Rojava, the Anarchist Community Emerging from the Syrian Civil War
"In people's struggle for freedom, anarchist movements have always been catalyzers... If one wants to associate the Rojava Revolution, which created the basis for the social revolution [in Syria], one can investigate the social revolution that realized in the Iberian Peninsula [the Spanish Revolution of 1936]."
From the start of 1871 and into the 1930's, there were numerous Anarchist societies that operated with a graceful, social harmony while at the same time self-managing the interactions of millions of people. First, there was the Paris Commune of 1871, and although it is not generally honored as a completely Anarchist community, its decision-making was delegative (to the people) more than it was representative (to the people's masters); [*2] it numbered two million people (the world's third largest city at that time). [*3] Makhno's Anarchist forces in the Ukraine are well known, whose Anarchist bastion is often called "the Free Territory," numbering seven million people, [*4] and lasting for three years, 1918 to 1921. Most famous would be the Spanish Revolution of 1936, where Anarchists had abolished government, property, and coercive powers in regions where eight million people lived. [*5]
Since those times, though, Anarchist Revolutions have been far in between and quick to evaporate, the Paris General Strike of 11 million French workers against the State and Capitalism in 1968 [*6] seems to be just some quick and bright spark, and the Oaxacan Revolt of 2006 was too brief, involved only a half million people, and the Revolution did not take arm itself against the tanks of the Mexican state. [*7] The difference in time between the Spanish Revolution and the previous Anarchist Revolutions of the Ukraine was only about a decade. Since the Spanish Revolution until today, eight decades had passed, and there was not yet any Anarchist society that was fueled with the energies and strengths of millions of people. At least, that was the case -- until November 12, 2013. [*8]
With the background of the Syrian Civil War and the rampage of religious fundamentalists like the Islamic State (ISIS), Anarchists have established a horizontally-organized society, called Rojava, spread out across three geographic regions in Northern Syria, called the cantons of Kobanî, Jazira, and Afrin. [*9] As of 2014, the total number of people living here is 4.6 million. [*10] But to simply call them Anarchists revolting against the state and Capitalism would be to draw an intense simplification of what is really going on in Rojava today. It is not merely a struggle against authority in economics and politics, but it is a fight against religious fundamentalism and hatred, against chauvinism and sexism, against the exploitation and desecration of the planet, and against the ethnic cleansing committed by various Middle Eastern governments. [*11] If we want to see the future of Anarchy, we need to look to Rojava.
"Our struggle is not just to defend our land. We as women, take part in all walks of life, whether fighting against ISIS or combating discrimination and violence against women. We are trying to mobilize and be the authors of our own liberation."
The origins of the movement that today has brought about Anarchist Rojava can be traced back for centuries. The dominant movement which established Anarchy in the Syrian regions has been the Kurdish movement made up of liberation organizations fighting for the independence of Kurdistan. The Kurds, a distinct ethnicity in the Middle East, have not had their nation for the past few centuries, a situation similar to the Basque regions in France, the Catalan regions in Spain, or the Scottish regions in the United Kingdom. Their homeland is spread throughout Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
In a sense, national liberation was the first fire that gave warmth to the final Anarchist developments in Rojava. But as the movement developed, it expanded its ideal of revolution. The primary driving force active in the Rojava Revolution is the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), who describe themselves as "...striving for a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights..." [*13] But outside Rojava, other Kurdish organizations act within the whole Kurdish movement. There is also the Peoples' Democratic Party (Halklar?n Demokratik Partisi, HDP), a Turkish Party for Kurdish Rights, call themselves "...representatives of labor, ecology and women's rights associations, artists, writers, intellectuals, independent individuals..." [*14] And, in Iran, there's the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Partî Dêmokiratî Kurdistanî Êran, PDKI), noting their openly Democratic Socialist position and giving it emphasis...
