In the 2 years since the Turkish military declared war on the Kurdish people in the south east of their country (in Northern Kurdistan) there has been little concerted protest from the ‘Left’
…The ‘Left’ would/should hang its head in shame – if it were anywhere to be found near the front lines of the momentous social change taking place all around us; and amidst the fog of confusion and the apparent impoverishment of its ideas or its capacity to offer leadership in the democratic project – our work of change, individual and collective, now that all the statues have been torn down, the mountains of dogma still collapsing under their own weight…
And the reason?
In the 2 years since the Turkish military declared war on the Kurdish people in the south east of their country (in Northern Kurdistan) there has been little concerted protest from the ‘Left’ or from the fragmented opposition spread thin across a landscape of capitalist crisis and its now-ongoing potential for catastrophe. So much so the question must ask itself:
Do the Kurds have no friends?
Likewise the silence that has embraced one of the few fragile tentative points of light in an almost suffocating darkness – that is: the experiment for radical democracy in Northern Syria, Western Kurdistan – in Rojava.
It is as if we, in our search for the future, have no need for the example of a people surviving decades of oppression only to take one giant step on the path to liberation and to do it in a manner that gives hope to the rest of humankind that the democratic project has not been down a dead end but has the potential to be realised, revitalised and radicalised.
This silence has to be as deep as the forces that surely conspire to prevent this change…
Rojava – despite all its difficulties…
Rojava despite its faults and I am sure its many justifiable criticisms…
Despite its tentative nature in our post-revolutionary world…
Despite being surrounded by enemies on all sides…
«How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left?» David Graeber (a member of the academic delegation that visited Rojava in December 2014) writes in The Guardian.
«I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.» Meredith Tax writes in Dissent, in April 2015.
And now, in 2016, as Autumn falls here and the Turkish tanks roll across the Syrian border to attack the Kurds…despite this murderous new effort to destroy the experiment in the womb.
Confined to the territory it has liberated by force of arms and held onto by its ongoing determination and commitment to the struggle…
Confined by an international politics of petty self interest, national chauvinism, regional intrigue, and a jigsaw box of the worst of 20th century history…
…despite all, Rojava has so far survived and continues to develop despite being offered little support from any quarter.
A number of writers (including David Graeber above who tells us his father volunteered for the International Brigades in 1937, in the fight against Franco’s fascists and their German and Italian allies) have drawn parallels between this radical initiative of the Kurds and the other groups involved in the democratic confederation of Rojava (Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava) and the ill-fated Spanish Republic of 1931-39; fearfully now, with its enemies closing in on all sides, knowing the outcome of the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, betrayed by its so-called friends, disempowered by the so called neutral states and butchered by its enemies, both internal and external…
Earlier still, in 1916, Britain and France had divided up the Middle East via the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. «Within years, millions of Kurds, who previously occupied a wild terrain surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known as Kurdistan, found themselves subjects of the new nations of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In Turkey, where Kurds make up nearly a fifth of the population, the state sought to solve demands for recognition of Kurdish independence by denying the ethnic group’s existence. Laws have removed any trace of Kurdish identity from history books, banned speaking Kurdish in public and punished violators with long prison sentences…In Syria, where roughly 10 percent of the population is Kurdish, similar policies were enacted by a police chief named Mohammed Talib Hilal, who in 1963 likened his country’s ‘Kurdish question’ to a ‘malignant tumor.'» Wes Enzinna, (a visitor to the new Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, in «Rojava’s de facto capital, Qamishli»), writes in the New York Times, in November, 2015.
Yet now, 100 years later, at a March 2016 conference in Rmeilan, in the countryside of Hasakah province, the Syrian Kurds finally declared a federal system in the areas under their control. The Constituent Assembly of Rojava elected the 31-member regulatory committee tasked with the implementation of the Rojava-Northern Syria Democratic Federal System constitution.
Drafted in 2014, the Constitution of Rojava or Constitution of the Rojava Cantons, officially titled Charter of the Social Contract, was the provisional constitution of the self-proclaimed autonomous region. It was adopted on 29 January 2014, when the Democratic Union Party (PYD), declared the three Rojavan cantons it controls autonomous from the Syrian government. Article 12 states Rojava remains an «integral part of Syria», tentatively implementing an expected future federal Syrian governance in its Rojavan part. The PYD, Partiya Yekita Demokrat, is supported/ defended by the military force called the Y.P.G., or People’s Protection Units, and an all-female force called the Y.P.J., or Female Protection Units.
