Anarchist Struggle in Rojava

Here are excerpts from what appears to be an interview between the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (Federacion Anarquista Uruguaya – FAU) and member(s) of Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle), a group of anarchists supporting the Kurdish resistance in Rojava. I included material from Kurdish anarchists and Democratic Confederalists in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The complete interview, including the English translation, can be found at the FAU website.

Explain the formation of the Battalion of libertarian comrades and their links with the Kurdish resistance?

Since the beginning of the Rojava revolution, especially following the resistance in Kobanê in 2015, international volunteers have come to confront the Daesh (ISIS) and defend the revolution. In the early years most of the international volunteers came in coordination with YPG and YPJ, the Kurdish self-defense militias. Given the anti-state character of the political project of Rojava, anarchists from different continents joined the struggle in defense of the revolution, often arriving in a disparate and disorganized way.

In 2015, in addition to internationalists in YPG and YPJ, the IFB (International Freedom Battalion) was organized, uniting international militants and Turkish revolutionary organizations in a common organization. Within the IFB the first anarchist brigade was formed under the name of IRPGF (International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces), which operated for approximately one year during the Tabqa and Raqqa operations.

Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle) was created at the end of 2017 after the liberation of Raqqa. We seek to not only participate in the struggle against the Daesh, but to learn from the Kurdistan freedom movement while building bridges with libertarian movements around the world. As anarchists, we see the importance of taking up arms against the theocratic despotism of the Islamic State, but also against the fascistic oppression of the Turkish State, the Syrian State, the various imperialist powers and the myriad Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting in Syria.

The reality of the war is very complex, and sometimes it plunges us into a sea of contradictions about our role here. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts converge with a proxy war of regional and geopolitical powers, where imperialist and colonial influences set the pace of a Middle East bathed in blood and oil. But the Kurdish resistance is an emblematic example of revolutionary organization, and Rojava’s social and political project is certainly inspiring. After some years working here we saw good sides and also bad sides of the revolution, and our commitment with it is based in a frame of internationalism and critical solidarity.

The implementation of democratic confederalism, a stateless society based on women’s liberation, ecology and direct democracy, is an example for those of us who believe in a world free from capitalism and patriarchy. This is what led us to Rojava, but what now? A large number of internationalists who come to Rojava participate in defending the revolution for a few months and then return home to their previous lives. Is that what we want? Is this our idea of internationalist solidarity? No, we want something else.

To better understand what we are looking for we studied the history of internationalism, but instead of looking at the centralized structure of the third international we choose to find inspiration in the anticolonial struggle of the Tricontinental Conference. Revolutionaries like Almícar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau, Ben Barka from Morocco or Che Guevara from Argentina, came together to, in the words of Franz Fanon “stand with the wretched of the earth to create a world of human beings”. Their perspectives on international solidarity were very clear: “It is not a question of wishing success to the attacked, but of running his own luck; accompanying them to death or victory”. They were talking about creating 2, 3, many Vietnams; we talk about creating 2, 3, many Rojavas, many Barbachas, many Chiapas.

Tekosîna Anarsîst is not only an anarchist group in Syria or Kurdistan, our existence is conditioned by the struggle and the revolutionary process of Rojava. The oppression suffered by the Kurdish people is another example of the colonial dynamics suffered by indigenous peoples, peoples with ancestral cultures and roots who are threatened by capitalist hegemony. As internationalists, it is also our duty to study and understand the ways imperial powers exert oppression over countries of the Global South. We struggled against oppression at home and now we continue the struggle here.

We came to Rojava responding to the call for international solidarity, and so our priority is to understand the needs of the people and the dynamics of the local revolutionary movement. In the past we had been working in coordination with the IFB (International Freedom Battalion), but today we are an autonomous organization integrated in the Syrian Democratic Forces, alongside Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other internationals, fighting for a democratic and ecological Syria free of patriarchal oppression.

PKK fighters

What are the main differences between TA and the PKK and its armed groups?

The PKK is a revolutionary party created in response to the oppression suffered by the Kurdish people. Tekosîna Anarsîst is a collective created to support and learn from the revolution of Rojava. This reality engenders a great number of differences in relation to the size of the organization, objectives, internal dynamics, future projection, tactics and strategies.

