Yes You Can Support the Kurds

Turkish bombing of Rojava

For all you armchair anarchists out there, yes you can provide much needed financial support for the Kurds from the safety of your own home, as Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces attack them. Regardless of what you think of the ecumenical politics of Avaaz, they are a reputable organization. You can donate money now to support the Kurds through the Avaaz website by clicking on this link.

No War Against Children

For more information, check out the CrimethInc. website. Here is a summary from one of their recent podcasts:

As the news breaks of a Russian-Turkish alliance determined to stamp out Kurdish autonomy, what’s at stake in the international fight to defend Rojava? This episode continues our exploration of the embattled revolution in northeastern Syria through interviews with a variety of anarchists who have engaged in international solidarity work there. One recounts the women’s movement and the impact on gender roles of the autonomous social experiments in Rojava, while another provides an inside look at the armed forces and the struggle against ISIS. Participants in the Internationalist Commune describe their educational and ecological projects, and two anarchist combat medics serving with the SDF in the war zone describe their experiences. We hope these will deepen your understanding of this complex effort to remake society from the ground up amidst war and fascism on all sides—and strengthen your solidarity efforts, as we fight to support the resistance in Rojava.

As we mentioned last time: even though we’re focusing on the crisis in Kurdistan again for this episode, let’s not forget that even as the Turkish bombs are falling, other important rebellions are taking place across the world—in Chile, in Catalunya, in Ecuador, in Haiti, in Lebanon, in Hong Kong, and beyond. We’ll have more coverage of these and other revolts through the Ex-Worker and on the CrimethInc. blog in the days and weeks to come, so stay tuned!

Notes and Links

Trump and Erdoğan seal the fate of the Kurds

Here is a report from an anarchist in Syria when Trump gave Turkey the green light to massacre the Kurds (also from the CrimethInc. website):

I’m writing from Rojava. Full disclosure: I didn’t grow up here and I don’t have access to all the information I would need to tell you what is going to happen next in this part of the world with any certainty. I’m writing because it is urgent that you hear from people in northern Syria about what Trump’s “troop withdrawal” really means for us—and it’s not clear how much time we have left to discuss it. I approach this task with all the humility at my disposal.

I’m not formally integrated into any of the groups here. That makes it possible for me to speak freely, but I should emphasize that my perspective doesn’t represent any institutional position. If nothing else, this should be useful as a historical document indicating how some people here understood the situation at this point in time, in case it becomes impossible to ask us later on.

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an “anti-war” or “anti-imperialist” measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. Trump aims to leave Israel the most ostensibly liberal and democratic project in the entire Middle East, foreclosing the possibilities that the revolution in Rojava opened up for this part of the world.

All this will come at a tremendous cost. As bloody and tragic as the Syrian civil war has already been, this could open up not just a new chapter of it, but a sequel.

This is not about where US troops are stationed. The two thousand US soldiers at issue are a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of armed fighters in Syria today. They have not been on the frontlines of the fighting the way that the US military was in Iraq.1 The withdrawal of these soldiers is not the important thing here. What matters is that Trump’s announcement is a message to Erdoğan indicating that there will be no consequences if the Turkish state invades Rojava.

There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and “anti-imperialist” activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of “peace” on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.

While authoritarians of various stripes seek to cloud the issue, giving a NATO member a green light to invade Syria is what is “pro-war” and “imperialist.” Speaking as an anarchist, my goal is not to talk about what the US military should do. It is to discuss how US military policy impacts people and how we ought to respond. Anarchists aim to bring about the abolition of every state government and the disbanding of every state military in favor of horizontal forms of voluntary organization; but when we organize in solidarity with targeted populations such as those who are on the receiving end of the violence of ISIS and various state actors in this region, we often run into thorny questions like the ones I’ll discuss below.

The worst case scenario now is that the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), backed by the Turkish military itself, will overrun Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing on a level you likely cannot imagine. They’ve already done this on a small scale in Afrin. In Rojava, this would take place on a historic scale. It could be something like the Palestinian Nakba or the Armenian genocide.

