Sarah Glynn: Meet the working class hero Turkey is trying to rip away from the Kurds

Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan member Sarah Glynn explores the symbolism behind the fall of a statue in northern Syria last week

WHEN, last Sunday, the Turkish invaders wanted to stamp their presence on the predominantly Kurdish city of Afrîn in northern Syria, one of the first things that they did was pull down a statue. 

Toppling statues is a standard act for those who want to proclaim a change of regime, but the Afrîn statue was no politician or head of state. The figure the people of Afrîn chose to preside over their city and region is that of a mythic blacksmith named Kawa. 

The story of Kawa has many different versions, but the essential narrative is the triumph of the ordinary people, led by the blacksmith, over the oppressive ruler who had conquered their land. Legend has it that the king was so evil that spring never arrived, and serpents grew out of his shoulders that demanded to be fed the brains of children.

The story of Kawa has many different versions, but the essential narrative is the triumph of the ordinary people, led by the blacksmith, over the oppressive ruler who had conquered their land.

The people devised a plan to save the children by substituting the brains of sheep. Kawa, who had already lost most of his children to the serpents, took the saved children into the mountains and trained them into an army. Led by Kawa they attacked the palace and the king fell to the blacksmith’s hammer. The next day spring returned to the land.

The story of Kawa has come to symbolise Kurdish history and Kurdish resistance. It is especially associated with Newroz, the festival that marks the beginning of spring, which is celebrated on the March equinox. The celebration of Newroz has taken a central place in the preservation of Kurdish culture and identity, and the timing of the fall of Afrîn, just a few days before Newroz, added a further bitter twist.

This mythical triumph of an ordinary man has acquired even greater resonance for the Kurds of Turkey and Syria, who, in their struggle against oppressive regimes, follow the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan. For Öcalan, the struggle for Kurdish nationalism became first a Marxist-Leninist struggle for independence, and then, from the late 1990s, a new kind of struggle for an autonomous bottom-up democracy that he called "democratic confederalism". 

Many of these ideas were being put into place in the local governments of the Kurdish majority areas in south-east Turkey until they were quite literally crushed by President Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government. And in Syria, when the recent civil war left a power vacuum in the Kurdish-dominated north, the Syrian Kurds took the opportunity to take control and establish new grassroots democracies. 

This has enabled the emergence of a system where community and social needs take precedence over commercial profit. At first the autonomous area was limited to the three, predominantly Kurdish, cantons of Afrîn, Kobanî and Cizîre, which became living examples of that system; but as the Kurdish defence forces (YPG/YPJ) and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces fought to oust Isis, the liberated territories became part of a wider and more multi-ethnic Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The Kurds saw this as a potential model for the whole of Syria and beyond.

The story of Kawa has come to symbolise Kurdish history and Kurdish resistance. It is especially associated with Newroz, the festival that marks the beginning of spring, which is celebrated on the March equinox.

While Western commentators like to portray the Middle East as a place of unbridgeable ethnic and religious division, Afrîn had shown that, with the right political will, different ethnicities could not only live in harmony but also take a shared part in running community life. 

This was all the more remarkable since an influx of displaced people from other parts of war-torn Syria had almost doubled the original population. While our politicians and press have shed crocodile tears over the fate of the Middle-Eastern woman, the women of Afrîn have taken a full part in running their lives. 

And while we have poured our despair at our inability to have any impact on government into a thousand Facebook posts, the people of Afrîn have taken charge of their own lives, establishing a living system of practical democracy that we could all learn from. Of course Afrîn wasn’t perfect. It was still a work in progress, but all that has been destroyed by Turkey.

The Turkish attack is an unprovoked invasion into Syria. It is fronted by jihadi militias whose members have fought for al Qaeda and Isis, and it has drawn the Kurdish YPG/YPJ away from the battle against Isis that is still going on further east. But despite all of this, the different international powers that are battling for influence in the chaos of the Middle East have not deemed it in their own strategic interest to intervene. 

Western governments don’t want to provoke Turkey into leaving Nato, and the EU relies on Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe; and Russia is enjoying the tensions between Nato allies. The Kurds have no air force, so Turkey’s territorial gains depended on both the US and Russia agreeing not to stop the invading Turkish planes.

The celebration of Newroz has taken a central place in the preservation of Kurdish culture and identity, and the timing of the fall of Afrîn, just a few days before Newroz, added a further bitter twist.

And everyone seems happy to sell Turkey weapons. They have bombs and missiles and planes from the USA, tanks from Germany, fighter jets from the UK; and they have recently made a deal to buy missiles from Russia. The UK Government parrots Turkish propaganda, while UK-made weapons are used to destroy a peaceful, secular democracy. 

International organisations have proved to be toothless or hypocritical or both. Crucially, none of those who are in power in Washington and Moscow and the capitals of Europe want to help a system that challenges the logic of capitalism. And, while we don’t have the political censorship suffered by the people of Turkey, our mainstream media has shown itself reluctant to report on this dangerously inspiring democratic experiment.

Once again, we see the truth of the Kurdish saying that they have "no friends but the mountains". As the defenders of Afrîn make a tactical retreat to Kawa’s hills, Turkey is already moving on to attack villages in the canton of Kobanî. If spring is not to be extinguished once more, then ordinary people everywhere will have to combine to bring the world to its senses.

This year the equinox fell on 20 March. Scottish Kurds will hold their celebration in Edinburgh on Sunday 25 March.

Picture courtesy of Sarah Glynn

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