At the age of 27, Macer Gifford would sit at the desk in his office and read the day’s newspapers for hours on end. He wasn’t slacking, he insists. It was simply part of his job. “The one thing that moves the markets the most is instability and uncertainty around the world,” says Gifford. “It was down to me to tell my clients what was going on.” It was during this time, while Gifford was working as an investment banker in London, that Isis’s rise as player in the Middle East reached its climax. “Spending my days reading the papers meant I was exposed to their influence a lot more than the average person,” he says. “Reading about 20,000 Yazidis being chased up Sinjar mountain was the moment that did it for me.”
Shocked at the government’s inaction at the genocide “emerging in front of our very eyes”, Gifford quit his job, pulled out of an imminent house purchase, broke up with his partner and joined the YPG (People’s Protection Unit) in Syria. For the next three years, his standard of life was to change dramatically: “I’ve been able to live off what I used to earn in a month”. Just a few weeks after seeing his last high-end client in the surroundings of a plush investment bank, Gifford was being bundled over the Iraqi-Syrian border to join the rest of the newly recruited international volunteers. Met on his arrival by a mishmash of battle-hungry trained soldiers, and more ideological left-wing volunteers who wanted to defeat Isis’s fascism while defending socialism in Rojava, the former Tory party councillor candidate found himself somewhere in between.
One week’s training, and a month and a half of inaction and sheer boredom behind the frontline later – “no bullets fired, not even a mortar” – Gifford became considerably better versed in the Kurdish freedom movement and the politics of the region of Rojava. An ever-expanding area in the north of Syria annexed by the Kurds after the breakout of the civil war, Rojava is a living, breathing experiment in democratic confederalism, a blend of socialism, local democracy and feminism – and perhaps not a project you’d expect an ex-banker and Tory to get behind. A Conservative of the more liberal variant however, who was enticed to the party as a 17-year-old off the back of David Cameron’s Green Conservative agenda, Gifford found the ideas he came across compelling. Now Raqqa has been liberated, he sees his role back in the UK as an ambassador of sorts for the region of Rojava.
“Kurds’ view on democracy and life are very refreshing,” says Gifford. “It was very egalitarian, even on the front line. Things were decided in a democratic fashion – it was even possible to vote out commanders if they weren’t deemed to be doing their jobs properly.”
For Gifford, the revolution’s most impressive effects however can be seen in the towns liberated by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), a military coalition of which the Kurdish YPG is the largest component. “Manbij is perhaps the best example,” says Gifford. “Its population is now bigger than when the war broke out. The streets are clean, and schools and shops are open. It’s thriving.”
“The most impressive thing about the YPG is being able to go into an area – regardless of its religious, tribal or ethnic background – and then immediately relinquish power and give it back to the community in the form of local councils.”
The Asayish would then be constructed, a kind of police force with limited powers and trained in non-violent conflict disputes and feminist theory. As per the revolution’s focus on feminism, the council would have to have equal male and female representation.
“Kurds generally have positive ideas for the region,” says Gifford. “Isis are nobodies: just thugs with weapons who’d butcher anything in their sight. What’s far more interesting is democratic confederalism, the fact that progressive ideals are being put forward by this indigenous movement.” In the Rojavan revolution, Gifford sees the potential for something inspiring to overcome the imperialism and factionalism that has blighted the region’s history. Democratic confederalism, with its focus on power residing in a networked group of smaller locales, rather than in the nation state – “a kind of devo-max” – is a welcome corrective to the violence of the past.
“The Middle East is artificially created anyway – imperialism created the Middle East with no thought to ethnic or religious lines,” he says. “We in the West, rather arrogantly and ignorantly, say what’s wrong with the Middle East, they can’t seem to get their act together.”
“We’ve always tried to put Western ideals and concepts onto very unwilling subjects. Iraq in 2003 is a great example. Democratic confederalism however recognises the history and diversity of the region.”
After its successes against Isis, Gifford’s mission now is to make sure Rojava – represented by its revolutionary party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – is seen as a major player in the international community. The stumbling block, Gifford tells me, is Turkey. The Kurds have long experienced persecution by the Turkish state: tens of thousands of Kurds were massacred for their part in the Ararat rebellion in the early 20th century with the Kurdish language later being banned as part of a state-sanctioned cultural assimilation project. Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yusekdag, the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish left-wing minority party the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) which denied Recep Tayyip Erdogan an outright majority in the 2015 election – and who also have strong ties to the revolution in Rojava – are currently locked up in jail for their alleged links to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Co-founded by its now exiled leader Abdullah Ocallan, the PKK is a revolutionary Kurdish independence guerrilla group with a longstanding history of armed clashes with Turkey’s security forces. Ocallan is also the leading thinker behind democratic confederalism – the PKK and the revolution in Rojava are inextricably linked.
And it is because of this that the 9th Syrian peace talks, convened by the UN and currently being held in Geneva, have gone ahead without the Kurds. “The SDF, Rojava’s military arm, now controls 25 to 30 per cent of Syria,” says Gifford. “They are the only force in Syria that are democratic, that have signed the Geneva convention and that treat people properly. Yet, again, the PYD haven’t been invited to the table.” Prior to the talks, the Turkish prime minister warned the EU that if the PYD were given a role in the peace talks, Turkey would have the power to ease their border controls, potentially allowing millions more Syrian refugees to enter Europe. Against the backdrop of Europe-wide anti-immigrant sentiment, Turkey simply hold too much power for influential EU states to stand up for Rojava. Britain’s precarious position in a post-Brexit world also rules it out.
“A key part of Britain’s post-Brexit future is a trade deal with Turkey,” says Gifford. “We’ve already sold £100m worth of fighter jets to them and identified them as the first trade deal we’ll do after we leave the EU. We’re simply too reliant on them to stand up for the Kurds.”
The talks in Geneva have so far been farcical. The government’s negotiating team walked out last week before they had barely started, after the FSA (Free Syrian Army) team demanded Assad would have no role in a post-war government. After defeat in the siege of Aleppo, it is widely recognised the FSA are a waning force with little room to demand anything of the Syrian government.
“Both wars are coming to an end,” says Gifford. “The SDF are beating Isis and Assad is beating the FSA. There are now two major forces emerging here, but because of the pressure from Turkey the West are locked on to the idea that the FSA is the main opposition against Assad. The reality on the ground is very different to what’s being represented in the peace talks.”
It is too late for the PYD to join the talks in Geneva, but Gifford – bristling with fervour at the injustice of the situation – holds out a glimmer of hope for similar talks planned for Sochi in February 2018. “My aim now is to do anything I can so that the Rojavan revolution has a seat at those talks,” he says. “Turkey have already voiced their disapproval at the PYD’s potential involvement. It’s now time for the UK and other Western powers to stand up to Turkey and do what’s right by the Kurdish people.”
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