I will try to explain why this is happening, why you should care about it, and what we can do about it together.

To understand what Trump and Erdoğan are doing, you have to understand the geography of the situation. This site is useful for keeping up with geographical shifts in the Syrian civil war.

First of All: About the Experiment in Rojava

The system in Rojava is not perfect. This is not the right place to air dirty laundry, but there are lots of problems. I’m not having the kind of experience here that Paul Z. Simons had some years ago, when his visit to Rojava made him feel that everything is possible. Years and years of war and militarization have taken their toll on the most exciting aspects of the revolution here. Still, these people are in incredible danger right now and the society they have built is worth defending.

What is happening in Rojava is not anarchy. All the same, women play a major role in society; there is basic freedom of religion and language; an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse population lives side by side without any major acts of ethnic cleansing or conflict; it’s heavily militarized, but it’s not a police state; the communities are relatively safe and stable; there’s not famine or mass food insecurity; the armed forces are not committing mass atrocities. Every faction in this war has blood on its hands, but the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have conducted themselves far more responsibly than any other side. They’ve saved countless lives—not just Kurds—in Sinjar and many other places. Considering the impossible conditions and the tremendous amount of violence that people here have been subjected to from all sides, that is an incredible feat. All this stands in stark contrast to what will happen if the Turkish state invades, considering that Trump has given Erdoğan the go-ahead in return for closing a massive missile sale.

It should go without saying that I don’t want to perpetuate an open-ended Bush-style “war on terror,” much less to participate in the sort of “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West that bigots and fundamentalists of both stripes have been fantasizing about. On the contrary, that is precisely what we’re trying to prevent here. Most of the people Daesh [ISIS] have killed have been Muslim; most of the people who have died fighting Daesh have been Muslim. In Hajin, where I was stationed and where the last ISIS stronghold is, one of the internationals who has been fighting Daesh longest is an observant Muslim—not to speak of all the predominantly Arab fighters from Deir Ezzor there, most of whom are almost certainly Muslim as well.

The Factions

For the sake of brevity, I’ll oversimplify and say that today, there are roughly five sides in the Syrian civil war: loyalist, Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish,2 and rebel.3 At the conclusion of this text, an appendix explores the narratives that characterize each of these sides.

Each of these sides stands in different relation to the others. I’ll list the relations of each group to the others, starting with the other group that they are most closely affiliated with and ending with the groups they are most opposed to:

Loyalist: Kurdish, Turkish, jihadi, rebel

Rebel: Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish, loyalist

Turkish: rebel, jihadi, loyalist, Kurdish

Kurdish: loyalist, rebel, Turkish, jihadi

Jihadi: rebel, Turkish, Kurdish and loyalist

This may be helpful in visualizing which groups could be capable of compromising and which are irreversibly at odds. Again, remember, I am generalizing a lot.

I want to be clear that each of these groups is motivated by a narrative that contains at least some kernel of truth. For example, in regards to the question of who is to blame for the rise of ISIS, it is true that the US “ploughed the field” for ISIS with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and its disastrous fallout (loyalist narrative); but it is also true that the Turkish state has tacitly and sometimes blatantly colluded with ISIS because ISIS was fighting against the primary adversary of the Turkish state (Kurdish narrative) and that Assad’s brutal reaction to the Arab Spring contributed to a spiral of escalating violence that culminated in the rise of Daesh (rebel narrative). And although I’m least sympathetic to the jihadi and Turkish state perspectives, it is certain that unless the well-being of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria is factored into a political settlement, the jihadis will go on fighting, and that unless there is some kind of political settlement between the Turkish state and the PKK, Turkey will go on seeking to wipe out Kurdish political formations, without hesitating to commit genocide.

