By DAVID ROMANO yesterday –  Looking Under Rocks in Rojava

11 Aug 2016 – RUDAW – In a recent piece for al Jazeera (“Rojava: A libertarian myth under scrutiny”), Andrea Glioti sets out to criticize Rojava’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its related fighting forces such as, in his words, “…the PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)”. He complains of sectarian quotas in Rojava’s cantons, the prominent role of not very progressive Arab tribes of the Jazirah canton, the militarization of Kurdish women in the region, the military “conquests” of the SDF, the threat that the Syrian Kurds pose to Syria’s territorial integrity, the leadership cult around Abdullah Ocalan, the movement’s “Stalinist past,” and insufficient efforts by the PYD to familiarize people in the region with things like “libertarian municipalism.”

Glioti’s determination to find something, anything, with which to smear the Syrian Kurdish project would seem funny were these communities and people not fighting for their lives, caught between the Assad regime, the Islamic State and the likes of Qatari-sponsored Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al Shams and other jihadi groups. Perhaps al Jazeera’s owners feel the need to go after the PYD as the Syrian Kurds continue to spearhead an anti-ISIS effort that, thanks to them and the American air campaign, looks increasingly successful.

If the Rojava administration were not incorporating non-Kurds in the leadership of its cantons, al Jazeera would no doubt complain of “ethnic exclusion.” Instead, Glioti complains of “ethnic labels and quotas.” If they were not incorporating Arab tribes, they would be accused of “suppressing Arabs.” Instead he accuses them of promoting non-progressive groups. If they had abolished all private property, they would be accused of being radical revolutionaries. Instead Glioti accuses them “safeguarding the privileges of landowners.” If the PYD had taught every Syrian Kurdish villager the details of “libertarian municipalism,” Glioti would not doubt complain of “forced indoctrination of the civilian populace.” As Rojava liberates women and makes them equal to men in deed rather than just rhetoric, he criticizes them for “militarizing women.” If the PYD/SDF were not defeating ISIS on the battlefield while simultaneously rejecting the goal of independent statehood, they would be accused of being “ineffective” or “irrelevant” secessionists.

Perhaps the Syrian Kurds’ real crime is not being Arab jihadi stooges of the Qatari royal family. When Al Jazeera writers get permission to say anything even mildly critical of Qatar and its royal family, perhaps we could get some more incisive reporting and opinion pieces in its august pages.

Luckily, Glioti does level one fair and interesting criticism – the hero worship cult around Abdullah Ocalan. To anyone outside the PKK-aligned or sympathetic movements, all this “dear infallible leader” stuff looks too much like Stalinism, North Korea, Pol Pot, the Shining Path of Peru or any number of extremely undemocratic experiments in political opposition and rule. Any democratic movement needs to get beyond a single, strong, paternalistic leader and into the difficult tasks of building real institutions and giving people ample room to disagree. As soon as the Syrian Kurds progress beyond their current existential struggle, hopefully they can progress quickly with such matters.

In the meantime, criticisms should be welcomed as long as they do not amount to looking under every rock in Rojava to find anything and everything to beat the people there with. Luckily, al Jazeera in January did at least publish a more balanced piece by Nick Danforth doing just that – “Can we criticize the Kurds?” Danforth gives the PYD-led Kurds credit where it is due in the fight against ISIS, in their protection of minorities, and in their attempts to set up democratic governing structures in Rojava. He also calls Turkey’s equating of the PKK and ISIS “absurd” and “even offensive.” At the same time, he cautions against a romanticized image of the Syrian Kurds currently popular in the West.

In the end, the people of the PYD and its fighting forces are just that – real people. Especially in war time, it would be naïve not to expect them to sometimes commit abuses or make mistakes. Syria’s Kurds can be scrutinized fairly and in context at the same time that their successes, the most recent of which appears to be the liberation of Manbij from ISIS, are celebrated.

David Romano holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.