Lions after Slumber: Rojava Revolution Reshapes Kurdish Politics

Kurdish Women Fighters

Kurdish Women Soldiers, courtesy of the International Business Times

By Chris Burrows

The events following the Franco insurrection in 1936 in Spain remain some of the most crucial episodes in modern history. The year 1936 saw the flourishing of a mass social revolution of unprecedented scope spearheaded mostly by the anarchist C.N.T. (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo). In Barcelona industry and commerce were collectivized to great success, impressing observers like George Orwell. The 1936-37 Anarchist revolution in Spain remains a touchtone for Anarchists around the globe, and until it was crushed by the combined might of Republican, Fascist, and Stalinist forces, it represented perhaps the closest example of a truly socialist society ever implemented. Despite the C.N.T.’s defeat, in the words of Marx as expressed in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “…the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically.” Like an old mole the revolutionary movement seems to be constantly burrowing just beneath the surface, ready to spring forth in times of upheaval ripe for revolutionary action. History’s harshest moments often bring forth utopian causes, flickers of light amidst the darkness: the English Civil War’s levelers and diggers, the First World War with its Russian Revolution and Spartacist uprising for which Rosa Luxemburg gave her life, the Second World War and the partisan liberation movements. Today, the Syrian Civil war has created an opportunity for the emergence of a new inheritor of past left movements: the Rojava Revolution.

Within Syria’s continued chaos, long oppressed Kurds have managed to carve out some influential spheres of influence. Rojava represents one of the more influential Kurdish groups operating within Syria. The autonomous region of Rojava, like the movements that served as its predecessors, and like the movements which will serve as its successors presents a democratic alternative amidst the horrors of war, religious fundamentalism, and imperialist power politics. While Rojava faces substantial political and military obstacles, the movement provides reasons for optimism amid the carnage of war.

Relations with Turkey represent one of the major challenges to the Revolutionary movement in Rojava. Bordering Rojava on the north, Turkey’s dictatorial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party have recently escalated their savage assault on Turkey’s Kurdish population in the South. Alleged ties between Rojava and the P.K.K., a Kurdish group labeled as a terrorist organization by both the Turkish and American governments, also escalate tensions. Increasing civilian casualties as a result of the Turkish state’s military operations directed at suspected militants[1] have been coupled with increasing curtailment of political freedoms nationwide. Meanwhile, many accuse the Turkish government of offering support to radical Sunni Jihadists in Syria, further inflaming a conflict which has already created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The tangled web of conflicts that constitute the Syrian Civil War also present significant threats to Rojava’s survival. Assad’s brutal dictatorship continues its battle for survival against both rebels and IS militants, the latter of which occupies considerable amounts of territory to the South of Rojava. The Rojava Kurds and their polyethnic allies are on the frontline of the fight against the Islamic State. Although assisted often by US and coalition airstrikes in their struggle to regain territory, the YPG (People’s Defense Units of the Rojava Democratic Union Party) often fight with poor equipment and limited resources. In addition, foreign volunteers are often poorly trained in military matters, if they are trained at all[2]. Politically, the policies and practices of the YPG forces have come under fire, particularly for displacement of Arab civilian populations in newly liberated territory and destruction of Arab villages[3].

Internally, Rojava faces several challenges. There are concerns among critics regarding minority representation, particularly of Arabs who have the potential to be perceived as untrustworthy and potential sympathizers with the Islamic State. Also, some have pointed to the central role of the Kurdish PYD party in the revolutionary process as a dangerous portent of centralization and abuse of power. In all, ethnic divisions threaten to create an atmosphere of parochialism. In addition the constant efforts to organize military offensives against the Islamic State mean that many of the decisions made by the democratic communes are limited to local issues with the elected canton administration having the final say on large scale policies related to security, military operations, and general coordination.

