Adrian Cruden of the Green Party looks at the Rojavan revolution as a source of hope and solidarity for the non-pacifist left against ISIS/Daesh, and as a progressive model for the Middle East
Political delusion reached some sort of tragic apogee last week with the British Parliamentary debate on bombing the Islamist ISIS/Daesh “Caliphate” straddling eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. Responding to the complaints that bombing alone would do little, Prime Minister David Cameron summoned up 70,000 “moderate” Syrian fighters who, although currently invisible, were apparently ready to take on the 30,000 soldiers of the Caliphate and battle their way to the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa, there to bring the conflict to a dramatic conclusion.
The Government has admitted the figure is a totalling of small groups of rebels primarily focussed on fighting the Assad regime (and each other) and the provenance of many is questionable: a good number have links with both al Qaeda and Daesh. Reportedly, officials warned Cameron not to use the figure, but he ignored them, a decision he may come to regret.
The Prime Minister’s wishful thinking, however, excluded one real source of potential military power which other pro-interventionists have been quick to point to as his Army of Moderates has sunk into the desert sands. Maajid Nawaaz of the Quilliam Foundation, speaking on BBC’s Question Time, referred to them portentously as “The Kurdish Warriors” and seemed to suggest they could be Cameron’s troop against Daesh. However, his assumption that the Syrian Kurds might be co-opted into Cameron’s military strategy demonstrates a misunderstanding of both the Kurds and Cameron but, for those of us on the non-pacifist Left, the issue does raise some serious questions about what robust alternative we can offer to the aerial bombing campaign.
At its height in the 16th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire stretched from Persia to Morocco and from the Danube and Crimea in the north to Yemen in the south. As the leading Islamic power of its time, the Sultans also assumed the title of Caliph, effectively claiming the spiritual leadership of all Muslims and provoking a debate among a traditionally non-hierarchical faith that continues today with Daesh’s attempted assumption of the same role.
The Kurds are an ancient people native to Upper Mesopotamia and although many migrated to Anatolia under the Ottomans in the 15th century, most continued to live in what was the Governate of Raqqa in what is now north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq. By the 16th century, a powerful Kurdish family was ruling the province and although their dynasty subsequently fell, the Kurds remained an important presence in the area.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire was as slow as its rise had been spectacular, but by 1914, it had been pushed out of nearly all of its European provinces and had lost its north African territories to the new Empires of France, Italy and Britain, while Russia had taken the Crimea. When the Sultan sided with the Central Powers, it was in a desperate final attempt to push back his imperial rivals, but one which failed badly.
In the maelstrom of the end of the First World War, several other tectonic shifts occurred in the Near East. Huge, forcible population exchanges took place between Turkey and Greece across the Aegean Sea, ending five centuries of co-existence, while Armenians fled Turkey in the wake of genocide and many Kurds left Anatolia for the Raqqa governate in face of hostility from demoralised Turkish nationalists. Further south, sponsored by British oil companies and government, Islamist extremists established what was to become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 implemented the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France by which the two European powers literally drew lines in the sand between what became the French “mandates” of Lebanon and Syria and the British ones of Palestine and Iraq. The latter especially was a creation of Winston Churchill, who, in spite of warnings that it was not a viable entity as a unitary state, insisted on its creation for administrative and military convenience.
But perhaps one community lost out more than any other. The Kurds, after initially being promised their own nation state at the Treaty of Sevres, saw this undertaking torn up six years later by the Treaty of Lausanne and instead were left divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Their history ever since has been one of repression and resistance for, while Iran generally tolerated the Kurd minority in its north-west, the other states have on and off sought to either passively deny or even actively destroy the Kurds’ existence.
The Iraqi Halabja chemical massacre is probably the best known of these. It was part of a three year genocide known as Al-Anfal which may have killed as many as 180,000 people. There was worldwide condemnation and following the Kurds revolt at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the UN authorised the creation of a “safe haven” in Iraqi Kurdistan. After weeks of fighting between the Kurdish peshmerga militia units and the battered Iraqi army, Saddam withdrew his forces and left the region to function as a de facto autonomous area. Following the 2003 toppling of Saddam, the Kurdistan Regional Government was recognised as a formal part of a federal state and has continued with free elections, though the influence of the long-entrenched President, Massoud Barzani has led to complaints of corruption. A third party challenge by the Change List has made significant progress in recent elections, but has some way to go in challenging the incumbent.
