by Bill Weinberg, Los Angeles Review of Books

A strange paradox of the vertiginous world situation is that a radical left movement strongly influenced by anarchism is being massively backed by the Pentagon in the war for northern Syria. This movement, in fact, is now the United States’ closest partner among the indigenous forces in the Syrian war.

The Kurds of northern Syria call the region Rojava (sunset or west in their tongue), and since 2012 have had their own autonomous zone. Two years later, the celebrated battle of Kobani opened as this town within the autonomous zone was besieged by the self-declared “Islamic State” (ISIS). Kurdish women fighters with a consciously feminist ideology driving back the ultra-reactionary ISIS became a global meme.

The US, after initially writing off Kobani, started aiding the Kurdish fighters as they began to turn the tide, against all expectations. Warplanes were sent in their support, and the pact between the Pentagon and the revolutionary Kurds was forged. US military advisors were embedded in their militia. Kurdish-led forces are now fighting to take the ISIS de facto capital Raqqa in a Pentagon-directed campaign backed by US air-strikes.

A sizeable element of the radical left in the West has rallied around Rojava, often oblivious to the reality that the revolutionary Kurds are actively collaborating with the hated US war machine. Supporters of the general Syrian revolution, in contrast, often bait the Rojava Kurds as collaborators with the Bashar Assad regime because of their failure to block with the Free Syrian Army—oblivious to realities that would lead a traditionally excluded people to view with suspicion a movement that still has Arab nationalist suppositions.

An in-depth, openly enthused look at the Kobani moment, and the political ferment that engendered it, is provided by Meredith Tax in A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State.

Tax traces the development of Rojava’s militant feminism, or jineology (from the Kurdish word for woman), to roots in Turkey’s Kurdish rebel movement. Inevitably, this story begins with the formation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978, and its initiation of a guerilla war against the Turkish state six years later—seeking an independent socialist Kurdistan. This set off a long and typically brutal contest of insurgency and (CIA-backed) counterinsurgency that cost thousands of lives. As Saddam Hussein committed acts of genocide against Iraq’s rebellious Kurds in this period, the Turkish state was also approaching a genocidal threshold.

Tax acknowledges that the PKK began as an authoritarian movement, responsible for its share of rights abuses (principally, forcible “conscription” of Kurdish youth). An uncomfortable reality later to become all too relevant is that the PKK for a time received support from the Hafez Assad dictatorship in Syria.

But Tax sees the PKK growing more democratic, especially after its Fifth Congress in 1995. The PKK became part of a broader struggle for Kurdish cultural rights long denied by Turkey’s nationalist state. Another potent symbol was Leyla Zana, the parliamentarian imprisoned in 1991 for speaking her native Kurdish language on the chamber floor.

The decisive turn in the PKK’s transformation came after the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. In prison, Ocalan underwent a rethinking of his politics, being especially influenced by the late American anarchist writer Murrary Bookchin and the praxis of Mexico’s Zapatista rebel movement, which has sought local autonomy for indigenous peoples within Mexico rather then secession.

Ocalan reformulated the PKK’s goal as “democratic autonomy” in the Kurdish east of Turkey rather than a separate state, and (despite the paradox that this was a diktat coming down from him as leader) a new model based on power flowing up from local councils. This eventually led to a bilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state in exchange for pledges of greater cultural rights for the Kurds. However, the ceasefire has now broken down, and Turkey’s east is witnessing levels of repression and political violence not seen since the 1990s.

Yet the PKK-led self-government structure in eastern Turkey has survived, now under the rubric of a Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). In addition to the PKK base communities, it also incorporates municipal governments under the control of the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP, formerly the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP).

This movement began to spread to the Syrian Kurds after the spontaneous 2004 uprising in the town of Qamishli. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), formed the previous year in the ideological orbit of the PKK, began to gain a wide following after that. With the collapse of the Assad regime in Rojava in 2012, the PYD assumed power in the region, establishing a three-canton system for self-government, known as the Democratic Society Movement, or TEV-DEM. In January 2014, TEV-DEM formally declared autonomy, and issued a constitution known as the Social Contract. It also formed a territorial militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). That year, ISIS invaded Rojava and the siege of Kobani brought Syria’s Kurdish movement to the world’s attention.

