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The Kurdish Freedom Movement, Rojava And The Left

Above photo: Protesters demonstrate against Turkey’s military action in northeastern Syria, in Berlin, Germany, October 12, 2019. Christian Mang/Reuters.

The revolution in the Kurdish region of Syria called Rojava has generated significant enthusiasm among broad segments of the left in Europe and North America. The heroic resistance by Kurdish forces in Kobane, Syria during the siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in late 2014 and into early 2015 proved to be a pivotal moment. Images of revolutionary fighters, and particularly of armed women, engaged in a life-and-death struggle, bravely resisting the vicious onslaught by Islamist thugs, caught the attention and imagination of many on the so-called international left. Some viewers even looked beyond the mainstream media’s near-exclusive focus on who the Kurdish forces were fighting against to interrogate what the Kurds were fighting to defend.

It appeared that a revolutionary third way was emerging out of the maelstrom of the Syrian civil war—an effective alternative to the disastrous, negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos in which the region, and even the world, seemed to be increasingly and inescapably submerged. Rojava became a distant progressive light shining in a dark reactionary night, a rare beacon of hope, from a far away and exotic space. A place onto which European and American leftists could project anti-capitalist dreams and radical democratic illusions. It was somewhat like the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, except that Rojava lies at the very epicenter of global geopolitical strife, which certainly rendered the revolutionary developments in the northeast of Syria all the more intriguing, while it also served to multiply their manifold and manifest contradictions.

Rojava may be distant from Europe and North America, but it is also organically linked to the international left through networks of solidarity forged over a generation by activists from the Kurdish diaspora. The Kurdish freedom movement, and its struggle for self-determination, has had a significant presence in Europe—especially in Germany, but also in Britain—since the late 1980s when refugees fleeing from Turkish state terror first began to arrive in considerable numbers. The umbrella term “Kurdish freedom movement” encompasses an array of Kurdish organizations inspired by the ideas of the Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan who has been imprisoned by the Turkish government since 1999. The pro-Öcalan movement is transnational and extends across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan and into the Kurdish diaspora in Europe.

The long-established networks between the Kurdish freedom movement and the broader left in the European countries where Kurdish communities reside are crucial for understanding the resonance of more recent revolutionary developments in Rojava. This deeper history has remained relatively obscure in comparison with more sensational stories about international brigades volunteering to fight and die alongside Kurdish forces at war with ISIS. The networks between Kurdish groups and the European left have played an especially important role in disseminating information about the revolution among politicians, lawyers, academics, trade unions, women’s groups and left-wing activists—in the process promoting and framing it as both a women’s revolution and an innovative experiment in radical, direct democracy.

Building Ties with the Left in Europe and Britain

Organizations such as the Kurdish Human Rights Project and Peace in Kurdistan, founded in Britain in 1992 and linked to the Campaign against Criminalising Communities, have been around for decades. These British organizations have consistently endeavored to raise consciousness, not only among leftists, but also among the general public and members of parliament, about human rights atrocities committed against the Kurds. In Germany, the International Initiative, established in 1999, has been dedicated to disseminating the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan and agitating for his release. At the European level, the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) has sought since 2004 to raise the political profile of the Kurdish freedom movement by engaging in diplomatic work and lobbying among members of the European Parliament. These organizations all have a long track record of close collaboration with the Kurdish National Congress (KNK), which is based in Brussels and is composed of exiled Kurdish politicians, lawyers and activists who have tirelessly sought to bring the Kurdish question to the attention of national governments and international organizations across Europe.

The network of organizations that connect the Kurdish freedom movement in the diaspora with various European initiatives and actors is well-established. It has proven quite resilient even when forced to confront considerable repression by European authorities acting in the name of the so-called War on Terror. Draconian anti-terror legislation introduced by British and European authorities since the mid-1980s, and especially the British anti-terrorism law of 2000, have effectively criminalized the entire Kurdish community by rendering illegal any support for organizations committed to the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Such legislation has created immense political obstacles for all solidarity work with the Kurdish community, and specifically for all attempts to press for a political solution to the ongoing armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state.

The Kurdish freedom movement’s connections with the European left has played an important role in spreading the word about revolutionary developments in Rojava by, among other efforts, organizing visits to the region by official delegations of European and North American academics, social movement activists, trade union officials and left-wing politicians. Such delegations to the northeast of Syria represent an extension of similar initiatives, dating back to the 1990s, that were intended to cultivate a cohort of Western witnesses by orchestrating first-hand, up-close experiences of the Kurdish plight in the Kurdish region of southeast Turkey. Upon their return, the witnesses are encouraged to write and speak about what they have seen in a broad array of public forums, not only in activist circles, but also in national parliaments and European institutions. Among the most notable of the early visitors to the region in collaboration with the international solidarity network were British politicians such as Lord Avebury and John Austin-Walker, who was the Labour MP from Woolwich in the southeast of London, not to mention the Nobel prize winning playwright Harold Pinter, along with his close friend the American playwright Arthur Miller.