Despite these challenges, one can still feel inspired by the successes the Revolution in Rojava. The organization has managed to build the rudiments of a working society based on the principles of democratic confederalism. A major achievement, given the material limitations and hellish circumstances of the region. It is this attitude, the real spirit of the Revolution in Rojava which has managed to capture the admiration of and serve as an inspiration to countless progressive activists and leftists around the world united in the pursuit of a more democratic future

Interestingly, foreign influences have had a profound impact on Rojava’s ideology. The Federation of Northern Syria (the official name of the Rojava territory declared by the PYD on March 17th of this year) operates broadly according to the principles advocated by American Anarchist and Communalist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin’s writings focused mostly on the interaction between society and ecology along fundamental principles of non-hierarchical organization which he termed libertarian municipalism. Janet Biehl, Bookchin’s companion and collaborator for the last 19 years of his life (Bookchin passed away in 2006) recently visited Rojava to observe her late partner’s ideals being carried out in a concrete revolutionary program. She remarks, “I had been translating the German reports, so I was fairly well informed in advance. But nothing could prepare me for the sight of young 1.65m women in uniforms casually holding Kalashnikovs—our ubiquitous escorts. And nothing could have prepared me for actually witnessing a revolution. For the first time I saw how the concentrated power of the collective human will can transform a social order in just a short time”[4]. Implementation of Bookchin’s ideas in a real world scenario has been largely successful in effecting significant social change in the region.

Rojava’s leaders have sought inspiration within the libertarian socialist and anarchist traditions in developing and organizing a truly democratic political system. Biehl describes how, “Nearly everyone mentioned that the Rojava project has no state and is opposed to the state….. Moreover the society of the three cantons is communalistic, people explained, both in practice and in ideology, rather than individualistic like the United States”. The largest social body in Rojava is the canton, but the system is structured very much from the grassroots level. The central government of Rojava holds very little coercive power. Instead, the local, highly democratic levels of government and administration hold large degrees of autonomy. The basis of democratic governance is the citizens assembly, called the commune in Rojava. As Biehl notes, “The commune sends delegates to the confederal council at the neighborhood level, and the neighborhood council sends delegates to the district, and the district to the canton. In this multi-tiered structure, as Bookchin described it, power is to flow from the bottom up.” On the whole, the common people have far-reaching influence within Rojava’s politics.

The most visible social change is likely the effect that the Rojava revolution has had upon women. Rojava has drawn international attention for its special regard for the position of women within the new social structure. There is a forty percent gender quota for political representation and many leadership positions require both a male and a female representative. Likewise, Rojava actively trains women soldiers and allows them to serve in combat. In fact, women can even become officers and command male troops. It is a system whose construction is still in progress and one hopes that it will continue to experiment with new ideas and new forms of organization as the revolutionary program proceeds.

Going forward, the situation looks bright for the Rojava Revolution. The area has achieved a remarkable degree of success, especially considering the alternatives represented by social and political state of its neighbors. A written constitution[5] and a structural commitment to decentralization and democracy are both significant barriers to abuses and centralization of power. Nothing in social and political revolution, nor even in life is guaranteed, but the organizational steps taken by the bearers of the Rojava Revolution are perhaps the best safeguards that exist to combat the potent combination unpredictability of wartime fortune and the worst aspects of human nature which it can produce. Like past manifestations of revolutionary fervor, the Rojava Revolution seeks a society and a future which can foster the better sides of our complex nature even in the face of extreme adversity. Of course we should critique and warn, but above all should be an attitude of solidarity and support for perhaps the one genuine ray of light in a region blighted by conflict and subject to the very limits of human depravity and evil in the guise of the Islamic State. Rojava’s fortunes do appear more conducive to success than many prior movements such as Anarchist Spain. For the moment, it does not seem as if Rojava will need to fend off attacks by major world powers who for the most part have provided either official or unofficial support to the territory and the military operations of the YPG. As it stands, the courageous female fighters of Rojava will continue to stand at the ready, magazines full of bullets for the the fighters of the Islamic State, but one saved for the final act of defiance in the face of defeat. They will not be taken alive.

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“All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the walls. We will know how to accommodate…..we are not the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here in our hearts, and that world is growing in this minute”

-Buenaventura Durruti, in answer to the remark of journalist Pierre van Passen (“Toronto Daily Star” August 5, 1936), “You will be sitting on top of a pile of ruins even if you are victorious.”

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[1] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/turkey-erdogan-pkk-kurdish-diyarbakir/

[2] Vice, “Foreigners Fighting ISIS in Syria: The War of Others”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoqds4LV9RI

[3] https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2015/10/syria-us-allys-razing-of-villages-amounts-to-war-crimes/

[4] https://roarmag.org/essays/janet-biehl-interview/

[5] https://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/charter-of-the-social-contract/

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