The ongoing information war against Rojava1
This text2, deals with the problem of the image of Rojava in global media and mass communication. I am deeply convinced that we are talking about actual, ongoing information war here. Nothing happens there by accident and nothing will be on our side without intense effort.
By no means this is a professional analysis. However, I believe, there is a great deal of things that can be done based upon even simplest observations. I will be focusing on European context which I know the best. As a preliminary reading I recommend my article http://freelab.libtech.website/2014/12/29/is-rojava-written-off/
1. Who wants Rojava to vanish3?
The list of stakeholders is long. Apart from the obvious, like Daesh, Turkey and KRG4, there are less obvious candidates, like Israel (just imagine for a moment what a mess would emerge if Palestinians adopt Democratic Confederalism). Also, no state in the world would normally support a political organization based on denial of state (even if the autonomy is declared to function „within democratic Syria” or Turkey or whatnot). It is not only dangerous to the status quo of the Middle East, but also to the whole world system of nation states. Their safety mainly depends on the TINA5 belief, applied to the politics: that there is no other way to organize society than a nation state, ruled by means of republican parliamentary system. As long as this holds, all alternative movements remain marginal, providing just a distraction to the public; a safe way to vent some social steam without harming „real politics”. Emergence of Rojava and its stability, awareness of an existing constructive alternative, possible to implement in European environment, would change the whole situation and trigger highly disruptive processes.
Last but not the least comes the problem of Middle East policy of global players. There is certain „stability of instability” which means that the region is artificially kept unstable to make it easier to control. Every time a group emerges that could integrate Middle East and make it an independent geopolitical entity, other groups get just enough support to raise in power and prevent it. As there are several parties playing this game (USA, European Union, Russia, China) they mostly balance each other and the game goes on.
Rojava brings new factor to this system, by providing actual way to have the region stable and peaceful. Global players are not ready for that. They have no tools to control the situation within new rules. Thus, they are not interested letting it happen.
So, there are three major reasons some groups are trying to make Rojava vanish:
1. Regional players: ISIS, Turkey, KRG, Israel are afraid of Rojava, because it endangers their political plans for the area. All of them promote this or another kind of unitarian state, to which Rojava is a deadly threat.
2. Global players, especially US (with its close allies of „five eyes” club6), France and Germany do not want the „Middle East game” to change its rules. Even less they want to see Middle East stable and integrated.
3. The whole „international community”, comprising the UN and its member nation states, has no interest in supporting subversive ideology aimed at abolishing the state as we (they) know it.
A Kurdish saying goes „Kurds have no friends but mountains”. Hopefully, as Rojava goes far beyond tribal or national Kurdish concepts, chances are that there are some other groups and individuals, at least potentially friendly and supportive for the Rojava cause. But let us be frank. Even among Kurdish diaspora, Rojava is not the biggest cause to support. Not as an idea. There are too many sectarian fights, accusations and contradictory interests around it to make it clear and understandable for the (Kurdish) public. There is also still the Sirens’ Call of the Great Kurdistan – big, strong Kurdish Nation-state. Probably, the only reason that Democratic Confederalism emerged in Bakur (Turkey, for us, Westerners) and peaked in Rojava, was because it was supported by the authority of Ocalan. This fact, widely criticized among the Westerners – not just anarchists – was crucial to make Rojava happen7.
Now, there are friends already. Initially many hearts, if not brains, were won by the romanticized pictures of „girls with guns”. Some of them turned into politically aware allies. More and more alternative groups – not necessarily anarchist ones – in Europe and the US start looking at Rojava. Some local communities, some feminist circles, some international bodies declare support for Rojava. But all of that is too late, too little, too slow. The information war against Rojava gets more and more intense and may soon be lost, unless we start acting in a more efficient way.
Let us look at some aspects of the situation.
In terms of direct military confrontation, the main adversary of Rojava is Daesh. That is pretty obvious, as Daesh is a sworn enemy of everyone and their plans to march North laid shattered exactly because of Rojava defenders.
But politically, there is only one entity that is crucially interested in wiping out Rojava and having it forgotten forever. It’s Turkey.
