Defending Rojava

A new book points to the ways Rojava can be defended from ISIS, Turkey and the Western left

The time is right to redraw the map, former US lieutenant colonel and Fox News talking head Ralph Peters argues, with a Free Kurdistan as the New Middle East’s crown. “Stretching from Diyarbakir through Tabriz, it will be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan,” he says, continuing a century-long tradition of treating the Kurdish people as a talking point in negotiating borders, disciplining Turkey or invading Syria or Iraq. As the most effective fighting force against ISIS and the faction most likely to set up a stable secular democracy, Western hawks like Peters are once again championing the Kurdish cause, so long as it fits the daily agenda.

Often equally instrumentalizing, the Western left has taken a newfound interest in the allegedly revolutionary situation in the Kurdish-majority region of Rojava in northern Syria. There, a new system of stateless governance has formed and their rhetoric against patriarchy, neo-liberalism, and the nation-state quickly lead to both enthusiasm from those who see the embattled Kobane as the new Catalonia, and scorn from those who see it breeding short-sighted and faux-revolutionary nationalism.

In both cases, the voices of revolutionary Kurds are seldom heard, and Combustion Books' collection of essays, A Small Key Can Open a Large Door: The Rojava Revolution, tries to fix this lack. Perhaps the first English language book on the subject, it includes an eclectic assortment of first hand accounts, including a letter from a 19 year old woman sent to her mother from the Kobane frontlines, a description of the situation on the border of Turkey by activists facing down Erdogan’s military police and newly translated essays from Turkish anarchist groups. Other selections compile a series of letters sent between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and analyze the importance and mechanics of Kobane’s successful defense against ISIS.

The book reads as a primer for the situation in Rojava that the editors unhesitatingly refer to as a “revolution” in a 30 page introduction on the history of Kurdish resistance and the results of the PKK’s

The PKK is the Kurdistan's Worker's Party, a revolutionary Kurdish organization that is the leading political and organizational power in Kurdistan.
“libertarian turn”. In 2004, influenced by the works of Murray Bookchin, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan determined that the authoritarian nature of Marxism-Leninism was behind the times and out of touch with Kurdish society, and the anarchistic model of governance by small councils of workers, youth, women, and neighbors would be a more pragmatic and truly communistic solution. Around this time Kurds in Syria attempted to enact the program, but were quickly and violently repressed by Assad.

In the early days of the Syrian civil war, almost a decade after these abortive attempts at social transformation, the Assad regime withdrew from Kurdish areas, giving the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) a chance to institute Öcalan’s program. Since then, locals and visitors to the region claim, thousands of councils have formed, financial institutions have closed, and three-fourths of all land has been put in common. Use-ownership has replaced the landlordism of the remaining private-property, and cooperatives are springing up to produce the material necessities of society lost by the lack of trade in the newly isolated region. In "Rojava’s Economic Model is a Communal Model" co-commissioner of the Afrin Canton, Dr. Ahmet Yusuf, describes how since autonomy was declared in the region production has shifted to agriculture, animal husbandry, and small-scaled industry organized by the principle of social economy: “We will base this mode of production on a foundation by which all the peoples of the region will be included and benefit from it. “ Even in the midst of war and siege, he claims, all necessities are being met.

Some essays are impassioned, propagandist appeals, while others have a skeptical approach. One Turkish writer reports on his visit with Kurdish refugees:

“I speak with people from Kobanê who have fled here to Suruç. They tell me about the citizens’ assemblies, the self-governing structures. Before I came, I wasn’t sure if the reports I had read and heard were true. Could it be that these tales of Rojava, the liberated region, were embellished? Will I hear from fleeing former Rojava residents that the self-governing structures don’t really have much bearing on day-to-day life but operate rather on the fringes while familiar party structures make up the actual government? But when I speak with residents here, I find that my doubts are unfounded. On the contrary: I am gaining higher esteem for the developments here, as I hear firsthand reports from youths, women, and elderly gentlemen. They describe the citizens’ assemblies, how everything is discussed and decided collectively, that everything is managed ‘from below.’ They tell me about the women’s committees, the communes...”