Tax portrays Turkey as conniving with ISIS forces, allowing them to use Turkish territory as a staging area for attacks on Rojava. She notes that while ISIS has launched attacks in Turkey, the most deadly of these have targeted Kurds and their leftist supporters—not the Turkish state.

Tax is not completely uncritical. She acknowledges the “cult of personality” around Ocalan in the Rojava movement. But she rejects as politicized the October 2015 Amnesty International report charging the YPG with “war crimes” against Arab civilians, including the “razing of villages,” in territory taken from ISIS. She asserts that the Rojava movement is officially multi-ethnic, not Kurdish-nationalist, and that 30% of the YPG is made up of Arabs.

Tax also grapples with the divisions between the Kurdish movement and Syria’s main (Arab-led) opposition. She quotes the respected Syrian left-opposition figure (and former political prisoner) Yassin al-Haj Saleh accusing the Rojava leadership of “building…an ultra-nationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime and Iran, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia.”

In one note of hope, Tax writes that the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which launched Syria’s pro-democracy struggle in 2011, “resembled Rojava communes in many ways,” with their ethic of council-based democracy. But she uses the past tense, even while acknowledging that these committees continue to function amid the profusion of ruthless armed actors. She doesn’t note that they have become the de facto local government in some areas where other authority has broken down.

In the even more partisan Revolution in Rojava, co-authors Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga provide an in-depth look at the self-governance system in the region, but show less sensitivity about the divisions between Syria’s Kurdish movement and Arab-led opposition. In their introductory historical overview, they refer to the past “Syrian occupation” of Rojava—actually surpassing the line of the Rojava leadership in implying that the region is not really part of Syria. They credit the Assad dynasty with “going beyond Alawite circles” to fill the state apparatus. This is a reversal of reality; after seizing power within the ruling Baath Party in 1971, Hafez Assad began systematically favoring his own Alawite people, a practice continued by son Bashar.

They predictably show greater acumen in describing oppression of the Kurds under Arab nationalist rule in Syria, documenting how large numbers were systematically stripped of citizenship, and quoting one official who unsubtly referred to the country’s “Kurdish question” as a “malignant tumor.”

The co-authors detail the uprising in which the PYD took over Rojava in July 2012—contrary to claims that the regime simply abandoned the territory. “The state had no substantial military force” when the uprising began in Kobani, the authors admit, making for a quick victory. Still—it was an uprising, with Assad’s troops confronted.

Rojava’s council system is outlined, with neighborhoods (or “communes”), villages, and districts (“people’s municipalities”) each having their own assembly. These in turn send members to the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which governs the three cantons. There are also Kurdish-run enclaves in the city of Aleppo, loyal to the Rojava autonomous government but not a part of it.

All the councils have a 40% quota for women, and the municipalities each have two “co-mayors,” one always a woman. The various women’s organizations involved in every sphere of social life are outlined. The project is again portrayed as multi-ethnic, despite the Kurdish demographic majority in Rojava. Christian Syriacs have their own militia units under YPG. The Social Contract “holds inviolable” international human rights treaties and conventions.

Rojava’s economy is increasingly based on cooperatives, and an ecological ethic is advanced—particularly critical with the future inhabitability of the Middle East in grave question due to climate change. The authors acknowledge the impacts of oil operations the Rojava administration now runs at Cizire—ironically where an Ecology Academy has been established, chiefly concerned with protecting groundwater.

Turning to Rojava’s relations with the Syrian opposition, the authors see little hope for unity. The existence of leftist opposition currents is recognized, such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. But the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council, is rejected as “dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Then we come to the establishment in 2015 of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), bringing the YPG together with some Arab militias to fight ISIS. This is the force now fighting to take Raqqa. The authors idealize it as a “third force” after the “Islamist-nationalist opposition” and “chauvinist-dictatorial Ba’ath regime.” They do not mention the widespread perception that the SDF was formed at Pentagon behest to have a force less openly dominated by Kurds to take Arab-majority Raqqa.

Pentagon support for the SDF is briefly discussed. It is emphasized that the US did not recognize Rojava’s declaration of autonomy and “does not support the Rojava project politically.” The authors note that while backing the Rojava Kurds, the US “averts it s eyes from the war crimes of the Turkish government in North Kurdistan.”