It’s said that “Kurds are second-class citizens in Syria, third-class citizens in Iran, fourth-class citizens in Iraq, and fifth-class citizens in Turkey.” It’s no accident that when Turkish officials like Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu list the “terror groups” they are most concerned about in the region, they name the YPG before ISIS. Perhaps this can help explain the cautious response of many Kurds to the Syrian revolution: from the Kurdish perspective, regime change in Syria carried out by Turkish-backed jihadis coupled with no regime change in Turkey could be worse than no regime change in Syria at all.

I won’t rehash the whole timeline from the ancient Sumerians to the beginning of the PKK war in Turkey to the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. Let’s skip forward to Trump’s announcement on December 19: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

Has ISIS Been Defeated? And by Whom?

Let me be clear: Daesh has not been defeated in Syria. Just a few days ago, they took a shot at our position with a rocket launcher out of a clear blue sky and missed by only a hundred yards.

It is true that their territory is just a fraction of what it once was. At the same time, by any account, they still have thousands of fighters, a lot of heavy weaponry, and probably quite a bit of what remains of their senior leadership down in the Hajin pocket of the Euphrates river valley and the surrounding deserts, between Hajin and the Iraqi border. In addition, ISIS have a lot of experience and a wide array of sophisticated defense strategies—and they are absolutely willing to die to inflict damage on their enemies.

To the extent that their territory has been drastically reduced, Trump is telling a bald-faced lie in trying to take credit for this. The achievement he is claiming as his own is largely the work of precisely the people he is consigning to death at the hands of Turkey.

Under Obama, the Department of Defense and the CIA pursued dramatically different strategies in reference to the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria. The CIA focused on overthrowing Assad by any means necessary, to the point that arms and money they supplied trickled down to al-Nusra, ISIS, and others. By contrast, the Pentagon was more focused on defeating ISIS, beginning to concentrate on supporting the largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) during the defense of Kobane in 2014.

Now, as an anarchist who desires the complete abolition of every government, I have no love for the Pentagon or the CIA, but if we evaluate these two approaches according to their own professed goals, the Pentagon plan worked fairly well, while the CIA plan was a total disaster. In this regard, it’s fair to say that the Obama administration contributed to both the growth of ISIS and its suppression. Trump, for his part, has done neither, except insofar as the sort of nationalist Islamophobia he promotes helps to generate a symmetrical form of Islamic fundamentalism.

Up until December, Trump maintained the Pentagon strategy in Syria that he inherited from the Obama administration. There have been signs of mission creep from US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who ultimately hope to undermine Iran on account of it supplying oil to China. This far—and no further—I can understand the concerns of a pseudo-pacifist “anti-imperialist”: war with Iran would be a nightmare compounding the catastrophe brought about by the war in Iraq. So yes, insofar as the YPG and YPJ were forced to coordinate with the US military, they were working with unsavory characters whose motivations were very different from their own.

To sum up: what has brought about the by-now almost total recapture of the territory ISIS occupied isn’t rocket science. It’s the combination of a brave and capable ground force with air support. In this sort of conventional territorial war, it’s extremely difficult for a ground force without air support to defeat a ground force with air support, no matter how fiercely the former fights. In some parts of Syria, this involved the YPG/YPJ on the ground with US backing from the air. Elsewhere in Syria, it must be said, ISIS was pushed back by the combination of Russian air support and the loyalist army (SAA) alongside Iranian-backed militias.

Outside Interventions

It would have been extremely difficult to recapture this territory from ISIS any other way. The cooperation of the YPG/YPJ with the US military remains controversial, but the fact is—every side in the Syrian conflict has been propped up and supported by larger outside powers and would have collapsed without that support.

People employing the Turkish, loyalist, and jihadi narratives often point out that Kobane would have fallen and YPG/YPJ would never have been able to retake eastern Syria from Daesh without US air support. Likewise, the Syrian government and the Assad regime were very close to military collapse in 2015, around the time Turkey conveniently downed a Russian plane and Putin decided that Russia was going to bail out the Assad regime no matter what it took. The rebels, on their side, never would have come close to toppling Assad through military means without massive assistance from the Turkish government, the Gulf states, US intelligence services, and probably Israel on some level, although the details of this are murky from where I’m situated.