Öcalan’s Radical Re-Articulation of Self-Determination

I first came into contact with the Kurdish movement when I was invited to join an international delegation to Rojava in December 2014, during the siege of Kobane. Our group notably included the writer Janet Biehl, who was for many years the partner of the late Murray Bookchin, an American social theorist.[1] The followers of Bookchin are associated with the movement for social ecology—the proposition that environmental degradation stems from hierarchical and unjust social relations. Bookchin’s connection to the Rojava revolution has featured prominently in discussions about the distinctive characteristics of the Kurdish revolution, perhaps especially in debates on the international left. Bookchin’s espousal of libertarian municipalism—an effort to redefine politics and reconfigure society through grassroots participation—as well as his emphasis on the intrinsic link between capitalism and environmental catastrophe, are clearly echoed in the discourse and to some extent even the praxis of the political project of Democratic Confederalism under construction in Rojava. These echoes can be attributed to the unquestionable influence of Bookchin’s work on the thought of Abdullah Öcalan, as reflected in his copious prison writings, which cadres in the Kurdish freedom movement tend to treat with the utmost reverence.[2] But Öcalan is a thinker of eclectic tastes and a man of many influences, whose radical re-articulation of self-determination constitutes an original synthesis in its own right and is derivative of no one.

Öcalan remains the undisputed leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, even after over 20 years of imprisonment by Turkish authorities, who have kept him in inhumane conditions of near total isolation on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara. From his lonely prison cell, Öcalan has undertaken a thorough reassessment of the aims and means of the PKK, which he nominally still heads. The PKK was born in the 1970s as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization committed to the goal of national liberation. From the mid-1980s the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in pursuit of the idea of a Greater Kurdistan. The armed struggle against the state continues to this day, despite Öcalan’s repeated calls for the consummation of a democratic peace.

The movement was originally situated clearly within the national liberation paradigm, and to a considerable extent still is, which helps to account for the affinity and relatively close links between the Kurdish struggle and other struggles for self-determination—such as the republican cause in Northern Ireland or the so-called abertzale left in the Basque Country. Relations with the Palestinian cause are somewhat more complicated mostly because of the two movements’ starkly different relationships with Arab nationalist regimes and, more recently, with the United States. It has never been fully forgotten, however, that the PLO helped to train the PKK in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the early 1980s.

Yet, the appeal of the Kurdish freedom movement today reaches far beyond its links with movements representing other oppressed national minorities. Indeed, sympathizers with the Kurdish cause include even some fervent critics of the paradigm of national liberation, such as Bookchin’s followers. Bookchin himself once dismissed the paradigm of national liberation as being surrounded by “utter confusion” and even accused it of “subverting” the left’s “internationalist tradition.”[3]

The enthusiasm for the Kurdish freedom movement in some avowedly internationalist circles, especially Bookchin’s followers, has much to do with Öcalan’s concerted efforts to push the movement to embrace a new paradigm—one grounded in the struggle against hierarchy in all its forms. These efforts have led the movement to abandon the goal of a Greater Kurdistan—not just tactically, but as a matter of principle—and to substitute the fight for a Kurdish nation-state with the struggle for radical democracy, conceived as democracy against the state.

Putting Ideals into Practice in Rojava

The power vacuum left by the retreat of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime from the northeast of the country in 2012, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, provided a unique opportunity for the Kurdish freedom movement to put some of its radical democratic ideals into practice. The Kurdish revolutionary forces that seized control of the region they called Rojava set out to construct a new society in accordance with the ideals of their new paradigm and thus initiated an ongoing process of fundamental transformation in the nature of social relations. The establishment of direct democratic citizens’ assemblies was one of the distinctive features of this transformation while the creation of a citizens’ militia called the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) was another.

Institutional arrangements that mobilized grassroots participation and people power for the twin purposes of self-government and self-defense began to take root and come to life.[4] Many people around the world, perhaps especially in the West, who fashion themselves to be radical democrats, anarchists or libertarian socialists soon came to view the transformative developments in Rojava as a kind of wish fulfilment of their own revolutionary hopes and dreams. The influential academic and activist David Graeber, for example, famously found there to be “striking similarities” between Rojava and the 1936 anarchist revolution in Spain.

