Resources on the Rojava revolution in West Kurdistan (Syria)

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AndrewNFlood
2/08/2015
Anarchist Writers

The Rojava revolution is taking place in three catons of northern Syria that are part of the area known as Kurdistan stretching through Turkey, Iran and Iraq.  In 2012 a revolution occurred in the Syrian cantoons, an area of 18,300 square km.  The population of Rojava was estimated in 2014 as 4.6 million, obviously the ongoing war in the region makes precise estimates difficult in particular as refugees move into and out of the region as the fighting ebbs and flows.

The heroic defence of Kobane against Isis brought the attention of many of us to the experiment in Democratic Autonomy said to be running in the region and to some extent in North Kurdistan (Turkey).  It's a controversial topic not least because its ideological roots are in the change in strategy Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, started to promote from his Turkish prison cell.  This lead to significant changes in North Kurdistan from the mid 2000s as new structures were created, and a wave of state repression was directed at those structures which have seen over 8000 imprisoned.  The goal was to be the development of "democratic, ecological, gender liberated society" in the shell of the existing society through co-operation between a political party taking power in elections (the BDP) and a parallel system of neighboorhood councils which would be really making the decisions.  All this as part of an overall body called the Democratic Society Congress bringing together political parties, councils and civil society.

Mass arrests and repression impose obvious limits on this experiement in the Kurdish area of the Turkish state but events in Syria allowed the possibility of a much fuller experiment.  Geography, ethnic makeup and other reasons meant that the 3 Kurdish cantons of Northern Syria, collectively termed Rojava saw little fighting initially.  So from 2012 a constructive project could begin, one that could continue until the moment ISIS found itself with large supplies of heavy weapons and armour captured at Mosul after the Iraqi army fled. This enabled them to rapidly over run the YPG / YPJ defence forces that had previously failed to acheive a significant breakthrough with the result that in the central canton around Kobane they overran all but Kobane itself very rapidly indeed.  Now they have almost been driven out of the city.

The Kurdish Anarchist Zaher Baher who has visited Rojava and strongly believes that the revolution is real nevertheless warns "It is very unfortunate that I found many ideologists among the PYD and Tev-Dem members, especially when it came to discussions about Abdullah Öcalan’s ideas. These people are very stuck with Öcalan’s principles, making them refer to his speeches and books in our discussions. They have total faith in him and, to a certain extent, he is sacred. If this is the faith that people have and put in their leader and are scared of him, it is very frightening and the consequences will not be good. For me, nothing should be sacred and everything can be criticized and rejected if they need to be. "

A Two minute video introduction to the Rojava revolution from an anarchist perspective

But Zaher is also clear that "In Syrian Kurdistan the people were prepared and knew what they wanted. They believed that the revolution must start from the bottom of society and not from the top. It must be a social, cultural and educational as well as political revolution. It must be against the state, power and authority. It must be people in the communities who have the final decision-making responsibilities. These are the four principles of the Movement of the Democracy Society (Tev-Dem). Credit needs to be given to whoever is behind these great ideas and the efforts being made to put them into practice, whether it’s Abdullah Öcalan and his comrades or anybody else."

My intention here is not to provide a comple anaysis but rather to catalogue useful material on the Rojava revolution and what is happening in the rest of Kurdistan. Be aware that this introduction is not itself an article but part of that process, I am also changing and updating this as I learn more about the situation so this text will change from time to time as new links are added.

Briefly my view as it is forming is that like the Zapatistas 20 years ago this is not a case of sitting back to wait to see what happens and 'who is right' but rather of critically engaging with what does appear to be a very real and significant social experiement despite the issues already outlined.  The experiment is confined in its goals, like Libertarian Municipalism its not anti-capitalist in a revolutionary sense, the radical aspect, as with the Zapatistas is in the creation of organs of direct democracy rather than the seizure of workplaces (although the Zapatista rebellion did involve the seizure of large estates/fincas).  As with the EZLN the question remains of the relationship of the political-military organisation and the organs of direct democracy, in particular how differences between these two are resolved.