Rojava is an example of what can emerge if one let Democratic Confederalism become reality. With all its flaws and incompleteness, Rojava is a logical step ahead from the self-governing communities, growing illegally in Turkish Kurdistan for years. It also provides material and ideological backup for the PKK-inspired Kurdish movement in Turkey. It means – as I desribed elsewhere8 – that the Turkish state, as it is now, has no choice but fighting Kurds in general and Rojava in particular. The only other option means constitutional reforms and eventually building some sort of confederal state. I will not come easy, that’s sure.
Turkey’s infowar approach is simple. They use their internal and external power as a government to request ban on certain content, users, or whole services9. And it largely works. People invent ways to circumvent some blockades, but largely Turkey succeeds in controlling the information stream, especially going outside.
At the same time Turkish agencies are clearly conveying messages about Kurds and Rojava, labeling them as terrorists, separatists and associates of Assad regime. Characteristically, the Iraqi Kurds are not targeted by this campaign.
We need to keep an eye on Turkey all the time. They are keen an able to use all their potential against Rojava and must be considered a major threat.
The most probable reason why the info war is now lead so ruthlessly is an initial success of „Save Kobane” campaign. It was a grassroots and spontaneous campaign, which core was Kurdish diaspora in Europe, supported in growing numbers by non-Kurdish allies – including media. The result was a growing wave of public questions and requests toward EU officials from the people, moved by the romanticized image of beautiful girls fighting their last stand against a bunch of filthy blackbeard rapists. On a fundamental level it was all-wrong, as several articles pointed out10. But that was the only or by far the most efficient way to bring massive Western attention to the issue. We will never know how much it helped to re-target the airstrikes coalition was running from Iraq to Syria. But it surely brought a lot of attention to Rojava, which even gained it’s own media name: „Rojava Experiment”.
But even before the liberation of Kobane, in December 2014, I wrote11:
We should keep in mind that the political concept for Rojava: stateless autonomy, based on feminism, ecology and local, direct democracy, is highly dangerous to the official political doctrine – not just in the Middle East. Democratic Confederalism is clearly designed as an exemplary solution, to be spread, cloned and scaled throughout the region. But, as we see from the EZLN12 experience, it can be applied everywhere. Especially in the Global South countries, but also in destabilised areas near old colonial metropolies; in Greece, Balkans, Portugal and Spain there are strong movements toward autonomy. They are normally labeled as nationalistic, which is standard way to ban them from regular political discourse. Rojava is not nationalist, it is highly democratic and inclusive system. In fact, Rojava became a safe harbour for all minorities: religious, ethnic and social, endangered by the traditional, patriarchal and fundamentalist environment of Syria, Turkey and Iraq. It is also strongly anticapitalist. And it works.
This make the Rojava system an attractive alternative to the nation-state model for all freedom-oriented and/or left-wing movements, hoping to ‘jailbreak’ the TINA paradigm, imposed by traditional capitalist state.
The problem was, most of the „progressive” groups in the West were unable to accept and to respond to the deeper messages from Rojava. Except for radical groups, which already discuss the Rojava revolution (not necessarily in a favorable way), almost nobody knows what Rojava is, let alone why is it important. The marginal percentage of those aware of Rojava either stay still or limit their reaction to conventional „humanitarian” rhetoric.
When I was running my amateur query about Rojava image among the broad public, the most typical answer was that Rojava is unknown. After initial surge of glory, which I discuss above, the whole adverse propaganda effort focused on making Rojava „fade into the woodwork”. As there is no way to deny the role of Rojava in the current developments in Syria, the effort goes into blurring the picture. That is why almost no mainstream channel uses terms like „Rojava”, „autonomy” or „cantons”. Instead they say about „Kurdish forces in Northern Syria”, „rebels”, or even „tribal forces”. Even during the initial popularity, the name „Kobane” was used as a keyword, only weakly supported by „Rojava Experiment”.
Apparently for the Western readers Rojava is considered so disruptive, that the only way to handle the issue is put it into total oblivion. Together with criminalisation and blurring the identity, it effectively removed Rojava from the spotlight of mass audience, leaving it exposed and vulnerable.
In the following sections I will discuss various ways used by the adversaries to make Rojava invisible. The next one shows certain mistakes, I believe, made by the Rojava people and their supporters.