The PKK was founded more than 40 years ago as a national liberation movement with an internationalist outlook, forming an anti-colonial movement in the Middle East. Through its struggle for national liberation, the PKK, which started with a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orientation, evaluated its achievements and shortcomings. Abdullah Öcalan proposed a new paradigm, nourished by libertarian perspectives, positioning itself against the nation-state model, patriarchy and the ecocide produced by capitalism and the techno-industrial system.

Instead, the new paradigm creates models of direct democracy, with communes and cooperatives as the social base. It prioritizes women’s liberation as the basis of social transformation through women organizing themselves autonomously. It is committed to an ecological perspective and a reconnection with nature, reconstructing a model of life in accordance with the other living beings on this planet.

Its perspectives on violence also differ from those of its Maoist origins, where revolutionary violence was conceived of as an objective in itself. The change of paradigm, largely motivated by the Kurdish women’s movement, refocused the analysis around the concept of self-defence. The patriarchal and colonial dynamics of states, which base their existence on domination through war, genocide and slavery, have always met with resistance from those they seek to subdue. Societies that have lived a free life cannot accept the domination of centralized systems, and that is why every society, every living being, needs to ensure its systems of self-defense.

As anarchists, as revolutionaries, we agree with this political and social vision. Ecology, feminism, communalism or confederalism are not unknown to anarchism, quite the contrary. In Rojava we have had to defend ourselves with all the means at our disposal against the theocratic despotism of the Islamic state and the invasion of the Turkish fascist state. In times of war, we have fought side by side with YPG, YPJ, guerrillas of the PKK, members of other Turkish revolutionary parties, other internationalists of different ideologies, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians. When the enemy fires, when the bombs fall, the one on our side of the trench is compa, is heval, and the ideological differences do not weigh as much as the passion to defend the revolution, the passion to build a free society.

But there are certainly ideological differences that, when bullets and mortars do not rain down, lead to debates and reflections that influence our way of thinking about revolution and understanding anarchism. The differences that Marx and Bakunin, among many others, discussed at the congresses of the first workers’ international are still a source of conflict today. But it is precisely this conflict that helps us to reflect, to learn, to continue to grow.

In response to the question, the main differences we have found are, on the one hand, organizational, and on the other, ideological. At the organizational level, we prioritize decentralization and the distribution of tasks, responsibilities and leadership, deliberately avoiding the creation of a central committee or an authoritarian institution. We know that military structures are always conditioned by hierarchical organization and a chain of command, and in some aspects we have had to adapt our structure to military needs.

But unlike other forces, we pay special attention to operating in an inclusive and horizontal manner, encouraging rotating responsibilities and leadership. Collective learning, trust and mutual support, but above all the desire for a free life, are the basis of our work and political project.

At the ideological level, the differences may be more complex. The most relevant is perhaps our strong support for LGBT+ struggles, which in the Kurdish liberation movement do not have such determined support. There is, however, a current in the Kurdish women’s movement and in jineolojî in particular, with whom we share a perspective on these issues. They themselves are questioning and reflecting on the apparent essentialism of this movement, opening the door to a more extended understanding of woman closer to queer theories, although still in a minority.

Also the pragmatism of this movement sometimes leads to ideological contradictions, especially in aspects related to property. In Rojava there are communal initiatives and incentives for collective ownership, but private property is still the norm in society, without much effort to change this reality. Within revolutionary movements, property is largely collective, and the communal life has a clear socialist orientation, but it is sometimes difficult for these ideas to reach the majority of the population.

To bring a wider perspective, if we think not only of our organization but of anarchism more broadly, we see great contradictions with the individualistic tendency of anti-authoritarian movements in recent decades. Têkosîna Anarsîst is committed to a collective struggle that transcends individual logic and liberal thinking, in tune with the values of social anarchism, but without ceasing to reflect on the role of the individual in society. We very aware that with orders imposed from the top down, without respecting collective decisions or listening to minority voices, coercion is imposed on the individual. In turn, when the individual does not act in accordance with the common aims of a movement, he or she delegitimizes the organization and the collective struggle.

