Chris Shaw: Does the road to a Just Society run through Rojava on the northern edge of Syria?

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      The civil war in Syria has been grinding on since 2011 with almost 400,000 dead to date and no end in sight. A United Nations estimate puts the total dead and wounded at 11.5 percent of a population that was 22 million before the war. Almost 45 percent of the population has been displaced by the fighting, with millions of these refugees in other countries. The ghastly rise of ISIS has made the circumstances vastly worse in the areas under their control: harsh Sharia law, gruesome public executions, genocidal attacks on minority communities, sex slavery inflicted on captured women, the murder of gays, and the wanton destruction of historical artifacts.

      In spite of all of this—or maybe because of it—many in the West have become inured to the monstrous and ongoing suffering of so many people. In this context, it is hard to see any possibly redeeming aspects in the ongoing carnage. And yet, in small part, such redemption may actually be occurring. 

      The light emerging from this war comes from a little known and unlikely corner of the region in which a unique revolution is unfolding. This social experiment is the emergence of what its proponents hope will be truly democratic and socially inclusive voluntary confederation in the Kurdish regions of Syria, Rojava. In brief, what is happening there is nothing less than a revolution that holds out the vision of a very different future for human society and human interactions with the environment.

      Rojava means ‘the west’ in Kurmanji, the language of many Kurdish-speaking peoples, and forms the western part of what is considered to lie within the traditional regions of Kurdistan. Kurdistan is not currently a country in its own right, but rather a vast region in which the ancestors of the Kurdish people have lived for thousands of years. In this region, there are four parts: Rojava lies in the northern part of Syria, bordering the Kurdish regions of Turkey, the latter with the largest Kurdish population in all of Kurdistan. Other major regions of Kurdistan lie within the present boundaries of Iraq and Iran.

      There are, in addition, large Kurdish populations in the TransCaucasus region of the former Soviet Union, and a significant Kurdish diaspora in parts of Western Europe. The estimates of the total Kurdish population range from 30 million to 37 million people. Of these, fewer than two million live in Rojava. A significant portion of the population is non-Kurdish.

      The Kurds have fought for their independence over the last hundred years in each of the four countries that have pieces of historical Kurdistan. They have, just as frequently in each case been betrayed and brutally supressed.

      This map shows the three cantons of Rojava, which is the westernmost territory claimed by Kurds.
      Azad G99/Wikimedia Commons

      The civil war in Syria began with repression of Arab Spring demonstrations by the army of dictator Bashar al-Assad. While many of those protesting Assad merely wanted much needed political reforms, militant jihadist groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw an opportunity to establish a foothold. Here, as previously in Iraq and later Libya, American interference from the outset as part an overall strategy of "regime change" contributed to the overall chaos.

      The most virulent of the jihadist groups is the Islamic State of the Levant and Syria (ISIS), termed "Daesh" in Arabic by its opponents. (Daesh is a derogatory term meaning "a thing that crushes others underfoot.") ISIS quickly seized much of Syria and Iraq, in many cases using weapons acquired following the collapse of the Libyan army of Muammar Gadhafi. The US/NATO role in the destabilization of Libya and its aftermath has been well documented.

      The Syrian army made the strategic decision to focus its efforts on ISIS and the other jihadist groups and instead of fighting the Kurds, established a de facto truce in Rojava. In this window of opportunity, Rojavans created a novel political entity, the confederated cantons of Rojava comprised of Jazira in the east (also called Cizere), Kobani in the centre, and Afrin in the west. The first two are now part of a contiguous Kurdish-controlled region with Qamislo in Jazira as the capital. Afrin is still cut off by a wide swath of territory controlled by the Islamic State and more recently by the Turkish army and jihadist militias working with the Turks.

      Turkey’s actions in the Syrian civil war have arisen from its fear that any successful Kurdish political entity in Syria would lend support to the sovereignist aspirations of its own Kurdish population. The present use of jihadist militia is completely in keeping with Turkey’s covert support for ISIS in which volunteers and supplies have easily crossed the border into Syria to fight against the Syrian army and against the Kurds of Rojava.

