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IN MARCH 2017, I made my way through the streets of the northern Syrian city of Kobani, just over two years since it had been liberated from the Islamic State by fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
Although some of the city had slowly seen reconstruction taking place, other areas made it appear that the war was still being fought.
Burnt-out cars used as vehicles for suicide bombings. The stench of yesterday’s corpses buried under rubble not yet removed. Graffiti marking the sight of legendary battles and martyrs lost in combat, adorning walls riddled with bullet holes.
That evening, I was audience to a YPG commander and YPJ fighters who participated in the harrowing battle.
When asked about the role played by the United States — which belatedly came to their aid with air strikes following massive international pressure — they weren’t outright dismissive of the importance this played.
However, they did find the notion that this was a victory somehow led by the US to be quite frankly disrespectful, as well as a rewriting of history — not simply because it was the YPG and YPJ who did the fighting and dying, but because the US had until that point been a key supporter of many of the Syrian opposition factions that helped give rise to the Islamic State in the first place.
Fast forward four years, and Hillary Clinton — who served as secretary of state under president Barack Obama until 2013 — has announced that she and her daughter Chelsea are producing a mini-series on the YPJ.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking this endeavour makes a great deal of sense. Clinton has been seen as a model for a liberal, bourgeois feminism over the last several years.
As for the YPJ, they have attracted much attention globally for their role in showing that women’s emancipation can go hand in hand with the gun.
However, if we scrape beneath the surface, Clinton’s announcement should be seen as not only opportunist, but a dangerous project that aims to rewrite her role in Syria’s bloodbath, as well as sanitising the YPJ by wrapping them in liberal veneer drained of meaningful ideological content.
Never mind the fact that two white women are producing what promises to be a major TV series on Kurdish women, which smacks of cultural appropriation. That much is a given. Far worse is that the leading woman in charge of the project is a key part of the liberal imperialist Establishment that uses the guise of “humanitarian intervention” to usher in policies that always suit Wall Street’s interests.
But what do we know of the book on which the miniseries will be based?
The Daughters of Kobani: The Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice, due for release next month, is written by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
She isn’t just a journalist, but is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that is so intertwined with Washington that dozens of secretaries of state have been members.
There is something deeply unsettling — and revealing — about the reviews of the book, including one obviously carefully worded review by former General Joseph Votel, who was commander of United States Central Command between 2016 and 2019.
Votel writes: “The Women’s Protection Units (the YPJ) proved their heroism time and again throughout the campaign against the Islamic State. I was always concerned that our Syrian Kurdish partners would never get their full due; this excellent book by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon documents their contributions perfectly. I strongly recommend it.”
One could be forgiven for assuming based on Votel’s glowing review that no decent accounts have existed in book form on the role or history of the YPJ.
In fact, there are dozens of books — some great, some not so much — that look at the YPJ, the Rojava Revolution, and crucially the wider Kurdish Freedom Movement.
Why does this particular book deserve such recognition where the others apparently do not?
Sanitising the Kurdish Women’s Movement
One has to wonder how much of the book’s text centres on the ideology of the YPJ and the Kurdish Freedom Movement, and how much of it focuses instead on individualised cases of heroism, detached from their broader context.
When I visited Rojava, one key aspect of my participation was to receive about a week of political education focused on the Kurdish women’s movement and its ideology of jineologi, translated as the “science of women.”
Central to the discussion was how jineologi has little in common with Western individualistic conceptions of feminism, which aim to push women into leadership positions without fundamentally altering the fabric of those institutions.
Clinton, of course, is a prime example of this, having very nearly become the first woman to hold the office of president in 2016.
An even more important theme is that jineologi is rooted in the collective, seeing the fight against patriarchal oppression as inextricably linked to a movement against capitalism.
Clinton has been a darling of Wall Street bankers and executives, who has consistently advocated pushing a neoliberal agenda that does unbelievable measures of harm to working people, particularly women.
Therefore, it’s hardly paranoia to fear just how much of the YPJ’s ideology will make its way onto the screen.
Will Clinton encourage women around the world to rally against the same system she has consistently defended? This seems massively unlikely.
Then there is an even more important question — that of the ideological leader of the YPJ and the democratic confederalist system they advocate.
This figure is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
US officials panicked at the sight of a banner with Ocalan’s image being put up in the former Islamic State capital of Raqqa just after liberation in September 2017, in part because he is designated the leader of a terrorist organisation by the United States.
