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

Days of Infamy in Northern Syria

Turkey & ISIS

Sketchy reports of the renewed Turkish bombing campaign against the Kurds in southern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq have recently appeared in the North American media, but usually the reports emphasize Turkish and American claims that the Turkish forces are targetting ISIS. Despite the fact that so far the Kurdish forces in Rojava have been the only ones to mount any effective opposition to ISIS, the Americans have now made clear that in exchange for the use of Turkish air bases and for token air strikes by the Turkish airforce against ISIS, with the brunt of the Turkish attacks being concentrated on the Kurds, the U.S. is prepared to abandon the Kurds to a different kind of massacre, that from the air above. Below, I reproduce a report by Andrew Flood of the Workers Solidarity Movement regarding the Turkish military campaign against the Kurds. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to publicize these attacks by the Turkish armed forces on the Kurdish people, and to protest them in the strongest terms possible. These attacks remind me of the Nazi and Fascist air strikes against Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, when another civilian population was targetted for daring to struggle for their own freedom and independence.

guernica

Guernica

The Turkish State’s War Against the Kurds

Considerable evidence of support for ISIS from the Turkish state has been published in the international media over the last months. An ISIS commander told the Washington Post on August 12, 2014, “We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State — getting treated in Turkish hospitals.” —- This Sunday the Observer revealed details of a US Special forces raid on an ISIS compound. “One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now “undeniable”.” Oil smuggling was what that ISIS leader was co-ordinating with the Turkish officials and ISIS were getting an “estimated $1m-$4m per day in oil revenue”

Turkey now claims to have switched sides but the reality of both its bombing campaign and police raids in Turkey is that while they tell the international media they are targeting ISIS the targets are Kurds and the Turkish radical left.

One very clear illustration of who Turkey has really gone to war with is found in this record of who has been arrested in the raids over the last days (21 – 28 July).

People arrested: total 1034 (36 are children).
140 ISIS member,
22 Fetullah Gülen movement
872 PKK/KCK and other leftist groups
figures from http://inadinahaber.org/…/ihdden-bir-haftanin-bilancosu-41…/

The Gülen movement are an oppositional group whose leader lives in the US and don’t belong to either camp so excluding them, we see that for every 1 ISIS arrest there were 6 arrests of people from the left including the Kurdish left.

In other words there has been no change of policy by the Turkish state, the primary objective remains the defeat of the Rojava revolution. Previously they had been hoping that ISIS could accomplish this for them, acting as a deniable proxy. However it recently became clear that ISIS is not currently capable of defeating the YPG/J.

Once US air support had stripped the advantage of the US armour and heavy weapons ISIS had captured at Mosul, ISIS first ground to a halt at Kobane and then were driven back. In addition media stories reporting on Turkish support for ISIS made it hard for the Obama administration to continue to pretend not to notice.

At the same time the US had found that the Kurdish forces in general, and the YPG/J in particular were the only reliable cannon fodder in the region willing to fight against ISIS on the ground, and thus provide accurate information for targeting air strikes. We use the word cannon fodder deliberately: the US is entirely cynical about its co-operation with the YPG/J as demonstrated in recent months by the refusal to provide them with heavy weaponry, but much more starkly in the last fews days as Obama clearly told Erdogan that the US would stand by while the Turkish air force bombed their only effective allies. In return the US gets the use of Incirlik air base.

What about the mass bombings carried out by the Turkish air force, are these also directed at ISIS in an effective sense or just for show? So far from the information we’ve been able to gather, what Turkey is doing here is even more blatant. The air war started with an air strike against ISIS, possibly involving 3 planes, which was announced to the media but which ISIS claimed had hit nothing. Since then it seems almost all the airstrikes, and there have been dozens of them (185 sorties against 400 targets according to Al Monitor), have been hitting Kurdish positions across Kurdistan, that is in South West Turkey, Iraq and even Syria. As the (UK) Independent put it yesterday “In the first two days of the Turkish campaign it sent only a few planes to bomb Syria while there were 185 air missions against about 400 PKK targets.” Reporting on last night’s strikes, described as the heaviest yet, which hit only Kurdish positions even Reuters commented “Turkey’s assaults on the PKK have so far been far heavier than its strikes against Islamic State, fuelling suspicions that its real agenda is keeping Kurdish political and territorial ambitions in check, something the government denies.”

