The TATORT Kurdistan delegation reported on the embargo against Rojava during their visit in May 2014.
Although Rojava (in northern Syria) is a mosaic of languages and cultures, regional and international powers have isolated it both economically and politically—indeed, it is now entirely on its own. To the north, Turkey has walled the region off. To the east, South Kurdistan has lined its veritable ditch with military checkpoints. To the south, the radical Islamist combat units of ISIS and the Al Nusra Front have cut the region off from the rest of Syria.
This embargo is having severe consequences for the people of Rojava.
Taken by itself, Rojava is economically quite a wealthy place. It produces 60 percent of Syria’s wheat and oil, and it raises cotton for the Syrian market. Vis-à-vis Syria it had the status of a colony, in the sense of being a source of raw materials. Rojava doesn’t have processing industries. Thus it grows and harvests grains, but it doesn’t mill them. It doesn’t refine oil but shipped it at great expense to central Syria. That, at least, was the starting situation for Rojava.
The water supply for agriculture comes partly from deep wells, but after the jihadis took over the power stations in Raqqa, those pumps—and hence farming—were threatened. But Rojavans began to use diesel generators to produce power. First they had to develop the technology to generate diesel at all. Rojava’s first winter was very hard–snow fell for the first time in several years, and there was no heating oil. But today many small generators pollute the cities. Only a few of the large ones are available, and no more can be imported because of the embargo.
Turkey and the Embargo
Turkey and South Kurdistan (the Kurdish region of Iraq) work closely together to maintain the embargo against Rojava. They recognize that Rojavans are attempting, through a grassroots organization, to go beyond capitalist modernity and Western intervention. If the Rojava project should turn out to function, the political and social consequences will ripple throughout the Middle East. that would interfere with the strategy of the NATO states, so they support the embargo.
For years, Kurds have been constructing Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, even under Turkish occupation. The Turkish state has been trying to destroy this project by arresting thousands of activists and politicians en masse. By no means will Turkey tolerate Democratic Autonomy in Rojava, lying as it does just across the border, and inspired as it is by the PKK chief, Abdullah Öcalan. So Turkey supplies weapons to the radical Islamic Al Nusra Front, and it furnishes ISIS with a logistical hinterland. No, it’s only the grassroots democratic forces in Rojava that are subjected to embargo.
South Kurdistan and the Embargo
At first glance, the fact that South Kurdistan supports the embargo may seem strange. The head of state Barzani has repeatedly proclaimed that South Kurdistan is independent, but the region long ago became a quasi-colony. The South Kurdish government is financed by petrodollars, which it receives from the Iraqi central government and distributes among its minions. Yet South Kurdistan itself produces almost nothing—no agricultural products—even chickens are brought in from Brazil. So it is actually extremely dependent on other countries. Most of the manufactured goods and investment capital found there come from Turkey. The government is politically quite dependent on Ankara, and in relation to Rojava, it follows the policy that Ankara desires.
It would be sugarcoating, however, to present the Kurdish regional government as the sole actor in this respect. The KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) actually would like very much to control Rojava, especially the oil wells in Rimelan. But the Democratic Autonomy system, built by the Kurdish freedom movement, is an obstacle—so it must be destroyed by any means. Since the embargo alone doesn’t seem to be dong the job, militias of the KDP’s offshoot party in Syria, ENKS, have joined in on attacks mounted by Islamic gangs, like the massacres of Til Hasil and Til Haran in the summer of 2013.
The arrest of Bashir Abdulmecid Musa in May 2014 revealed an unexpected aspect to these attacks. Musa had attempted, along with an accomplice, to bomb an Arab house in Tirbespi. The bomb detonated too early, killing the accomplice, but Musa was not wounded and was arrested. He turned out to be a member of the KDP in Syria; he had been educated in South Kurdistan, he said. The goals of his group are to bomb both Arab buildings and the Rojavan self-government buildings, in order to provoke a conflict between Arabs and Kurds.