And the jihadis—Daesh, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and the others—would never have been able to take control of half of Iraq and Syria if the US had not been so foolish as to leave an army’s worth of state-of-the-art equipment in the hands of the Iraqi government, which effectively abandoned it. It also helped them that a tremendous amount of resources trickled down from the above-mentioned foreign sponsors of the rebels. It also helped that Turkey left its airports and borders open to jihadis from all over the world who set out to join Daesh. There also appears to have been some sort of financial support from the Gulf states, whether formally or through back channels.

The Turkish state has its own agenda. It is not by any means simply a proxy for the US. But at the end of the day, it’s a NATO member and it can count on the one hundred percent support of the US government—as the missile sale that the US made to Turkey days before the withdrawal tweet illustrates.

In view of all this, we can see why YPG/YPJ chose to cooperate with the US military. My point is not to defend this decision, but to show that under the circumstances, it was the only practical alternative to annihilation. At the same time, it is clear that this strategy has not created security for the experiment in Rojava. Even if we set aside ethical concerns, there are problems with relying on the United States—or France, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or any other state government with its own state agenda. As anarchists, we have to talk very seriously about how to create other options for people in conflict zones. Is there any form of international horizontal decentralized coordination that could have solved the problems that the people in Rojava were facing such that they would not have been forced to depend on the US military? If we find no answer to this question when we look at the Syria of 2013-2018, is there something we could have done earlier? These are extremely pressing questions.

No one should forget that ISIS was only reduced to their current relative weakness by a multi-ethnic, radically democratic grassroots resistance movement, that incidentally involved international volunteers from around the globe. In view of Trump’s order to abandon and betray the struggle against ISIS, every sincere person who earnestly wants to put a stop to the spread of apocalyptic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS or their imminent successors should stop counting on the state and put all their resources into directly supporting decentralized multi-ethnic egalitarian movements. It is becoming ever clearer that those are our only hope.

What Does the Troop Withdrawal Mean?

I’m not surprised that Trump and the Americans are “betraying an ally”—I don’t think anybody here had the illusion that Trump or the Pentagon intended to support the political project in Rojava. Looking back through history, it was clear enough that when ISIS was beaten, the US would leave Rojava at the mercy of the Turkish military. If the forces of the YPG/YPJ have dragged their feet in rooting ISIS out of their last strongholds, this may be one of the reasons.

But it is still very surprising and perplexing that Trump would rush to give up this foothold that the US has carved out in the Russosphere—and that the US military establishment would let him do so. From the perspective of maintaining US global military hegemony, the decision makes no sense at all. It’s a gratuitous gift to Putin, Erdoğan, and ISIS, which could take advantage of the situation to regenerate throughout the region, perhaps in some new form—more on that below.

The withdrawal from Syria does not necessarily mean that conflict with Iran is off the table, by the way. On the contrary, certain hawks in the US government may see this as a step towards consolidating a position from which that could be possible.

However you look at it, Trump’s decision is big news. It indicates that the US “deep state” has no power over Trump’s foreign policy. It suggests that the US neoliberal project is dead in the water, or at least that some elements of the US ruling class consider it to be. It also implies a future in which ethno-nationalist autocrats like Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, Bolsonaro, and Putin will be in the driver’s seat worldwide, conniving with each other to maintain power over their private domains.

In that case, the entire post-cold war era of US military hegemony is over, and we are entering a multipolar age in which tyrants will rule balkanized authoritarian ethno-states: think Europe before World War I. The liberals and neoconservatives who preferred US hegemony are mourning the passing of an era that was a blood-soaked nightmare for millions. The leftists (and anarchists?) who imagine that this transition could be good news are fools fighting yesterday’s enemy and yesterday’s war, not recognizing the new nightmares springing up around them. The de facto red/brown coalition of authoritarian socialists and fascists who are celebrating the arrival of this new age are hurrying us all helter-skelter into a brave new world in which more and more of the globe will look like the worst parts of the Syrian civil war.

