“We’re solidarity activists,” we say to a man who greets us as we cross the border into Rojava.
“You’ve come too late!” he replies.
Nevertheless, he smiles widely, welcomes us and shakes our hands. In a way, I agree with him. We have come too late. We are only visiting Rojava when there has been a revolution; only after the people have successfully formed their own autonomous region. Where were we when the Kurdish population of Syria were fighting for their rights, for their own self-determination, under Assad?
As we drive from the border, I’m surprised to see small oil rigs everywhere on the landscape, some functioning, some not. But why am I surprised when I’m in the oil rich Middle East?
Rojava, which means ‘west’ in Kurdish, is a region in the north of Syria. Rojava bases its politics and principles on a system of collectivism and grassroots organising, known as democratic confederalism, heavily influenced by the writings of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who in turn has been influenced by anarchist principles and the writings of Murray Bookchin.
The Rojava Revolution began in July 2012 when the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and YPJ) took control of the predominantly Kurdish towns from the Assad regime, starting with Kobanê. In January 2014, the constitution of Rojava – and the declaration of the autonomy of the three cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanê and Afrin – was announced. In 2014, Kobanê was attacked and beseiged by ISIS, but I’ll talk more about that in my next blog post.
Although the majority of Rojava’s population is Kurdish, there is a large Arabic population, especially in Cizîrê canton, as well as numbers of Syriacs, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians. The autonomous region of Rojava is multi-ethnic, multi-religion and multi-lingual, and everyone now has the right to be taught in their own language, and a new curriculum is in the process of being implemented. (But as one anarchist comrade critically points out, it’s hardly a radical step to be switching one compulsory curriculum under Assad for another compulsory one). We speak to members of the Education Body of the legislative council, who tell us that “we are against discrimination. We accept the rights of everyone to live in peace.”
There are strong movements for the equality for women, as well as for youths. “Youths take part in society and improve things themselves,” says Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM (the political coalition governing Rojava). I’ll talk more about the women and youth movements in my next blog post.
An aim of the Rojava administration is to ensure that everyone is involved in the politics of the region, and to give all citizens a say in how their neighourhood is run. We are lucky enough to visit a ‘People’s House’ in the town of Amûdê, where locals meet weekly to discuss and make decisions. We’re told that the functions of this commune are to:
* resolve conflicts within the neighbourhood
* teach Kurdish to Kurds who never had the opportunity to learn
* support people by distributing clothing and food
* make economic decisions
* organise an armed defence unit, and to train people to protect themselves.
Locals from 400 households participate in this particular commune. In Rojava, decision making happens on four levels, in an attempt to enable all citizens to participate. These four levels are:
1st level: The commune (as described above), which can include a whole village or up to about 400 households.
2nd level: The neighbourhood council, consisting of representatives from the communes.
3rd level: The district council, which includes the whole city and its surroundings, and where boards from the second level represent at the district level.
4th level: the People’s Council, made up of all district councils.
This method of organising started taking place before the Rojava Revolution of 2012. Back in 2011, the structure of councils and assemblies was set up in Rojava and in neighbourhoods in Aleppo. These movements in Rojava were directly influenced by Kurds over the Turkey border, who, despite being oppressed by the state of Turkey, had been setting up council systems of democratic autonomy since 2007.
Whilst in Rojava, we meet members of the legislative and executive councils, or government, so to speak. But Rojava is supposedly democratic, and decisions should come from the very base, grassroots levels of the communes. So where does this government fit in? My travel companion Chris says:
“Since 2014, legislative and executive councils have been added to the system in Rojava. In the theory of democratic confederalism, these government bodies should only carry out administrative tasks on behalf of the councils. It remains to be seen who will really have the power – the government or the people.”
Whilst in Cizîrê canton, we also attend a neighbourhood meeting in Amûdê, where a man gives a speech (in Kurdish, which is translated into Arabic) to members of the community about anti-capitalism, slavery and imperialism. He says:
“The ruling class enforce decisions on others. The democratic self administration of Rojava is different: decisions are made by people and for people.”
But mostly he speaks about the role of women in society. It’s amusing, but very refreshing to see a man lecturing both women and men of the community about feminism!
Currently the Rojava region has its own police force called the Asayîş. We want to set up a meeting to talk to them, to try to understand whether this police force is different to other police forces, which are inherently violent against those who don’t abide by the rules of the state. Unfortunately we don’t have enough time to make the meeting happen.
Asayîş are everywhere, guarding buildings and checking vehicles on checkpoints all over Rojava. The YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS just one hour south of us, and many of the areas that we travel to have only recently been liberated from ISIS control, so we’re actually very grateful for these numerous checkpoints.