For us, democratic socialism entails the belief that all human beings, whether as individuals or as members of nations, should be free and equal in all spheres of life. The PDKI's policies on economic, political and social issues are based on these beliefs. [*15]
While the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the main organizational force in the Rojava Revolution, there is one other party of perhaps equal importance: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK), currently listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. [*16] This is in stark contrast to the PYD, who has received armaments from the United States, not for any ideological reason, but rather because all other possible American allies in the region have proved ineffective in the fight against the Islamic State. [*17] What is it about the PKK that makes it stand out? Abdullah Öcalan. The founder of the PKK [*18] is currently imprisoned by Turkey at their ?mral? island, in the Sea of Marmara, at one point being the sole prisoner there for an entire decade. [*19] Originally sentenced to death for organizing armed Kurdish uprisings against the Turkish state, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment under solitary confinement. The struggle between the PKK and the Turkish state is said to have "claimed, by some estimates, about 44,000 lives." [*20]
Even though he has operated against the Turkish state through his own PKK, Öcalan is the ideological father of the PYD in Syria. When asked about the relationship of the PKK and the PYD, the PYD's chairman, Salih Muslim Muhammad, responded, "There is a reason that we apply Apo's [Abdullah Öcalan's] philosophy and ideology to Syria: It offers the best solution to the Kurdish problems in Syrian Kurdistan. But we do not take orders from anywhere." [*21] While imprisoned, Öcalan discovered the books by Murray Bookchin, the New York Anarchist, recommending it to the Communists and Socialists that had made up the PKK at that time, and even though behind bars, he began "working on 'a paradigm change' based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism." [*22] When Bookchin died in 2006, the PKK honored him as "one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century." [*23] This is the spring from which the rivers of the Rojava Revolution flow.
"The purpose of all social revolutions in history was to achieve a globally socialized revolution. In this perspective we called international anarchist groups to act in solidarity with the Kobanî Resistance and the Rojava Revolution."
But where did all of this start? It began with a series of revolts by the Kurds against their tyrannical rulers, the Ottoman Empire, in 1847, [*25] just one year before Karl Marx would author the Communist Manifesto and Europe would be rife with Democratic revolutions. The resistance continued for decades, during which the Paris Commune would be born and would die, this primitive resistance period finally ending in 1880, at a period when the Ottoman Empire was losing territory in wars against Russia and Austria-Hungary, while Romania and Bulgaria declared independence from their Ottoman masters. The struggle for Kurdish independence was brutally crushed -- they would not see their freedom in the 19th century. For a time throughout the 1890's, the Kurds were used as expendable pawns and hirelings of the Ottoman Empire in its repression of other ethnic minorities in the Middle East, such as the Armenians. [*26]
This situation for the Kurdish people continued as long as the Ottoman Empire would. After seven centuries, the empire collapsed after siding with the Axis against the Allies in World War 1, just decades away from its most intense oppression of Kurdish minorities. [*27] The War itself did not bring peace immediately, as it is estimated that 35% to 50% of Kurds were executed during 1916-1918 by the ethnic cleansing programs of Turkey. [*28] The Treaty of Sèvres, which handled the question of territory in the Middle East, carved out Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Iraq, and Turkey on the map -- but there were no concessions to the Kurdish people for a Kurdistan. And today, Kurds are spread throughout all of these countries. To begin to understand the Kurdish movement after this point requires understanding how it has evolved in all of the nations through which it has spread.
In Turkey, throughout the 1920's and 1930's, there were numerous revolts by Kurds against the Turkish State, such as the Saikh Said Rebellion in 1925, the Ararat Revolt in 1930, and the Dersim Revolt in 1938. [*29] Throughout the 1950's, Kurds attempted to make use of the government machinery to advance their cause, when in 1960, Alparslan Türke?, a far-right Turkish politician, organized a coup d'état, overthrew the Turkish civilian government, and banned Kurdish political organizations. [*30] Unrest continued throughout the 1960's and 1970's, in the form of General Strikes and civil disobedience, like much throughout the world at that time. Repression followed in the 1980's, and in 1994, when the first Kurdish female was elected to Turkish Parliament, she was arrested for making "separatist speeches" and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. [*31] Throughout the late 1990's and early 2000's, the Kurdish movement in Turkey was largely represented by the PKK, which was waging open warfare against the Turkish state.