And speaking from this vantage point, here, today, I do not say that lightly.

What Will Happen Next?

Sadly, Kurdish and left movements in Turkey have been decimated over the past few years. I would be very surprised if there were any kind of uprising in Turkey, no matter what happens in Rojava. We should not permit ourselves to hope that a Turkish invasion here would trigger an insurgency in northern Kurdistan.

Unless something truly unexpected transpires, there are basically two possible outcomes here.

First Scenario

In the first scenario, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will make some kind of agreement with the Assad regime, likely under less favorable terms than would have been possible before the Turkish invasion of Afrin; both sides would likely make concessions of some kind and agree to fight on the same side if Turkey invades. If Russia signs off on this, it could suffice to prevent the invasion from taking place. Either YPG/YPJ or SAA will finish off the Hajin pocket, and the war could be basically over except for Idlib.

Both the Assad regime and the various predominantly Kurdish formations have been extremely hardheaded in negotiating, but perhaps the threat to both Rojava and the Assad regime is so extreme that they will choose this option. It is possible that this is one of the objectives of the Turkish threat, or even of Trump’s withdrawal: to force YPG to relinquish military autonomy to the Assad regime.

YPG, PYD, and company are not in a very good bargaining position right now, but the regime knows it can at least bargain with them, whereas if northern Syria is occupied by Turkish-backed jihadis and assorted looters, it is unclear what would happen next. Rojava contains much of Syria’s best agricultural land in the north, as well as oil fields in the south.

I can only speculate what the terms of this theoretical agreement might be. There’s lots of speculation online: language rights, Kurdish citizenship being regularized, prior service in YPG counting as military service so that soldiers who have been fighting ISIS all these years can return to being civilians rather than immediately being conscripted into SAA, some kind of limited political autonomy, or the like. In exchange, the YPG and its allies would essentially have to hand military and political control of SDF areas over to the regime.

Could Assad’s regime be trusted to abide by an agreement after they gain control? Probably not.

To be clear, it’s all too easy for me to speak abstractly about the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils. I’m informed about many of the atrocities the regime has committed, but I have not experienced them myself, and this is not the part of Syria where they did the worst things, so I more frequently hear stories from the locals about Daesh and other jihadis, not to mention Turkey. There are likely people in other parts of Syria who regard the Assad regime regaining power with the same dread with which people here regard the Turkish military and ISIS.

In any case, there are some signs that this first scenario might still be possible. The regime has sent troops to Manbij, to one of the lines where the massive Turkish/TFSA troop buildup is occurring. There are meetings between the PYD and the regime as well as with the Russians. An Egyptian-mediated negotiation between the PYD and the regime is scheduled to take place soon.

This first scenario does not offer a very attractive set of options. It’s not what Jordan Mactaggart or the thousands and thousands of Syrians who fought and died with YPG/YPJ gave their lives for. But it would be preferable to the other scenario…

Second Scenario

In the second scenario, the Assad regime will throw in its lot with Turkey instead of with YPG.

In this case, some combination of the Turkish military and its affiliated proxies will invade from the north while the regime invades from the south and west. YPG will fight to the death, street by street, block by block, in a firestorm reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the Paris Commune, utilizing all the defensive tactics they acquired while fighting ISIS. Huge numbers of people will die. Eventually, the Assad regime and Turkey/TFSA will establish some line between their zones of control. For the foreseeable future, there would be some kind of Turkish-Jihadi Rump State of Northern Syrian Warlordistan.

Any remaining Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, and other minorities would be expulsed, ethnically cleansed, or terrorized. TFSA and related militias would likely loot everything they could get their hands on. In the long run, Turkey would probably dump the Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey back into these occupied areas, bringing about irreversible demographic shifts that could be the cause of future ethnic conflicts in the region.