Finally, in the last section, I will try to suggest some actions to be taken to neutralize hostile propaganda and to reverse the course of action.
Having PKK on a „terrorist organisations list13” is a real treat for the adversaries of Rojava. Due to shared ideology, close ties and common enemies, it is extremely easy label Rojava as a „marxist-stalinist terrorists”, make it look like just another militant group, only pretending to be peaceful. This vector of attack is mainly used by the Turk-ish actors. It is especially efficient on mainstream politicians and „civilised” left.
Recently, it also makes easier to put ISIS and PKK (thus Rojava) on the equal foot, as the Turkey’s attacks develop. Very dangerous.
This is probably the thickest smokescreen to hide Rojava from the world. It is based on double disinformation: that Rojava is a purely Kurdish project and that the goal of Rojava is (or at least should be) to build a Kurdish state in the same sense as the KRG14 does. It has many dangerous implications. First, it strips Rojava off all revolutionary character. Second, makes it look like separatists among separatists (as the „legitimate separatists15” are KRG). In the public narrative, especially in the West, the „golden standard of Kurdishness” is KRG. Every Kurdish movement that deviates from this, seems to be suspicious. This is of course fueled heavily by KRG propaganda, but they are just one of many stakeholders. KRG is a „domesticated form of Kurds” – which tries to join the „international community” on the terms given to them. If Rojava can be pictured as a splinter Kurdish group, just fighting sectarian war against KRG, nobody will care when Peshmerga takes over (using NATO-sourced equipment, of course).
The efficiency of this attack is clear if we consider that even I have certain problems to distinguish between certain behaviors and media messages, concerning Rojava or the rest of Kurdistan. This is a deep problem of self-identification, but also it is a tactical problem of the information war.
Which leads us to the third mis-imaging: that the only value of Rojava is fighing, possibly as an US proxy. It sets a judgment guideline – Rojava being only as good as it is useful in war – and flattens the image. If all we see is a group of ragged (compared to your average GI or even to a Peshmerga model soldier) guerilla fighters. If all we know about them is that they suffer a lot but fight like hell. If all their achievements we know are uncounted heads of ISISmen, we wouldn’t even think of them as citizens in their own right. We may wish to take care of them, this way or another, but it will be our own way. They are just some „noble savages”. You may see this image at work every time anybody refers to YPG or YPJ not as armed forces of Rojava, but as „Kurdish groups in Northern Syria”.
5. Shooting one’s own foot16
Sometimes one needs no enemies to get killed, providing one makes enough mistakes on one’s own. The chaotic and improvised way the Rojava propaganda used to be made, provides some examples of this kind. Some of them could be avoided or counterbalanced, some are forced by situation and we only may live with them.
Keeping the image of Rojava as „Kurdish” is a dangerous opening for many types of attacks. As much as the electoral success of HDP in Turkey was built upon transgressing a stereotype of „Kurdish party”, the official image of Rojava can be changed into openly muliti-ethnic, inclusive and free from national denominations. It is complex, as there is hardly a terminology available to describe it. It is also a matter of decision, how far would Rojava separate from the nationalist Kurdish movements, which still supposedly provide certain support. I am not in a position to analyze it, but from the external image perspective, being presented as „Kurdish” creates more and more vulnerabilities for Rojava (see previous sections on Turkish and KRG propaganda).
I believe that there is a way to develop a narrative about a new society, free from the bounds of nationalism and theocracy, creatively including all ethnic, religious and social traditions. To show it in categories the Western world – at least declaratively – admires. And keep saying „Rojava”, „Rojavans”, Rojavan” and „Rojavanness” at every occasion. Make people understand that „Rojava” is, in a sense, „Kurdistan Plus”.
