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30th Apr 2018

How the Kurds are being written out of history once again

Britain carved its chunk of the Middle East at the end of the first world war, meet the Britons trying to redraw the lines

Oli Dugmore

An ethnic group of 50 million stateless people live in the Middle East.

Split across Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the Kurds have fought countless battles for their lands. The areas, spanning these four different countries, are known in Kurdish as Rojava, Bashur, Rojhelat, and Bakur.

The Kurds were left with no nation of their own by Britain and France in 1916, as the first world war’s victors pre-emptively divvied up Middle Eastern lands. Since then the Kurds have been fighting in all four parts of the land they feel is Kurdistan. Nations have concurrently tried to terminate Kurdish autonomy through ethnic cleansing; be it banning their language, stripping their citizenship or even conducting the largest ever chemical weapons attack on a civilian population, as Saddam Hussein did in the Kurdish city of Halabja in Iraq in 1988.

When the Islamic State conquered parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, with their militant hard-line fascist interpretation of Islam, the Kurdish militia forces of Northern Syria (Rojava to the Kurds) saw an opportunity and stepped up to fight them. Promoting secular values and democratic autonomy against fundamentalism and murderous extremism, these forces, known as the People’s Protection Units (the YPG), began accepting international volunteers from around the world to join their fight.


A member of armed group Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a youth division of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, secures a neighborhood in southeastern Turkish city of Nusaybin on February 29, 2016. Since mid-December, the Turkish security forces placed to several predominantly Kurdish cities in Turkey under 24-hour martial law and curfew on the premise of restoring public order. (Photo by Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images)

Macer Gifford answered the call in 2015. At the time he was a wealthy Tory who worked in finance. Macer gave it all up—the money, the security, the safety of the UK—to take up arms in the Middle East.

I grew up in Cambridgeshire, I went to university and studied politics and international relations at Loughborough,” he explains. “I loved the activism of politics. I was a member of the Conservative Party. I quickly got bored of that and almost fell into the finance industry.”

Macer was 27-years-old when ISIS began taking control of large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. He was disgusted [changed the word because you have appalled again in next graph] by what he saw as a lack of response from the West, whose involvement was limited to air strikes and the deployment of special forces. He felt something radical needed to be done.

“I was just completely shocked and appalled at the sudden growth… the barbarity of the organisation [ISIS] and everything they were doing out in Syria. Even more so by the lack of a reaction from the British government and the Americans.”

Around this time the Kurds were starting to appeal for international volunteers to fight alongside them. Macer made contact through a group, called Lions of Rojava, that was recruiting on Facebook, and left to join the fight. He was going to steady, in a relationship, looking to buy a house.

“Some volunteers go because they just want to fight ISIS. They don’t really care about the democratic revolution that’s going on on the ground. All they heard was ‘You can go over and fight ISIS? Fuck ISIS, I hate ISIS I’m going to go and fight ISIS.

“Whereas others are much more politically driven and they want to go out, fearful of fighting ISIS, feeling like they have to do it because this is actually a genuinely progressive revolution right in the Middle East that they feel they can relate to, and want to nurture and support and even fight for.

A Kurdish man flashes a v-sign as he holdsup a flag with a picture of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan during Newroz celebrations, on March 21, 2015 in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Thousands of Kurds gather for the Newroz spring festival in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey under tight security after months of fighting between security forces and Kurdish separatists, and a series of bombings in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Ulas Tosun/Getty Images)

The “democratic revolution” Macer mentions is a political system fathered by Abdullah Öcalan known as apoism, or democratic confederalism. Its etymology comes from his affectionate Kurdish moniker – apo – meaning ‘uncle’ in English.

Based on the Communalist philosophies of Murray Bookchin, Öcalan’s theory of democratic confederalism teaches autonomous libertarian anarchism with a left-wing approach. Ecology, female rights and unity are the basis for revolution. Its primary tenet is a political administration that functions without a nation state.

Kurds that support the PKK view Öcalan as their ideological leader. He is a founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, otherwise known as the PKK. The PKK is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK and US because of its role fighting an insurgency against Turkey. The group took up arms in aid of creating an independent Kurdish state, but have since limited to their demands to equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.