      While the fight against ISIS has propelled the Kurds into the spotlight, their struggle for self-rule is long-standing. Since the late 1970s, this struggle has been led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and its military wing, with much of this activity occurring within the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The Turks have long considered the PKK to be a terrorist organization and this view has not changed. In turn, Turkey sees the Rojavan cantons and their governing body, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an offshoot of the PKK. The Rojavan militias, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are viewed as part of the military forces of the PKK. Turkey, as a member state of NATO, has had little difficulty convincing the other NATO partners to accept this outlook.

      In the last months of 2014, ISIS fighters sought to cut Rojava in half by capturing Kobani. Turkey aided ISIS by closing the border to Kurdish reinforcements while letting ISIS fighters through. In an amazing feat of realpolitik duplicity, Turkey simultaneously proclaimed its common goal of helping NATO fight ISIS.

      The Kurdish militia drove ISIS out of Kobani in early 2015 and since that time has recaptured much of ISIS-occupied Rojava. In recent months, the Kurds and their allies in the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. air support and special forces, have even moved to liberate historically Arab cities held by ISIS. These include Manbij, a base for foreign volunteers to ISIS. In the fighting in Manbij the Kurds bore the brunt of the hard urban warfare and paid a high price in soldiers killed and wounded.

      An ostensible future goal of the U.S. and NATO is to have the Kurds and SDF do the heavy lifting and capture Raqqa, ISIS’s self-declared capital. In Iraq, the overarching goal is much the same: the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, will lead the recapture of Mosul. In the apparent U.S./NATO perspective, the Kurds in both countries are seen as the willing and essential ground troops. Indeed, without such forces, western countries would have had to commit ground troops of their own to a battle that could only be seen by Arab Sunni populations as an invasion. People in the west would likely view the deployment of troops as the opening of yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.

      Most recently as the SDF and YPG/YPJ moved west toward Afrin into ISIS territory, the Turks responded by sending in armoured forces backed up jihadist fighters opposed to the Kurds. Officially, the Turks invaded to oust ISIS, but did not actually engage them, instead attacking SDF and Kurdish troops. This situation may have changed over the last few days and Turkish media are now reporting the entire border of Turkey and Rojava is now ISIS free, albeit without anything approaching the intensity of the fighting that the YPG faced in taking Manbij. Whatever the actual circumstances, the clear intent seems to be to halt the Rojavan revolution and the example it may set for other Kurds seeking autonomy.

      To understand the apparent complexity and indeed insanity of the situation, it is important to consider just what it is that makes Rojava unique and thus, in the minds of some, a dangerous precedent.

      The answer does not lie solely in the fact that it is a Kurdish controlled region. The Kurdish areas of Iraq, now considered to be under the control of the so-called Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), have managed to acquire a significant level of autonomy from a dysfunctional Iraqi state. The key difference between the KRG and the Rojavan cantons, however, is that the KRG behaves like a traditional state in all respects and holds, at least officially, the notions of being both a small "l" liberal democracy and one committed to oil extraction and free market economics. These features make it acceptable to the U.S., NATO, and Turkey, if not to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

      American anarchist philosopher and author Murray Bookchin's ideas have influenced the governance of Rojava.
      Janet Biehl

      In marked contrast, the confederal regions of Rojava have a very different set of operating principles. The first is that they do not claim to be a typical state, rather a true confederation in which the cantons have voluntarily chosen to unite. In this sense, they follow what might be termed anarchist principles, or more precisely an evolutionary form of anarchism termed "communalism". The latter term was defined by the American anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin as "a theory of government or a system of government in which independent communes participate in a federation" that encompasses the principles and praxis of communal ownership of resources.

      Building on this, most Rojavans support a form of political organization termed "democratic confederalism" in which they can be part of any state, for example in any future Syria, as long as they are able to maintain autonomy in the way their cantons are governed.

      The communalist philosophical underpinning of the Rojavan  revolution arose from the seminal work of Bookchin, which greatly influenced the key political figure of Kurdish independence, Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan, imprisoned by the Turks in 1999, had begun to rethink the shopworn Marxist/Maoist post-Second World War liberation movement credo as it applied to the Kurds.

      Öcalan had been instrumental in the foundation of the PKK and its military wing, both of which had espoused a politics of strict Marxism and the conduct of a guerrilla/terrorist campaign against the Turkish state. As Öcalan began to correspond with Bookchin from his prison cell, he began a remarkable transformation in his own thinking. In turn, Öcalan’s newer vision had a profound influence on many of those who still saw him as a key figure in the Kurdish sovereignty movement.

