Middle Eastern power plays and the People's Spring
One place in the Middle East has managed to hold on to the revolutionary promise of the People's Spring. Rojava succumbed neither to the regime nor to the fundamentalists.
In the end of March a coalition of several Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia started a joint attack against the brigand militias ravaging the Middle East. Saudi warplanes have been bombing enemy positions and strategic locations for 12 days now, while Egyptian ships are patrolling the waters to prevent weapons from entering the region and coalition troops are preparing for a ground invasion.
That sounds great – were it not for the fact that the militias are not Daesh, but Shia Houthi rebels, and the country being bombed is Yemen. At least 570 people have been killed in the airstrikes, most of them civilians. Tens of thousands are fleeing from the fighting.
The question arises why the Arab nations are able to muster such unity in the face of a Shia takeover in a traditionally Sunni-ruled country, when at the same time the Islamic State's rapid advance through the Fertile Crescent is met with hardly any reaction from those states which Daesh propaganda names as targets in the near future.
The power dynamics of North Africa and the Middle East in post-colonial times have been shaped by totalitarianism, Arab nationalism and huge army apparatuses that were the only organized forces at the end of colonial rule and many a time perpetrators as well as benefactors of the new national independence. The establishment of states with maximum control over economy, extensive secret police and a ruling class closely intertwined with the armed forces became a basis for the new dynamic shaping Middle Eastern society. Just as influential, if less successful in grabbing power, was the rising fundamentalist ideology. Both of these paradigms were already present in colonial times and continue to be the most powerful forces of the region's hegemony. Due to economic decline, the rigid persecution of progressive ideas and the more subtle destruction of organizations upholding them by incorporation into opportunist schemes the fundamentalist notion has gained massive control over Arab society.
New forces have appeared, though. The ripples that the People's Spring sent through Middle Eastern society have been interpreted in many ways, while focus on this movement's original nature has largely been missing. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and other Muslim countries have seen substantial changes in the status quo of power for at least some time during the uprisings. Most international actors (including media networks) pictured the “Arab Spring” as a movement away from the outdated military dictatorships and toward a form of Western-style parliamentary republic. If we look closely however, it becomes apparent that this notion was largely pushed by the Western political players having great stakes in the power plays taking place, and was not necessarily upheld by those who set the uprisings in motion. In most of the mentioned countries they were revolutionary youths believing in radical system change and ready to risk their lives for it.
The domestic forces taking part can be described as aligned in three mayor groups: The military regime, the islamist movements, and the revolutionaries. The third group had the most universal and inspiring ideological basis, which is why it was able to mobilize the critical mass under fear of severe repercussions. It lacked however organization, political experience and international support and therefore was easily outplayed by the established powers. Today nearly everone of the young activists that started the Egyptian January 25 revolution is either dead or in prison.
One place in the Middle East has managed to hold on to the revolutionary promise of the People's Spring though. The Kurdish territories of Afrin, Cizire and Kobane in northern Syria, collectively referred to as Rojava, succumbed neither to the regime nor to the fundamentalists. What went differently? Apart from the unique geographical and social situation the most important factor is without a doubt organization. For decades the Kurds of Rojava have been comparatively political, after the Qamishlo massacre of 2004 they organized in new and more extensive forms. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 there already existed a well-stuctured movement with a practical approach to the remaking of society. The people of Rojava, who identify as Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens and many other, are therefore the only remaining actively present force of the revolutionary paradigma in Syria, and in the wider Middle East for that matter.
The rise of Daesh in this context can be seen as the expression of the demand for radical revolutionary change under the supremacy of the fundamentalist line of thought. It confronts the world with a way more advanced form of conservative radicalism that previous islamic revolutions did. The fact that the Arab states are busy bombing Shia tribesmen in Yemen instead of acting against the growing threat of Daesh shows how close its concept is to the realities of Middle Eastern power structures.
We must accept that there is a sizeable and growing number of Daesh-symphathizers across the Muslim world. It is however even more important to remember the millions of people from Tunis to Teheran who in the years of the People's Spring rose up as revolutionaries, ready to give their lives for abolishing the system, and many of them doing so. Their response was so huge, so unexpected, because the call for a new, free and equal society resonated with them like nothing else. Their force has since been abused by various international powers, capitalist as well as islamist ones, and become corrupted in places. It is however just as existent as in the first days, if altogether less visible.
In Syria the rebel forces have steadily degenerated since the beginning of the civil war, most of them having been absorbed by islamist factions. Around Aleppo some have joined the YPG, as it remains the only fighting force to uphold the ideals of the revolution. The threat of Daesh and the horrible years of war have brought many Syrians to rally behind Assad again.
This unity will however not be long-lived. The fire of the revolution is still silently burning beneath the rubble, and when the unifying common enemy in the form of Daesh disappears and Assad tries to return to normality, these tensions will bring society to erupt again. Already now there is a vibrant exchange of ideas in the Aleppo region between Arab and Kurdish communities. It is now the duty of Rojava to make it known that the revolution has not died and that the new society already exists. The rips within Syrian society are far too deep to be mended by Assad. Just as hopeless are the outdated states of Egypt and Lybia, Yemen and Iraq. The time is ripe to continue what started on a Tunisian marketplace in 2010. All that is missing is knowledge.
*Salvador Zana is an internationalist revolutionary with roots in Europe and Africa. He is currently with YPG in Cizîre canton of Rojava.