With the help of the CIA, a Turkish intelligence agency arrested Öcalan in 1999 and sentenced him to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after Turkey abolished the death penalty, as part of its bid to join the European Union. For the last 19 years he has been held in solitary confinement on the prison island of İmralı, a Turkish equivalent to Alcatraz, in the Sea of Marmara.

“I’ve always been on the left of the Conservative party,” Macer says. “I don’t know how to define myself exactly but, my grandfather was a trade unionist. I’m a supporter of the trade unionist movement and I want to abolish the House of Lords, I want to nationalise the railways.”

He went to Syria three times and fought in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa for six months until it was liberated by a coalition of YPG and other militia forces. Macer said it was the “symbolic end of ISIS” and that the extremists “were completely imploding until the Turkish invasion of Afrin – that helped rejuvenate them.”

AK-47's of armed group Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a youth division of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, stand under jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan's pictures in a house in southeastern Turkish city of Nusaybin on February 25, 2016, Turkey. Since mid-December, the Turkish security forces placed to several predominantly Kurdish cities in Turkey under 24-hour martial law and curfew on the premise of restoring public order. (Photo by Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images)

Afrin used to be a Kurdish city in Northern Syria. In January 2018, Turkish forces invaded under the pretence of attacking the Islamic State, despite the jihadist group having no tangible presence in the region or even nearby. On March 18, after some intense battles, the YPG withdrew and the city centre was under Turkish control. Turkey has been accused of war crimes that include using chemical weapons, indiscriminately shelling civilians and shooting them as they flee the fighting.

On March 30 a suspected jihadist killed an SAS sniper and an American special forces soldier, who were part of an operation to “kill or capture a known ISIS member,” after detonating an improvised explosive device in the nearby town of Manbij. Since the invasion there has been a flood of video evidence showing the Turkish backed fighters looting civilian houses in Afrin.

Before Raqqa, though, Macer was stationed on the frontline outside Kobane, a city with symbolic importance in Northern Syria after Kurdish forces liberated it (with the help of Western airstrikes) from ISIS control when it was completely surrounded in 2014: “It wasn’t much of a frontline. ISIS were like two miles away, I couldn’t even see them. There were no mortars, there’s no bullets whistling overhead or anything like that. It was just a case of weeks and weeks of boredom, of hanging around.”


The situation sounds monotonously similar to that described by Alexander Norton, another volunteer, when I asked him if he had seen combat in the YPG. “Yeah, again it’s nothing too thrilling. I really want to stress this.”

“There are people who have seen people die – and of course eight British people have been killed.”

Anna Campbell is the latest Briton to be added to the list. She was fighting in an all-female Kurdish militia outside of Afrin in March 2018 and is believed to have been the victim of a Turkish airstrike. The first British woman to be killed, seven men have also died.

Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG's women fighters pose as they stand in a check point with their AK-47 at the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, Syria. June 20, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Kobane and strategic city of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

“I have been on duty when a suicide bomb truck got driven into the village we were in. I’ve heard ‘sniper!’ and hit the ground,” Alexander continues. “I’ve been on duty when airstrikes have been going. I fired in the dark, at night, during what might have been firefights, I can’t even say for sure they were.

“I never looked someone in the eyes and pulled the trigger. I saw plenty of people injured, but I wasn’t standing next to someone who got hit by a bullet. And I think that’s an important thing to stress. Because all of the people, seem to ask those questions of volunteers, as if you’ve gone out there to play a round of paintball or Call of Duty.”

Still, he was illegally crossing the Turkish border along the same smuggler’s routes used by ISIS. He boasts: “We definitely saw more than your average British military guy, who could do 30 years and go nowhere near something as hot as this

“I’ve lost quite a lot of hearing from firing my own rifle. I’d get to three days later and be like ‘comrades, I still can’t hear fuck all.’ Then you watch TV, of course, everyone is wearing ear protection.”

