Self-Defense in Rojava: The "Social Defense Forces" HPC
Interview with Reşid Kobanê, a senior member of the HPC
The Social Defense Forces (Hêzên Parastina Civakî, HPC) have been an important expression of radical democratic self-organization in North and East Syria since 2015. As a democratic counter-model to state security forces, they protect the population in neighborhoods, towns and villages. Kurdistan Report spoke with Reşid Kobanê, the person in charge of the HPC.
The society in Rojava/North Syria is exposed to daily attacks from Turkey and its jihadist mercenaries.What is the role of the Social Defense Forces HPC in this context?
It is true that the Turkish state is attacking the peoples living in Rojava. These attacks are not new. It has been pursuing a policy of intervention in North Syria since the beginning of the revolution. When Syria plunged completely into civil war, Turkey intervened there directly. It wanted to play a role in the transformation of Syria and influence the changes that were taking place there. If there is to be change, it must be in Turkey`s interest, and the Kurdish people have no place in Syria's future, no status. The policy of annihilation continues unchanged. Because when the war problems began in Syria and the Islamic State (IS) attacked, the Turkish state also began to intervene, mainly in Rojava.
It first trained the jihadist gangs on behalf of the coalition with its resources and funds on Turkish soil and then sent them to war in Syria, fully loaded with weapons and ammunition. The documentation of these arms shipments happened in the Turkish media, that is, in full view of the public. This is well known, so everybody is aware of this. Jabhat al-Nusra (the Al-Nusra Front) was one of their main gangs. Especially in the Rojava region, there was increasing intervention on their behalf, but it wasn't long before IS became the leading force and the other gangs joined it. In fact, there is no real difference between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra; the difference lies solely in the definition. Later mercenary forces such as the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Nureddin al-Zenki Movement, and others were also founded, organized, and directed directly by the Turkish state. Their war was and is known to be waged on Rojava territory.
The Kobanê resistance was a historic event. The IS gangs brutally attacked the city in order to snatch places like Kobanê, which led the revolution, from the hands of the autonomous administration and prevent any progress of the revolution. This became very clear in speeches made by Turkish President Erdoğan at the time. However, the revolution did not listen to him and his needs and kept expanding. The heavy IS attacks were successfully repelled and their capital (Raqqa) was also liberated. Likewise, other liberated areas were created in northeastern Syria. The Turkish state failed in its goal and that made it angry. Cerablus, al-Bab and Azaz were occupied by Turkey under the silence of international forces. And it continued its occupation in Efrîn, Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî.
Together with tens of thousands of fighters, the Turkish state attacked the population with all its might. Airplanes, helicopters, tanks, chemical weapons - all kinds of weapons were used. The target was not only the forces of the People's and Women's Defense Units YPG/YPJ, but mainly civilians. The ferocity of the attacks in the area did not decrease after the occupation, and where it was not the Turkish state itself, it were its mercenary forces: Murders, kidnappings, robberies, looting and rapes in Minbîç, Til Rifat, Şehba, Efrîn, Ain Issa, Til Temir and Zigran. There is no longer a day without bombings, deaths or kidnappings.
In contrast, it is the duty of all freedom-loving people to defend their country and society against any attacks. Every institution and every person is responsible for defending the country.The HPC were established to fight against IS, suffering thousands of casualties and injuries. They also fulfilled their duty in the last attack, supporting the democratic defense units.
And they served as guards in the areas liberated from the IS gangs, providing defense and security for the cities and neighborhoods there. In the democratic autonomous region, the role and responsibilities of the institutions have changed over time, and the task of protection has also evolved. Expanding and maintaining the revolution is a historical task, and the HPC are directly involved in it with their capabilities. In case of attacks, they are always ready. Today, the HPC have the duty to protect the people, the country, the institutions, in short the values of the revolution, against the attacks of the jihadist mercenaries and the Turkish state. They act as the eyes and ears of the revolution and play a role in exposing secret and hidden cells of the enemy. They protect the land and the environment in the liberated areas.
However, there are still the areas occupied by the Turkish state, where control has been taken over by the jihadists and the population is under pressure from the enemy. Of course, the HPC bear responsibility there as well. However, we cannot say anything more specific about these areas. To strengthen the fight against the occupiers, to fight the enemy in our country, these are our main duties. This duty also applies to the occupied territories. The people living there also know their work, duties and responsibilities.
Why was this form of self-defense chosen and what is the composition of the forces?