      Öcalan’s political evolution added the concept of democratic confederalism to his emerging views on anarchism. In this way, Öcalan attempted to sidestep the objections of the various states in the region, notably the Turks, to the Kurds controlling their own destiny. In other words, democratic confederalism as elaborated by Öcalan simply means that if the Kurds have autonomy over their own regions, it may not matter if such regions do not constitute a formal "state".

      With these intertwined principles, Rojavans began to build a grassroots, bottom-up democracy. Decision making, electing those serving in the parliament, and the leadership of the governing council arises from choices made at successive levels from commune/neighbourhood to district, from district to city, from city to canton, and eventually, to the confederation of cantons. In designing this bottom-up democratic process, Rojavans have used the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem), a multi-ethnic coalition which includes the PYD but is not synonymous with it. Tev-Dem is still evolving as this social experiment continues.

      PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan is often characterized as a traditional Marxist, but according to author Chris Shaw, his views have evolved over the years.
      Halil Uysal

      The new Rojavan constitution enshrines the total equality of all peoples regardless of sex, gender, race, or ethnicity. Governing bodies are expected to have approximately equal male and female representation; ethnic minorities, i.e., non-Kurds, must be represented as well. And, almost uniquely in a world of conventional political entities, the Rojavan revolution adds concepts of "social ecology", also from the work of Bookchin. In social ecology, the symbiotic interrelationship between humans and their environment is fundamental.

      Further, the Rojavan military forces, the YPG and YPJ, constitute a true peoples’ militia whose officers, at least in principle, are elected by their troops based on ability. Hundreds of foreign volunteers, including some from Canada, have gone to fight with the Rojavan military. A number have been killed. Some of these volunteers went because they support the goals of the revolution. Others without any particularly revolutionary perspective have gone to fight in order to support the Kurds against ISIS. John Robert Gallagher from Ontario, killed in November 2015 fighting with the YPG, passionately believed in both.

      Most western media have tended to ignore the complicated dynamics of the war in Syria in regard to Rojava, choosing instead to focus on the sexier aspect of ‘girls with guns’ in relation to the YPJ. By so doing, they have completely missed the point: the critical story is not how evil ISIS is or how cute Kurdish YPJ fighters in uniform are. The missing perspective is that Rojavans are fighting not only against the medieval insanity of ISIS and other jihadists in Syria and Iraq, but for a very different form of social organization that not only rejects radical Islam, but also all forms of hierarchy and domination, including that of patriarchy and human exploitation of Earth.

      In this sense, the Kurds of Rojava currently reflect the broadest egalitarian perspective to be found in the Middle East today. Rojavan emerging concepts of democratic governance exceed even that of Israel, the latter often considered by the West to be a "beacon of democracy" and, for some more to the political right the "only democracy", in the region. Israel may indeed be internally democratic, at least for the Jewish population, but the military administration of Palestinian territories is decidedly not.

      It could be further argued that not only is Rojava in principle the most democratic political entity in the Middle East, but may, if it succeeds in bringing to fruition this experiment, become the most democratic anywhere.

      Western media are fascinated by female Kurdish fighters but have not demonstrated as much interest in the ideological underpinnings of Rojava's democratic experiment.

      Governments and political parties of all stripes have shown a remarkable lack of official curiosity about the Rojavan revolution. The exception is Turkey, which clearly sees the revolution as a threat. More surprising perhaps is the lack of interest from much of the left of the political spectrum, particularly in North America. While anarchist groups have actively supported the revolution, some clearly with rose-coloured glasses on, many of those who express more traditional Marxist views have been decidedly ambiguous, if not actually hostile. There are some exceptions of course, notably from the work of the Marxist geographer, David Harvey. However, for some of the left, the help provided by the U.S. to the YPG/YPJ in rolling back ISIS only proves to them that the Rojavan revolution is merely a tool by which the U.S. and NATO hope to recolonize the region. The utter lack of informed analysis thus revealed is actually rather stunning both in its ignorance and dogmatism.

      None of this is to say that critiques of the Rojavan revolution are always without value, nor even unfair. Indeed, even prominent anarchist thinkers have acknowledged significant flaws and opined that any revolutionary movement, in Rojava or elsewhere, can only evolve if it accepts, and acts upon, valid critiques.