Alexander was attracted to the Kurds because of his membership of the RMT, a British trade union courtesy of a job as a railwayman. The RMT had sent volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War and he wanted to “uphold the conventions of working class solidarity and internationalism, within the socialist tradition.”

A wounded Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG fighters rests at downtown of Tal Abyad, Syria. June 19, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Rojava, the whole region of Northern Syria controlled by the YPG, was in a state of revolution after the group liberated Kobane. Alexander liked their “modern socialist take on feminism, ecology and direct democracy.”

“On the ground there’s much more emphasis on the ideas of direct democracy, having an ecological society, seeing yourself not as custodians of the planet but part of the planet. I wouldn’t say the communes in Rojava are any different to the soviets in early Russia.”

He joined.

“You’re a part of the YPG and the people on the street will look up to you. You’re considered a political soldier, full-time. You were there at the use of the revolution, so I was on the frontlines for some time, and that doesn’t mean the bullets were flying constantly.”

Rojava already has an army, it already has a police force – but it’s the ideas that the now 31-year-old was drawn to. “Their feminism is absolutely incredible and really key to the amount of attraction to this movement. I’ve never seen such liberated, confident women in politics.

“There was such an expectation that you would respect them, that they spoke with such confidence and acted with such confidence. It was almost intoxicating difference to being in the west. It was beautiful.

“Syria is the first place this Kurdish revolutionary movement has had a chance to demonstrate what its values are and what society would look like under them.”


Another fighter in a more conceptual sense is Kae Kurd, a half-British, half-Kurdish comedian. He also talks me to me about the damaging impact of the Turkish invasion of Afrin. “What you had there was a structure that had 50 per cent women on the councils and it’s now, after the Turkish army were allowed to waltz in, it’s just a conglomerate of men.

“What the YPG have is a lot more socialist and it’s a lot more about women’s and LGBT rights than any other political party. Some of the policies they have, like having male and female co-chairs for every political position, is a lot more progressive than what we have in the West.

“They have a lot of direct democracy, each canton can dictate government policy in their own area, there’s a lot more devolution of powers that we could learn a lot from.”

Kae’s parents were part of the Kurdish resistance under Saddam Hussein. His dad was a Peshmerga fighter, a Kurdish group with a history of conflict against the Iraqi state going back to 1914, who was targeted by mustard gas poisoning, leaving him with a disability. So, because the British government was taking refugees, six-month-old Kae arrived in October 1990 at Gatwick airport, a little baby in his mother’s arms. He moved to Brixton and has lived there ever since.

He put on a show at the Edinburgh festival called Kurd Your Enthusiasm. “It was biographical, in a sense. It was introducing ‘Kurds’ as a concept to people.

“People have no fucking clue what the fuck a Kurd is, a lot of the time. Sort of putting a face to a name. A lot of my comedy is observations about society, sometimes quite political, just by nature of being Kurdish. But it’s funny, that’s the best way I can describe. It’s not some prick getting on stage with a bag of tricks, it’s not me coming out with a wig.”

But he struggles to think of an independent Kurdistan ever formulating, “it seems more like a dream than anything that will actually happen.”

“I would love it, I’d love for there to be an independent Kurdistan.

“Obviously the creation of those states in the Middle East too, look at all the countries, they’re relatively new and started after the first world war, in the Sykes-Picot agreement between to split the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France.

“For a Kurdish country to come to fruition, you’re going to have to have something really ground breaking to happen there. Like World War Three. You’d need massive destruction. I can’t see it happening there politically.”

The blame for scuppering dreams of independence gets squared firmly with Masoud Barzani, a Kurdish politician and President of Iraqi Kurdistan region from 2005 to 2017. He called an ill-fated, and unsanctioned by the Iraqi government, independence referendum in September 2017. It returned a result 93 per cent in favour of splitting from the central government.

“Obviously at the time I voted yes, I wasn’t going to be on the wrong side of history. Fuck that bruv. We were basically a state within a state in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

“Generally there were very few terrorist attacks, in comparison to neighbouring countries, and you had two international airports.”