Another important debate between traditional anarchism and the ideas of democratic confederalism is the aproach to society and the relation with positivism and rationalism. Anarchism has often seen science and reason, which were resignified by the so-called «enlightenment», as the only way to achieve a free society. In the new paradigm this premise is questioned, with special attention to other ways of understanding the world and society that elude European colonial thought, especially looking at mythology and ancestral knowledge. These perspectives are important when it comes to learning from indigenous movements, rethinking our relationship with nature, with civilization and with life itself.

Evaluating these ideas, the similarities and differences that we have found with our movements and the reality of Rojava, have led us to prioritize two objectives. First, the development of militant personalities, working to deconstruct the patriarchal and capitalist influence that we have internalized. Second, the need to agree on organizational standards based on commitment and responsibility, according to our will as revolutionaries but also to the needs of our organization. And even though these objectives are developed in a different way from the PKK, the methods that we learn here are of great help to us. The practice of tekmil, platform, criticism and self-criticism, guide us in our growth and development as revolutionaries, but we also recognize the need to study and learn from the history of anarchist and revolutionary movements around the world.

Democratic Confederalism

How do you analyze the process of building Democratic Confederalism? What is your participation in this construction?

The construction of democratic confederalism is certainly more visible in Rojava, but it cannot be disconnected from the rest of Kurdistan. In recent years the ideas of this political paradigm have been put into practice on a large scale in Rojava, but we must also take into account other territories such as Mexmur camp or the more recently autonomous zone of Sengal in Basur (Iraqi Kurdistan). There are also political developments in Rojhilat (Iranian Kurdistan), but above all in Bakur, within the borders of the Turkish State. It is necessary to take into account the four parts into which Kurdistan is divided today to understand why the Kurdish movement is oriented towards an anti-state solution.

When analyzing its construction, it is essential to refer to the ideological work of Abdullah Öcalan and his «Manifesto for a Democratic Society». Unlike other political proposals, democratic confederalism does not limit itself to describing a utopian society free of oppression, but opens a dialogue of questions and answers on how to transform society and realize this utopia. How we want to live, how we want to relate and how we want to fight are important questions in building a revolutionary society. The answers that Öcalan outlines are not easily summarized in a few paragraphs, but it is important to understand some of the concepts he identifies. This democratic modernity, as we have mentioned, is based on the liberation of women, ecology and democracy without the state.

This ideological progression shows similarities with other revolutionary processes such as the Zapatista movement, an insurgent movement in the mountains of southern Mexico. Both movements are born with a Maoist framework but are reoriented towards libertarian socialism, both have grown and found refuge in the mountains, both are heirs to a people with ancient origins, both have a strong autonomous women’s movement, both are an example for anti-capitalist movements worldwide.

Democratic confederalism is not a new ideology, it is a way of understanding society and civilization that inspires us to develop as revolutionary movements, to make a commitment to our ideas and to move forward with determined steps towards a more just society.

In bringing these ideas into practice in Rojava, the process has been vastly influenced by the war in Syria. In turn it has been the war what made the revolution possible, enabling the radical social transformation needed to lay the foundations of such political developments. In 2012 the YPG/YPJ, then poorly armed people’s militias, expelled the soldiers and bureaucrats of the Syrian state with hardly a few bullets fired.

This was followed by bitter fighting against Islamist groups like al-Nusra and later Daesh. After breaking Daesh’s seige of Kobanê in 2015, the YPG/YPJ expanded to lead the military coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). By the time Raqqa was liberated in 2017, the SDF had become a regular military force, trained and equipped to a semi-professional level.

These military developments were accompanied by a process of social transformation based on the ideas of democratic confederalism, with the creation of communes, cooperatives, women’s centres, justice committees, academies, school programs in Kurdish, cultural centres, etc. Social institutions such as TEV-DEM (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk – Movement for a Democratic Society), together with the PYD (Partiya Yekineyen Democratic – Democratic Unity Party) and other political parties, came together to establish the Autonomous Administration, initially organized in 3 cantons (Efrîn, Kobanê, Cizîre). We see the clear aim to manage the territory on the basis of local organization, based on a municipal model, without seeking the centralization of a State system.

