Many people, including this writer, have been missing a key part of the story in Syria’s ongoing civil strife. Most of the media’s focus has been on the atrocities of the Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, the government of Bashar Al Assad and the Army of Conquest, which includes the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. However, alongside and directly fighting against the revolutionary forces of reaction represented by the salafists is Rojava, both a geographic and political movement in mostly Kurdish north-western Syria.
As we shall see, Rojava’s model of governance, centered especially on empowering women and promoting self-determination for minority communities, should be resonating in the West but has for the most part been ignored, its successes on the battlefield often projected onto the Peshmerga of nearby Iraqi Kurdistan.
They are mostly cut off from outside aid and are lightly armed with Soviet era weapons compared to their opponents, who obtained state of the art American weaponry from retreating Iraqi forces. Of course, this lack of aid might be due to the fact that the parent organization of the main political force in Rojava, the PYD, is a Kurdish group in Turkey called the PKK, labeled a terrorist organization by the US and most European countries
In a story that riveted the world last summer, hundreds of Yazidi civilians, Kurdish speakers who practice an ancient religion often compared to Zoroastrianism, were trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraq and threatened with death by IS militants. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga seemed powerless to stop the onslaught until, taking advantage of a newly open border, the PYD’s militias, the YPG and the YPJ, poured in and created corridors to safety for them.
While some commentators claimed a NATO victory from the air, the militias of Rojava risked their lives on the ground to save the Yazidis, many of whom then received training to defend themselves and returned to their homes in Iraq pledging political allegiance to Rojava rather than the main Iraqi Kurdish party, the NATO-backed KRG, which controls the Peshmerga.
Rojava, which is the Kurdish word for west, incorporates three “cantons” (a name taken from the Swiss) with a population of 2 million split into 22 ministries in northwest Syria. The population in most of these ministries is majority Kurdish but also includes significant numbers of Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians and Turkmen, among other ethnic and religious groups. The three cantons are named Kobani (also the name of the town which has successfully defended itself from IS over the past year), Cizire and Afrin.
Rojava’s cantons are located in areas of great strategic importance, especially to IS, as they border on both Iraq and Turkey, which would potentially allow the group to bring in new fighters and revenue from smuggling. Control of the area would also open the only road between the IS capital in Al-Raqqah and the largest city in Syria, Aleppo, where jihadist groups are currently fighting not only the Assad regime but each other.
The PYD, the dominant, but not only, political group in the cantons, was founded in 2003 by Syrian members of the Turkish PKK, who fought a long and bloody battle with Turkish security forces from the 70s through the 90s for Kurdish independence. This struggle has mostly moved to the political realm since the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the movement’s leader in 1999, after which a peace deal led to a withdrawal of PKK forces to Iraqi Kurdistan. This progress towards peace has been jeapordized by the Turkish Airforce, which began bombing Iraqi PKK positions in late July.
Supportive of protests against Assad’s Baath regime in Syria in 2011, the PYD’s fighters and their political allies rejected most of his forces from their territory in 2012. However, they have not called for independence from the Syrian state as the PKK demanded in Turkey until recently, but rather the opportunity to continue their experiment in direct democracy as part of a new, confederated Syria.
Besides the YPG and the separate women’s militia the YPJ, the policing functions in the cantons are performed by the Asayish, which requires 6 weeks of training to join but is open to all citizens. The idea is that once everyone in the cantons is trained in de-escalation and other progressive policing techniques the Asayish itself will no longer be necessary and the police forces can be dissolved.
The PKK, which is considered a terrorist group in the US and most of Europe, starring Rojava with the same brush even though it denies organizational links to it, has evolved from the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist orientation it had throughout most of its history to the idea of a kind of confederated localism with autonomy and direct democracy for small communities.