The story of the Kurds in Turkey is fairly representative of their experiences in other nations of the Middle East. In Iraq, during the 1970's, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were deported, [*32] in the 1980's one hundred and fifty thousand were executed as part of Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing, [*33] and a Kurdish uprising in the early 1990's to the early 2000's established their right to declare independence, with borders not yet established. [*34] In Iran, the government practiced oppression against the local Kurds throughout the 1920's and 1930's, [*35] but Marxist insurgencies have been organized by the Kurds through the 1960's to the 1990's, [*36] with the newest insurgency led by Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) in 2004 bringing regular armed conflict between the Kurds and the Iranian state. [*37] Kurdish activists are persecuted in Syria, [*38] where their language is prohibited. [*39] Kurds are similarly stripped of their cultural rights in Armenia [*40] and they have been persecuted and deported from Azerbaijan. [*41]
"We don't want the world to know us because of our guns, but because of our ideas."
Anarchy. The District Commune is the basic geo-political unit of the Rojava Cantons. Composed of 300 members and deciding everything by Direct Democracy without an executive, these Communes "decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises." [*43] The larger administrative units who have "jurisdiction" over the Communes cannot force the Communes to do anything, as "All decisions from these 'upper councils' must be formally adopted by the local councils to be binding for their constituents." [*44] Decision-making is handled by direct voting and the voting of larger bodies doesn't interfere with the voting of smaller bodies, so in a sense, it is a Decentralized, Direct Democracy -- or, more plainly, it is Anarchy. The soldiers in the military and militia of Rojava elect their own officers, [*45] much like the soldiers at the Paris Commune, [*46] in the Spanish Revolution, [*47] or even in the ranks of George Washington's Continental Army. [*48]
Feminism. The persecution of women in the Middle East has been endemic and cruel, but the Revolutionary Feminism of Rojava is determined and militant. Rojava's military is known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is co-ed with men and women, and within it are the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), an all-women force. [*49] According to one journalist covering the Middle East, "But to see women from another Middle Eastern nation fighting -- and defeating -- ISIS in entirely female fighting units was remarkable." [*50] In the local councils and communes, women must have proportional representation, and most of the ministries, with the exception of the Women's Ministry, must have both male and female co-ministers. [*51] According to Article 27 of the Rojava Constitution: "Women have the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life." [*52] This is not mere moralizing about the issue. To quote Margaret Owen writing for PeaceFire in 2014...
In every town and village there is a Women's House, where women and girls can access advice, counseling, protection, and shelter, in the face of many forms of gender based violence, honor killings, post-traumatic stress, and physical and mental health problems. [*53]
Religious Tolerance. The Middle East is afflicted with hatred of women just as much as it is afflicted with religious intolerance. 55-65% of Rojavans are Muslim, with many belonging to the Sunni Shafi sect, but others also from the Shia, Sufi, and Alawi traditions, [*58] with perhaps 5% Christians (although the actual number is probably higher), [*59] and the remaining divided between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Yazidism (a combination of Judaism and Zoroastrianism). When a group of scholars visited Rojava in 2015, they said that it points to "a future where the peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live together, united by mutual tolerance and common institutions." [*60] To quote Article 31 of the Rojava Constitution, "No one shall be subjected to persecution on the grounds of their religious beliefs." [*61] The people of Rojava are living this ideal, as many of these different religious groups "lived in communities side-by-side...many even shared religious buildings." [*62]
Ecology. Dr. Ahmad Yousef, senior advisor to Gaza's prime minister, described the goal of Rojava's economy to become one that "achieves industrial and ecological integration." [*63] When a commune has ratified a decision, some of the responsibility for carrying out that decision will be vested in a commission, and many communes have an ecological commission, which handles trash collection and other problems of community sanitation. [*64] But it is not just the ecological commissions that work toward this end. Quoting one source, "Throughout the various statements from the economic ministries, one sees mention over and over again about the primacy of ecologically sensible industry..." [*65] To cite it once more, in Article 90, the Rojava Constitution "guarantees the protection of the environment and regards the sustainable development of natural ecosystems as a moral and a sacred national duty." [*66]
"I know that you will visit Kobanî one day and look for the house that witnessed my last days..."