The HPC were born out of necessity. When the Syrian regime was in power and ruled over the region of Rojava, civil defense was not at the same level as it is today. At that time, it operated as a militia to defend the people. Of course, the organization was not open, nor did it have clear centers. It was not structured as an institution and its organization was weak. When IS attacked, the problems became apparent. There was no order, the system did not work, the future was unclear. People's lives were in danger, their years of effort were undone, their homes destroyed.
When the jihadists attacked the cities of Rojava, they wanted to do the same thing there as they had done in Syria. In this situation, people were faced with the problem of protection. On the one hand, because of the areas where the jihadists were gaining ground and the war they were waging against the Syrian regime, and on the other hand, because of the attacks on civilians, the murders, kidnappings, torture, rapes and the robbery of community property, security concerns arose and thus the HPC was built.
Because where there is danger, it is necessary to ensure the protection of the community. That is where defense institutions are needed. Basically, such an organization is needed not only because of attacks taking place, but the mere likelihood of an attack legitimizes its establishment. Large states, for example, have established such institutions. Depending on the situation, in addition to defense, they are also entrusted with the task of taking action to protect people in the event of disasters. In some countries, they are for example called civil defense. Of course, the social situation is a reason for the creation of such an institution, but what is essential is the understanding of the defense of the people and the country, and this is universal. If the Kurdish people had not established the HPC before the revolution, there would be no basic knowledge regarding its tasks. Moreover, there is a lot of knowledge that was acquired under the difficulties of the occupation. This institution must be protected and strengthened for the future to ensure the protection of the country and its people. On the other hand, the existence of the HPC is not an obstacle for the security institutions such as the YPG/YPJ, but they complement each other.
There are no other forces under the umbrella of the HPC. They are a separate institution, with their own organization. They basically draw their strength and power from the population. According to their understanding, self-defense is organized autonomously. The work of the HPC involves people from all sectors of society, young and old, and of all genders. The protection of historical sites as well as agricultural land and production are also among the tasks of the HPC.
Of course, this does not mean that they do not have relations with other institutions. They are affiliated with the Ministry of Defense of Democratic Autonomy. They are also linked to the Democratic Defense Forces and have coordinated security and defense tasks. In accordance with the requirements of, for example, economic and agricultural commissions, there is also cooperation with them.
Why does the HPC exist alongside the YPJ/YPG?
The YPG/YPJ function as a defense and as a military force, they fulfill their duty and bear responsibility for the whole country. They are organized in a military way, so they are professional forces, with purely military tasks and responsibilities. They cannot participate in the daily affairs of society, because not all protection tasks can be performed by them alone. The defense of land and population is a comprehensive task.
The HPC support the YPG/YPJ in the war. They complement each other. When the YPG/YPJ are fighting on the front lines, the HPC take on the task of providing security inside the cities. The HPC are present in the communities on a daily basis. They are ready to intervene anytime and anywhere, so they can always intervene. Within the sphere of defense, their own economic, agricultural and organizational work may well be done. In short, the functions of each institution are different. One does not replace the other. However, they can complement each other.
What is the daily work of the HPC? What do they do?
Public and everyday activities are intertwined. HPC centers are located in every city. Our members in the communes visit neighborhoods and areas near our centers as needed and when problems arise. This is because the HPC are in contact with the population as part of their work and also work together with them. According to security requirements, planning and patrols take place together with the Asayîş [security forces of the autonomous administration]. Control shifts are also carried out together. All of these are daily tasks. When the Asayîş provide security at events, the HPC also do their part. The protection of some institutions is provided by the HPC. They protect neighborhoods and streets every day.Likewise, there are regular educational activities for their members.
Men and women do this work equally. All patrols, protection at demonstrations, rallies, etc. fall under their responsibility. Women participate in the work, they also receive special education. In the same way, they participate in all defense activities.
Do all residents in the neighborhoods or villages participate in the HPC? What is the percentage of the civilian population?
The protection of the community is the duty of the population itself. The name of our organization makes this clear. It is true when we say that the HPC were built by the society itself. This really means the whole society. Man and woman, grandma and grandpa, from young to old can all take their place in the defense and organization of the HPC. Our members include, for example, doctors, farmers, politicians, workers, students, housewives, in short, people from all walks of life. All of them can participate in our work. That is why it is not wrong when we say: the HPC are the people.
The participation is great. There are almost no villages or neighborhoods where the HPC are not organized. Those who consider the defense of the country as their duty are knocking on our door. As mentioned earlier, there are some people who cannot give up their daily work and participate in professional military work. But a place in the HPC can be found by all.
On the question of how many people are organized in the HPC, we cannot give exact information. But we can say that where there are the people, there are the HPC.
This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.