“The Kurds have no friends but the mountains” — that’s what Mehmet Aksoy used to say. But Mehmet, who was killed Sept. 26 during an attack by the Islamic State in northern Syria, was my friend, and a tireless advocate of the Kurdish freedom movement.
He was working on an essay that began with those words when he died. He often used that adage to explain the plight of his people, who have long been used or mistreated by the very powers that claim to spread democracy and freedom through the world.
I first met Mehmet at a Kurdish demonstration in London, where he lived. I had come because of my interest in direct democratic movements like the one the Syrian Kurds were building, but ended up feeling as if I was lurking, out of place at the fringe of the gathering, until he walked up and introduced himself. I came to know him as I’ve now heard many in the community did, as kind and unassuming but somehow larger than life, always juggling a dozen projects, films, essays, events and political actions.
Now I think it’s important to tell people about his last project, his writing on the conflict in Kurdistan, so that more of us understand what’s at stake there. He was writing in the shadow of a referendum taking place in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan that everyone knew would end with a strong endorsement of an independent Kurdish state.
But the Syrian Kurdish freedom movement that Mehmet represents has pursued an entirely different vision from that of the Kurds in Iraq: It does not wish to change the borders of states but simply to ignore them and to build grass-roots democracy at the community level. It frustrated Mehmet that the endless sacrifices of Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State in cities across Syria are being mistakenly seen as justification of more borders and more divisions rather than for less.
Too often in the Western news media, the Kurds are grouped together as one homogeneous people, with Syrian Kurds often an afterthought of late because of the attention the Iraqi Kurds have received for their referendum. But the Kurds in these two countries have built very different political systems. The Syrian Kurds have built a coalition with Arabs, Syriacs, Christians and others in the northern slice of Syria that they call Rojava (or, more officially, the The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.).
They want pluralistic, democratic self-determination for themselves and others in a newly federated Syria, discarding the nationalist project that led to the Iraqi referendum. As Mehmet put it, “not to create a new state, but to create a revolutionary, educated, modern, self-conscious and genuinely democratic society. So stop calling us separatists!”
Why secede, trading the problems of one state for another as the Iraqi Kurdish authorities want? “There have been many wars waged for independence,” Mehmet wrote, “but did having recognition as a state change the fate of the Arab children of Iraq, the African children of Libya or the Syrian children who have died in their thousands in the last few years? No.” He felt the region’s borders, largely a product of Western meddling after World War I, had stoked ethnic and religious conflict and rendered divided peoples ripe for economic exploitation.
Mehmet believed that the Syrian Kurdish model, called Democratic Confederalism, with its emphasis on an “educated and ecologically self-conscious” society employing direct democracy beginning at the neighborhood level, offered the Kurds and other ethnic groups the chance to have true autonomy across existing state borders that, even if they were redrawn, would never adequately represent all the peoples of the region.
He was convinced what Kurdistan was witnessing was a “great crisis” of the state system, a vast global proxy war that, he wrote, “culminated in the rise of ISIS, an evil jihadist force that turned Syria and Iraq into a burning hell and threatened the lives of millions here and abroad.” It was only the rise of that democratic movement, and its effective fighting forces, the People’s and Women’s Protection Units, that halted it, and today are on the verge of forcing the Islamic State from its de facto capital of Raqqa.
“But these victories came at a terrible cost,” he reminds us. And it’s true, thousands of young Kurds have died fighting a war against the Islamic State that, we shouldn’t forget, benefits those in the West that fear the group’s attacks. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the sacrifice of such selfless souls is not receiving the attention it deserves in the media?”
And what will happen once the Islamic State is banished from Raqqa? Do Western leaders really care what happens to the Syrian people once the threat of the Islamic State is gone? “Syria will remain a hotbed of war if a truly multiethnic and multireligious society is not established,” Mehmet wrote. And what he and the movement he was part of offer is a vision of hope for the region: “We believe we can only be human if we live under a humane system, humane social structures based on humane ideas.” This is the system they are building.
Despite this, representatives from the Syrian Kurdish movement were not invited to peace talks in Geneva over the last few years largely because of Turkish and Iranian opposition. And the United States, though happy to support the Kurds militarily when it needs them, has kept them at arm’s length diplomatically in deference to its Turkish allies, even as Turkey has labeled Syrian Kurds “terrorists” and unleashed unprovoked attacks on forces trying to focus on the Islamic State.
If this continues, Mehmet wrote, “like the Kurdistan Regional Government’s vote of independence, the negotiations will be over the form and borders of states, the creation of more divisions, more walls, more hatreds — even as those who have fought the hardest against such forces, who have worked to propose a different model and vision of society, are frozen out.”
Now Mehmet Aksoy has joined the list of those who gave their lives to try to create a different vision for the Middle East and, ultimately, humanity. He had traveled from London to Syria to work toward this goal as a journalist and filmmaker embedded with the Y.P.G. — the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the jihadists — and he was killed when the Islamic State attacked a base near the Raqqa front.
Those who knew him are keenly aware of what we all have lost. And those in Syria who share his vision are still excluded from future planned peace talks. Perhaps there will always be cynical politicians who speak of democracy and women’s rights as a means of bringing more wars and suffering into the world. But those of us in the West who sincerely support these things need to pressure our governments to change that in honor of the sacrifices that Mehmet and so many thousands like him have given to create a new hope for a region that has drowned in tears and blood.
David Graeber is an anthropologist, political activist and the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years.