The pieces can be audio, video, books, online articles or even particularly useful online discussion. If there is something I have missed in this list please add it as a comment below or tweet me at @andrewflood Even better if you can write the mini review for inclusion here as a comment to this piece.

Below I've added a new section addressing the 'Is It Full Communism" question, for the basic facts the Wikipedia entry on Rojava is now very comprehensive

Optomistic introductions

Anarchist Eyewitness to self-management in Kurdish Syria / West Kurdistan
Written a few months before the ISIS assault attracted attention this report from a Kurdish anarchist is a great introduction to the region, what is happening and a critical if very sympatheic examination of the reasons why. 

 

 

Anarchist Eyewitness to self-management in Kurdish Syria / West Kurdistan by Workers Solidarity on Mixcloud
The embedded audio above is a recording of Zaher Baher of the Kurdistan Anarchists Forum speaking at the 2014 London Anarchist Bookfair about the two weeks he spent in Syrian Kurdistan in May 2014, looking at the experiences of self-management in the region, experiments that have become more widely discussed as the result of the defense of Kobane against ISIS. Zaher is also a member of Haringey Solidarity Group

Some concrete examples of how the Rojava revolution is anticapitalist (by D. Graeber)
David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist, just came back from an observation mission with an Anglo-American delegation to the Rojava, when challenged about why he considered it anti-capitalist he offered this very useful quick summary.

Janiet Biel describes the Rojava revolution, decision making, women & the economy
A must read piece that fills in a lot of detail.  Biel visited in late 2014 and in this piece provides a huge amount of eyewitness detail.  The section on the economy the piece concludes with is very detailed and exposes many of the difficulties and contradictions faced.

Starting from the moment of coercion: Cizire Canton, Rojava - A revolution in daily life
While what is taking place is not communisation*, it is a real movement against state plunder and cohercion, fighting militarily on its boarders and inwardly through the diffusion of power within them. The limits of the struggles in Rojava in this sense are those of struggles everywhere where the relation between labour power and capital has become a matter of repression and struggles that take that repression as a starting point. 

How the Revolution Began - translation of account from 2012
It’s the night of July 18-19. People in the city of Kobanê are stealing into a mosque to participate in a people’s assembly there. They reach a decision: the revolution must proceed!  Their armed defense committees (which would become part of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG), take control of the main access roads to and from Kobanê, while civilians, in an organized action, lay siege to regime institutions and the Assad army’s military strongpoints. A short negotiation is enough to convince those in charge of the barracks that they have nothing left but to lay down their arms. 

Joint statement of the academic delegation to Rojava
In Rojava, we believe, genuinely democratic structures have indeed been established. Not only is the system of government accountable to the people, but it springs out of new structures that make direct democracy possible: popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns.

Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolution By Janet Biehl
Biehl's first account of her Dec 2014 trip to the Rojava’s Cezire canton where she argues "the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution."  There are a few interesting snippets on the economy, in particular the massive percentage that goes to the way effort and the depth the region was kept undeveloped to the point even wheat mills had to be build.

SYRIA: On the Syrian Revolution and the Kurdish Issue 
An interview with Syrian-Kurdish activist and journalist Shiar Nayo who while very critical of the PKK/PYD still sees the experiement as worthwhile.  It's also very useful at providing some context of the relationship with Syria, the Assad regime and the other rebel movements.

Rojavas communes & councils
Qamişlo has 6 different districts. Each district has 18 communes, and each commune is made up of 300 people. Now each commune has 2 elected co-presidents. Cizîre canton consists of 12 cities. Delegates to the canton-level people's council are allocated according to population.