„Kurds have no friends but mountains” is probably the best known Kurdish proverb in the world. I saw it widely used in a hundred of online discussions, mainly on Facebook. It expresses a certain mindset, in Polish17 history known as a „besieged stronghold”. Like or not, this is the best way to NOT have friends but mountains. In connection with apparent longing for HAVING friends, it creates an awkward atmosphere, where the dominant issue is „being betrayed”. It is NOT the way to win friends allies18 in the situation of war. If we agree with the leading assumptions of this text, the grassroot allies are what we are looking for. States and transnational capitalist organizations have to be pushed and motivated to support Rojava. But they will never be truly on Rojava side19. The friends that can be won, are people, small communities, social an political organizations and affinity groups. They should be invited to help, praised and rewarded for their support and make exemplary fo future allies. Taking care of friends should be a special task for special team, because the only reason Rojava has allies in the West is that they WANT to be allies. So the way to get more allies is to make them want even more.
As I wrote above, probably the only way to introduce Democratic Confederalism was to back it up by the Ocalan’s authority20. For the West however, especially the left wing, this has a pretty dangerous association with some sinister figures in history, like Mao, Stalin or Hitler. This is very „bad karma”, but we cannot change reality. Millions of people, mainly Kurds, joined the revolution because of Apo. They changed their previous lives, their previous view on the world, society and politics, because they trust him. And many of them will never have better reason, nor reward, for that in their life. Only the personal loyalty they kept. This is true and this has to be respected.
What we can tell to he Western audience, suspicious, uncertain and full of fear? Possibly, „watch us closely”. It is more important what the revolution does, less important, why. I blieve that education will play its role over the time. When people understand how the Democratic Confederalism works, they will be lss suspicious. They will have knowledge, instead of their – often fearful – imagination. It is also a way to get them more involved, to make them aware that this way or another they already take part in shaping Rojava and its future21, so maybe it is better to do it in a conscious and active way?
Most of discussion groups22 about the war with ISIS (and Turkey) are full of drastic and offending comments, pictures and videos. They present the atrocities of ISIS (and sometime Turkey) and trigger waves of fierce and pugnacious comments, proposing equally drastic retaliation to everybody involved23. Also, there are pictures of ISIS prisoners, with deeply hateful, humiliating comments. Over the time, group admins started making it a bit more moderated, but – especially in the groups with high Israeli presence – it is still a regular occurrence.
Good news is that the groups related to Rojava have this problem in a much smaller scale. However, I want to point out clearly why it is important to block such activity entirely:
- There is a huge group of internet users, especially on FaceBook, who are looking for any alibi to express their antisocial, often antihuman attitude. They will be equally happy to join Rojava group or ISIS group – same difference. They just need a place to talk about beheading, raping, disemboweling and all – normally unacceptable – behaviors. Having a good justification, like „we need to present what ISIS does to make people aware”, they will crowd the online space, dominating the discussion and chasing away people who „only” want to help, or to learn where is the closest solidarity organization. After reading several posts, calling generally to „do to them what they did to us and more”, usually by the people sitting safely at home, far away from the war zone, peaceful supporters are quite unlikely to do anything but leaving the group.
- In the general Western perception, Kurds (and especially Rojavans) are considered „noble savage warriors”. While we need to question the „savage” part, the „noble warrior” image is what we want and need. In this context „nobleness” is associated with traditional European chivalry. A noble warrior – in the European thinking – do not despise the enemy, do not mock him. When victorious, never is cruel nor abusive, but always follows the code. As unrealistic in the daily warfare as it may be, these standards are important on the image level. And in every armed forces there are people who takes care of publishing such examples an – if done properly – they bring strong propaganda effect.
Afganistan: Canadian soldiers shot two enemies. After disarming them, the Canadians treated their wounds with the first aid kit and called medevac.
Palestinian civilians protected an Israeli policewoman from being stoned by some Jewish orthodoxes.
Rojava YPG commander: „an ISIS man tells me «we have your people imprisoned and they suffer». I tell him «we have your people imprisoned and they are doing well». Few days later he calls me and says «we killed your people» and I say «your people are still doing well».”
The overall image of exceptional and noble warriors, initiated by the YPJ „girls with guns” behavior and expressions (see, how nobly they present themselves in the most of videos and interviews!), is a perfect launchpad to introduce an image of exceptional and noble society. We need to regain this image and make it all-recognized worldwide.
Surely, Facebook is the dominant communications medium in today’s world. And it is just pure pleasure to see thousands of people joining the group, sharing the post, joining an event, let alone „liking” and commenting. It feels great.
