Rojava revolution speaks in New York City

Metropolitan area Kurds and their supporters on Nov. 18 held a panel at the City University of New York entitled "Kobanê and the Rojava Revolution"—which actually featured a live Skype connection to Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and political leader of the Kobani resistance, who was speaking from Europe. Also speaking via Skype was sociologist Nazan Üstündağ of Turkey's Boğaziçi University, who has been studying the Kurdish self-government system in northern Syria, or Rojava. Following up at the podium in the CCNY lecture hall was US-based Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Çiviroğlu. The event was chaired by David Phillips of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, who is a former advisor to the US State Department. The panel provided a vivid illustration of the contradictions facing the Rojava revolution.

Phillips in his opening remarks said that the "Kurds are America's last and best friends in the region," and noted that Salih Muslim met in Paris last month with US State Department special envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein. (Asharq Al-Awsat, Oct. 19) 

Muslim, in his Skype presentation, called the democratic experiment in Rojava a "model for Syria and the Middle East," committed to fighting for "humanitarian values" in the face of extremism. He said Rojava is "allied with democratic countries, and the United States is one of them"—but "the obstacle is the US alliance with Turkey, which cannot stand Kurdish democracy." He also noted the "Kurdophobia" of some elements of the Syrian rebels.

Muslim said US air-strikes on ISIS forces besieging Kobani "were not serious in the beginning," but now "have saved the lives of a lot of people." He predicted the imminent "liberation of Kobani, which will be the beginning of the defeat of ISIS. We are proud to be part of an international alliance against terrorism." In a barely veiled reference to Turkey's President Erdogan, he said that the "backers of ISIS should face international justice." He concluded: "With US help, we can make a more free and democratic Middle East."

After Muslim's comments, Phillips received a call on his cellphone from veteran US diplomat and "Kurdish hand" Peter Galbraith, who also spoke, with the phone held up to the microphone. He congratulated Muslim on the "heroic" resistance at Kobani, and noted the  "remarkable" speed at which the US went from a "hands-off position to air-strikes and air-drops." He said this was because the Rojava Kurds proved themselves "the most effective fighters against ISIS."

This tone was sharply contrasted by Nazan Üstündağ's depiction of an experiment in radical grassroots democracy in Rojava, "taking back the means of production and reproduction from the state and capitalism." Üstündağ described a democratic model based on neighborhood committees in which power flows "from the bottom to the top." These committees have empowered representatives to the Kobani city council, which in turn has empowered reps to the Kobani canton government. These councils all have a 40% quota for women's participation, and there is also a separate Women's Canton Assembly, on the same structure, which wields veto power over the general assembly. Neightborhoods and localities also have "peace and justice" committees which resolve conflicts through mediation, and are to eventually replace the formal judicial system (seemingly inherited from the Syrian state).

Although Üstündağ did not invoke either anarchism or Murray Bookchin by name, she was clearly describing a model of anarcho-municipalism that is rooted in Bookchin's ideas, as well as in the praxis of the Zapatistas.

In the question-and-answer period (with the Skype links over and only Phillips and Çiviroğlu on hand), this reporter asked what are the Rojava revolution's odds for survival, given the potential for the autonomous zone to be eventually crushed in deference to NATO ally Turkey, or else groomed as an imperial client by the US. Seeming to misunderstand my question, Çiviroğlu only reiterated: "Rojava Kurds want to have a good relationship with the West." Phillips conceded, "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the US sells out the Kurds of Syria." But as a sign of hope he pointed to a recent article by ultra-neocon Daniel Pipes  calling for the US to rethink its alliance with Turkey.

As for a positive vision of the region's future, Phillips slightly equivocated, saying he hoped for an "independent Iraqi Kurdistan with good relations with Rojava"—leaving ambiguous the future status of Rojava itself as well as the Kurdish areas of Turkey.