In June 2016, the Constituent Assembly met on the 27-28 in al-Malikiyah («Derik» in Kurdish) in the countryside of Hasakah province, northeast Syria, to examine the draft document. During the meeting, final amendments were introduced and the constitution was approved. «The regulatory committee of the Rojava-Northern Syria Democratic Federal System Constituent Assembly has approved the final draft of an 85-article «social contract» that would serve as a constitution for Syria’s Kurdish regions, Wikipedia tells us.
The constitution has gained much international attention and is most noted for its explicit affirmation of minority rights and gender equality and a form of direct democracy known as Democratic Confederalism.
The name Rojava-Northern Syria Democratic Federal System was chosen from among three proposed names…
Critics are everywhere, friends few. The Syrian journalist Sardar Drwish says: «Other Syrians have yet to warm up to the Kurds’ declaration of a federal system in Syria, and the Kurdish Federation is still seen as an attempt to divide the country. Although the regime and the opposition both reject this system, the Kurds are adamant about moving forward with the establishment of their federation at the political and military levels.» (Posted July 22, 2016)
Rojava: the place
Since January 2014, Rojava (Western Kurdistan) is made up of 3 cantons (and «the unofficial Shahba region»): Cizre is the largest canton of Rojava, Kobane the second largest and Afrin the smallest. Fragmented and surrounded by Turkey, the jihadists of Daesh/ISIS and other extremist Islamic organizations, and the forces of Assad’s regime. Cizre also sharing a border with Iraq to the east with its own pressures as Meredith Tax writes: «The Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani are not letting very much through on their side of the border because of their alliance with Turkey…»
Holding political power in all three cantons of Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), «a leftist political entity with very close ideological and political links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the party that has been fighting against Ankara since the 80s and that has become the main hub of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey.» Evangelos Aretaios writes.
Wikipedia places the timeline for current developments beginning in the Qamishli uprising in 2004. The al-Qamishli riots were a response to almost a century of repression suffered by the Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the newly formed Syrian state emerging from the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War. The Arab Spring of 2011 provided the impetus, as well as sufficient pressure on the Assad regime, for the area to begin the process of independent management culminating in:
«…the PYD officially announced its regional autonomy on 9 January 2014. Elections were held, popular assemblies established and the Constitution of Rojava was approved. Since then, residents have been organizing local assemblies, re-opening schools, establishing community centers and pushing back ISIS to gain control of further territory. They see their model of grassroots democracy as a model that can be implemented throughout the country in a post-Assad Syria.»
Militarily the Kurds are fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where the YPG and the YPJ have emerged as a key ally of the US-led coalition, which considers it one of the few effective partners on the ground in Syria. «Since then, the Kurds have inflicted a series of defeats on IS in northern Syria with the help of US-led coalition airpower. They have established control over a 400km (250-mile) stretch of contiguous territory along the Turkish border and advanced to within 50km (30 miles) of the IS stronghold of Raqqa.» The BBC reports.
Despite their difficulty in securing modern technology and arms, a number of significant military engagements have taken place, not least the Kurdish capture of Kobane in January 2015 (leaving at least 1,600 people dead), the operation in November 2015 to free the Yezidis from ISIS in the area around the city of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and the recent conquest of Manbij city on 12 August. For all of these victories the Kurds have paid a high price as the many YPG-YPJ funerals you can watch online show.
Democratic Confederalism, a form of grassroots democracy based on local assemblies…
Wikipedia defines the Rojavan Revolution as being based on 6 areas
- Cooperative economy: «The Rojava economy is a blend of private companies, the autonomous administration and worker cooperatives as well as a move towards a «community economy» based on worker cooperatives and self-sufficiency.»
- Direct democracy: » …the Rojava cantons are governed through a combination of district and civil councils. District councils consist of 300 members as well as two elected co-presidents – one man and one woman. District councils decide and carry out administrative and economic duties such as garbage collection, land distribution and cooperative enterprises. Civil councils exist to promote the social and political rights within the community.»
- Ethnic minority rights: protection of ethnic minorities. including cultural freedom and «…in some areas, there is an ethnic minority quota in addition to the gender quota for councils.»
- Restorative Justice: «The criminal justice is undergoing significant reforms, moving away from a punitive approach under the Assad regime to one based on the principles of restorative justice.»
- Women’s rights: «Feminism, specifically Jineology (the science of women), is central to the social revolution taking place in Rojava. Much of the focus of the revolution has been addressing the extreme levels of violence which women in the area have endured as well as increasing women leadership in all political institutions.»
