The Revolution in Rojava

We received this article from the Urun/Harvest Group and we are publishing it here in full in order to help share news and information about the important national liberation struggle and revolutionary process taking place in Kurdistan.

Kurds live in Iraq (Kurdistan, or the Kurdish Regional Government/KRG), Turkey (North Kurdistan), Syria (Rojava) and in East Kurdistan (Rojhelat and Iran). Kurdish vernaculars divide into two central groups and then subdivide into other branches, dialects and subdialects. Tribal, clan and family ties have been primary, although urbanization, voluntary and involuntary assimilation and the forced resettlement of Kurdish populations have weakened these ties. A majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims but Kurds also follow Shi’a Islam, Alevism, Yazidism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. A Kurdish Jewish community lives in Israel.

Map from Springtime of Nations -

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leads the Kurdish struggle in North Kurdistan and Turkey and has companion parties with fighting forces in Rojava and Rojhelat. There also various Kurdish coordinating bodies at the grassroots in North Kurdistan, Rojava and Rojhelat. Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned in Turkey since 1999, is the person most often associated with the PKK and the broader Kurdish liberation movement. Salih Muslim and Asia Abdullah are the co-presidents of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava. Masoud Barzani is the president of the KRG. The PYD and the revolution in Rojava have taken much from Öcalan’s theories and put these ideas into practice. An especially advanced revolution is underway in Rojava while Barzani is seeking to isolate the revolution.

Öcalan has worked from prison to shift the ideology of the Kurdish liberation movement in new directions so that much of the Kurdish liberation movement has adopted core feminist ideas as well as the principles of “democratic confederalism” or “democratic self-management” and they advance these as alternatives to the nation-state. They reject urbanization, centralism and the idea of the unitary state. A majority of PKK guerillas are probably women and the PKK has prominent women in leading positions. Beze Hozat, one of these leaders, emphasizes the PKK’s role as a Middle Eastern liberation movement and as a social system.

We should also note that the “co-chair” or “co-president” systems echo through all progressive and revolutionary Kurdish organizations in Rojava and North Kurdistan. This system enables women to take and hold leadership and insures collective leadership as well. It builds on specific traditions of women’s experiences which are unique to Rojava and North Kurdistan.

Rojava borders much of southern Turkey and all of North Kurdistan. About four million people live in Rojava, with three languages and seven national groups recognized. The following is an optimistic map of the territory held by the revolution.

The Basics of the Revolution

Rojava is taking an independent path as the civil war in Syria continues. It has been said that Bashar al-Assad signaled that his government forces would not attack the Rojava and reactionary forces have been quick to say that the revolution only holds power in areas that the Syrian regime has conceded. The situation is much more complex than this.

The PYD was founded in 2003 and the revolutionary project was taking shape in 2011. The Rojava Democratic People’s Council was formed as an administrative and representative body through elections in 2011. The women’s movement (Yekitiya Star), the Democratic Society Movement and youth, professional, and student organizations gave the Council its life and gained power through it. The PYD and the Council then formed the two leading formal political bodies of the revolution. This strengthened the revolution in its early days and later provided the basis for the creation and consolidation of political power under a multi-party agreement in 2013.

The revolution has created three federated self-managed cantons. Each canton has governing councils and assemblies. A Social Agreement unites the cantons into a federal system and provides that “The development of production and the aim of economic activity are to meet human needs and establish an honorable life…The ownership of the national means of production shall be established; the rights of citizens, workers and the environment shall be protected; and national sovereignty consolidated.”

The revolution continues to develop its extraordinary system of advancing women and young people through autonomous organizations. The Union of Free Women has led in these efforts. The People’s Council and the Union in one of the cantons recently hosted a 22-day training academy entitled “Towards building a democratic assemblies vanguard of women.” This was the 15th such academy held in Rojava. In developing an economic plan for Rojava people have often adopted cooperative models and have created an officially recognized microeconomy to enable women’s economic advancement. This is sometimes understood as a “social communal economy.” Rojava also recently hosted a conference on democratizing Islam. Rojava has 300 schools providing mother-tongue education, a right that progressive Kurds and teacher unions are fighting for in Turkey and North Kurdistan.

The Enemies of the Revolution

The primary enemies of the revolution are the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The Turkish and Iranian governments have both backed Islamist forces against Rojava for their separate and competing reasons. Fighting is bloody and costly even when Rojava’s forces assume defensive positions. The revolution has sometimes cooperated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its own defense but also acted to protect the Kurdish community in Aleppo. The cantons have the People’s Defense Forces and the Women’s Defense Units to defend them. Women have two combat battalions and a military training institute. Last November Rojava’s fighters liberated at least 25 villages in 5 days of fighting in the Tel Halaf area. Kurds, Arabs, Chechens, Turkmen and Christians live in these villages. In late April suicide bombings by the ISIS took the lives of at least 11 people in the area.