His wasn’t the only case. In February a car bomb detonated outside the offices of the women’s organization Yekitiya Star in downtown Derik. A father and child were killed. The explosion stirred panic in the city, at which point the KDP opened the borders to South Kurdistan, and many Derik residents fled there. It’s the goal of the KDP and its allies to try to drive people out of Rojava. Now South Kurdistan is preventing these very people from returning to Derik. As Berivan of Yekitiya Star explained to us, it tends to be the educated people, doctors, and engineers who leave Rojava, seeking better pay in South Kurdistan. So the well-off leave—and the poor stay behind. This aspect of the embargo has become a serious problem, since Rojava lacks specialists in every area. Solidarity help from the whole world is requested.
The Perils of Flight
But fleeing can often be dangerous too–refugees may be subject to attack. On May 15, at the Turkish border, Turkish soldiers shot a mother of two children who was on her way to Europe to meet her partner. Many other border crossers, smugglers, and refugees passing between Rojava and North Kurdistan/Turkey have met similar fates. Still, it cannot be said that the border is entirely closed. After all, jihadis go back and forth across it in order to resupply in Turkey, even under the watchful eyes Turkish soldiers.
As for refugees trying to cross into South Kurdistan, they may be attacked by peshmerga, either at the border or in the refugee camps. Such attacks can range from extortion to forced prostitution and sexualized violence. For refugees who are poor, South Kurdistan is not place where hopes may be fulfilled; instead, the reality of enclosed camps awaits them. It’s got so bad that the South Kurdish government is escalating, allowing attacks on the Kurdistan National Council (KNK) aid organization and the Kurdish news agency DIHA. These developments point to a worsening of the situation.
Representatives of the youth organization Ciwanen Soresger explained to us that young people especially are casting longing looks at the consumer societies of South Kurdistan and Europe. Often several of their family members may be living in European countries. The revolutionary youth are trying to counteract their desire to flee, by means of education. Still, among the small contingent of refugees in Europe, most aren’t people fleeing the strongly contested areas like Homs or Hama but rather people from relatively safe Rojava; consciously or not, they are acting in accordance with the Turkish wish to depopulate Rojava and thereby rid itself of the Kurdish question.
Consequences of the Embargo
The embargo has had many effects on Rojavan society. Most dramatic is the fact that for all its wealth in wheat and oil, Rojava can’t sell its products. Farmers are reduced to sitting on their wheat and cotton. The transitional government has no money to pay them wages, or to satisfy the needs of both ordinary people and the refugees. Machinery and medicines are urgently needed but can’t be obtained.
While the dearth of medicines and baby formula [Folgemilch] is raising infant mortality, general medical supplies are also scarce, and the price of imported goods, including foodstuffs, is skyrocketing. Medicines sold on the black market are unaffordable. As far as possible, the councils set with price controls, but they can’t affect the price of medications on the black market. The Turkish border sometimes allows medications through, but the aid organization Heyva Sor reports that in mid-2013 at the North Kurdistan-Syrian border, an ambulance coming from Germany was detained. Heyva Sor also reports that the South Kurdistan border is entirely closed to humanitarian aid.
In mid-May the border crossing at Til Kocer, leading into central Iraq, was shut down. So now the embargo is almost complete. Heyva Sor is trying to cover Rojava’s needs, but it’s hardly in a financial condition to meet the needs of refugees from other parts of Syria. Institutions like Doctors Without Borders can buy medications in Qamislo, which are imported by plane from Damascus. But at the moment relief transports are halted, so medicines rot at the border. At this point donations would be helpful.
Rojava is, for all intents and purposes, disconnected from the world market, but the consequences are not wholly negative. Because of the embargo, cooperatives have had a chance to organize the regional production of clothing and foodstuffs and establish themselves. The need for Rojavans to come together and organize daily life has impelled the construction of the council system. Thus the embargo has been both a blessing and a curse. At the end of the day, however, the lack of machinery and much else necessary for the construction of a functioning economy means that everything must be done to end the embargo as soon as possible.
Campaign TATORT Kurdistan Delegation, May 20, 2014.
This article originally appeared in German here. Translated by Janet Biehl.
If you would like to make a donation to help Rojava under the embargo, or for relief of Kobane or Shingal, please visit the page of the group mentioned in this article, Heyva Sor.