      One of the main criticisms levelled against the revolution stemmed from allegations that the YPG had engaged in ethnic cleansing in some of the Arab villages it had recaptured. Another criticism was that the governing body of Rojava had not been elected in conventional parliamentary elections, that the PYD dominates Tev-Dem, and that opposition groups had been forced out of Rojava.

      These points all have some merit. In the first case, it has been documented by Amnesty International and some foreign YPG volunteers that the YPG did indeed conduct ethnic cleansing, at least to the extent of displacing Arabs and destroying their villages. Some YPG commanders allowed this to happen; others did not. The governing council promised to prevent this happening in the future, but as the war goes on this promise still remains in question.

      In regard to democratic governance of the type favoured by western nations, such is still emerging against the background created by the war. It is also true that Tev-Dem is heavily influenced by the PYD and that groups opposing the direction of the revolution sometimes have been forced to leave for the KRG. And there is little dispute that the PYD continues to have strong ties to the PKK. Further, the YPG continues to be heavily influenced by military commanders from the PKK. In terms of democracy within YPG ranks, officers are still often appointed rather than elected.

      In each of these instances, the Rojanan government used a "state of emergency" justification. In this, it is not unique. For example, the ethnic cleansing conducted by the YPG can be placed into the Canadian context of putting Native children into residential schools or the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Saying that the PYD dominates the political discourse in Rojava is not qualitatively different from noting that Canadian politics are dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. In other words, those who have been organizing for the longest and have the most committed members and money are likely to swing more weight in the political process. Unlike with Canada’s political parties, however, the PYD is not influenced by corporate agendas or money.

      Canadian John Robert Gallagher was killed after going to the Middle East to fight for the independence of Rojava.

      Apart from these very real issues, most of the critiques of Rojava, again often from some on the left, seem to be a clear case of "picking fly shit out of pepper". That is, the comments represent an attempt, by any means, to diminish what the revolution has actually accomplished so far and what it could achieve in the future.

      Still, abuses in warfare and governance should not be swept under the carpet, even for a goal as laudatory as the creation of a democratic Rojava. Even with revolutionary fervour, people will remain people, ethnic hatreds may take generations to die down, and learning to "do" democracy, rather than just give lip service to it, takes the time it takes. We in Canada have had more than 150 years to evolve our own democratic structures and these are still clearly a work in progress. Rojavans have had less than five years to do so, in a society unused to democracy in any form, and in the midst of a catastrophic war.

      It is also important to evaluate such attempts to denigrate Rojava’s evolution from the perspective of the key interlocking realities that have emerged since 2012. The first is that Rojavans are literally fighting for survival. The second is that in spite of the war, the people of Rojava seek to preserve the unique social experiment that they have created. For many Rojavans, the revolution has a still more profound third and long-range feature: namely, many see it as a possible model for other peoples, large or small, who are struggling for self-determination and autonomy.

      This model is not perfect now and may never be, and the reality is likely to take years to mesh with the often romantic notion that this revolution is all "kittens and rainbows" with nary a flaw. It is not. Indeed, we do Rojava and ourselves no favours by pretending that it is. History is replete with revolutions that sooner or later betrayed their founding principles. Rojava may end up being no different. The only things that can protect against this outcome are education, vigilance, and the ability to accept and act on identified problems.

      With this in mind, does Rojava as a model, or some variant of it, hold any lessons for us here in British Columbia or even in Canada? Maybe. But if it does not, it is difficult to conceive how dysfunctional political systems in the western world, even with the oft-stated goals of reform in various domains, will actually serve to enhance human liberty for all people and preserve the environment when they have not done so in the past.

      In the last century the world has witnessed various forms of social and political organizations of different pedigrees and histories. These have included capitalism in various forms, the newer frankly predatory form of "shock doctrine" capitalism, fascism usually linked to extreme nationalism, and the experiments in "communism". These political philosophies and the economics they engendered may differ considerably in the levels of freedom they allow to their own people, the nature of stratification in society, and how they behave in relation to other countries and population. However, the underlying similarities of each may actually be profound. As critiqued by Bookchin, these systems share a belief, stated or not, in the twinned notions of hierarchy and domination.