It should be said that ISIS is formed mainly by foreigners. Their entry into Syria helped to internationalize the conflict and divide the country for imperialists. In 2013, ISIS started to attack Kurds in Efrin and in the Cizîre region. Some groups within the FSA initially supported ISIS groups in their areas in order to use them against Kurds. Clashes broke out between ISIS and the FSA only after ISIS failed in their attacks against Kurds and then turned on the FSA. ISIS had some success in fighting against the FSA at the expense of the Kurds.

The leadership of the KRG has sought to isolate the revolution by building fences and digging trenches at its borders, by siding with the Turkish government against the revolution, by not allowing Salih Muslim to enter the KRG and by working for a centralized Kurdish state under their leadership. Refugees flee to Rojava while people from there also seek to flee the fighting, creating a chaotic situation and a burden on the revolution. The KRG’s stance is inhumane but it also has a political edge to it. Pressure from the KRG has recently caused a shift among some parties in the region leading to the creation of a pro-KRG party in Syria. This has been countered to some extent by the founding of a “Kurdish front” within the FSA that refuses to fight against Rojava.

The Turkish government is building a portable wall on the border and this has been the cause of militant protests in North Kurdistan. The walls seem to be less about stopping the flow of refugees and more about isolating the revolution and trying to determine the geography and politics of the revolutionary cantons. Some 900,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, with about 225,000 of these people living in camps. A Turkmen refugee community is forming on the streets of Istanbul and they are resisting being housed with Arabs. The Turkish government’s support for the most reactionary forces in Syria, its armed intervention in Syria’s affairs, the walls, the occasional shooting of Rojava’s citizens at the boundary lines, the government provocations which may lead to new fighting between the government and the PKK and the economic and political support extended to Barzani only make a bad situation much worse and complicate matters in Turkey.

Some Internal Problems Faced By the Revolution

Special efforts at bringing the Arab minority into the revolution have met with mixed success. An Arab minority has lived in Rojava for a long time but the Assad regime also attempted to resettle Arabs in the region and “Arabize” the majority-Kurdish areas. Many Arabs have also arrived recently as refugees. The Arab minority has often held back from participating in the revolution out of understandable self-interest and fear while many Kurds have been suspicious of their Arab neighbors while under attack from Islamist forces. An early statement by Salih Muslim which seemed to justify ethnic cleansing did not help and he hastened to clarify his remarks and make amends. These prejudices have been confronted in Rojava but they have not been entirely overcome and they challenge Rojava’s revolution.

The Syriac minority presents a very different picture. The Syriac population lives mostly in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Qamişlo and the Cizîre region. Before the war they had no leading political organization and were tied to the Syrian regime through their church and as they sought protection from Islamist fighters. With the founding of the Syriac Union Party came an alliance with the PYD and Syriacs gained representation in the cantons. Syriac youth fight alongside of Rojava’s defense forces and have their own military school and Military Council. Syriac women and youth also have their own organizations. Democratic autonomy has clearly increased the morale and standing of the Syriac people in Rojava while in Turkey they still existed as an oppressed and marginalized minority.

Rojava sought to send progressive delegated representatives to the Geneva “peace talks” but the imperialist powers rejected them. Attempts were then made to work through the Syrian and KRG delegations, perhaps with more “moderate” forces, but these efforts were also rebuffed. This came as an initial setback to the revolution, and especially so since it occurred in the lead-up to the Turkish elections and the signing of an oil deal between the KRG and the Turkish government. Öcalan’s resolve seemed to be weakening somewhat at this point as well. The situation was later saved when Rojava sent rrepresentatives to the Swedish and Norwegian parliaments with some success. In April Sinem Mihemed, the female co-President of the Rojava People’s Assembly, announced that the UN will be opening relations with Rojava.

With all of the revolution’s successes and problems as noted above, we should also understand that Öcalan and Rojava’s revolutionary leaders see what is taking place there as redefining the national question and establishing a form of socialism based more on traditions based in Middle Eastern civilizations, the liberation of women and the free federation of Middle Eastern peoples than on dialectical materialism and Marxism. There is much talk here about “democratic modernity,” “killing the dominant male” and democratic confederalism when we wish for more clarity. The PYD initially led the revolution but the revolution is quickly surpassing it. Given that dynamic, the PYD’s insistence that all legal political organizations must recognize its leading role is problematic. