Six years ago, when ISIS attacked Kobanî, in Syria, the Kurds put up a heroic resistance, as the Ukrainians are doing now. But the city was only saved because the West supported the Kurdish fighters – support that is not forthcoming for Ukraine today.
In October 2014, Islamic State (ISIS) fighters attacked the Kurdish-majority city of Kobanî in northern Syria with U.S.-manufactured heavy weapons, which they had seized earlier that year in the Battle of Mosul. As those defending the city were pushed back to a few remaining streets, Stéphane Charbonnier wrote a thought-provoking article in the left-leaning French daily newspaper L’Humanité.
“I am not Kurdish, I can’t speak a single word of Kurdish, I cannot name a single Kurdish writer, I know nothing about Kurdish culture. But today I am Kurdish. I think in Kurdish, I speak in Kurdish, I sing in Kurdish, I weep in Kurdish. The besieged Kurds in Syria are not just Kurds; they are humanity fighting against the darkness. They are defending their lives, their families, their country, but whether they want to or not, they represent the last bulwark against the advance of the ‘Islamic State’. They are defending us, not against a distorted version of Islam, a religion that the terrorists of ISIS do not truly represent, but against barbarism and mob rule.”
Charbonnier, known by his pseudonym Charb, was editor-in-chief at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Four months after that article was published, he – along with nine of his colleagues and other victims – was murdered by this very same “barbarism and mob rule.”
Before the cry of “Je suis Charlie” echoed across the world, Charb had used a similar formulation to express his solidarity: “Aujourd’hui, je suis kurde” – “Today, I am Kurdish.”
After the Berlin Wall
Although the war criminal Vladimir Putin is not the same as the mass murderers of ISIS, many are now adapting Charbonnier’s words to the current situation: “Today I am Ukrainian. I think in Ukrainian, I speak in Ukrainian, I sing in Ukrainian, I weep in Ukrainian.”
Once more the eyes of the world – and especially of Europe – are turned towards a war in the east. We are horrified by the actions of the aggressors, we feel for the victims, but when it comes to practical help, aside from welcoming refugees, we are slow to act.
The German government waited until Ukraine was invaded before agreeing to send weapons. Similarly, NATO did not agree to supply heavy weaponry until reports emerged of mass murders in Bucha.
This begs the question: What crimes will need to be committed before NATO takes further action, such as establishing the no-fly zone that President Volodymyr Zelensky and all Ukrainian intellectuals and artists with a public platform have been ceaselessly calling for?
Liberal democracy has lost some of the appeal it gained with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
So far, the response from Western governments has been a clear "no". Ukrainian voices are similarly falling on deaf ears when they point out that this war is about far more than one country. “You are not only helping Ukraine,” wrote author Oksana Zabuzhko. “In defending themselves against the Russian occupying forces, they are helping the entire free world.” Just like the Kurds in Syria a few years ago.
There is a lot at stake for the West, and especially for Europe: freedom, security – and credibility.
The latter is being questioned more than those at the heart of Europe may realize. And with good reason: Srebrenica and Rwanda, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Julian Assange and Alan Kurdi … they all raise the same question: What are the much-vaunted “Western values” truly worth, when it comes down to it?
This loss of credibility is partly why, in many parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and elsewhere, the idea of liberal democracy has lost some of the appeal it gained in the new era ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Countries across Western Europe have also seen the rise of political groups that until recently declared public support for Putin and his disdain for the idea of an open democratic society.
Why Putin invaded
The euro crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit – the last decade has been a difficult one for Europe. Only one country, on the periphery of the continent, seemed to have bucked the trend: Ukraine.
During the Maidan Revolution, more than 100 people lost their lives in the fight to bring their country closer to its European neighbors. Despite all its failings, shortcomings and backward steps, Ukraine has not deviated from this aim – and that is precisely why Putin invaded.
It seems like a cruel joke.
No other country has had to pay such a high price for the chance to become part of a democratic, liberal Europe. But even after the Russian invasion, it seems that few in Europe are prepared to acknowledge this.
The Ukrainians have had to wait weeks for even a half-hearted step in that direction. During her visit to Kyiv this month, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen finally acknowledged Ukraine’s request to be considered as a candidate for EU membership.
Note, this does not equate to membership, only candidate status – a symbolic gesture with no associated risks or costs. Most Eastern European member states were in favor, unlike their Western European counterparts. It seems like a cruel joke that the – at least, formerly – so staunchly pro-Europe Ukrainians’ greatest supporters are the Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson and the anti-EU Polish government.
A 2014 photo of a march in the Netherlands in support of the Kurdish resistance
Jaap Arriens/Pacific Press/ZUMA
Some are asking how European Ukraine really is. Until the Russian invasion, Ukraine had not seemed to play a significant role on the European stage. But the country has a place in the continent’s recent history, as we can see from the work of three historians.
Ten years ago, American author Timothy Snyder described the swathe of Eastern Europe that runs from the Baltic states to Russia’s western border, taking in the eastern part of Poland, Belarus and all of Ukraine, as “Bloodlands”: the site of monstrous crimes against humanity under Nazism and Stalinism. For now we will set aside the fact that he barely acknowledged any difference between these two regimes. What is relevant here is Bloodlands’s insistence on the moral burden of history, which Germany’s foreign policy towards Russia over the last few decades has also contributed to. The idea of this moral burden was not false. What was false was the refusal to acknowledge this same moral burden of history in relation to Ukraine.
Ten years or so before Snyder, around the turn of the century, his German-Israeli colleague Dan Diner published his book Cataclysms: A History of the Twentieth Century from Europe’s Edge. While Snyder focused on the fates of individuals, Diner wrote his history in a literary style, narrated by a fictitious observer whom he places on the famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa.
From that vantage point, his gaze sweeps towards the east and the south, taking in the conflicts that marked the 19th century, which – Diner believes – sowed the seeds for the wars of the 20th. The resulting narrative is not an alternative history of Europe, but a history that makes clear the importance of those countries on the eastern periphery of the continent.
Lesson of Kobani
The most recent book is by German historian Karl Schlögel, Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland.. The original German title, which translates as Decision Time in Kyiv: Lessons from Ukraine, might make it sound like the book was rushed out to coincide with the invasion, but in fact it was published in 2015.
The author’s self-critical words read like a prophecy now: Until the Maidan Revolution and the Russian response, he had not truly seen Ukraine as a sovereign country and had underestimated the aggressive threat posed by Putin’s Russia. The events of 2014 were a clear turning point for an Eastern Europe expert like Schlögel, as they were for Ukrainians. But unfortunately, not for the rest of Europe.
A terrorist militia is a very different opponent than a nuclear power.
It was already clear to Schlögel that events would escalate. For him, the only question that remained was the outcome: “We don’t know how the fight for Ukraine will turn out, […] whether Europe, the West will defend the country or abandon it. One thing is certain: Ukraine will never again disappear from the map in our heads.”
Kobanî would not have been successfully defended, and ISIS would not have been defeated in Syria and Iraq, without the heroic fighting and heavy losses suffered by the Kurds. But the Islamic State would also not have been defeated without the U.S. Air Force.
Of course, a terrorist militia is a very different opponent from Russia, a nuclear power. But that means Russia is also capable of a level of rationality that jihadists were not. And if the West does not learn to stand firm, there is no guarantee that others will always be there to fight against the darkness on its behalf.