      In terms of defending their perceived vital interests, western "democracies" may often act much the same way as authoritarian regimes. In this, they may add to their other sins that of hypocrisy by pretending to believe and/or act in ways different from their more authoritarian fellow states.

      Regardless of the official rhetoric of any formally constituted state, the establishment of hierarchical layers regardless of whether they are based on race, wealth or other, inevitably leads to elite control. In each as well, the acceptance of domination of some humans by others engenders as corollaries the domination of women by men, domination of one ethnic group by another, and, not least, the domination of the natural world.

      To learn more about anarchism in Rojava, watch this video.

      Labels are not always helpful in understanding any political philosophy but they can sometimes place any such philosophy into the broader perspective of all the others. Viewed in this way, it could be said that at its core, the Rojavan revolution champions a very different "ism", namely anarchism/communalism. This form of social organization has—and continues to be—a frightening concept for states and institutions built on the pillars of hierarchy and domination. Further for many individuals raised in notional democracies and trained by the mainstream western media, it has proven difficult to imagine how a completely different system might work.

      Typical comments about anarchism/communalism are that such a system could never succeed because the processes by which bottom-up decision making occurs are too time consuming and cumbersome, even at the very local levels. But, to quote from Bookshin, "The belief that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes visionary thinking."

      Perhaps the real danger posed by the Rojavan revolution is that Rojavan society may have, even given the acknowledged shortcomings, made its model work, at least for now. If truly democratic institutions can be built as they seem to have been in Rojava in the midst of war, then the argument that they cannot exist anywhere has simply been rendered moot.

      In regard to the issue of size, Rojava has shown that this concern is also not valid: Bottom-up democratic processes and how they integrate beyond communal levels are not problems of principle, merely of scale. What happens in Rojava between Afrin and Kobani and Cizere can happen between confederated regions in other regions and countries.

      A major concern that remains, in Rojava as elsewhere, is not theoretical, but practical. If anyone else tries to emulate the Rojavan experiment, can it be defended from the entrenched interests of states and institutions that will necessarily feel threatened?

      It’s hard to know what answer the future holds to this question, but history does provide some perspective: anarchist social structures have been tried before and in many cases were defended by arms. Examples from the last hundred plus years include the Paris commune of 1871, the anarchist forces in Ukraine in the 1920s, anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, and more recently the Zapatistas in Chiapas in the mid 1990s. In each case, the existing state, or states, moved to suppress and even crush these emerging social experiments.

      Rojava is merely the latest of these attempts. Maybe due to circumstance, luck, a new social philosophy, and the brute determination and courage of the Kurds, it is the one with the most promise. As the Kurdish scholar Dilar Dirik notes: "As if emerging from the secret, unwritten corners of history—with a smile nonetheless—was not enough, the Kurds are now given the task of passing the litmus test on behalf of all revolutions that ever existed. Is a revolution really possible? The burden of proof almost besieges them."

      Hyperbole? Or just maybe for Dirik and others it is the workable and defendable example for the world that many Rojavans think and hope it is.

      The final issue to consider is that of solidarity, a term sometimes misunderstood and misapplied. Apart from the basic morality of helping Rojavans achieve their right to self-determination, we need to consider the true core of the principle of solidarity. Solidarity, whether given in moral, personal, or material ways, acts not only to help those to whom it is extended, but as well to those who extend it. Solidarity in its essence is not charity, but rather self-defence. As Dilar Dirik has also written, "Solidarity is not a one-way charity undertaking by privileged activists, but a multidimensional process that contributes to the emancipation of everyone involved."

      Thus, to provide aid to Rojava is to fight for your own social beliefs and goals, for your family and community, however these may be conceived.

      If we who share the goals of the Rojavan revolution fail to help when help is so desperately needed, and if in not helping we allow this revolution to fail, then the consequences may extend far beyond Rojava. If we do not offer meaningful solidarity in all ways possible, we should recognize that our own future dreams of a truly just and ecologically sound society may fail with it. 

      Chris Shaw is a professor .in the faculty of medicine at UBC. He was active in the protests against the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games and authored a critical analysis of these games in his 2008 book, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games. He spent an absurd amount of his adult life in two armies. The author thanks Samir Gandesha, Cody Bergerud, Darcy Fysh, and Alex Moreau for their comments on an earlier version of this article.