We should not believe any assurances from the Turkish state or its apologists that this will not be the result of their invasion, as this is exactly what they have done in Afrin and they have no reason to behave differently in Rojava. Remember: from the perspective of the Turkish state, the YPG/YPJ are enemy number one in Syria.

Now let’s talk about Daesh. Despite the looming threat of invasion, SDF is still finishing off the Hajin pocket of ISIS. If it weren’t for the fact that Turkey is throwing Daesh a lifeline by threatening to invade, Daesh would be doomed, as they are surrounded by SDF, SAA, and the Iraqi army. Let me say this again: Trump giving Turkey the go-ahead to invade Rojava is practically the only thing that could save ISIS.

Trump has repeatedly said things to the effect that Turkey is promising to finish off ISIS. To believe this lie, you would have to be politically ignorant, yes—but in addition, you would also have to be geographically illiterate. This describes Trump’s supporters, if no one else.

Even if the Turkish government had any intention of fighting Daesh in Syria—a proposition that is highly doubtful, considering how easy Turkey made it for ISIS to get off the ground—in order to even reach Hajin and the Euphrates river valley, they would have to steamroll across the entirety of Rojava. There is no other way to get to Hajin. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, look at a map and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The Assad regime holds positions right across the Euphrates River from both the SDF and Daesh positions, and would be willing and able to finish off the last ISIS pocket. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather see the regime take the losses there to accomplish that than see YPG overextend itself and bleed any further. But the point here is that when Trump says something to the effect that “Turkey will finish off ISIS!” he is sending a blatant dog whistle to Turkish hardliners that they can attack Rojava and he won’t do anything to stop them. It has nothing to do with ISIS and everything to do with ethnic cleansing in Rojava.

If nothing else, even if Assad allies with the Turkish government, we can hope that the forces of the regime will still finish off ISIS. If Turkey has its way and does what Trump is talking about, beating a path all the way through Rojava to Hajin, they will likely give Daesh’s fighters safe passage, a new set of clothes, three meals a day, and this village I’m living in in exchange for their assistance fighting future Kurdish insurgencies.

So there it is: in declaring victory over ISIS, Trump is arranging the only way that ISIS fighters could come out of this situation with their capacities intact. It’s Orwellian, to say the least.


The only other option I can imagine, if negotiations with the Assad regime break down or PYD decides to take the moral high road and not compromise with the regime—who are untrustworthy and have carried out plenty of atrocities of their own—would be to let the entire SDF melt back into the civilian population, permit Turkey and its proxies to walk into Rojava without losing the fighting force of the YPG/YPJ, and immediately begin an insurgency. That might be smarter than a doomed final stand, but who knows.

Your silence is the echo of the bombs—a solidarity demonstration in Milan, Italy.

Looking Forward

Personally, I want to see the Syrian civil war end, and for Iraq to somehow be spared another cycle of war in the near future. I want to see ISIS prevented from regenerating its root system and preparing for a new round of violence. That doesn’t mean intensifying the ways that this part of the world is policed—it means fostering local solutions to the question of how different people and populations can coexist, and how they can defend themselves from groups like Daesh. This is part of what people have been trying to do in Rojava, and that is one of the reasons that Trump and Erdoğan find the experiment here so threatening. In the end, the existence of groups like ISIS makes their authority look preferable by comparison, whereas participatory horizontal multi-ethnic projects show just how oppressive their model is.

Overthrowing Assad by military means is a dead project—or, at least, the things that would have to happen to make it plausible again in the near future are even more horrifying than the regime is. I hope that somehow, someday, there can be some kind of settlement between the regime and YPG/YPJ, and the regime and the rebels in Idlib, and everyone else who has been suffering here. If capitalism and state tyranny are the problem, this kind of civil war is not the solution, although it seems likely that what has happened in Syria will happen elsewhere in the world as the crises generated by capitalism, state power, and ethnic conflicts put people at odds.