- Religious freedom: religious expression is safeguarded as a right in the constitution.
Janet Biehl, a close associate of Murray Bookchin (who also visited Rojava with the international academic delegation in December 2014) conducted an interview with a 36-year-old Kurdish activist in Diyarbakir, on April 16 and September 20, 2011. The words of Ercan Ayboga she recorded, are worth quoting in length: (see also Janet Biehl’s Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance‘ and her ‘Report from the Mesopotamian Social Forum’.)
«The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic.
During this process of strategic change, the freedom movement activists read and discussed a new literature that supported and could make contributions to it. It analyzed books and articles by philosophers, feminists, (neo-)anarchists, libertarian communists, communalists, and social ecologists. That is how writers like Murray Bookchin, Michel Foucault, and Immanuel Wallerstein came into their focus.
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” (the Kurdish version of communalism) not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population.»
Murray Bookchin’s influence, apparently, has been central. Wikipedia adds: «Öcalan attempted in early 2004 to arrange a meeting with Bookchin through his lawyers, describing himself as Bookchin’s «student» eager to adapt his thought to Middle Eastern society. Bookchin was too ill to accept the request. In May 2004 Bookchin conveyed this message “My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Öcalan’s talents to guide them”. When Bookchin died in 2006, the PKK hailed the American thinker as «one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century», and vowed to put his theory into practice.
«Democratic Confederalism«, the variation on Communalism developed by Öcalan in his writings and adopted by the PKK, does not outwardly seek Kurdish rights within the context of the formation of an independent state separate from Turkey. The PKK claims that this project is not envisioned as being only for Kurds, but rather for all peoples of the region, regardless of their ethnic, national, or religious background. Rather, it promulgates the formation of assemblies and organisations beginning at the grassroots level to enact its ideals in a non-state framework beginning at the local level. It also places a particular emphasis on securing and promoting women’s rights.»
David Graeber concludes:
«How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. Nato, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.
But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.
The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. In this way, they proposed, the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a worldwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.»
«In Rojava’s three Kurdish cantons, together comprising an area about the size of Connecticut, society is being organized according to the principles of an American anarchist-ecologist philosopher named Murray Bookchin. (Bookchin’s most famous work is The Ecology of Freedom.) This unlikely turn of events springs from the ideological conversion of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which was once a Marxist Leninist terrorist group in Turkey…With America’s help, Turkey captured Ocalan in 1999, and he was imprisoned alone—surrounded by over 1,000 soldiers—on an island near Istanbul. There he discovered Bookchin, who inspired a manifesto he issued in 2005». Enzina adds…
Meral Çiçek of the Kurdish Women’s Relations Organization in Erbil writes:
«The Revolution of Rojava consists of two parallel processes. On one side we have the struggle of Kurds for national liberation and self-determination. We have the armed People’s and Women’s Protection Units as defenders of the revolution against attacks by both regime forces and fundamentalist organizations like the Nusra Front or Islamic State. But on the other side we have a struggle for the creation of an alternative system based on gender-freedom, democracy, pluralism and ecology. These two processes are strongly bound together. They reflect the conviction that there can’t be national liberation without social transformation.»
Rahila Gupta, who visited Rojava in 2016, also wrote a series of articles, ‘A revolution for our times: Rojava, Northern Syria’, posted in Opendemocracy starting on 4 April 2016 – where she explore both the complexity as well as the centrality of women’s liberation to the revolution that is Rojava.
Gupta met with Amina Omar, Head of the Women’s Ministry. «After our interview is done, she hands me a booklet, ‘Basic Principles and General Provisions for Women’ which begins with the priceless exhortation, ‘Fighting the reactionary authoritarian mentality in the society is the duty of every individual in the areas of Democratic Self-Administration.’»
«The booklet lists the Administration’s extensive legislative assault on patriarchal practices: Child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy have been banned; any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will, will be prevented; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised; women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15; a woman’s testimony is equal to a man’s; a woman has a right to equal inheritance; marriage contracts will be issued in civil courts. Impressive work when you consider that the women’s ministry was set up only in January 2014….
«I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking. Their representatives should be allowed into the United States and other Western countries; though neither the PYD nor other Rojava groups are actually on the terrorist list, they are damned because of their relationship to the PKK; just this January, the United States rejected a visa application by Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD.»
Meredith Tax concludes:
» Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender can any of us find the answers we need to change the world.
Starting from near-feudal circumstances, in the middle of a devastating war, people in the Rojava cantons are trying to create such a culture. We need to learn from them—and help.»