Except, it is not real.
Only a very small fraction of these „clicktivists” will take ANY action because of something they saw and wrote on FB. The construction of Facebook is such, that the human need to act is fulfilled within the circle of „Like, comment, share”, without any contact with external reality.
Indeed, Facebook works nicely as a communication channel24 for those, who are already organized and working together. But, if one wants to acquire new allies, the efficiency is marginal. Also, the procedure should assume that the as soon as possible a new supporter should be contacted beyond Facebook and involved in some non-internet activity, to create stronger bonds and relationships.
One thing is absolutely clear. Rojava needs a small group of dedicated people, officially designated to create the image of Rojava for the broad Western public. It should be considered a part of war effort, as important as the intelligence, counterintelligence and cybersecurity of Rojava.
Such group should gradually take care and responsibility of the public presentation of Rojava, according to the ethical guidelines, truth AND conditions of the ongoing information war.
Below, let me outline several aspects of such activity.
6.1. The EZLN25 model
In the contemporary world we know one example of a community similar to Rojava, just recently featuring its 20th anniversary. It is the Neozapatista’ Autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico. Fortunately, there are already pretty lively ties established beteen Rojava and EZLN, which should help in the knowledge transfer.
One of the most crucial factors, supporting survival of EZLN is their „net war26” doctrine and practice. In the briefest form it includes creation of a „swarm” of friendly groups, individuals and organizations, which would support the core community (Neozapatistas or Rojava, respectively) alarm the world audience in case of any danger and organize more or less direct actions to help repel attackers.
The hardest part was possibly inventing such system. Now, when we have an example, the general goal of the „info war” group should be to replicate it for the benefit of Rojava. What EZLN is for the Americas, Rojava may (and should) become for the Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. And this is the way to achieve it.
This is the universal recommendation and it has the double importance in the Rojava context. Above all, we want people know about Rojava. There are limits of what they are ready to absorb, defined by their mindset, previous views and knowledge. But no lies should be told them (secrets, especially well justified, are ok). So, as with the image of „exceptional, noble society” we need to develop an exceptional, noble information practices. It is much harder to introduce than the regular kind of narrative, but possible.
On the other side, being truthful and transparent makes good position to ask others to be truthful as well. Especially in the USA, there is a growing wave of awareness about the manipulation, self-censoring and general truthlessness of major media channels. Surfing this wave gives one a chance to be heard and perhaps to find allies among those media organizations, who want to jump the truth bandwagon.
This is the key summary of the activities the team should perform. Information about Rojava and all related issues. Integration of the supporters, on the ground and via the Net. Inspiration on the peer-to-peer basis, sharing and spreading best practices and ideas. All together it will build democratic and efficient „swarm” in defense of Rojava.
Especially Facebook is a minefield for Rojava supporters. For mentioning Ocalan one may be banned much easier than for quoting Hitler or advocating paedophilia. There also is a „glass ceiling”. As I was complemented by some Rojava friends, „being banned from Facebook means good work” (in my case it was a pretty big event to support fundraising for Kobane). However, the very same mechanism can be used to protect Rojava. Reporting of posts and groups, official complaints and requests to the FB management, setting up official pages and profiles – within Facebook and other social media channels there is a lot of tools that can be used to improve Rojava credibility and visibility or to deflect attacks.
In general, there is a need for proactive behavior, using all means available to control the battlefield and to keep adversaries at bay.
From the information war standpoint, people in Rojava are much more secure than their supporters in Europe. With all the unclear situation of Rojava vs. European Union, it is always possible that activist here can be accused on supporting terrorists or some other kind of illegal activity. They may be identified by ISIS supporters in their neighborhood and put in physical danger – not being allowed to fight back.
There is also a danger of hackers’ attack on the infrastructure. Crashing websites, spreading viruses to every visitor of a page infected.
The very typical element of the info war is disinformation. A website may be hacked discreetly, only to put a misleading information on it. Emails can be sent (if not secured) ostensibly from appointed Rojava representatives, spreading disorientation.
To protect from that all, there is a need for a moderately secure infrastructure27, featuring:
- Legal protection (Iceland is good for that, they are serious about privacy and freedom of speech)
- Robust applications and operating systems.