Rojava: Syria's secret revolution (video)
BBC documentary that makes for a very useful introduction - Out of the chaos of Syria’s civil war, mainly Kurdish leftists have forged an egalitarian, multi-ethnic mini-state run on communal lines. But with ISIS Jihadists attacking them at every opportunity — especially around the beleaguered city of Kobane, how long can this idealistic social experiment last? 

Rojava: Fantasies & Realities
Brief piece that does a good job of quickly outlining both the limited goals of the Rojava revolution and the limitiations of the reality of rebellion in the specific enconomic and social conditions.  That it is written as a vehicle to argue for a anarchist international is a little jarring, not least because there is more than one of them already. 

Rojava: Syria's Unknown war

Vice documentary from September of 2013 when the YPG/J had launched a counteroffensive against ISIS. Includes footage of a 4km section of border where the Turkish army removed barbed wire to facilitate ISIS recruits crossing the border.  Some interesting footage & interviews with militia's on the front line who are described as consisting of local farmers.

Women

How the YPJ began - based on a late 2014 interview
The formation of the YPG and especially the YPJ “gave us political and social consciousness to struggle for freedom. You gain self-confidence. . . . When you are together with others, you realize you are a power. . . . We could express our colors, our thoughts. … We gained a liberationist consciousness.” They realized that everyone, including themselves, has rights and that those rights must be defended.

Kobane: the struggle of Kurdish women against Islamic State - NECLA ACIK 22 - October 2014
Introduction to a 40 page PDF report from a recent delegation to the region that provides a useful summary if one from a position obviously sympatheic to the PKK influence. 

‘We are so proud' – the women who died defending Kobani against Isis
Mona Mahmood speaks to four Kurdish families about the female fighters who died helping to wrest control of Kobane from Isis

Prior to its transformation the PKK had a deserved reputation as a militarist authoritarian Maxist - Leninist outfit even willing to assassinate political rivals & critics on the left. Could it really be that this organisation has 'changed its spots' to the soft quasi social democratic anarchism developed by the US writer Murray Bookchin.

Comrades I've talked to about this from the Turkish state have had widely different perspectives. Some think it's simply a cynical exercise to garner western support. Others insist the changes in ideology have subsubstance but more important that the revolution in Rojava at least is real. And some, perhaps the wiser, take a middle ground and say that while simply trusting the PKK leadership would be foolish but it would be more foolish again to ignore the space that has opened up on the ground.

Ideology & practise

The constitution of the Rojava Cantons
As can be seen this important document is radical republican with a built in social democratic leaning but not anarchist or anti-capitalist.

Adam Curtis - Anarchy in Kurdistan
Curtis blogs the meeting of Ocalan & Bookchin and the influeces around them.  Quite a useful quick history of the PKK.

The new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan - By Rafael Taylor On August 17, 2014
Useful explanation of the adoption of Bookchin's ideas by the PKK under Öcalans direction and a brief sketch of their implementation in Northern Kurdistan (but that may be drawn from the 'Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan' interviews rather than confirming them?)

Dilar Dirik on "Stateless Democracy" at the New World Summit
I like her stressing of the importance of the social transformation of society by the women's movement over time--something that I think gets diminished a bit when so much emphasis by the left gets placed on to what degree communal property has been instituted in Rojava and to what extent the PKK is suppressing, tolerating or dealing with the KDP. (video 2, video 3) (via Flint)

Interview with the Kurdistan Anarchists Forum (KAF) about the situation in Iraq/Kurdistan
This includes some discussion of anarchist influences in the PKK and how seriously they should be taken

'Ocalan is a Stalinist, cult figure'
A useful summary of the origins of DC and the pace at which the author imagines it developing based on Ocalan's writings. The picture is gradualist rather than insurrectionist.

Ocalan on Democratic Confederalism
PDF pamphlet were Ocalan lays down his concepts (currently reading)

The No State Solution: Institutionalizing Libertarian Socialism in Kurdistan
This piece draws heavily and uncritically on the Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan / TATORT text

Problems

Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria (PDF)
Detailed critical look by an NGO which for the most part focuses on the problems of the conventional govemance structures and refuses to understand the more interestung grassroots ones as anything more than a PKK ploy.  It still raises a number if important questions and is a good introduction to the conventional political rivilaries at play.

Democratic Islam Congress and the Middle East
By formulating Islam in a way that stresses fighting oppression and pursuing peace and order, the Kurdish nationalist movement is creating its own interpretation of Islam to consolidate its existence as a nation among others.

Syria: Abuses in Kurdish-run Enclaves
Kurdish authorities running three enclaves in northern Syria have committed arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances, Human Rights Watch said.

Syrian Kurdish Group Linked to PKK Kills Protesters
Between June 27 and 28, seven civilians were gunned down by YPG forces following protests. According to witnesses, only one of them was armed.

But is it #Fullcommunism

Generally critiques of the Rojava revolution from the left come in two forms. The more standard one focuses on the role of the PKK and dismisses the revolution in totality on the basis of the PKKs past record. This is discussed in the introduction to this page.

The second is much rarer and essentially comes from a set of fringe Marxist ideas that have some influence with some anarchists. They insist that to be a 'real' revolution the wages system and market have to be abolished and Full communism introduced. The point being that it is not enough that this is a goal to be worked towards, it must already have happened. Advocates of such a position tend to see gender liberation as an irrelevant distraction, no more than a nice add on for a 'real' revolution. And their productivistist bias means that environmental concerns are no more than a tool to critique capitalism.

The point to start with that is to understand that you can't simply abolish wages, you have to instead remove the need for wages. Otherwise you just end up with a secondary underground market where the real economic activity goes on. Historically even draconian states such as under Lenin or Stalin have proved unable to abolish such activity despite jailings and executions.

Can we say either that the abolition of wage labour has happened or that it is the goal? Briefly no, but read on ...

The economic model being pursued is complicated by the deliberate under development of the region under Assad which means there were not even any cement factories or grain mills, the main product cash economy product apart form oil being wheat. This means there isn't much of a classical working class in the old school marxist factory sense or indeed factories to seize. The economy is a mix of agriculture, small machine shops and oil extraction along with state run electricity, phones and other services.

That makes the sort of box ticking such critics suggest a poor fit to the actual conditions . Not an impossibility but the same forces for collectivisation don't exist as in a factory setting so it would required a deep mass ideological commitment, as indeed was present in some villages in rural Spain during the revolution there where both wages and individual ownership were abolished. If you've seen the film Land & Freedom you are familiar with how that happened in some places.

So far as I understand economic change in Rojava is happening at the level of
1. setting up co-ops (with agricultural ones using land abandoned by the Assad regime ).
2. providing certain necessities free (so partial filling of the requirement for wage abolition), but from the Point of View of consumption rather than production.
3. a certain amount of war communism - again a form of wage abolition but not necessarily intended to be long term. In Kobane under siege food was reported by BBC journalists as being freely available to all.

I have seen references to some co-ops operating on a 'according to need' basis, this appears to translate in reality into a family wage, again similar to much of revolutionary Spain so the take home wage is proportional to the number of people dependent on the wage. If this is widespread it is indeed a significant step towards a real abolition of wages.

How real this is and where it will develop to is the question that is currently being answered in practise. In part it's why I've gathered together all the information on this page.

Rojava – the formation of an economic alternative: Private property in the service of all
Afrin economist " For instance, the oil industry is under the control of the councils and managed by the workers’ committee. The refineries produce cheap benzine for the cooperatives and the staff of the autonomous government. A great deal of land which was previously nationalised under Assad as part of the anti-Kurdish policies is now managed by free Rojava through agricultural cooperatives"

Interview with Dr. Amaad Yousef, the Minister of Economy for the Efrîn Canton
Private capital is not forbidden but it is made to suite our ideas and system. We are developing a system around cooperatives and communes. However this does not prove that we are against private capital. They will complete each other. We believe that when the cooperative system is developed moral private capital can be added in certain parts of the economy. The society of Rojava will be made better in this way and taken away from the liberal system. In the liberal system the big fish swallows the small fish and there is no morality. In our canton a Commerce and Industry Organization was founded and has 7 thousand members. Here there is only thing that is forbidden and that is finance capital.
 