As anti-capitalist activists, my friends and I are concerned about possible US imperialist plans in the region. So we ask Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM whether the Rojava coordination with the US will continue (the US work together with the YPG and YPJ against ISIS). He tells us:
“There is daily coordination with the US military as our enemy is the same, but there is no longterm agreement. There is no guarantee that this coordination will continue. Cooperation in the future will be on the basis of how to protect our principles. So if cooperation compromises our project, we will not agree to it…We will not accept any pressure on us to change our projects. We have our own will and determination.”
Obviously, we leave the TEV-DEM meeting with big smiles on our faces, hopeful that this beautiful people’s movement won’t be destroyed by the US and other imperialist states.
But my friend and comrade Zaher Baher issues a few words of caution in his latest article about Rojava. He says of the US and western powers:
“The best way to defeat [Rojava] is to support it, and thereby to contain it and tame it, without sacrificing any of their soldiers. Once this has been done, they can occupy it economically.”
He also quotes politician Salih Muslim, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) co-leader in Rojava. In a September 2015 interview Muslim says:
“We seek to expand our relations with the US politically and diplomatically, and we hope that we will succeed in doing so…America is a superpower that fosters democracy globally, and tries to develop and disseminate it throughout the world, and the American people have their own standards and fundamental principles for democracy.”
As Chris says, it remains to be seen where the power will lie, and whether democratic confederalism will become corrupted.
Our visit to Rojava is very brief – ten days in total – and is far too short to fully understand the structures and movements in this society. However, I’m inspired by the organising of what seems to be the best large-scale attempt at a democratic society that I’ve seen.
However, the only thing that makes me feel uncomfortable in Cizîrê is the amount of militarist propaganda that’s everywhere, often portraying hundreds of soldiers standing to attention in lines. These posters remind me of the militarist propaganda of oppressive states that I’ve seen on my other travels. I wonder whether the Rojava administration really needs this propaganda. “It’s understandable – they’re in a war right now,” Martin says. Indeed, there are enemies all around: Turkey a couple of miles to the north, ISIS to the south, as well as pockets of Assad troops in Qamişlo. And the Iraqi Kurdistan government to the east places a strict embargo on the border, barely letting anyone or anything of use through to Rojava.
Our hosts in Amûdê constantly watch the propaganda on Rojava TV, so we find ourselves watching YPG and YPJ music videos, which usually involve more dancing than shooting. And damn it, those songs are catchy! As Martin and I walk down the street, we sing YPG songs that are lodged in our brains! Chris points out that the music feels different to the propaganda posters. He says:
“Understandably, people want to celebrate the sacrifice made by those who volunteer to fight for the YPJ and YPG and commemorate those who have died fighting ISIS.”
Indeed. Every day, young, beautiful people are sacrificing their lives on the frontlines.
Back in England, anarchists often debate whether Rojava is ‘truly anarchist’, whether it matches our ideals, or whether we should support Rojava at all. There are arguments as to whether Rojava fits in with our ideas of an anarchist utopia (whilst we do barely anything to organise society differently ourselves, other than running a handful social centres across the country). These debates frustrate me a lot. As activists on the Rojava Plan website say,
“Don’t expect things here to go your way. It is important to understand the culture and philosophy behind this new emerging society. Things here might be done differently from the way you’re used to.”
And then there are those activists in Europe who place Rojava on a pedestal. Writer Joris Leverink states:
“The radical left needs its own mythology as much as everybody else, and in this sense Rojava, Barcelona and Chiapas serve as hopeful reminders that there is an alternative; that it is possible to organize society in a different way.
However, by merely placing these instances of radical organization on a pedestal, as a beacon of hope to be revered when times get rough, our support for these struggles is often not very different from the support we display when we cheer on our favorite football team on TV. The Zapatistas in the jungles of Chiapas and the Kurds on the Mesopotamian plains have come a long way by relying on nothing but their own strength and determination. Their relative isolation has allowed for the development of their radical alternatives, but for these experiments to survive in the long run they need more than supporters and sympathizers. They need partners.”
After five days in Cizîrê canton, we are driven for five hours to Kobanê. It’s incredible to be doing this journey. Only four months before, ISIS controlled the area between Cizîrê and Kobanê, and the two cantons were separate. Now, because of the actions of the YPG and YPJ, we can move freely. Of course, songs of the YPG are playing on the car stereo!
As we drive parallel with the border of Turkey, a Turkish army tank points its gun just metres from our car.
On our journey, we stop in Girê Spî for falafel, and we ask our driver if we can use the toilet.
“There’s only a toilet in the mosque, but you can’t go because we have no security for you,” he says.
“He’s being far too cautious,” I whisper to Chris as I roll my eyes.
But because of all of the checkpoints and because of the kind people who have been looking after us, I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. As usual the locals know best, and just one week later there’s an ISIS attack close to the town.
We visited Rojava in November 2015