In Syria, the Kurds’ lot was little better. Years of repression were manifested in banning the Kurdish language, cultural activities and traditional clothes, while Kurdish towns were given new Arab names. Kurdish citizenship rights were routinely removed, sometimes by tricks such as giving all Kurds just 24 hours to register as citizens and seizing the property of any who failed to meet the deadline. As well as demonization of Kurds in the mass media, a number of massacres took place including in Qamlishi in 2004, alongside much casual violence. Any and all attempts by Kurds to establish their own parties or institutions were routinely suppressed with detention, execution or “disappearance”.
Unsurprisingly, the Syrian Kurds have long had ties to their cousins in both Turkey and Iraq. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani brokered an agreement between the two main Syrian Kurdish parties in 2011, it has been PKK, the Kurdish Peoples’ Party in Turkey, which has influenced them most.
Like many resistance movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the PKK adopted socialist thinking alongside its objectives for national self-determination and under Abdullah Ocalan this became increasingly Stalinist. Given the generally repressive nature of Turkish politics and society for much of the last century, the fact that the Kurds took a more extreme stance and adopted violence was not surprising – and indeed the PKK sought to justify this on the grounds of state violence similar to that in Syria and Iraq. However, as Turkey is an ally, the USA and the EU, including Britain, have listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation, although the UN has not and engages with it.
In 1999, Ocalan was snatched from exile in Kenya by a squad of Turkish commandos, with CIA support, and flown to prison in Turkey, where he has remained ever since. Although he has disavowed armed struggle and called for a political solution, periodically fighting has taken place between Turkish forces and Kurdish guerrillas. Now, with Syria in chaos, the PKK has been an important factor in strengthening the Syrian Kurds, not only militarily, but also ideologically. This is because, ironically, the devastation of the conflict has provided both the motivation and the opportunity for a radical political experiment to flourish deep inside a deadly war zone.
Rojava is the name given by the Kurds to the three cantons of Arfin, Cezire and Kobane and in late 2012, the Assad regime largely withdrew from the area, ceding control to the Kurds in return for an implicit understanding that they would not attack government areas. In response, the local Kurdish parties, the PYD and KNC, began to implement a revolutionary platform developed by Ocalan in his prison cell where he had digested writings by American ecosocialist Murray Bookchin on his theory of communalism, a synthesis of anarchist, environmentalist and socialist thinking. Consequently, almost unreported outside of its own borders, a new society covering over two million predominantly Muslim Kurds and minorities of Christian Assyrians, Yazidis and other faiths and nationalities is now being fashioned.
Bookchin held that capitalist society requires some degree of repression in order to perpetuate the inherently inimical relationship of capital and labour. Similarly, he noted that socialist societies with a centralised state in practice tend to some level of authoritarianism as well. His response was to seek to find a means of dismantling the instrument of repression, the State, without slipping into anarchy (which he also rejected in its undiluted form).
He looked to Classical Athens where, although women and slaves were excluded, the democratic ideal that all citizens take part in the decisions of society was first made manifest. In practical terms Bookchin realised that this could not work for large geographical units and so he argued democracy should start from the bottom with localised control of decision making filtering upwards to other levels only as necessary.
He added two further elements as preconditions for a successful communalist society. Firstly, for humans to flourish, the environment has to be protected and nurtured sustainably. And secondly, traditional male culture has become aggressively competitive and domineering, tending to the exclusion of others and the irresponsible exploitation of planet and people. Consequently, ending patriarchy is a vital necessity.
There is a long way to go, but in barely three years the Rojavan Revolution has taken huge strides in making Bookchin’s vision a reality. Adopting communalism under the title of “democratic confederalism”, this “stateless state” has a constitution which embeds power in the local district. Town hall meetings are the bedrock where everyone can participate. These elect local committees which are carefully balanced to ensure that at the very least 40% of their members are women and religious and ethnic minorities are fairly represented – one visiting journalist recounted a meeting co-chaired by an elderly Arab Sheikh in traditional robes and a young bare-headed Kurdish woman, who spoke in both Kurd and Arabic to ensure everyone understood the business being transacted.
Local committees in turn elect regional Canton committees while, in something of a contrast, a national Parliament has been elected and has appointed 20 Ministries (each with a male and female co-Minister). These national bodies have no authority over the cantons, however, and merely make requests and recommendations. Nevertheless they do play an important part in areas such as defence and foreign affairs.