The battle of Kobane

Coverage of the battle
I produced over 34 updates during the 134 day succesful defence of Kobane for the WSM Facebook page.  These updates are gathered together as captions for a Facebook album of images and maps from the battle.

The defence of Kobane - anarchist reportage from WSM
When the Turkish anarchist group DAF announced some of its members were heading to Kobane I started to pay much more attention to what what happening.  This included writing quick reports for the WSM Facebook page during the first weeks of the siege that presented a political analysis of the events that were emerging from the resistance.  The link will bring you to a Facebook album that collects those reports as each was intially posted as the caption of an image, now collected into this album.

Tell Us Lies About Kobanê -unpicking the demand for Turkish & western intervention 9th October
The notion that the fall of Kobanê could be prevented by the intervention of the Turkish army is a smokescreen that covers the truth that they are already intervening - on the side of ISIS. The Turkish state's selective blockade of the border, which allows arms and volunteers to cross for ISIS, but strangles them for the YPG defenders of Kobanê is the decisive intervention that is giving ISIS the upper hand.

Very interesting 20 minute documentary from mainstream Australian TV on the YPJ (Women's Defence Force) recorded more or less right before the ISIS offensive with their new captured US tanks got underway.  

On ISIS

ISIS Jihadism and Imperialism in the post Arab Spring period- an anarchist analysis ( Audio & Video )
Following on from the rapid spread of Isis in Iraq & Syria Paul Bowman presented an update intended to inform on the contemporary politics of Jihadism and its entanglement with regional and global imperialist power plays.

Origins of the hostility and the split between Al Qa’ida and ISIS
Geo-strategically the Al Qa’ida leadership (Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri) are products of the Cold War, specifically the Afghan Mujahidin war against the USSR. Rather like their American neo-con previous employers, Al Qa’ida view the end of the Cold War as a victory over the USSR by their own side. The Al Qa’ida perspective is that, having “defeated” one superpower, the global jihad now needs to turn its offensive against the remaining superpower. Al Qa’ida worry that the Zarqawists of ISIS may be restricting the struggle to a parochial Mesopotamian sectarian struggle that could fail to engage Muslim jihadists around the world, outside the MENA region, say in West Africa or Indonesia and the Philippines where the US is a more credible #1 enemy than Iran.

This is how to destroy the Islamic State
The religious façade is merely yet another element of IS propaganda, the mobilising ideology that provides the veneer of legitimacy for IS’s existence, violence and contempt for the rule of law. Muslims worldwide can scream “not in my name” until they’re blue in the face. Indeed, they are. I’m one of them. The problem is that IS doesn't care.
 

North Kurdistan (Turkey)

Kurdish Communalism
2011 piece by Janet Biehl interviewing Kurdish activist Ercan Ayboga about who the Kurds are, the background of the PKK and the Democratic Autonomy process.

Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan By TATORT Kurdistan, trans Janet Biehl
Book length examiniation of 'Democratic Autonomy' in a couple of parts of 'Turkish' Kurdistan based around interview by members of a solidarity group who briefly vistited the area in 2011.  Clearly from a PKK sympatheic perspective but still a useful source in terms of understanding the idealised structures and methods of 'Democratic Autonomy' and the real world problems of implementation.

Sites

Roj Women
Kurdish and Turkish women's rights

Kurdish Question
English language material including many interviews from sources close to PYD, PKK etc


If there is something I have missed in this list please add it as a comment below or tweet me at @andrewflood Even better if you can write the mini review for inclusion here as a comment to this piece.

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