The YPG’s sister organization, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), has become the object of particular adoration. In sharp contrast to the more common images of women as passive or helpless victims in the context of upheaval and war across the Middle East, the pictures circulating in Western media accounts of YPJ women show them actively engaged in armed struggle, fighting for their own freedom. The Rojava revolution was hailed as a women’s revolution. Feminists began to take note. What they found in the new paradigm was a Kurdish freedom movement committed to the principle that the struggle against patriarchy must constitute the cornerstone of the struggle against hierarchy in all its forms. Öcalan writes eloquently and emphatically along such lines when he traces the historical links between the subordination of women and the emergence of the state. He makes ample use of Maria Mies’s concept of “housewifization,” where society’s division of labor relegates women to the role of housewives, and even articulates the notion of women as the first colony. Moreover, in Rojava, there is not only a women’s militia committed to self-defense, there has also been a proliferation of women’s academies dedicated to consciousness raising about what Öcalan calls “jineology,” or the science of women, along with the construction of autonomous women’s assemblies. A co-chair system that assures the equal presence of women in all leadership posts has also been institutionalized. In sum, at the levels of both theory and practice, there seems to be much in Rojava for advocates of gender equality to admire.

Needless to say, there are those on the European and North American left who remain skeptical about the achievements in Rojava.[5] Much of this skepticism, voiced within anarchist circles in particular, questions the extent to which the revolution really lives up to its professed ideals. Some scholars and activists question the cult of personality surrounding the figure of Öcalan, others question the extent of the transformation of social-property relations in Rojava, still others question the grassroots inclusivity of Democratic Confederalism in practice.[6] Journalists, activists and academics are also scrutinizing the extent to which the national liberation paradigm has been truly transcended, which is indeed easier to proclaim than to achieve.[7]

In Syria, the revolutionary forces of Rojava have taken concrete steps to win the support of non-Kurdish populations in the areas under their control. One step was to institutionalize guarantees for autonomous self-governing assemblies for ethnic and religious communities such as Arabs and Assyrian Christians. Another step was to ensure the disproportional presence of members of these communities in leadership posts. Perhaps most significantly, the Kurdish leadership in Rojava allowed the mobilization of communal self-defense militias, which are incorporated into the structures of the Kurdish-led but nevertheless pan-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite such measures, and repeated assurances by the revolutionary forces that they do not aspire to independence for Rojava but are instead fighting for autonomy within a democratic Syria, many local residents still see the revolution as nationalist and separatist in both form and content.

The Struggle for Self-Determination Continues

A major concern for left-wing activists and authors is less what the Kurdish forces are fighting for than who they are fighting with. The impressive resilience of the YPG and the YPJ during the siege by ISIS on Kobane—at a time when other armed forces were fleeing ISIS attacks—convinced the United States Central Command of the need to collaborate with the Kurdish forces. This effective military alliance only began to break down after US air power, combined with SDF boots on the ground, managed to expel ISIS from the erstwhile capital of their caliphate in Raqqa in the fall of 2017. Their alliance not only infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At the same time, it served to reinforce long-standing perceptions of the Kurds as willing pawns of the imperial powers.

Since the victory in the battle of Raqqa, the Kurdish forces have suffered a series of setbacks. First came the Turkish invasion of Afrin in early 2018 and then US President Donald Trump’s betrayal in late 2019. The erratic American president’s decision to partially withdraw US troops and air cover from the northeast of Syria, even over the objections of US Central Command, triggered a second Turkish offensive in which close to 3,100 square miles were captured along the border of Rojava. Both incursions led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of local residents and internal refugees, while the second attack signaled the end of full-fledged autonomy for Rojava, as the Kurdish forces found themselves forced to strike a deal with the Asad regime that allows for the redeployment of the Syrian army across the north of the country.

The Kurdish struggle for self-determination thus finds itself ultimately at the mercy of those who can control the sky above them and of those who care first and foremost about the oil in the ground below them. The Rojava revolution was effectively cornered, forced to choose between being co-opted or being crushed, or even worse, being first co-opted and then crushed. The international network of support for the Kurdish cause, whose efforts have been greatly hindered by domestic legal repression, has proven itself incapable of intervening to alter such a brutal course of events.

As a result, the Kurdish revolution faces great challenges going forward. But the revolutionary forces have already made history. Their project of Democratic Confederalism, with its emphasis on direct democracy against the state, multicultural accommodation, gender emancipation and social ecology, inspired people across the globe. At a time when the future of humanity and life on the planet are facing unprecedented threats, the revolutionary experiment in Rojava stands out as a valiant attempt in the midst of a still-unfolding catastrophe to construct a radical democratic alternative to spiraling violence and tyranny. Which is why, despite all its contradictions, despite all its faults, the revolution in Rojava continues to garner the support and capture the imaginations of so many who find themselves in search of alternatives to an increasingly unlivable present.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is a lecturer of political sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

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