudi Arabia’s new-found oil wealth. Today, the country invests hundreds of millions of dollars into schools, mosques, newspapers, and Wahhabist groups throughout the world.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there were a number of movements in the Arab World offering resistance to the domination of European imperialists. In Egypt, an inclusive but authoritarian form of Arab nationalism grew in strength under the wing of the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser after a 1952 military uprising against the monarchy. In Iraq, meanwhile, nationalism was also powerful but, when one nationalist (Qasim) got too close to the Soviet Union, the CIA funded a coup in 1963 (involving Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party) to overthrow him. The Ba’ath Party, however, would not prove to be as reliable a puppet as the West had initially thought. In the same year, the Syrian Ba’ath Party was also involved in a coup, and would soon forge a close alliance with the USSR. In both Ba’athist countries, a military elite would dominate politics, repressing opposition groups and persecuting non-Arab ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, Turkey sought to recover some of the power it had lost after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, installing a secular nationalist regime which sought to assimilate minority groups into Turkish society. Those who resisted its chauvinist policies would soon suffer the consequences, but that did not stop the large Kurdish population from frequently resisting the regime’s policies. In 1973, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) was informally created, and it advocated Marxist-Leninist and anti-fascist policies. Along with other left-wing groups, it was repressed, and war forced it to begin a guerrilla war against the State in 1984. Between that year and 2010, around 45,000 people died, and up to 150,000 Kurds were ‘disappeared’ by the Turkish regime.
In 2005, the PKK adopted the idea of “democratic confederalism” (an ecological, libertarian socialist ideology that accepts being part of a confederation if individual communities are allowed to govern themselves). The KCK (Group of Communities in Kurdistan) was founded by PKK members in the same year, with the aim of encouraging learning, unity, and organisation in Kurdish communities in Turkey, along with equality and freedom for all ethnic and religious groups in the region.
As this change occurred in the PKK, Iraq’s Kurdish community seized the opportunity (after the Western invasion against Saddam Hussein) to gain more autonomy from the Iraqi central government. But at the same time, Wahhabist extremism was on the rise, as Hussein’s supporters fought against the occupying forces and the new Shiite government excluded non-Shiite ethnic and religious groups from the political process.
With the Tunisian Revolution inspiring 2011’s ‘Arab Spring’, Western imperialists, hoping to look away as security forces repressed protesters, suffered the loss of friendly regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt. When protests grew in Libya and Syria, however, the West suddenly ‘stood with the people’, cynically taking advantage of the opportunity to overthrow unfriendly regimes that were neither reliable nor completely subservient to imperialist interests (NB: this does not mean to say Gaddafi and Assad did not lead repressive, parasitic regimes).
As a consequence of the NATO bombardment of Libya, extremist Wahhabist groups grew in strength. The organisation’s priority was always to get rid of Gaddafi, regardless of the instability and insecurity that would cause. Having succeeded in that aim, the West sought to do the same with Assad in Syria, though the case for intervention there was considered a lot weaker. Ethnic and religious tensions were indeed spilling over in Syria, and Assad’s security forces were guilty of a number of crimes against the Syrian people. The West, however, could not get the support needed for a full-blown military intervention, though it soon found other ways to interfere.
With the economic and military support of the USA, Saudi Arabia and Qatar began to train and arm their Wahhabist allies from Syria and elsewhere in the world to fight against Assad’s regime. At the same time, Turkey’s repressive Islamist government left its borders open to opposition groups, allowing a free flow of money and arms to anti-Assad rebels (as long as they weren’t Kurdish, of course). As a result of all this foreign interference, what had begun as popular protests in Syria soon turned into a violent civil war. And the influence of Wahhabist nations (which have long been close allies of Western imperialists) was always bound to encourage the domination of Wahhabist extremists in the fight against Assad. ISIS was one of these Wahhabist groups, even if it turned out to be more extreme than the West’s allies had expected it to be. It is a direct consequence of Western interference in Syria (and in Iraq in 2003).
ISIS can be stopped, but not by further Western intervention. Only unity between non-Wahhabists (which are the majority) will be able to stop it. One example of unity in Syria at the moment comes from the Syrian branch of the PKK, or the Party of Democratic Union (PYD). The PYD has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Syria to establish its own autonomous communities in Rojava (the Kurdish areas of northern Syria). In 2012, its armed militias – or Units of Popular Protection (YPG) – expelled government forces from the region and, in 2013, they had to expel Wahhabist extremists in Ras al-Ayn. This year, they have fought fierce battles against ISIS, sometimes collaborating with the Free Syrian Army or Iraqi Kurds to do so. Made up of both Rojavan women and men, the YPG consider themselves to be popular and democratic militias, holding internal elections to determine who should occupy key posts. Although the majority of their members are Kurds, there are also Arabs and Christian Syriacs who participate in the militias, seeing them as the best guarantee of regional security.
In August 2014, ISIS entered into Sinjar in Iraq, defeating the Iraqi Kurdish forces there and causing a mass exodus of residents (mostly from the Yazidi community). The YPG, however, along with the Popular Defence Forces of the PKK (the HPG), came to the rescue, helping thousands of Yazidis to escape to Rojava and Turkey.
At the moment, the YPG have not received any financial or military support from the outside world (partly due to the West’s alliance with NATO-member Turkey, but also due to the libertarian socialist principles practised by Rojava’s PYD). As a result, they have suffered significant losses at the hands of ISIS – which has vast resources at its disposal.
Whether the Rojavan experience survives the advances of ISIS or not, it will have shown the world that there is an alternative to the conflict, discrimination, and oppression in the region (and the world). For now, though, we must spread the word about Rojava and, if possible, offer its inhabitants support and solidarity. A better future is at stake, not just for Rojava, but for Syria, the Middle East, and the whole world.