This tone of cautious optimism pervades the different writers’ accounts, and can particularly be seen in a the essays focusing on women’s struggles. The YPJ, the female militias of the YPG,

The YPG/J are the People's Protection Units, the armed wing of the PYD
have been a media focal point of Kurdish struggle against ISIS. While women in the armed forces is hardly a radical step, in "The Women's Revolution in Rojava" Dilar Dilek says the fighters should be known for their ideas, not their guns, arguing:

“They not only resist against femicidal ISIS, but also the patriarchy and rape culture prevalent among their own community. After all, ISIS exploits the concept of 'honor' in the region, constructed around women’s bodies and sexualities. Thus, a large banner in the city centre of Qamishlo declares: 'We will defeat the attacks of ISIS by guaranteeing the freedom of women in the Middle East.'”

In addition to the militias, women’s councils, schools, and a hotline specifically for those trying to cope with or escape arranged marriages have been set up to begin the work of dismantling patriarchal social relations in Kurdish society. An essay from Janet Biehl, a Bookchin scholar who was part of a delegation to the region, elaborates: “Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.”

Becky, another delegate, is somewhat less enthusiastic about the revolutionary feminist claims, noting that she only met middle class women in the YPG and they rarely talked about the exploitative conditions of the traditional patriarchal family in Kurdish society. While the “male-centric” idea of governance and struggle are actively challenged by feminist initiatives of democratic confederalism, what’s happening in Rojava is “not communization,” she says, “but it is a real movement against state exploitation and coercion -- fighting both militarily on their borders and inwardly through the diffusion of power within them.” She closes her essay predicting the bulk of the feminist revolution will come when the militia women “return from the front.”

While the book reveals little about the debates within the councils, tensions within the PKK or between the PKK and society, conflicts between classes, genders, ethnicities, and religions, the myriad difficulties of creating a new society are acknowledged. Even though Dr. Yusuf claims that the restructuring of the economy in his canton aims to bring “the whole of humanity back to life, and the chances of winning are high,” he also acknowledges that interaction with the global market and foreign investment will be necessary.

One delegate reports meeting a Kurdish refugee from Kobani who opposed the reforms. Her reasons were twofold: she didn't want to spend so much time participating in the self-governing process, and that the councils were requiring her to distribute 90% of her farm's produce. The delegate claims up to 30% agree with her, preferring a nationalist, liberal, or Islamist State, but the remaining majority support the PYD.

While even critical reports acknowledge the widespread popularity of the new system in Rojava, statistics like these are unsourced. The enthusiasm of Bookchinite delegates is not enough to dissuade the concerns of skeptics who believe revolution can only begin between classes and within the production process, and the political and economic reforms, imposed from above by the PKK, are driven by a middle class that will re-establish capitalism and the state once the region stabilizes.

Central to the Western left’s critiques of Rojava solidarity is the essay "Kurdistan?" by influential left communist thinker Gilles Dauvé. He sees libertarian rhetoric taking a nationalist-liberal form in the Constitution of the Rojava Cantons, the region’s “social contract” which is included in A Small Key’s appendix. “Those who draw a parallel between Rojava and the Spanish revolution,” Dauvé writes, “should compare this Social Contract with the program adopted by the CNT in May 1936”. The document indeed does not call for a classless society, the removal of borders, or the abolition of property and patriarchy, but instead social harmony within Syria with democratic participation of women.

Inclusion of the Social Contract is thus an interesting choice for A Small Key, whose editors argue in their introduction: “It is obvious the brave revolutionaries of Rojava could use our support now.” Would the solidarity the editors seek to encourage diminish upon reading the liberal aspects of the document?

The book gives the readers more credit than Dauvé gives the left. Despite the constitution’s liberal trappings, it is equally possible to see its pragmatic boldness and radical subtext: a mandate to push revolutionary goals despite the reactionaries biding their time in the councils, neo-liberal ex-pats negotiating international humanitarian and military aid, and USSR-nostalgic party leaders waiting in the wings. A flawlessly revolutionary constitution would not guarantee success any more than it did for the CNT, nor will there be any likelihood of success if two continents of comrades await their bad faith’s fulfillment. The Rojavan fight for freedom and survival cannot succeed on historical circumstance and ruthless critique alone.

On the other hand, Il Lato Cattivo write in their essay “The Kurdish Question” that we should not imagine “anarchy in one country” arising from a Kurdish “exotic mountain microclimate”. The challenge for new pro-Rojava groups forming across the world will be to break out of the international solidarity mold of supporting one group of people in one region, and to actually adopt the most radical aspects of the Rojava platform by struggling against nationalism, sexism, and capitalism in their own midst. While hawks like Lt. Cl. Ralph Peters want to redraw the map, the PYD considers the the nation-state model to be obsolete, arguing for radically new concepts of affinity and liberation to the maps that consistently lead toward disaster.