- Uniform security policy
- Training to the users.
There are several practical steps that should be taken, as soon as the info war group is established. Here is a handful of suggestions. More to come upon request.
Absolutely the most important thing is to make a list (and map!) of supporting groups and individuals. It may be partially public, but first of all it should provide information about available resources, also for the integration reasons.
There are the questions that are not easy to answer, especially in public. They accumulate over the time into a growing list. I can give just a few examples28, but certainly there are more of them. There is a need of list of such questions, with well prepared and meaningful answers. It will help answer them in a relaxed, mindful and consistent way.
There is more than one reason to support Rojava and there are many – not always mutually friendly – groups that may support the cause. I believe that various narratives should be prepared for various audiences. There are left-wing progressives, who will be more keen to listen about women’s equality. White nationalists, who will be happy to help stopping the militant Islam. Anarchists, longing to see stateless society, even democratic one. And so on.
The serious foundation for that is that there is no place here for „innocent bystanders”. Every decision – or a lack thereof – is an act. Every decision participates in shaping Rojava and its future. And the situation is not neutral. There is strong „wind of history” pushing Rojava into the void. To keep it alive, we have to keep going against it. All of us.
There are several, even more important, actions to be taken, but this document grew already way beyond its initial design.
Whatever happens to Rojava will be equally caused by the „big politics”, the armed fight and the info war I was trying to outline here. Out of these three, info war is the most tedious and time-consuming, as it is about winning hearts and brains without shooting them. However, as the example of EZLN shows, properly led info war saves lives, ammunition and fuel – and counterbalances even overwhelming military power.
2 I am a sworn advocate of Rojava, especially as an exmplary model for European aternative social movements. I am also probably better-than-average informed about what Rojava is. However, this text is about the image of Rojava in the eyes of „Global West”, not about what Rojava is in its core. Please mind the gap.
3 Please note that it doesn’t necessarily mean physical extermination (although, knowing reality, it clearly involves it, partial at least). The main goal is to remove Rojava as a political project and to destroy every effort made to create alternative political system.
4 Kurdish Regional Government – a westernized, capitalist and deeply patriarchal aspiring state in Bashur, the South Kurdistan in Iraq.
7 Later I will show, however, that it makes much harder to win allies in the West.
10 One of the first and most emphatic: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/10/western-fascination-with-badas-2014102112410527736.html
15 http://www.start.umd.edu/tops/terrorist_organization_profile.asp?id=4572 „As a result of the KDP’s alliance with PUK to form the Kurdistan Regional Government and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, KDP rebel forces are unlikely to conduct violent attacks in the future. Naturally the organization will continue to fight for an independent Kurdistan, but the KDP has been trying to establish itself as a political organization working for the peaceful attainment of Kurdistan.”
16 In large part this section is inspired by the great article of Zaher Baher from Haringey Solidarity Group and Kurdistan Anarchists Forum, who watches things from the Kurdish diaspora point of view. Read it for additional perspective: https://www.reddit.com/r/Anarchism/comments/3f0xyo/why_are_anarchists_and_libertarians_divided_over/
17 As a born Pole, I really see a lot of similarities, historical and in temperament, between Kurds (and Rojavans) and Poles. It is not always encouraging, though.
19 That is why I believe all the noise about „Obama betrayal” is nonsensical. Who would expect the U.S. president to be bound by personal loyalty with a bunch of ant-statist rebels in Syria?
20 The other necessary condition was making women the leading force of the revolution.
22 My observations come mostly from facebook groups related to Kurds and Kurdistan, and some of purely Rojavan ones.
24 Extremely non-secure and non-private, especially in the context of pretty special arrangements with the Turkish government.
26 Thoroughly analysed by the adversaries: http://lap.sagepub.com/content/34/2/78.abstract , https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1382/MR1382.ch6.pdf , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netwar , http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR994.html also a comment on the latter at http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v15n4p28.htm
27 Such an installation was described in greater details here: https://www.loomio.org/g/7Lyarjl8/amargi-pl-rojava-it-support
28 „What is the situation of LGBTQ groups in Rojava?”, „What is the relationship between PYD and DSA bodies?”