No revolution is an easy process, and despite the criticisms we may have about certain decisions, the process that Rojava is going through in these 8 years of revolution is admirable. Once again, it is difficult to summarize everything in a few paragraphs, but among the most important steps we want to mention the development of the situation that women are experiencing, and the role that the YPJ is playing in this process. Women in Syria, like women all over the world, suffer from the violence and oppression of patriarchal systems, but from 2014 they were especially threatened by the theocratic despotism of the Islamic state. Daesh is undoubtedly a more brutal and bloody example of patriarchy, with thousands of women captured and sold into sexual slavery.

In words of YPJ fighter Amara from Kobane “Our philosophical views made us women conscious of the fact that we can only live by resisting”, giving perspectives on why many women choose to take up arms to free themselves from such a threat, why they choose self-defence and direct action against that which threatens their lives. After the military victories against Daesh the enormous courage and sacrifice that women have brought to the revolution was proven beyond doubt. The Kurdish movement says that no society can be free if women are not free, and in Rojava this slogan becomes the heart of the revolutionary process.

Our involvement in this whole process is relatively modest, as we have only been working for three years in Rojava. In the beginning, the most important thing was to understand the local reality, the Kurdish language and culture, the political project and the functioning of the organizations and structures. This brought some ideological contradictions along with new methods of organizing. Despite our ideological similarities and Öcalan’s references to different anarchist thinkers, like Bakunin, Kropotkin or Foucault, anarchism remains a great unknown for the Kurdish movementh.

In the third volume of the «manifesto for a democratic civilization», Öcalan reflects on the importance of anarchism as a key ally in the development of democratic modernity, sharing his [critiques] and perspectives for anarchist movements. In the ideological field, our work has focused on reflecting on these ideas and contradictions, translating them and making them more accessible to a wide audience.

We have also spent time debating and sharing our ideas among us, as we are an international group of anarchists from various countries, often with different perspectives and backgrounds. This work has given us a better understanding of the libertarian movements in different parts of the world and how to put them in context with the revolutionary process we are going through.

In the practical field, our work has focused on defending the revolution. After taking part in different military campaigns against the Islamic State, we pushed to develop our capacities as combat medics, since health care in the first minutes can be crucial for survival. Tekosîna Anarsîst worked as a combat medical team in the Baghouz campaign, the last bastion of the Islamic State, and has since been our main task whenever there has been an active front in Rojava. Operating as a combat medical team also means being able to train new members in these disciplines, so we have put a lot of effort into compiling what we have learned to share with new comrades who came to join the revolution.

Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle), July 2020

David Graeber: Support the Kurds in Syria!

rojava

In the piece below, David Graeber asks why the world is ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria, drawing a connection with the situation in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), when the so-called democracies imposed an arms embargo on Spain, while Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships not only provided the Spanish military and Falangists with the most up-to-date weapons, but even supplied some of their own armed forces, bombing civilian targets like Guernica, which provoked Pablo Picasso into creating one of his greatest art pieces in protest. The situation in Kobane is also reminiscent of the situation of the Paris Commune in May 1871, when the reactionary armed forces of the Versailles government attacked the revolutionary Communards, massacring 30,000 Parisians while the world looked on and the Prussians ensured that no outside help would arrive, much as Turkey is doing to the Kurds in Kobane.

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included a statement from Kurdish anarchists, and an interview that Janet Biehl conducted with PKK members regarding their adoption of a libertarian communalist approach inspired by Murray Bookchin. Volume One of the Anarchism anthology included several selections regarding the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the Mujeres Libres group Graeber refers to below.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

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 wordwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.

Since 2005 the PKK, inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Some have questioned how serious all this really is. Clearly, authoritarian elements remain. But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution. In the Middle East, at least, these efforts have been noticed: particularly after PKK and Rojava forces intervened to successfully fight their way through Isis territory in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar after the local peshmerga fled the field. These actions were widely celebrated in the region, but remarkably received almost no notice in the European or North American press.

Now, Isis has returned, with scores of US-made tanks and heavy artillery taken from Iraqi forces, to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population. Meanwhile, the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders, and US planes buzz overhead making occasional, symbolic, pinprick strikes – apparently, just to be able to say that it did not do nothing as a group it claims to be at war with crushes defenders of one of the world’s great democratic experiments.

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?

David Graeber, October 12, 2014

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica