The changes taking place in northern Syria right now are nothing short of a social revolution. The area known as Rojava, the Kurdish region of northern Syria, has become an autonomous confederacy and begun experimenting with radical forms of direct democracy. Kurdistan is a land that has been occupied for over 150 years and remains so today. The area of Kurdistan remains locked within the borders of four countries, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
Many comparisons to the Palestinians and their struggle against occupation are made, however this is problematic when we view the geographical situation these two people’s face. The Palestinians have been, and are, the Arab world’s rallying point. Reclaiming the Palestinian land has been one of the core goals for almost all Middle Eastern movements since the 1940s. With the Kurds, we see almost the complete opposite. All four of these occupying countries, although in agreeance on almost nothing else, have all taken part in harsh repressions of this population.
From Saddam’s chemical weapons to Turkey’s military repression, they have learned that they do not have forces advocating on their behalf to world institutions. Part of their current success is coming from the long tradition that any gains to be made will only be made by themselves. This mentality has remained a strong part of their ideology to this day.
In 1978, a group of Kurdish university students formed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in response to the growing repression the were facing within Turkey. It was in this era that ‘Kurd’, ‘Kurdistan’, and ‘Kurdish’ were all banned from use, as well as use of the Kurdish dialect. These students were largely led by Abdullah Öcalan, who remains the group’s leader today, and were focused on establishing a Kurdish state based on the Marxist-Leninist principles.
Early on, the PKK was very much so a by-the-book Stalinist organization that embraced an armed struggle against the Turkish state. The result was that the PKK has been labelled a terrorist organization across the world, and Öcalan was a fugitive on the run for a few years. While in Kenya in 1999, he was captured by the Turkish security services. He was originally sentenced to death, but that was later commuted to life in prison, and this is where he remains today. Though imprisoned, he remains a strong intellectual force that helps direct both the PKK and the Kurdish movement in general. During this period, the PKK has changed fundamentally, both in its philosophy and its organization.
Instead of the centralized, top down approach of Marxist-Leninism, the PKK has evolved into a decentralized and grassroots organization. Öcalan’s theory of solution has never remained too long at a fixed, established plan. He began to see the power structures of the modern world as directly connected to the forces of hegemony and oppression. Therefore, the only way to really become a free people is by breaking all convention and radically forging a new path. A new path means a system outside of capitalism and class structure that have formed the basis of our world. He saw the capitalism, traditional women’s roles, and even the nation state as tools to oppress the people. In its place, he proposed autonomous, democratic communities. His theories have been greatly influenced by the Comrade Murray Bookchin, the libertarian socialist writer of Burlington, Vermont.
To look at Öcalan’s writings, we see a thinker who is looking for answers on a deeper level than the quick fix. He isn’t simply talking about a Kurdish revolution, but a world revolution. “development of the nation-state at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution more than two hundred years ago went hand in hand with the unregulated accumulation of capital on the one hand and the unhindered exploitation of the fast growing population on the other hand. The new bourgeoisie which rose from this revolution wanted to take part in the political decisions and state structures. Capitalism, their new economic system, thus became an inherent component of the new nation-state.
The new nation-state needed the bourgeoisie and the power of the capital in order to replace the old feudal order and its ideology which rested on tribal structures and inherited rights by a new national ideology which united all tribes and clans under the roof of the nation.” He is able to explain the flaws of the current nation state, and how it is essential for freedom movements to be aware of this danger. Without this consciousness, it is very easy for the oppressed freedom movement to then become oppressor in the same structural system. “But above all the nation-state must be thought as the maximum form of power. None of the other types of state have such a capacity of power. One of the main reasons for this is that the upper part of the middle-class has been linked to the process of monopolization in an ever-more increasing manner. e nation- state itself is the most developed complete monopoly. It is the most developed unity of monopolies such as trade, industrial, – nance and power. One should also think of ideological monopoly as an indivisible part of the power monopoly.” (Democratic Confederalism. 2011.)
Not to get too caught up in ideology, but what is happening in Rojava is directly related to this batch of writing. This is especially true in the role of women in this society, here the view is not only that women are enslaved by institutions such as marriage and family, but the task of enslavement then also enslaves the men to this traditionalist role dictated upon them by society. The only way to break up such a system of enslavement is not by reform, but by total destruction. Not just for the individual, for the family, for the society, or for the nation state, but for the whole of human society. “The most important problem for freedom in a social context is thus family and marriage. When the woman marries, she is in fact enslaved. It is impossible to imagine another institution that enslaves like marriage. e most profound slaveries are established by the institution of marriage, slaveries that become more entrenched within the family.
Furthermore, it is not a general reference to sharing life or partner relationships that can be meaningful depending on one‘s perception of freedom and equality. What is under discussion is the ingrained, classical marriage and family. Absolute ownership of woman means her withdrawal from all political, intellectual, social and economic arenas; this cannot be easily recovered.” The catalyst being put forth for the great social change, then, is the evolving role of women within society. “Family is not a social institution that should be overthrown. But it should be transformed. e claim of ownership over women and children, handed down from the hierarchy, should be abandoned. Capital (in all its forms) and power relations should have no part in the relationship of couples. Breeding of children as motivation for sustaining this institution should be abolished. The ideal approach to male-female association is one that is based on the freedom philosophy, devoted to moral and political society.” (Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution. 2013.)
It is merely by chance that this new revolution has taken off in Syria, within the pretext of a revolutionary struggle/civil war. It is the PKK’s close affiliate in Syria, The Democratic Union Party (PYD) that have set up the government that rules over the Rojava region. Since 2005, it has been the PYDs strategy to base democracy on a small scale, and ignore the nation state concept as a form of governance. This is a political ideology that has become known as democratic confederalism. More simply, democracy without an overarching nation state. It was with the rise, and subsequent spread, of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 that the PYD was able to demonstrate that they weren’t simply just a wing of PKK, and constituted power in their own right. In the beginning 2015, PYD, with its People’s Defense Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), shocked the world when they overtook the city of Kobani from IS forces. They did so acting independently, and it was only after their victory that outside support has begun rolling in.
Within the devastation of Syria, Rojava is one of the only regions that is functioning regularly and providing a stable life for its people. To understand the inner functions of the governing system within Rojava, we must look to the American Anarchist David Graeber and his articles about the revolutionary struggle taking place there. This form of radical democracy is firmly anti-consensus based because this form of democracy tends to lead to the tyrannical majority currently being popularized by populist movements. Instead, it embraces tri-leadership within council structures. This means that leadership is comprised of one Kurd, one Arab, and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one must be a woman. Decisions must be in a unanimous manner. What they have also done is to take civil authority away from the structures of the state. They have gone about this by giving all citizens six weeks of police training, then effectively disbanded the police force. The responsibility of maintaining the civil order and peace now becomes the responsibility of the people. YPG and YPJ are neither state institutions, but citizens initiatives to protect the land from those who wish to do it harm. (Why is the World Ignoring the Revolutionary Kurds in Syria. 2014)
When the Syrian war began, the elites and ruling class residing in Rojava quickly tucked their tale and ran. The property they left behind, office buildings, factories, government institutions, and all of these have gone under public control with the workers both organizing and benefiting from the work that they do. Personal property has been left alone, but the means of production have gone into the direct hands of the workers. Graeber has used the comparison of the Spanish Revolution, where the city of Barcelona fell under direct workers control and the workers also defended the city from military attacks. One of the issues that he looks at specifically that is going on in Rojava is the world’s human rights community being rather critical of the trial system. “I noticed that human rights wrote a fairly critical report.
One of the things they complained about was that people aren’t meeting the world standards of trials. I thought that was very telling because in fact they are trying to create a radically different bottom up type of justice system which is based on consensus principles, restorative justice, limited notion of revenge and retribution. It’s all very beautiful and incredibly important to start this experiment and again from world standards, that’s a human rights abuse because what human rights people are doing is trying to create safeguards against state power. But those safeguards against state power assume the existence of state power. So not having state power at all from their point of view, is just as much a human rights abuse as direct state power.” (From Occupy Wall St. to the The Revolution in Rojava. July, 2017.) Settlements are made between perpetrator and victim, and then negotiated by a citizens council. This revolution is increasing the commons and decreasing the possibility of state repression.
But this is not to say that Rojava is having an easy time within the confines in which it is existing, quite the opposite. Since the 1980s, Turkey has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization and blockaded the Kurdish regions within Turkey it controls. The powers in Rojava that are leading the revolution are considered to be offshoot organizations, and by some considered to be front organizations, and the blockade has been extended to them. As Anga Flatch explained in 2016, “The embargo’s effects on Rojava are severe. Most dramatically, Rojava with its wealth of wheat and oil can’t sell its products abroad. Farmers sit on their wheat and cotton. The transitional (Confederacy) government has no money to pay wages, let alone meet the needs of ordinary people and refugees.” (The Embargo On Rojava Must End Permanently. September, 2016.) Apart from trouble with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds also face pushback from the Iraqi Kurds, a reactionary force with close ties to the Turkish government.
The Kurds in Iraq are led by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and its military unit, the Peshmerga. This is not a group who embraces the idea of democratic confederalism, but rather the idea of a traditional Kurdish nation state. KDP has been the leading Kurdish organization, at least in western circles, for the past ten years. They went along with the blockade on the Syrian Kurds that was pushed for by Turkey. When IS was gaining territory in Iraq and forced the Peshmerga to retreat in the summer of 2014, both the PKK and YPG came into defend the Kurdish communities. This was less than appreciated by the Iraqi Kurds, who accused those who came in Syria as exploiting a political opportunity for their own gains. As was reported by War is Boring, this led to increasing tensions between the two strongest Kurdish powers. To add to all this conflict and blockades Rojava has been subjected to, Turkey has begun randomly shelling the area as part of their new offensive against the PKK.
While the Rojava experience is still a work in progress and slowed because of the state of civil war it is surrounded by, the fact is this is one of the only existing alternatives to globalized exploitative capitalism. It is not perfect by any means, for one, their philosophy demotes any cult of personality as idol worship. Yet, the image of Abdullah Öcalan is in constant view. The struggle they must wage in the future is to work out these kinks and promote unity throughout the entire Kurdish region. While Rojava can exist as a singular unit during civil war, it will not be anywhere near as successful when dealing with the Syrian state.
The rebels are as equally opposed to the Kurds as they are to the Assad regime, and this comes as a result of the attempts to destruct their identity that the governments have conducted in the past. The need to organize bigger is essential if the revolution of Rojava is to survive the length of Syrian revolution/civil war.