There has been a big push to socialise the economy. Around 30% of agriculture and three quarters of the relatively small industrial sector have been collectivised and, although the right to private property remains, workers’ co-operatives are being encouraged as a major form of ownership. In pursuit of sustainability, there is a growing emphasis on sharing resources and on use value as opposed to exchange value, a fundamental challenge to market capitalism.
The legal system has been completely overhauled from the violence of the Assad years to a form of restorative justice seeking social peace, even for serious crimes such as murder. Acts of contrition and forgiveness feature highly, if perhaps not without some difficulty. Similarly, while there remains a voluntary police force, no officer is allowed a gun until they have undertaken training on feminist theory and the ultimate aim is to train all citizens in policing and then abolish the police as a distinct entity.
And the revolution is not limited to the Kurds alone: they have eschewed the concept of the nation state and so, in nearby ethnic Arab polities democratic confederalism is bringing people from previously hostile communities together, not always smoothly but in an unprecedented way. Notably, the former diplomat Carne Ross, writing in the FT in October, described how a Rojavan had referred to the centralised states imposed by Churchill nine decades ago as ziggurats, referencing the great ancient stone pyramid temples of the Priest-Kings of Mesopotamia. They had, he told him, been a disaster for the diverse societies forced within or divided by their artificial boundaries. Communalism, shorn of the artifice of nation, offers a better way for all.
The armed services, numbering around 23,000, are no exception to revolutionary thinking. The Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) predates the civil war and has now been joined by the YPJ, an all-female brigade comprising a third of the total armed forces. The YPJ undertakes a fully active service role and allegedly terrifies ISIS fighters who believe they will not enter Paradise if killed by a woman. Women also serve alongside men in other regiments and in this the Rojavan forces clearly function in a radically different way to the more conservative Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan, who have established a female unit but not for frontline service.
The success of the Rojavan forces has been stunning, especially given that much of the time they have operated with old guns, “tanks” constructed from cannibalised agricultural equipment and no air support. Even when they have been victorious, the western media has rarely highlighted who they are or what they are fighting for, leaving the anarcho-economist David Graeber to demand in one of very few articles published by the Guardian, “Why Are We Ignoring the Revolution in Rojava?”
Initially the three cantons were separated by Daesh and FSA forces. Kobane was nearly overrun by Daesh forces in late 2014, but when Turkey finally let reinforcements be sent through its territory and the US agreed to limited air support, the Islamist attackers were thrown back. Next, major offensives by the Rojavans in summer this year threw Daesh back towards their capital at Raqqa. The Cezire Kurds swept westwards to link up their territory contiguously with Kobane – but plans to push on to link with Afrin in the west were halted when Turkey threatened to attack Rojava if they did so, allegedly concerned that this would cut off Ankara’s land link with Daesh territory.
Elsewhere, Rojavan forces were also key in carrying out an incursion deep into Daesh territory to rescue 20,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar after the Islamists had driven them out of their homes and notoriously taken several thousand Yazidi women to be sold as sex slaves. A few weeks ago, the Rojavans retook Sinjar city, with a brigade of Yazidi women fighting alongside them.
It would be tempting to trumpet Rojava as some perfect oasis of a new world. However, as with any transformation, much does not go as wished. There have been allegations of ethnic cleansing by the YPG and its allies, of continued discrimination between different groups and occasional fighting between different Kurdish parties. While many of these have been discredited as fabrications by hostile Turkey, in other cases the Kurds have accepted there have been problems and undertaken to prevent recurrences.
Unlike Cameron’s hodge podge of questionable combatants, the Rojavans stand for values advocated by socialists around the globe: social and gender equality, common ownership, a disavowal of the nation state, and sustainable economics. Notably, where support is being canvassed, it is by people on the Left of politics.
In Leeds, Mae Benedict co-organises Leeds Friends of Rojava. She heard about the siege of Kobane and wanted to hold a solidarity demonstration. “I ran round random Kurdish restaurants even,” she explained. “I eventually found a contact via the power of Facebook and had a meeting in my kitchen with several people, Kurdish and British, trying to fathom out our common ideologies to write a joint flyer. I've never looked back.”
She remains passionately committed but has a balanced view of Rojava and why it is so important.