What can you do, reading this in some safer and stabler part of the world?

First, you can spread the word that Trump’s decision is neither a way to bring peace to Syria nor confirmation that ISIS has been defeated. You can tell other people what I have told you about how the situation looks from here, in case I am not able to do so myself.

Second, in the event of a Turkish invasion, you can use every means in your power to discredit and impede the Turkish state, Trump, and the others who paved the way for that outcome. Even if you are not able to stop them—even if you can’t save our lives—you will be part of building the kind of social movements and collective capacity that will be necessary to save others’ lives in the future.

In addition, you can look for ways to get resources to people in this part of the world, who have suffered so much and will continue to suffer as the next act of this tragedy plays out. You can also look for ways to support the Syrian refugees who are scattered across the globe.

Finally, you can think about how we could put better options on the table next time an uprising like the one in Syria breaks out. How can we make sure that governments fall before their reign gives way to the reign of pure force, in which only insurgents backed by other states can gain control? How can we offer other visions of how people can live and meet their needs together, and mobilize the force it will take to implement and defend them on an international basis without need of any state?

These are big questions, but I have faith in you. I have to.

Solidarity With the Kurds This Weekend

Demonstrations of support for the Kurdish people, who are now being subjected to a murderous assault by Turkish armed forces, are taking place all over the world this weekend. Please contribute whatever support you can.

Check out the Kurdish Solidarity Campaign facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kurdistansolidaritycampaign/?__tn__=%2CdkCH-R-R&eid=ARBHIzEGHjtLylbthcW7rSdXOBgpcXwVjDgZvDeAy1vOTXF0H8V2LDNRL3pLuoW6dh8rKKtaWYwqWiiQ&hc_ref=ARTYi7ms21VdTaxELFGCTnfWXABnRoW7c9KZXWUnTIXKErUAOGYZRDTYO6P6G6Gcu6c&fref=nf&hc_location=group

Words fail me now – this is an atrocity abetted by NATO, and all of its members, and initiated by the United States

Libertarian Revolution in Rojava

kurdish-ypj-4

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from an interview that Janet Biehl, longtime companion of Murray Bookchin, conducted in 2011 with Ercan Ayboga, a Kurdish “democratic confederalist.” More recently, I posted an appeal from David Graeber for support for the mainly Kurdish people fighting in Rojava, an area in northern Syria under siege by the Islamic State (ISIS), where people are trying to establish a form of direct democracy based on popular assemblies, which share some similarities with the “libertarian democracy” of the anarchist collectives in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. This December, Biehl, Graeber and several other people went to Rojava to see for themselves what was going on there. Here I reproduce some of Janet Biehl’s initial observations.

kobane solidarity

Impressions of Rojava

Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly…

After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.

Rojavans ( …while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.

Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Ãcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism… Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Ãcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.

Women defending Kobane

Women in the YPJ

A Women’s Revolution

Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a ‘social contract’ (the non-statist term it uses instead of ‘constitution’). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.

When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.

Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.

But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.

Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. 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.

Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ, or women’s protection units, whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.

When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. ‘We are fighting for our ideas,’ they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch–both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.

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Cooperation and Education

Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.

When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression, and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.

Rojava’s economic model is the same as its political model, an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a ‘community economy,’ building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.

They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.

Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: ‘If there is only bread, then we all have a share,’ the adviser told us.

We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.

The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Baâath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.

Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Baâath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.

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A DIY Revolution

The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies, the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo, that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.

The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they ‘search for meaning,’ as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

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Assembly Democracy in Kurdistan

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

As the Kurds continue to defend Kobani from the ISIS assault, with very limited support (in fact, Turkey at first used the movement of Kurdish fighters into the area as an excuse for bombing Kurdish targets), I reproduce from Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas Janet Biehl’s 2012 interview with Ercan Ayboga,  in which he describes the development of a confederal democratic assembly movement among the Kurds, inspired in part by Murray Bookchin’s writings. Biehl has since translated into English a book of writings by members of the movement, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation and Ecology (New Compass Press), available from AK Press.