David Graeber (on the analogy with Republican Spain of the 1930’s):
«If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?»
In such a difficult context and in the uncertainty that is the nature, as well as the dream that Rojava is, as long as it manages to survive, here is Murray Bookchin, in his epilogue to The Ecology of Freedom, in 1982:
«Our art, science, medicine, literature, music, and «charitable» acts seem like mere droppings from a table on which gory feasts on the spoils of conquest have engaged the attention of a system whose appetite for rule is utterly unrestrained. We justly mistrust its acts of generosity today, for behind its seemingly worthy projects-its medical technology, cybernetic revolutions, space programs, agricultural projects, and energy innovations – seem to lie the most malignant motives for achieving the subjugation of humanity by means of violence, fear, and surveillance.»
Rojava! – despite all its difficulties…
..despite its faults and its many probably-justifiable critiques…
despite its tentative nature in our post-revolutionary world
…despite being surrounded by enemies on all sides…
has to be part of this ‘dream’ that we have been fighting for, for so long…the dream that a culture and now a practice of liberation seeks to nurture, protect, develop…
Shortly before he died in April 1938 as Franco’s fascist troops sweeping «down the Ebro Valley reached the Mediterranean» cutting Republican Spain in two and heralding the final outcome of the war in a victory for fascism, the great Peruvian poet and communist César Vallejo wrote his fifteen war poems, España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Cup from Me,) and in the final poem of the collection, the one that provided the title for the entire collection, said:
Lower your voice, I tell you;
lower your voice, the song of the syllables, the crying
of matter and the minor rumour of the pyramids, and even
that of your temples, which walk with two stones!
Lower your breathing, and if
the forearm comes down,
and if the ferules sound, if it is night,
if the sky fit into two terrestrial limbos,
if there is noise in the sound of the doors,
if I am late,
if you don’t see anyone, if the blunt pencils
frighten you, if mother
Spain falls-I mean, it’s just a thought-
go out, children of the world, go and look for her!
If Vallejo had survived the appalling poverty of the 30’s and was alive today, maybe he would write – just as maybe if it was back then, more of us might be able to listen:
. . . if Rojava
falls—I mean, it’s just a thought—
go out, children of the world, go and look for her! . . .
SOURCES & REFERENCES (Thanks to…)
By KurdistanJiyane (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ferhates (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Cup from Me,), from, César Vallejo – Complete Posthumous Poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman & José Rubia Barcia, University of California Press, 1980.
David Graeber: ‘Why is the World ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria’
Merdeith Tax, ‘The Revolution in Rojava’ (Dissent, in April 2015.
Wes Enzinna, ‘A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard, (New York Times, Nov. 24, 2015)
Evangelos Aretaios, ‘The Rojava Revolution’, (15 March 2015)
Janet Biehl interview with Ercan Ayboga, ‘Kurdish Communalism’ (2011)
Janet Biehl, ‘Report from The Mesopotamian Social Forum’, (2011)
«My new Kurdish friends were eager to hear from me about communalist experiences in other parts of the world, but I feared disappointing them. No one in the social ecology world I knew had produced anything close to the Kurdish achievement.»
Janet Biehl, ‘Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance’, (2011)
Sardar Mlla Drwish, ‘After approving constitution, what’s next for Syria’s Kurds?’ (2016)
Rahila Gupta, ‘A revolution for our times: Rojava, Northern Syria’, (April 2016)
– A six-part series on Witnessing the Revolution in Rojava –
Meral Çiçek, (Kurdish Women’s Relations Office – Erbil), ‘Did the Women of the YPJ Simply Fall from the Sky?’ (13 Jan 2015)
«For in Kobanê there is a collision of two ideologies, two worldviews, two visions of the future that clash with each other. The one has the freedom of women as the centre-point, the other their enslavement. One has the patriarchal paradigm; the other adheres to women’s liberation ideology.»
Kongra Star:’Erbil: KRG Security forces raid and close the offices of the Kurdish Women’s Relation Office (Iraqi Kurdistan)‘
Charter of the Social Contract, 29 January 2014, PDF.
Meral Çiçek, ‘Why the Rojava Revolution is a Women’s Revolution’, PDF,
The ‘Statement from the Academic Delegation to Rojava’ (January 2015)
Murray Bookchin, ‘The Ecology of Freedom’, (1982.)
Download and Read Abdullah Öcalan’s:
«Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution»
BBC: Rojava’s Revolution: