‘A real revolution is a mass of contradictions’: Interview with a Rojava Volunteer

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by Rojava Solidarity Cluster
Novara Media

In October 2016 Peter Loo travelled to Rojava* to volunteer as an English teacher and participate in work within civil society – the outcome of over 14 months of organising within the Plan C Rojava solidarity cluster. He is currently working for the SYPG campaign in Qamishlo. As well as directly offering his skills Peter has been able to visit places in Rojava and speak to many people as the future of Rojava, and Syria in general, continues to hang in the air. This interview took place late in December 2016.

Hi Peter, we’ve got lots of questions about your experiences so far but perhaps you could explain a little about the history to date for some readers who might not know too many of the details.

Well, we should start by briefly talking about the origins of the revolution. Many people skip over this part but it is vital to understanding the dynamics of the whole revolution. The Democratic Union party (PYD) who led the revolution have been active in northern Syria/western Kurdistan (Rojava is the Kurmanji word for west) since 2003. Before them the Workers’ party of Kurdistan (PKK), who the PYD are affiliated to, were permitted by the regime to use the region as a base to organise against the Turkish state until they were ejected in 1998.

The first protests against [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad started in early 2011 and by the spring the PYD had begun to focus effort into organising the Kurdish community, forming local committees and armed self-defence units (the precursors to the YPG and female YPJ forces). This was to be the social basis for the revolution. In the middle of July in 2012, as the social movement against Assad turned into a bloody military conflict involving many international powers, these self-defence forces, bolstered by PKK-trained guerrillas, evicted the regime from several towns and cities in the north. The PYD’s defence forces took control of major roads and evicted the regime forces from key infrastructure sites with very few clashes or casualties.

The uprising had a distinct geography: areas with a predominant Kurdish population where the PYD had been organising were the ones to rise up and eject the regime forces. In areas without an overwhelming Kurdish majority, Assad’s forces managed to maintain a presence. Here in Qamishlo, where an estimated 20% of the population support the regime, there was some heavy fighting but the regime managed to hold onto many of the public buildings. July 2012 marks the emergence of Rojava as a distinct force in the Syrian conflict. The cantons which were formed declared themselves to be against Assad (though arguing that he should be removed through elections not force), yet not a part of the rapidly fragmenting constellation of Syrian rebels. The relationship between Rojava and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the military forces initially formed by the rebels – is a complicated one and there have been examples of both co-operation and conflict between Rojava and different parts of the FSA since the beginning of the revolution.

This account of the origins of the revolution as an insurrection is contested by those more critical of the Rojava revolution and its refusal to join the wider uprising against Assad. Most publicly in the UK these critics include Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, the authors of Burning Country. In this book, which only briefly touches on Rojava, the authors argue the withdrawal of Assad’s forces was “apparently co-ordinated” with the PYD, whose coming to power was a fait accompli, agreed beforehand with the regime in order to free troops up from guard duty to fight the rebels elsewhere. These two narratives (fait accompli or successful insurrection) clash and I don’t have a definite answer – perhaps things will become clearer in the next few months as the future of Rojava’s relationship with the regime becomes apparent. However the fait accompli argument doesn’t explain why there were military casualties in the initial days, nor why hostilities continue sporadically. A conspiracy doesn’t seem that likely. Rather, [it’s likely that] recognising the political reality in Rojava had changed with the insurrection, Assad renegotiated his political position with regards to this part of Syria, possibly keeping his options open in the long term.

From this beginning the revolution has expanded geographically – two of its three cantons are directly connected (Kobane and Cizire cantons), and fighting continues to connect these to Efrin canton – and also socially. A political system based around decentralisation (the confederal system) and the construction of local-level ‘communes’ has been instituted, an economic system which prioritises co-operatives and provides for the people’s basic needs is in place, and a massive shift in gender relations is under way. This is one of the most exciting political struggles being undertaken in the world today both in terms of its scale and scope, made all the more impressive given the conflict continuing to unfold in Syria and the hostility it faces from neighbouring countries.

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