After the independence referendum the Kurdish region in Iraq lost large swathes of its lands, including Kirkuk and its oilfields, triggering an economic crisis.

“I was under the impression that Barzani got some sort of guarantee that he would come up with an economic plan. But what transpired was nothing, they had no idea of what was going on.

“We’re just going to ask for independence and see what’s going on? That’s ludicrous. We were in a better situation beforehand, I think we should’ve bided our time and waited a little bit longer.

It was handled really, really badly.”


Macer Gifford reads from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the Sykes-Picot agreement and Barzani’s failed political grandstanding.

He says “It’s upsetting and frustrating, because the Kurds did it to themselves. It’s a shame because they’ve got so many enemies, they don’t need to hurt themselves. Barzani’s utter failure and appalling, ridiculous decision to go for independence at that time, even though he was warned not to.

“I generally think that he’s responsible, he has setback the Kurdish independence movement, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan by about fifty years, possibly more. Perhaps never, because of him.

He calls the move a “selfish political decision” but elaborates, “the Kurds in south Kurdistan haven’t proven to the world they even deserve independence. Their whole system is based on corruption and divvying up oil wealth.

“They’ve got plenty of politicians but no statesman.”

I suggest Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian political leader who shook hands with his Israeli counterpart in front of the White House, as the kind of man needed. Macer counters, “Exactly yeah, or even just a George Washington type.

“What they need is unity, the Kurds are the most divided people I’ve ever met. And they know it. It upsets them and they don’t like talking about it.

“Kurdistan has about fifty million people, they’re the largest ethnic group without their own state and it is a historic injustice that they don’t have their own state, their own sovereignty and their own self-determination.”

By this point, he’s on a roll, eulogising the PKK.

Family members and comrades attend the funeral of eight members of the People's Protection Units (YPG), that were buried in a martyrs' cemetery on November 8, 2015 in Derek, Rojava, Syria. Seven of the eight were killed in an ISIL car bomb attack during an ongoing YPG offensive near Hassaka. The predominantly Kurdish region of Rojava in northeast Syria has become a bulwark against the Islamic State. Their armed forces, with the aid of U.S. airstrikes and weapons, have been battling ISIL, pushing them south towards the extremists' stronghold of Raqqa. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

“They have been horribly oppressed for hundreds, if not a thousands, of years. By various empires and more recently, post-Sykes-Picot you’ve got the Turkification of Kurdistan.

“They weren’t even called Kurds. The Kurdish language was banned, you couldn’t name your children Kurdish names, you were considered a mountain Turk. The Kurds didn’t even exist. And there are the appalling abuses of land seizures and forcing people out of villages, burning villages down, the murder of people and the arresting of thousands and thousands of people. It helped create the PKK really.”

“It’s a shame and, in my book, I don’t think they are. They have abandoned communism and adopted democratic confederalism.”

“I think it’s a poor classification because it means that Kurds can’t express themselves properly, there are millions of Kurds that live in Europe and America and Australia and they can’t put pictures of their flags and of their political leaders online because they’ve been listed as terrorists.

“The level of support that the PKK has is huge amongst Kurds. It’s almost universal. Go to the Kurdish communities in London, you’ll see people wearing PKK t-shirts, wearing PKK badges. It’s part of their culture, their culture of resisting Turkey, establishing and fighting for their identity.

“They have a saying which is ‘no friends but the mountains,’ because that’s where they flee to. When the Turks were burning their villages, they fled to the mountains. That’s where the PKK got its strongest support. It’s the only place where the Turkish tanks and the Turkish aircraft couldn’t reach really.”

On March 19 of this year, a day after Turkey’s capture of Afrin, I was drinking with a colleague in Westminster. From the smoking area of the pub you could see a group of protestors, allocated space behind dollies opposite Downing Street. They had banners emblazoned ‘Afrin’ and megaphones blaring. It must’ve been gone 10 o’clock.

The Kurds were screaming fury as tired politicos and confused tourists muddled by. Caring not to notice or catch an indignant eye. Another injustice against 50 million stateless people. Add it to the uncounted pile.

It might be time we started paying attention.