On May 4, 2013, the Rojava military had its first engagements with religious extremists in the cities of Hasaka and Ras al-Ain, in Northeast Syria. [*68] Within the context of the Syrian Civil War, which grew up with the protests throughout the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, [*69] Rojava has been battling the Islamic State while organizing its own revolution at home. Throughout 2013, there had been a number of skirmishes, all of a relatively low-scale, with one incident, for instance, taking the lives of 35 Jihadists and 19 Rojavan freedom fighters. [*70] A number of offensives leaves the Rojavans in a good place, with the October Kurdish Offensive taking a number of villages on the Syria-Iraq border, like Tel Kocer, [*71] the November Kurdish Offensive taking the villages Ghebesh and Tal Shemarin, [*72] and the December Kurdish Offensive with the attack on Tell Brak, which cost heavy casualties among the Islamic soldiers. [*73] Most famously, the YPG and the YPJ survived the siege of Kobanî, where the city was sieged, taken briefly by ISIS, and then liberated by the armed forces of the YPG and YPJ, with a resultant loss in life pointing to around 500 Kurdish fighters dead and around 1,500 Islamic fundamentalists dead. [*74]
The Islamic State that the Rojavans fight is similar in cruelty and inhumanity to the Nazi Fascists that the Spanish Anarchists fought. The New York Times describe the practice of sex slavery and rape that has become a part of the culture of ISIS: "In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam..." [*75] In Northern Iraq, where the non-Anarchist Kurds in an American puppet state continue to practice government, we can see the extension of a culture with this mentality: Human Rights Watch conducted studies in the region "finding nearly half of all girls to be circumcised [exposed to the removal of external female genitalia so as to eliminate sexual sensation]." [*76] This social environment underlines the importance and boldness with which the Rojavans have accepted radical and revolutionary Feminism into their lives. It gives so much more meaning and importance to the struggle between a free Kurdish army and an obedient Islamic army.
In the year 1187, Jerusalem was held by the bloodthirsty and rapacious crusaders of Christendom. By the end of the year, it had been freed, and the original inhabitants, at that point Jewish refugees, were allowed to return to their old lives. And who was it that led this revolt against religious fighters? Saladin, a Kurdish general. [*77] Nearly a thousand years have passed, and today we're witnessing something of a re-enactment, with the role of the religious Fundamentalists being filled by Jihadists instead of Crusaders. The brutish, inhuman tortures that the followers of the Pope applied to the people of Jerusalem is comparable to the tortures that the followers of the ISIS Caliphate are applying today. And just like the Spanish Revolution, there are foreigners from America, Canada, Germany, Britain, and Australia who have volunteered for the side of Freedom against Authoritarianism -- for Rojava against ISIS. [*78] The Lions of Rojava, the name given to this loose organization of foreign fighters, is currently recruiting. [*79]
On November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks broke through Paris, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. [*80] ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating that they were a response to the bombing of strategic targets in Syria and Iraq, [*81] many of these targets being ISIS positions that were facing Kobanî during its siege. [*82] In response to the attack, both US and France vowed to "increase their logistical support to forces that are currently fighting the Islamic State on the ground, such as the Kurdish YPG group in Syria..." [*83] "We will do our best to avenge Paris," said one YPG fighter being interviewed after the Paris attacks. [*84] The world is finally starting to open up to the Anarchist society of the Middle East, even if Turkey is still its greatest militant, having being implicated in the execution of three PKK activists in Paris months before the November attack. [*85] The future will not wait, even if the world wants it to. What will happen with the struggle against the Islamic State is going to be profoundly wrapped around Anarchy in the Middle East.
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