Ocalan has remained the leader of the PKK throughout his time in prison and his thinking seems to have evolved both politically and socially. One of the philosophers he has taken as an influence is Murrey Bookchin (1921-2006), a thinker from a much more placid milieu (Vermont by way of New York) whose thought also evolved over time from Trotskyism to traditional Anarchism to what he called libertarian municipalism. Ocalan took this idea and offered it as a new model for his followers throughout the region from his prison cell, renaming it municipal confederalism.
Bookchin’s idea, taken in some ways from the Ancient Greek city states, was to have citizen’s assemblies who would concentrate on local needs. On the larger scale, these assemblies would come together to form a confederation that would eventually replace the state in its current form.
While the charge of terrorism weighs heavily on the PKK and by association Rojava’s YPG, we need to remember that Kurds throughout the region, whether the relatively prosperous ones represented by the Western-backed Barzani and his government in northern Iraq or the mainly poverty-stricken ones drawn into the PKK in the 1970s, have been victims of western colonialism’s creation of countries based mostly on natural resources without regard to the different groups living in them. One remarkable thing about Rojava is the idea that Kurds can achieve their independence not by creating a nation-state but within their own communities, and that women and members of the LGBTQ community can be equal partners in the enterprise.
“Our system rests on the communes, made up of neighborhoods of 300 people. The communes have co-presidents, and there are co-presidents at all levels from commune to canton administration. In each commune there are five or six different committees… There are also district councils and city councils, up to the canton. The principle is ’few problems, many resolutions’,” Abdulkerim Omar and Cinar Salih, representatives of TEV-DEM, the Movement for a Democratic Society, an umbrella group which encompasses the various civil and political parties in Rojava including the PYD, explained to Bookchin’s widow, Janet Biehl, who interviewed them as a member of the the Academic Delegation to Rojava this past December.
Although the movement grew out of the Kurdish struggle for independence in Turkey, as reported by multiple sources, the top three officials in Rojava must be from different ethnic groups. Additionally, at least one must be a woman. In fact, a minimum of 40% of all leadership positions must go to women (or men, if the disparity begins to turn the other way).
Their sincerity was shown by their treatment of an Arab village called Alouk, where the YPG and YPJ repelled an incursion by extremist groups, “For us it’s a philosophy. We Kurds see the Arabs as brothers. The Kurds have always protected the Arabs, but the Arabs didn’t protect us. Now they build their own community. If they want help from us, we will help them,” Egid Qamislo, a YPG fighter told Al Monitor in 2013. This despite the fact that the Syrian government have long implemented policies of Arabization, not allowing the Kurdish language to be taught in schools and bringing in Arabs from other parts of the country in an attempt to change the demographics of the area.
A Different World Made Possible
One of the confounding things about Rojava’s experiment is that it is a radical democracy which grew out of a cult of personality; almost all reports from the region say that just about every room has a portrait of Ocalan on the wall. Oddly, having a leader who can’t truly lead may have actually unified the YPD and allowed it proceed with the experiment without interference and ideological bickering. Besides this, the existential crisis created by IS and other reactionary groups has also probably been a huge factor in building solidarity among Rojava’s inhabitants.
For now at least, and for all its imperfections, there is an agent of real change in the Middle East that, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, doesn’t come from the religious right. Rojava should be on the minds and lips of the left, radical and moderate alike. Liberals should be demanding its protection in the pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post. In many ways the almost non-existent coverage of it reminds one of the similar mainstream treatment of the Zapatista’s continuing progress in Chiapas, Mexico.
As David Graeber, a longtime activist and anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said after visiting the Cizire canton as part of the Academic Delegation to Rojava mentioned above, what is happening in northwestern Syria is comparable in many ways to the Spanish Civil War. While politicians and pundits like to spend a lot of time talking about Neville Chamberlain and Munich, they rarely mention Franco and Guernica. If we are to be serious in the fight against IS and the forces of reaction in the Muslim world, we need to start supporting the alternatives.
For more information on Rojava’s political ideas you can read their “Charter of the Social Contract” here.
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