Syria’s Kurdish Contradiction

By Bill WeinbergOctober 8, 2017

Syria’s Kurdish Contradiction
A KURDISH RADICAL LEFT movement influenced by anarchism is, improbably, now receiving Pentagon support in the war for northern Syria. This movement, in fact, is now the United States’s closest partner among the indigenous forces fighting to take the Islamic State’s capital at Raqqa. This paradox is examined in a profusion of new books about the role of the Kurds in the world’s most confusing ongoing war.

Supporters of the Kurdish movement, which has established an autonomous zone in its region of Rojava, see it as a utopian experiment in direct democracy, and were inspired by its women fighters successfully resisting the ISIS invasion of its territory. The movement’s detractors, in contrast, call it an authoritarian one-party state in league with the Assad regime. There has been growing tension between the Rojava Kurds and the main Syrian opposition.

Meredith Tax in her openly enthusiastic A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State traces the development of Rojava’s militant feminism to roots in Turkey’s Kurdish rebel movement. This story begins with the founding of the separatist and socialist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978 and its subsequent guerilla war against the Turkish state. This set off a brutal round of CIA-backed counterinsurgency that cost thousands of lives.

Tax acknowledges that the PKK began as an authoritarian movement, and received some support from the Hafez al-Assad dictatorship in Syria. But she sees the movement 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, dramatically exemplified by Leyla Zana, the parliamentarian imprisoned in 1991 for speaking Kurdish on the chamber floor.

The decisive turn in the PKK’s transformation came after the capture of its leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, who rethought his politics in prison, taking inspiration from late American anarchist writer Murray Bookchin and from Mexico’s Zapatista rebel movement, which has sought local autonomy for indigenous peoples rather than secession.

Öcalan 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 movement began to spread to the Syrian Kurds after the spontaneous 2004 uprising in the north Syrian town of Qamishli. This led to the establishment of the Rojava autonomous zone in 2012, under leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an entity in the PKK’s political orbit. Two years later, Rojava was invaded by ISIS, and Kurdish resistance at the Battle of Kobani became a global meme.

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. But she is not completely uncritical of the Rojava movement, noting its “cult of personality” around Öcalan.

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 Ba’ath Party in 1971, Hafez al-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 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, the authors admit, making for a quick victory. Still — it was an uprising.

The authors see little hope for unity between the PYD’s autonomous zone and Syria’s general (Arab-led) opposition. They dismiss the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council, as “dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The authors acknowledge Pentagon support for the PYD’s militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). But they emphasize that the United States did not recognize Rojava’s declaration of autonomy and “does not support the Rojava project politically.” They add that the United States “averts its eyes from the war crimes of the Turkish government in North Kurdistan.”

Like Tax, the authors 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 idealistic account is found in Struggles for Autonomy in Kurdistan, by authors Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson, who made trips to both Turkish Kurdistan (Bakur) and 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 rebel assemblies, forming a system of parallel power. A similar council-based system now governs Rojava.

This book emphasizes the “culpability of the U.S.” in the counterinsurgency in Turkey’s east. For instance, the Turkish government used Lockheed Martin F-16 warplanes for airstrikes on the village of Roboski in December 2011 that left 34 residents dead. Other American, British, and Turkish arms companies are named as complicit in the repression.

These companies certainly deserve criticism. But the authors’ failure to express any outrage at the far greater Russian and Assad regime bombardment of civilians in Syria undermines their moral authority. They also fail to grapple with the reality that the Rojava Kurds are now being assisted by US warplanes.

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. It 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” of geopolitics. 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.” Bookchin initially styled himself as formulating a new anarchist movement for the post-industrial age, with an emphasis on community and harmony with the natural world. But 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), which sees the municipality as the highest level at which direct self-government is possible.

The Next Revolution, a posthumously published collection of Bookchin’s late essays, 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. “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 accepts 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.

The 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 Žižek, and The Nation magazine are refreshingly lambasted for loaning propaganda cover to Assad’s regime and painting the opposition as monolithically jihadist. But some of the contributors — themselves mostly on the Marxist left — are contemptuous of both the Rojava revolution and its leftist supporters.

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

Leila 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. Writing during the ISIS siege of Rojava, she asks

whether international solidarity for Kobani 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. 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 mentions a disturbing 2013 incident at the Rojava town of Amuda, in which YPG fighters fired on protesters, leaving eight dead.

But other of Savelsberg’s claims may be dubious. She writes that Rojava’s constitution “has never been officially published” — yet it appears as an appendix in A Small Key. She concludes with 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.

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.


Bill Weinberg is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and is currently at work on Pachamama Rising: The New Indigenous Struggles in Peru. He is editor of the online, where he blogs on global autonomy struggles.

LARB Contributor

Bill Weinberg is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and is currently at work on Pachamama Rising: The New Indigenous Struggles in Peru. He is editor of the online, where he blogs on global autonomy struggles.


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