But the reality is that the YPJ would not have existed if it were not for the 40-year struggle waged by the PKK.
In fact, many of those YPJ fighters who fought so heroically in Kobani were actually cadres of the PKK and their women’s army, the Free Women’s Units (YJA Star).
Will Clinton’s film reference this, when she consistently pledged Turkey during her tenure as secretary of state that the US would keep assisting them in their fight to kill PKK militants?
In fact, US intelligence and weapons have killed women in the Kurdish mountains who fought in Kobani and across Rojava with the assistance of the United States. Do these women matter to Clinton?
Furthermore, does Hillary concede that her husband Bill made a major historical error when in 1999 his administration worked hand in hand with Turkey and Israel to capture Ocalan?
Twenty-two years later, he continues to sit in solitary confinement on Imrali island.
There is not a word from Clinton or anybody else about his condition or the brutality of his treatment, despite the fact that it is his vision for women’s liberation that guides the YPJ.
Sanitising Hillary Clinton’s history
Hillary’s role in wanting to be seen as a hero of women’s movements has dubious foundations.
When it comes to promoting women’s rights around the world, there is rhetoric and then there is reality.
We can’t forget that during her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton was a fervent supporter of regime change operations not only in Syria, but also in Libya, which ended up having a disastrous impact on women.
In both the Libyan and Syrian contexts, the United States’ obsession with overthrowing bourgeois nationalist governments that maintained independence from their orbit, would lead Washington — and Clinton — to throw themselves into bed with vicious Islamist forces.
Regardless of one’s views on former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, one can no longer discount what he said before his overthrow in regards to al-Qaida playing a significant role in the so-called rebel movement.
It was laughed off then, but today not only are al-Qaida-linked groups present, but so is the Islamic State.
The Libyan state that was a champion of women’s rights is long gone, with little sign of its imminent return.
In Syria, Clinton conceded that through the Obama administration’s Timber Sycamore programme that aimed to equip the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with weapons, many of these fell into the hands of Islamist factions, including the al-Qaida affiliate then known as al-Nusra.
This had no small role in the emergence of the Islamic State, with all the trappings of its anti-women ideology and practice.
It seems clear that Clinton would much rather retrospectively position herself — and by extension the liberal wing of the imperialist Establishment of which she is a core part — as a defender of women’s rights in Syria rather than an opponent.
The best way to do that, of course, is to rewrite history to make it appear as if the US was always on side with the YPJ.
Sanitising the on-screen and the off-screen
The US not only wants to sanitise the Kurdish movement on-screen, but also off-screen, in the real-life web of entanglements that characterise Syria today.
The timing of this most recent attempt to sanitise the Kurdish women’s movement could hardly be any more convenient for the likes of Clinton.
After a four-year interregnum of Donald Trump’s chaotic administration, in which the direction of his foreign policy was often unclear and sporadic, the liberal hawks are now back.
In some respects, we are witnessing a second Obama administration, this time led by the former vice-president.
Many of the faces in or around Biden had argued for a deeper US role in Syria, chief among them Brett McGurk, who has been tapped for a role in the National Security Council overseeing the Middle East and north Africa.
The Autonomous Administration has the clarity to know what US ambitions are about — in other words, that they are dictated by geostrategic motivations and not by humanitarianism or ultimately the wellbeing of the Kurdish nation.
Still, there is every reason for concern. The precarity and direness of Rojava’s situation has pushed them into the deeper embrace of the US, which is clearly aiming to liberalise the polity of the region.
This has to date been done through demanding political concessions to the reactionary Kurdish National Council (ENKS) bloc, a formation backed by Turkey.
It has also played out in a frankly indefensible oil contract between the Autonomous Administration and a US oil company known as Delta Crescent, a deal that elements of the PKK leadership have condemned in terms not dissimilar to criticism levelled at it from the Syrian government.
For those living in the imperialist centres, we should be clear on the need to oppose the machinations of our own governments when they speak of pursuing lofty humanitarian ideals.
We’ve seen those lies play out over and over again.
We should also wish to see our Kurdish comrades steer back onto a more revolutionary course to the extent possible.
This will ultimately be the only means through which the sanitisation campaign can be undone, whether it comes in the form of Clinton’s disgusting cinematic engagement or deals over Syrian oil fields.
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