I stood behind a crowd of 80 people, most from the Kurdish community, who were paying their last respects to Nazzareno Tassone, known as Sheid Agir in Kurdistan. The young man, a Canadian international volunteer, fought alongside Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The memorial, organized by members of the Kurdish community in Canada, took place Jan. 9 in Ottawa near Parliament Hill at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
While official soldiers for the Canadian Armed Forces who are martyred in combat get elaborate ceremonies for risking their lives to defend our principles of democracy and freedom, Canadian citizens who volunteer to help a foreign army defend their principles of freedom and democracy get demonized by the media and the public as thrill seekers with a death wish.
“As soon as you tell people [your actions were] not connected with our government they suddenly look at you like you are crazy or a terrorist,” says Heval Gabar, a Quebecer who also fought overseas with the Kurdish defence forces.
“The media gets focused on the fight against Daesh,” Gabar adds, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS the Kurds employ in a derogatory fashion, “but most international volunteers are not fighting them. They are fighting ideals, and a consequence of that is to fight Daesh.”
Western media rarely cover the revolution being fought for in the Middle East, preferring to sell the drama of young boys dying to fight ISIS rather than that of youth and women dying while fighting for the Kurds and women’s rights.
A revolution defended by armed women and men
The NSR, or Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava (formerly known just as Rojava), is a liberated zone, encompassing three cantons in northern Syria, that has established autonomy from the Assad regime and has fought off ISIS and other extremist groups.
Heval Hêvî Pelling, a Canadian and one of the first women international volunteers to join the fight, explains that the militia forces charged with defending the NSR are split into two units, the YPG (People’s Protection Unit) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Unit), so the women can develop self-reliance. Gender equality is a central principle of the NSR at every level of society and the political process.
The men are encouraged to ask the women for help because traditionally they have not done so, whereas the women are supposed to develop their strength by not asking the men for aid. For this reason, Hêvî Pelling explains, she chose to join the YPJ, where women “were not patronage or quotas like in other armies” and defend the feminist principles of the NSR.
The NSR is a secular polity based on principles of democratic confederalism, where decisions are made with a bottom-up approach. For every mixed-gender council at the local level there is also a women-only committee that makes decisions on issues affecting women.
Heval Hozan, a Canadian international volunteer for the YPG, explains that women’s congresses held in the NSR have already made significant reforms in terms of the right to divorce, age of consent for marriage, refugee shelters for abused women, and the banning of polygamy.
Before joining the YPG, Hozan entered Syria as a filmmaker to make a documentary about Kobanî, a canton in Rojava. He describes Kurds as the most hospitable people in the world, willing to give the shirts off their back for a guest.
“Everyone wanted to talk about what happened,” Hozan says. “They felt like because of their history they would be hidden, they would be silenced and so seeing Westerners with [a] camera, they were really grateful and happy to have a way to get out what was happening.”
A new type of state?
Since the 1980s, the Kurds in Syria have experienced forced arabization. They were considered an underclass and forced to speak Arabic; their farmers were dispossessed and forced to migrate to the city to work as cheap labor. Rojava is looking to create a new type of state, in which the people are more powerful than the state and where citizens or all religions and ethnicities can talk and live together.
“It was for this revolution . . . and this possibility to find another way to live, to behave, to learn, to belong to a socialist group that I was interested in,” Gabar says, explaining that this is a fight for systemic change. “It’s not just an ethical fight, it's a fight for humanity. This one just happens to concern the Kurds because it's happening in Kurdistan but if it were happening anywhere else it would be the same.”
The future of this revolution will be dictated by international politics. In January, peace talks were held in Astana, Kazakhstan, to come to a political settlement on the situation in Syria. However, the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava’s political party, the PYD, was excluded from these talks, even though its militia is the most effective group fighting Daesh right now.
If there were the political will to do so, Daesh could be destroyed within months. The group remains a threat in the Middle East, however, because the real question of who will take power once they are defeated has yet to be answered.
NATO and western countries cannot politically support the PYD because the current Turkish government describes all Kurdish forces as terrorist groups. YPG and YPJ fighters cite examples like Al-bab, a city they had almost liberated from the control of Daesh before being bombed by the Turkish army, who did not want the territorial control of the YPG and YPJ to grow.
“Turkey is the biggest threat against the revolution,” says Heval Ciya, another Canadian volunteer who just returned from Syria in January.
“And this revolution is defending all the civilians no what their religion, ethnicity, or sex, the YPG [and YPJ] don’t care about it and will defend you,” Ciya adds. “We need political support [from Western countries], not just special forces, we need recognition. It is a contradiction to help us fight Daesh but not support us just to make Turkey happy. Because then they will take it from us once Daesh is defeated and we will have a system like ISIS again.”
“If the rhetoric that comes out of our Western government is true that the only way we can be secure and safe from terrorism is with democracy, freedom, and women’s rights in the Middle East then it is in our national interest, our security interest to support this democratic feminist movement taking over in Syria,” says Hozan. “If we want to see real peace in the Middle East, then it is time the international community as well as Western media start supporting one of the only groups in Syria right now who are risking their lives to bring true democracy and freedom to the Middle East.”