KCK leader Cemil Bayik is quoted saying (perhaps too optimistically): “We are on the side neither of Russia or the United States… Whoever won’t accept us, we won’t accept them. No one can make a merely tactical alliance with the Kurds anymore. Those days are over.”

The authors’ claim that the US has given up on the quest for “moderate rebels” to fight ISIS and Assad is embarrassingly footnoted to RT, an official Kremlin propaganda arm that aggressively supports the Damascus regime. They refer to the rebels under the National Coalition as “mainly non-democratic forces.” They claim collaboration between FSA factions and the jihadist Nusra Front in attacks on Kurdish villages outside the Rojava zone. This may be accurate, but the authors’ prejudices and cursory grasp of the Syrian opposition are evident. For instance, they refer to the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham as an “affiliate of al-Qaeda”—which it is not. (It is currently at war with actual Qaedist forces for control of Idlib province.)

Like Tax, they cite the LCCs as having “ideas that are compatible with Democratic Autonomy.” But they see the Rojava zone as their ideal, concluding that its survival is “also the survival of hope for a free, communal life and a gender-liberated, ecological society.”

A similarly detailed and idealistic account is provided by UK-based Corporate Watch in Struggles for Autonomy in Kurdistan. Authors Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson made trips to Bakur, or Northern (or Turkish) Kurdistan, as well as to Cizire canton in Rojava. Tracing the movement’s trajectory “from Marxism-Leninism to Democratic Confederalism,” they first detail the autonomous system in Bakur. Neighborhoods, towns and provinces each have their own assemblies, forming a system of parallel power. There is participation from both the outlawed PKK and legal (if persecuted) HDP, whose mayors have been jailed on charges of guerilla collaboration. This system survives despite “Turkey’s bloodiest massacre and displacement of the Kurds since the 1990s.”

They also stress the ecological ethic, describing the resistance to Turkey’s planned Ilisu dam, which would flood large areas of traditional Kurdish lands.

In Rojava, the authors similarly break down the structures of council-based governance. On the sticky geopolitical question, they acknowledge Pentagon support for the YPG, but also emphasize Russian military coordination with the militia—implying that this illustrates its independence from the US. Those under Russian bombardment in Aleppo are presumably less than comforted by this alignment.

Corporate Watch emphasizes the “culpability of the US” in the Turkish counterinsurgency. For instance, Lockheed-Martin F16 warplanes carried out the air-strikes on the village of Roboski in Turkey’s east that left 34 residents dead in December 2011. Other American, British and Turkish arms companies are named as complicit in the repression.

These companies deserve to be called out. But the authors’ failure to express any outrage at the far greater Russian and Assad regime bombardment of civilians in Syria is undermines their moral authority.

Janet Biehl, the American writer and activist who translated Revolution in Rojava from the German, also translated an earlier account by the Hamburg-based TATORT Kurdistan (Crime-scene Kurdistan), Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan. A report from a delegation to Turkey’s east, it also describes the system of dual power, interviewing leaders of the rebel councils. It again emphasizes the professed multi-ethnic character of the autonomous structures (with participation from minority peoples, such as the Qizilbash), and its repudiation of ethnic nationalism. Leaders of civil organizations are interviewed, such as the Peace Mothers, made up of mothers of Kurdish guerillas who have organized to press both sides for a political solution to the conflict. So are leaders of agricultural and light industrial collectives. One in the town of Colemerg is growing a local cucumber variety to make “resistance pickles.”

Biehl also contributes to an anthology on Rojava produced by an activist collective in New York, A Small Key Can Open a Large Door. This book also offers a discussion of the precarious role of the Kurds in the “Great Game” being played by the world powers. Many foreign powers have sought to exploit the Kurds for their own aims, while “ultimately thwarting the Kurdish dream of freedom across a unified Kurdistan.” The authors see US support for Rojava as “simply a matter of pragmatism.” They warn leftists in the West against the “essentialist” error of dismissing the Rojava movement because of this support, rather than understanding the pressures that have led the revolutionary Kurds to accept it.

The Small Key writers are clearly anarchist in their politics. They don’t try to impose their own ideology on the movement, but see the autonomous administration in Rojava as a “stateless government,” with a vision that “draws heavily from contemporary anarchist, feminist, and ecological thought.”

