The Revolution in Rojava

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By Meredith Tax
Dissent Magazine
April 23, 2015

Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.

But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.

The YPG and YPJ have, for the better part of the last three years, been focused on defeating the jihadis, even as they continue to clash with the Assad regime (particularly in and around the city of Hasakah). On January 27, 2015, they achieved a major victory when they defeated ISIS in Kobane. They have since won the strategic towns of Tel Hamis and Tel Tamr (on the edges of Cizîre canton), but are, as of late April, gearing up for a renewed ISIS attack on the area.

While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrew most of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.

They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.

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