Examing the revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan is one of the first full-length books to address the emergence of Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria that has been heralded by many as a socialist and feminist model for social change. Written by three active participants in the Kurdish movement, Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, the book is enriched by their firsthand experience in northern Syria.

In the introduction, the authors clearly state their sympathies with Rojava; thus it comes as no surprise that much of their analysis reflects the position of the region’s dominant force, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Their book provides an informative overview of the Syrian Kurdish movement and illustrates the compelling possibilities of a social transformation along progressive lines.

Revolution in Rojava begins with a brief historical overview of the region, highlighting the diversity of peoples and cultures. After World War I, the imperial powers betrayed the Kurds by denying them a state. The Kurds have struggled for decades to realize their right to self-determination as an oppressed nationality within Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In order to contextualize the PYD, the authors trace the politics and practice of the PKK in Turkey from its founding in 1978 to the present day. During the Cold War, the PKK identified as a Marxist-Leninist movement with the goal of establishing a socialist Kurdistan by fighting a guerilla war against the Turkish state.

Following a military stalemate and the collapse of the Soviet Union, PKK leaders began to question the goal of statehood. After his arrest and exile in 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan developed a new political system called “democratic confederalism” inspired by the writings of libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin. Democratic confederalism identifies patriarchy as the root cause of capitalism, centralism, and nationalism.

In this new ideology, class struggle is replaced with a struggle between “Capitalist Modernity” and the “Democratic Modernity” of a “moral and political society” that governs through direct democracy. The conquering of state power is replaced with building an alternative society that will render the state superfluous. As for existing states, according to Öcalan, “peaceful coexistence between the nation-state and Democratic Confederalism is possible as long as the state does not interfere in central matters of self-administration.”

This new ideology, adopted by the PKK and later the PYD, signaled a paradigm shift away from their Stalinized version of Marxism. However, democratic confederalism’s promise of liberation remains compromised by the PKK’s continued substitution of military struggle for the self-activity of the Kurdish masses.

The Syrian revolution enabled the PYD to implement this vision in Rojava. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Syrians rose up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2011. The regime responded with brute force, compelling the revolutionaries to take up arms and create the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in defense of their liberation struggle. Many Kurds joined the protests with the hope that democratic change would bring an end to decades of oppression by the regime.

In response, Assad tried to divide and conquer the popular revolt along sectarian and ethnic lines. He courted the Kurds by granting small reforms and avoiding bombing Kurdish areas in order to sever unity between Arabs and Kurds. At the same time, some aspects of the Syrian opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council, adhered to Arab chauvinism and refused to support Kurdish self-determination.

“Neither the regime nor the opposition were responsive to Kurdish demands for recognition,” write the authors, “so Rojava’s Kurdish movement opted for a third path: it would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. Would it defend itself? Yes. Would it participate in civil war? No.”

Before the revolution, Kurdish political parties and organizations were officially banned by the Syrian government. With the outbreak of popular unrest the PYD, which had been formed by Syrian Kurds in 2003, could organize freely. In early 2012, the military wings of the PYD—the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)—took control of three Kurdish-majority, geographically noncontiguous cantons: Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani.

Two years later, the PYD declared the autonomy of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava.

The de facto military force of Rojava, the YPG/YPJ, garnered international fame for holding off an Islamic State (IS) offensive on the city of Kobani in the summer of 2014. In October 2015, the PYD formed a multi-ethnic military alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG/YPJ, to begin an expansion into Arab-majority areas in order to connect the three cantons. The SDF is also leading the attack on IS-held cities with the support of the US military.

The bulk of Revolution in Rojava describes the implementation of “democratic autonomy” in northern Syria. The authors provide a detailed explanation of the council system that they claim “constitute[s] a vibrant structure parallel to the state without being in direct conflict with it.” Notably, the authors do not address the extent of liberation possible within the structure of Assad’s state, a state that has consistently voiced opposition to Kurdish autonomy.

In August 2011, hundreds of delegates from local councils met to establish the People’s Councils of West Kurdistan (MGRK). They elected a coordinating body, TEV-DEM (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk-Movement for a Democratic Society), that has become a governing coalition of leftist parties led by the PYD. The MGRK system has four levels—a commune, a neighborhood, a district, and the MGRK. Below the district level, individuals run for positions without an explicit party affiliation. Political parties, NGOs, and small movements usually enter the council system at the district level.