Janet Biehl was the longtime companion of Murray Bookchin before his death in 2006, and is today a torch-bearer for his theoretical legacy of “social ecology.” This was initially seen as reviving the anarchist tradition for the post-industrial age, with an emphasis on community and harmony with the natural world. However, late in life he repudiated anarchism for what he called “Communalism” or “libertarian municipalism” (libertarian in its original sense of anti-authoritarian, definitely not its more contemporary sense of laissez-faire capitalist). This sees the municipality as the highest level at which direct self-government is possible, with higher levels conceived as confederations of such self-governing entities.

The Next Revolution, a posthumously published collection of Bookchin’s late essays on his vision of direct democracy through popular assemblies, makes clear that he sought to “replace the nation-state with a confederation of municipalities.” He still advanced a model in which decision-making power flows up from below. This can be seen as a kind of compromise between a pure anarchist position and a more pragmatic conception of power.

One essay explores a critical antecedent for such thinking—the anarchist uprising in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Bookchin faults the anarchists for rejecting a seizure of power at a public plenum after the workers’ insurrection had crushed the fascist military rising of General Francisco Franco in the city. This abdication of power led to the anarchists themselves being crushed, along with their experiments in neighborhood assemblies and collectivization of industry. The “bourgeois state” in Madrid (actually backed by Stalin) moved to regain control in May 1937, with considerable repression, even before the fascists finally seized Barcelona with the rest of Spain in 1939.

“If we are to learn anything from this crucial error,” Bookchin wrote, “it is that power cannot be abolished… Power that is not in the hands of the masses must inevitably fall into the hands of their oppressors.”

The Rojava leadership clearly accept this principle. But this opens the anarchist critique of power as inherently subject to abuse, even when delegated from below through an organic participatory process.

These idealistic views of Rojava are sharply contrasted by those of partisans of the general (Arab-led) Syrian revolution. Khiyana (Arabic for betrayal) is an anthology by supporters of the Syrian opposition movements, accusing large elements of the Western left of making a paradoxical peace with the fascistic Assad. Such icons of the left as Julian Assange, Cynthia McKinney, Slavoj Zizek and The Nation magazine are refreshingly called out for loaning propaganda cover to Assad’s regime and painting the opposition as monolithically jihadist and/or CIA-Mossad astroturf.

But some of the contributors—themselves mostly on the Marxist left—are contemptuous of both the Rojava revolution and its leftist supporters.

Assad an-Nar dismisses “the one party state in Rojava ‘Commune’ that passes itself off as a libertarian anarchist experiment.”

Mark Boothroyd charges: “The PYD was entrusted by the regime to administer the region due to its long standing relationship dating back to the 80s and 90s.” But this relationship was with the PKK, not PYD (which did not exist in the ’80s and ’90s), and has long since been broken. He admits past Assad repression against the Kurds, but now sees “cooperation between the regime and the PYD.” He writes that the US began aiding the YPG partly due to “public protest around the world organized by Kurdish solidarity organizations.” Meanwhile: “No solidarity was forthcoming for the Syrian rebels who were fighting both the regime and Daesh [ISIS].”

Boothroyd sees US aid to the FSA as intentionally inadequate—intended not to overthrow Assad but to “cultivate a small pro-US faction” so Washington would have someone to deal with in case the rebels were successful.

Sam Charles Hamad is dismissive of the perception (advanced by Tax) of Turkish state connivance with ISIS: “Daesh is not allied with Turkey but has declared war on it.”

Khiyana’s most hopeful entry is provided by Leila al-Shami, a British Syrian of anti-authoritarian inclination. Alone of the writers reviewed here she mentions Operation Euphrates Volcano, which brought the YPG and several FSA militias together to fight ISIS in 2014. (FSA militias backed by Turkey have more recently been fighting the YPG over contested enclaves.)

Al-Shami has an open challenge for the leftists now mobilizing to support Rojava but remaining equivocal, uninterested or hostile regarding the general Syrian revolution. She asks “whether international solidarity for Kobane arises from the Kurdish ethnicity of its defenders (i.e. they’re not Sunni Arabs), from support for the political position of a party (the PYD/PKK), or from the principle that all people have the right to defend themselves from terror, whether in the form of religious or nationalist fascism, and to determine for themselves how to organize their lives and communities. If it arises from the latter principle, then the same solidarity extended to the Kurds must be extended to all revolutionary Syrians.”

Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East is an anthology exploring the interaction between Kurdish ethnic struggles and the pro-democracy movements in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran alike. It also explores the link between state authoritarianism and nationalist ideologies based on supremacy of the dominant ethnicity in all these countries. Michael M. Gunter argues that the rise of Turkey’s notorious “deep state”—a nexus of intelligence agencies, which has cultivated an unofficial paramilitary apparatus—was fueled by the threat of Kurdish separatism.

Gareth Stansfield, writing on Iran, sees the emergence there of a Kurdish rebel movement in the PKK orbit, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), as part of a general ferment by ethnic minorities that is a primary concern for the Islamic Republic’s security establishment.

Eva Savelsberg’s entry on Syria will make difficult reading for those enthused by the Rojava project. She portrays the PYD as an arm of the PKK that sees Turkey as the enemy and has sought “to prevent the Kurdish population from effectively participating in the revolution.” She dismisses talk of “federalism” and “democracy” as “buzzwords.” She accuses the YPG of “kidnapping, interrogating, torturing and even killing” adherents of the Kurdish National Council, an opposition current that does not recognize the autonomous government (and is in the orbit of Masoud Barzani, strongman of the more conservative Kurdish autonomous zone in Iraq, she fails to emphasize).

Alone of the writers reviewed here, Savelsberg discusses a June 2013 incident at Amuda (in Rojava’s Cizire canton), in which YPG forces fired on protesters, leaving eight dead. This was followed by repression against opposition groups in the town, with the office of one raided by YPG fighters.

Other of Savelsberg’s claims may be dubious. She writes that Rojava’s Social Contract “has never been officially published”—yet it appears as an appendix in A Small Key.

She concludes with sweeping arrogance: “[I]t is currently unrealistic to think that the Kurds will play any meaningful role in democratizing Syria—or even their own society.” This assessment is almost surreally at odds with the portrayals of Tax, Biehl and fellow enthusiasts of the Rojava model.

A second entry on Syria by Robert Lowe (unlike Savelsberg, he actually uses the term “Rojava”) is more balanced. He sees a “complex relationship” between the YPG and FSA, at times cooperating, at times fighting. And he articulates an obvious obstacle to Kurds uniting with the Syrian revolution: “The Free Syrian Army is openly hostile to Kurdish self-government.” Federalist versus centralist visions for Syria’s future continues to be “the key sticking point” barring unity between the Rojava leadership and Syria’s main opposition.

The challenge for those wrestling with Syria’s Kurdish question is to seek a middle path between the cynicism of Savelsberg and the idealism of the Rojava experiment’s ideological proponents. It is more evident each day that the defeat of ISIS in northern Syria could only open an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war, which could also be exploited as a proxy war by regional rivals Turkey and Russia. This would not serve the interests of anyone but the jihadis, despots and imperialists. It will take some honest grappling by the partisans on both sides in order to avoid it.


A shorter version of this review appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Oct. 8.

Photo: YPG via Flickr.

Titles reviewed:

Women Fight the Islamic State
by Meredith Tax
Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2016

Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan
by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga
Pluto Press, London, 2016

& Corporate Complicity in the Repression of Social Movements in Rojava and Bakur
by Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Corporate Watch, London, 2016

Daesh, the Left & the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution
by Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, eds.
Unkant Publishers, London, 2016

The Rojava Revolution
by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness
Combustion Books, New York, 2015

Popular Assemblies & the Promise of Direct Democracy
by Murray Bookchin
Verso Books, London, 2015

Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria
by David Romano and Mehmet Gurses, eds.
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014

The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology —in Practice
by TATORT Kurdistan
New Compass Press, Norway, 2013

From our Daily Report:

Syria: Russia denies bombing Kurdish forces
CounterVortex, Sept. 18, 2017

See also:

Interview with Houzan Mahmoud
by Scott Douglas Jacobsen, Conatus News
CounterVortex, July 2017

Key to Ending the War
by Maria J. Stephan, Waging Nonviolence
CounterVortex, April 2017

Reprinted by CounterVortex, Oct. 8, 2017