The People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia and Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have officially opened their European office in Prague. They hope that it will facilitate cooperation between Syrian Kurds and European states. In an exclusive interview, A2larm.cz spoke to Sheruan Hassan, representative of YPG Europe.
Matěj Metelec, Lukáš Rychetský: We are aware that there is a large number of Kurdish political groups. Who exactly do you represent?
Sheruan Hassan: I represent the Kurdish militia units YPG and YPJ, which at present play a crucial role in the fight against Islamic terrorism in Syria. We are fighting forces that are a threat not only to our homeland, but also to the Czech Republic, Europe, and the whole civilized world.
Why did you choose Prague as your European seat?
We feel that modern Czech history in a way resembles the Kurdish struggle for freedom and independence, whether at the time when the Czechs were part of the Austrian monarchy and fought for independence, or during the Czechoslovak efforts at socialism with a human face in 1968, or the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It’s as if we can see our own struggle for democracy and human rights in Czech history. We also consider it important that the Czech Republic is a secular state with religious freedom, where religion is the private affair of each person and has nothing to do with politics. More or less for these reasons and because of these historical traditions, we chose to have our seat in Prague.
There are surely more countries in the EU that claim allegiance to values such as secularism and democracy. Many of them also went through various forms of oppression. The Czech Republic is not so exceptional in this sense…
It’s certainly true that a whole range of countries and nations has been through similar predicaments, but for us it is important that the fates of certain significant Kurdish figures, who studied in Czechoslovakia, are tied to this country. For instance, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, Professor Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, taught at a university here and was later murdered in Vienna. I would not want to diminish the influence and importance of other European nations, but I have to repeat that I consider especially the historical moment of the Prague Spring to be completely unique.
The events in Rojava are considered analogous by a number of figures on the Left to the Spanish civil war. Could you outline the project of so-called democratic confederalism in Rojava?
In my opinion, it’s not a very precise analogy. In Spain, there were two opposing political forces within one nation – the republican Left was fighting with the fascist Right. But our situation is different, we are fighting with the Islamic terrorism of groups such as Daesh or the Al-Nusra Front. In Kobani, we stood against people from eighty states, whom we had to resist. In fighting against us, they attacked primarily the emancipatory efforts that we represent in the region, they attacked democracy and human rights.
We want to destroy a system which allows for the oppression and enslavement of people on the basis of religious hatred.
As far as our own ideology is concerned, we are a left-wing force in the social democratic sense. We are primarily striving for equality, including gender equality between men and women, which is not very common in the Middle East. In Rojava, we have a compulsory quota for 50% female representation in any kind of position. On every level, we have double functions which are simultaneously carried out by a woman and a man. The position of women tends to be a good indicator of the level of freedom in a society. Where women are not free, there is no freedom at all. I think this is the first time in the history of the Middle East that so many women are directly fighting in a war and are taking part in public life to such an extent. Our politics are thus also necessarily aimed against the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, which has not brought anything good in the past 1500 years. We want to destroy a system which allows for the oppression and enslavement of people on the basis of religious hatred. So that nothing similar can ever happen again.
In the case of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), in the past years there has been talk of their departure from traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology. What is the positon of the YPG and YPJ?
Times are constantly changing, and with them also ideologies, which don’t necessarily look the same as they did in the times of Hegel or Marx. The strategy and thinking of political forces who don’t want to come to a standstill in their development also changes, so our attitudes necessarily develop as well. We want to be part of today’s democratic world, which calls for some shifts. In Middle Eastern countries, such efforts are often seen very negatively, because they are unusual. In Rojava, this is not the right moment for deep disputes between political philosophers, we are much more concerned with everyday practice and of course the war we are fighting. In the first place, we want all the nations in the given region to coexist with each other in peace so that none of them are oppressed or exploited by another.
What is the relationship of the YPG and YPJ to the Kurdish Workers’ Party and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan?
It’s common everywhere in the world that certain political forces are inspired or claim direct allegiance to various groups. In the case of Öcalan and the PKK, we could find a whole range of organizations that consider their struggle similar to that of the PKK, but come from a completely different part of the world. For that, they do not need to have any direct contact with the PKK or in fact anything in common. Some forces in Latin America and the Middle East consider Öcalan’s present opinions to be progressive. We also find some issues we sympathise with, but that does not at all mean that we are the same or that we should be part of one concrete political force. But in many respects, we have a common enemy with various groups on the Syrian-Iraqi front – Islamic fundamentalism. When Daesh attacked the Yazidis, we were, together with the PKK and the Peshmerga, the only force which opened and defended a corridor through which they could escape genocide. We have 1500 kilometres of common borders with these forces, but that does not mean that we are in any way under their leadership or political influence. We should rather speak of our common goal, which is the destruction of Islamic radicals.
What is the attitude of the YPG and YPJ to the various religions present in Syria?