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

The Democratic Assembly Movement in Kurdistan

Until the 1980s the Kurdish society was completely patriarchal. There were no women’s rights or feminist groups, not even among the more liberal Alevi Kurds. The most important dynamic in overcoming the patriarchal structures became the Kurdish freedom movement. And without women’s participation, the movement could not possibly have achieved broad popular support. By around 1990 women were participating widely in this movement, and between 1990 and 1992 women were leading demonstrations, which started to change the situation significantly. In the middle of 1990s a broad ideological discussion started in the movement, in which patriarchal structures in the whole society were criticized systematically. Since then, many women’s organizations have been founded in all areas of the struggle…

Today women are present in all the political structures, at all levels, in the Kurdish freedom movement, which is a result of the long gender discussion and of women’s struggle within the movement and in the democratic assemblies. For instance, in the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], all chairperson positions must be held by a man and a woman, and there is a 40 percent requirement for both sexes in all management boards, public parliaments, and elected councils. As “gender liberation” is one of the three main principles used by the freedom movement besides “democracy” and “ecology,” a social perspective without women’s liberation is unthinkable.
Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. …[T]he society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
PKK Fighters

PKK Fighters

In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
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).
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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…
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” 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…
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy–the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people…
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population–the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in practice.
 Rojava_cities
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
PKK Rally

BDP Rally

The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viranşehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies. Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase… The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them…The Turkish Kurds’ legal party, the BDP, proposes “democratic autonomy” for the whole republic… Generally it envisages a fundamental democratization in the Turkey’s political and administrative structure, achieving it through democratic participation by incorporating people into processes of decision-making. The essential vision is not to create smaller structures with characteristics of the nation-state; rather, the democratic decision-making structures in the societies should be developed through a combination of base democracy and council democracy.
And rather than being a purely “ethnic” and “territorial” conception, democratic autonomy proposes a regional and local structure through which cultural differences are able to freely express themselves. Thus it proposes to establish twenty to twenty-five regions in Turkey with major autonomous rights. These autonomous regions and their assemblies would also assume major responsibilities in fields like education, health, culture, agriculture, industry, social services and security, women, youth and sports. The central government would continue to conduct foreign affairs, finance and external defense services.
In addition, the Kurdish freedom movement demands that Turkish Kurdistan have control over its own “security,” or self-defense; and the right to manage the natural environment and natural resources. At the same time it demands that Turkish Kurdistan be able to establish specific social, cultural, economic and political ties with the other three parts of Kurdistan, in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains…
The Kurdish freedom movement has declared that it is not against existing state boundaries and does not want to change them. But at the same time the movement expects that the states respect all decisions of the population. The movement speaks of two authorities, the state and the population. In democratic confederalism, two different regions of neighboring states can come closer, for instance in terms of culture, education, economy, without challenging the existing states. But in a system of democratic confederalism, the Kurds of different states, or any other suppressed culture in more than two different states, would come closer after decades of separation. This aspect is still not defined well und needs to be discussed deeper.
The Kurdish freedom movement proposes democratic confederalism for all countries and cultures of Middle East, as it is more appropriate than the existing centralized, half-decentralized, or totalitarian political structures there. Before the twentieth-century foundation of nation-states in the Middle East, the structures did not control the societies deeply; the different regions had certain freedoms and self-government, and the tribal structures were dominant. Here many local structures are still strong and resist the state influence.
Further, in the Middle East the cultural diversity is so high that a communalist society could much better consider this richness. It would allow ethnically or religiously nondominant groups to organize themselves and contribute significantly to a dynamic cultural diversity. Direct democratic structures may make sense here too: in the recent uprisings in many countries, new democratic movements were born or have been strengthened. We would like to object to opinions that consider Arabs or other populations incapable of democratic thinking.
Excerpted from Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012), ed. Robert Graham
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