Subsequent chapters examine the practice of democratic autonomy across various sectors of Rojava including civil society associations, defense, the judicial system, education, health care, and the economy. The commitment to feminist, anticapitalist, and ecological values permeates all aspects of society despite the limitations imposed by wartime, the embargo by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and Rojava’s lack of international recognition. In the final chapters, the authors put forward prospects for the Rojava revolution and argue for democratic confederalism as a way forward out of war and capitalism.

The book has four central weaknesses: it romanticizes Rojava, lacks a class analysis, mischaracterizes the Syrian opposition, and distances Rojava from the Syrian revolution. The authors offer a rose-tinted portrayal of Rojava and the PYD. According to Alex de Jong, “The councils in Rojava . . . are the initiative of a political force, not of autonomous bottom-up initiatives. The PYD is the dominant force in Tev-Dem. The armed forces in Rojava (YPG, YPJ, and the security forces, the Asayiş) are trained in the ideology of the PYD and swear an oath to Öcalan.”

The authors exaggerate the actual power of the local councils and dismiss instances of PYD-sanctioned political repression. By engaging in a romanticization of Rojava, they fail to seriously contend with the limitations of a region where one party dominates.

Secondly, though they describe a society with private property, landowners, and wage labor, the authors fail to draw out any implications of the persistence of class divisions. Workers are virtually left out of the narrative except for a cursory bit on the desire for harmonious relationships between wage workers and employers. By sidestepping the question of class, the authors distort the form of revolution that took place in northern Syria.

The liberation of Rojava did not involve the mass participation of ordinary people conquering the state. Instead, Assad retreated from Kurdish­majority areas and focused his military force on the uprising in southern cities, largely in an effort to stoke ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs. The PYD stepped into the void in northern Syria and set up political institutions from above to organize society. This strategy was in no way part of a process of popular self-emancipation from below.

Thirdly, the authors distort the character of the Syrian opposition at the military level and completely omit the dimension of civil resistance. Ample nuance is applied to the tactical military alliance between the YPG/YPJ and the US military in their joint fight against IS, yet none of that same nuance is afforded to the relationship between the FSA and its various backers including Turkey. Instead the FSA, a broad umbrella organization that has morphed over time, is generalized as “chauvinist” and “Islamist.”

This type of analysis risks validating the regime’s line that terrorists are trying to destroy Syria. While the FSA is certainly not immune to criticism, putting the group on equal footing with Assad distorts the differences between the two. The FSA has origins in a popular uprising against a dictator and Assad is that dictator.

Furthermore, the authors do not even discuss the Syrian revolution’s experiment in popular democracy, best expressed by the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), which organized the struggle and attempted to provide social services in liberated areas. In many ways, the LCCs mirror the council system in Rojava. The authors give passing acknowledgement to the LCCs in the final chapter as one of the forces that “have ideas that are compatible with Democratic Autonomy.” The omission of these revolutionary projects within Syria contributes to a pattern on the left of erasing the genuine popular, democratic roots of the Syrian revolution.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the authors disconnect the revolution in Rojava and the struggle for Kurdish self-determination from the Syrian revolution itself. In reality the two are bound up together. As Joseph Daher argues, “A defeat of the Syrian revolutionary process and of its objectives would mark, most probably, the end of the Rojava autonomous regions’ experience and the hopes of the Kurdish people to decide their own future. . . . On the other side, the Syrian revolutionary process would not be complete without the possibility of the Kurdish people to decide freely of their own future.”*

The PYD’s conciliatory approach towards Assad illustrates a failure to recognize this shared destiny. The flag of the Syrian revolution once flew side by side with the Kurdish flag in areas liberated from the regime. This history of Syrian Kurdish-Arab solidarity is missing from the book. Only the united struggle of the popular masses will ultimately defeat Assad’s dictatorship, ethnic oppression, religious sectarianism, and class exploitation in Syria.

*    Joseph Daher, “Kobani, the Kurdish Issue, and the Syrian Revolution, a Common Destiny,” Syria Freedom Forever (blog), October 12, 2014, https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.co...

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story