“Rojava is absolutely 100% imperfect. This is all fine. We don't need to look to some fantasy of utopia but rather to a more genuine and human movement. I like the glitches. For me too it represents the creation within the crisis of resistance. For example, that even whilst fighting off the fascism of ISIS they are building a University based on free education whilst here in the UK we really struggle to save the fragments of ours. That women's equality is absolutely central to this new world is really important.”
Her feelings are echoed by Alan Brook, a longstanding supporter of the Kurdish Solidarity movement who saw democratic confederalism in action in a PKK district of Kurdistan earlier this year. The Rojavans combination of secularism, socialism, feminism and ecology all combine to make it a “key beacon” for change. He has watched local assemblies in action, with women fully involved and challenging many traditional values. He was impressed by debates on local community issues, including how to recycle rubbish, protect trees and prevent animal cruelty. Democratic confederalism means genuine grassroots democracy, although he is equally not blind to the pressure it is under from more conservative elements.
Both Mae Benedict and Alan Brook took the view that some form of military support for Rojava could make a difference but that the current bombing campaign is not what is needed. Similarly, Martin O’Beirne, who is an ecosocialist blogger, argues that the Left should not ideologically oppose all military intervention, but understandably questions the selectivity and objectives of those currently commanding military power.
Among UK political parties, only the Greens have developed close links with Rojavans, and the Party’s International Co-ordinator, Dr Derek Wall, a leading ecosocialist thinker, has promoted support for Rojava but again with deep concern about current policy. Writing in the Morning Star, he said:
“The Kurds are the only force strongly committed to a multi ethnic, secular and pluralist approach. Kurds are, at least, trying to create a multi ethnic and multi faith society, that respects difference. (They) have sealed nearly all the border between Turkey and ISIS territory. Fighters, cash and military equipment have flowed from Turkey to ISIS, but the Kurds are in a strong position to totally cut off links between ISIS and the outside world to the north of Raqqa. Guess what - Cameron's government are having none of this. They have explicitly condemned the forces of Rojava. Recently Michael Fallon has accused the Kurds of ethnic cleansing...
The Turkish government have told the Kurds that if they advance into Jarablus they will be attacked by Turkish forces. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated, quite openly, that if the Kurds displace ISIS along the reminder of the border between Syria and Turkey they will be under fire, (they) have said, 'The PYD will not pass to the west of the Euphrates. We'll hit them if they do.' So a democratic secular force that is able to fight ISIS and seal off one of their main sources of fighters and equipment, has been told by Turkey that they will be bombed for doing so! What is worse is that Turkey has on several occasions recently bombed Kurdish communities in Northern Syria,” Derek Wall concluded.
And so, for practical as well as moral reasons, my own view is that the Left must make the case to provide substantial support, including armaments, to what is the most effective force countering Daesh. This does not mean backing the current strategy-free bombing campaign, but it does mean accepting that conflict is sometimes necessary and just as socialists backed the wars against Franco and Hitler, ISIS/Daesh is of a similar ilk demanding a similar response.
All the same, while Rojava can win battles, it cannot conquer Daesh militarily – many other forces would be needed for that and it is important that in calling for support we do not encourage the view that the revolution could or should be co-opted into whatever the West (or Russia) plan for Syria. The failures of imperialism litter the Levant. We should not add to them.
Yet perhaps Rojava can destroy Daesh in the most effective way of all.
On the very doorstep of the Caliphate, in the most hostile of circumstances, history is being made by ordinary people creating a new society which, though radically different to the capitalism of the West, is also the antithesis of everything Daesh stands for. It is fragile and needs our support, but it also has to be allowed to develop and flourish in its own way. For Rojava, beleaguered, imperfect and inconsistent, is an example to all who seek a fairer, sustainable and peaceful world. We must assist them in demolishing their ziggurat so they can freely build anew – and it is in this way, through hearts and minds rather than bombs and bullets, that Rojava can finally defeat Daesh and drive its poisonous ideology into the desert of history.
LINKS OF INTEREST
Derek Wall in The Morning Star: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-6f9f-Kurdish-struggle-is-our-struggle#.VmS5gb9mOBB
Martin O’Beirne: What is Next? http://www.martinobeirne.co.uk/blog/what-is-next-in-the-fight-against-isis-and-is-bombing-in-syria-ever-ok1
Friends of Rojava on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/leedsfriendsofrojava/?fref=ts
Underground Histories - Rojava: Documents & Debates: https://undergroundhistories.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/the-revolution-in-rojava-documents-and-debates/