It is important for us that all nations and religions in Syria live in peace and democracy. I think this must be the first case in the history of the Middle East where our Muslim fighters, as part of their military operations, protect churches and Christians from radical Islamists. For instance, five members of the YPG died in the town of Sere Kanye while defending a Christian church. We have Kurds in our ranks, who are Muslims, but also Christians, Yazidis, Arabs, and atheists. For me, that is the biggest proof that we have a common interest. We all want a radical change of the system.
If Turkey did not create obstructions to the advancement of Kurdish forces and at the same time, if these forces received support from the international alliance, do you think that the Kurds alone could defeat Daesh and and the Al-Nusra Front?
The whole world knows that between Kobani and Afrin, there is an area in which Daesh operates. This is also where arms from Turkey get to Islamist radicals. Every time we try to occupy the area, we are bombed by Erdoğan’s regime. But almost no one is talking about this obvious alliance. Yet everyone should know that the economy of Daesh is largely dependent on not-very-secret cooperation with Turkey, which is overlooked by the West. This is how oil, arms, people, and food all reach them. Erdoğan would really like to revive the Ottoman Empire, which should interest Europe just as much as his domestic policy and the war against the Kurds. The Turkish army kills Kurds in cities in the south-east of Turkey every day, the world sees it and stays silent. But forty million Kurds in the Middle East no longer want to live under the oppression of Islamism (whether in Erdoğan’s more “moderate” version, or in the form of Daesh) and we will fight against it with all the strength we have.
We already fought against Daesh between 2013 and 2014 without any help. After that, international forces led by the United States helped us. Today, the whole world including America suspects that only the Kurds can beat Islamic terrorists. Any were successful in this in any case already without any support. If we received logistical and material support from Europe and the USA, we could probably do away with Daesh and similar groups. And if Turkey stopped helping them, of course. We are also able to offer refuge to all those who have fled violent conflicts to Europe. Then they could live in Syria again and would not have to stay in Europe. In our region, there are thousands and thousands of Arab refugees. And we don’t receive any material or economic support. But we still help them as best we can. We’ve also seen that Western aid has often gone to various groups that have done nothing for the refugees and have then divided the money between themselves.
What should the future of the Kurds in the Middle East look like? Is the YPG/YPJ heading towards some form of autonomy or to a Kurdish state?
We don’t want any more national, centralized states, and so this is not one of our demands. We want a federation of all nations living in the Middle East. The system that exists there simply does not work. So we need to create a new one that will ensure that different nations can live in peace and democracy.
The Syrian opposition outside of Syria (some are in Vienna, other in Canada, etc.), wants to exchange only one person; they want to change the leadership of the regime, but leave the existing system. According to us, we should agree on a new constitution, some form of federal organization. There should as wide debate about this. Because our goal is not simply the removal of one person.
Everyone should know that the economy of Daesh is largely dependent on not-very-secret cooperation with Turkey, which is overlooked by the West.
Most of the Syrian opposition still considers religion the solution to the situation. We cannot agree with this. Our goal is a secular constitution, we want different ethnic and religious groups to live on Syrian territory without conflicts. Each of the competing groups in the Syrian opposition who recently took part in a meeting in Geneva wants to gain power and seize the leadership of the country themselves. That is why they can agree on one point only: they refuse the idea of a federal form of organization in Syria. But when you look at the results of the Arab Spring for example in Lybia and elsewhere, you will see that the removal of one person without a change to the whole system always led to the victory of Islamic groups.
What is your relationship to others actors in the Syrian war, namely Assad’s regime, Russia, and the USA?
Turkey is still trying to maintain that we are connected to Assad’s dictatorship. That is not true, we always fought against Assad and coordinated with the Americans in the fight against Islamists. We are willing to align ourselves with all democratic forces that are fighting against Daesh and other radical groups.
In the Czech Republic, at the moment it is mainly smaller right-wing parties who are interested in meeting with you. Do you know that they often have very Islamophobic and nationalist opinions?
We come into contact with many different people. In our situation, we need all the help we can get and will meet with anyone who wants to lend us a helping hand. That does not mean we share their opinions and have the same ideology. We would like to establish contact with different parties, we want to create partnerships, because there is clearly a common interest here. The terrorist attacks in Brussels prove that war has already started. The territories controlled by us share 600 kilometres of borders with Daesh. We are on the front line and we are fighting. And we need the help of anyone who will give it to us. We may not have our own state, but we still want to be your allies. We are part of a cruel struggle, and if we receive support, we can significantly weaken Daesh, or even defeat it, which would of course lower the risk of terrorist attacks in Europe.
What developments do you expect in Syria now and how could your mission in Prague affect them?
The situation in Syria is dependent on too many factors, which are very hard to predict. As far as our presence in the Czech Republic is concerned, we have already met with some representatives of the Czech state, and if the Czech government wants to enter talks with us, we are prepared to explain how we can be helped in addressing the security and refugee crises in Syria.
This interview originally appeared on A2larm.cz. Translated by Veronika Pehe.