This is a good point to question the uncritical way the western media has taken up the Turkish state and media’s use of PKK as the designation of the armed wing. The reality is that the PKK is more of a political organization; its relation to its armed wing, the HPG is not that dissimilar to the relationship between the Sinn Fein political party and the IRA in Ireland. However in Ireland both British and Irish states recognized the distinction and as a result even at the height of the war, although Sinn Fein was censored and its members subject to repression, it was never banned and membership was never illegal. Both Irish and British states wanted to leave a political door open to ending the conflict. The Turkish state on the other hand has not only waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in which 40,000 were killed but has relentlessly criminalized all radical Kurdish political organization, essentially trying to close off the political road to peace.

Not only was the PKK banned but even broader Kurdish political formations like the KCK were also targeted. The KCK is the formation set up to implement the idea of “democratic confederalism” which draws from the theories of libertarian municipalism, social ecology, and Communalism developed by the American anarchist political philosopher Murray Bookchin. Which is broadly similar to what is being implemented in Rojava. Some 7748 people were arrested for KCK involvement in Turkey between April 2009 and October 2011; those charged were charged with membership of an illegal organization under Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code.

We are not insisting that there is no connection between the PKK and the HPG. That would be quite stupid. Nor are we insisting there is no connection between the PKK and KCK. But we think it’s a mistake to reproduce the Turkish state’s insistence that an armed military organization is identical to a political party which is identical in turn to the mass assembly formation that party has launched. More than a mistake, confusing the three provides ideological cover for the repression of the KCK in particular. Part of the reason for maintaining this distinction is also that it is clear that these different formations have distinct methods and tactics even if the fact of ongoing repression re-enforces the need to maintain a unified public face. The actions of the Turkish state are designed to provoke a response from the more militaristically inclined, a response that will then be used to justify further escalation.

turkish air strike

What is the Turkish state up to?

1. It is continuing its original objective of damaging its main non-EU rival in the region, the Assad regime in Syria. That was the original reason for backing ISIS and other Islamist forces (al-Nusra) in the Syrian civil war. With the US increasingly involved and ISIS proving a weak force when faced with the determined enemy of the Rojava revolution ISIS are, it appears, being partially ditched, at least for now. Although the so called safe zone in North-West Syria which Turkey claims to be creating will in effect prevent the Kurds capturing the area now held by ISIS and al-Nusra. Which means the Turkish secret state maintains a supply route to both groups if it cares to use it.

2. The HPG unilateral ceasefire in Turkey along with the role HPG combatants played in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq was causing many in the EU and even the US military to question whether the PKK should be removed from the list of terrorist groups. This would have been a disaster for Turkish state diplomacy in reversing one of its major successes of the post 9/11 era. The airstrikes are clearly intended to provoke retaliation from the HPG, retaliation which will be used to maintain the terrorist status of the PKK internationally and repress the PKK and KCK domestically.

3. Erdogan’s future plans for Turkey. Erdogan had hoped to come out of the last elections with enough of a parliamentary majority for his AKP party to impose a new constitution which would keep him in power and eliminate the secular basis of the Turkish state. A combination of the Gezi park rising, fear of that new constitution and the HPG unilateral ceasefire allowed a new Kurdish/left party the HDP to break the 10% electoral [barrier] designed to prevent a Kurdish party [from] being able to take seats in parliament. The 13% vote the HDP achieved not only reduced but eliminated the AKP majority and since then Turkey has been under a lame duck caretaker rule of a party that no longer has the majority to impose its will.

If as seems likely the bombings of the HPG and the large scale police arrests of PKK, KCK and other leftists provokes an armed response than Erdogan probably hopes to call fresh elections in a highly polarised situation where the HDP will not get the required 10%. The AKP will then be almost certainly returned with a majority of seats and maybe even the super majority it needs to impose a new constitution unilaterally. On the other hand polls shows that a large majority of people in Turkey are against an invasion of Syria and indeed even among AKP voters more would prefer to see the PYD win out than ISIS.

4. Erdogan has sworn to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Rojava by whatever means are required. As long as the US found the YPG/J useful in its war against ISIS the means the Turkish military could deploy were limited. The conditions the Turkish state is now creating will make the YPG/J less useful, will increase the cost for the US of building a deeper relationship with them and open up the possibility of creating the conditions where the majority of the Turkish public might accept an invasion of Rojava.

It was always clear that the Rojava revolution was a fragile thing, operating in a gap created by the Syrian civil war between major military powers. The actions of the Turkish state are designed to shut that gap. The US is co-operating in that project even if it is also for now using the YPG/J as cannon fodder. The only thing that can defeat that project is a revolt by a sizeable section of the population in Turkey backed up by large protests in the US and Europe against the cynical role that the US and NATO are playing.

Andrew Flood, Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

turkey_attacking_kurds_airstrikes

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.

kurdishlanguagerojava

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.

syriakurd1225

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

kurdish fighters

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).
 pkk logo
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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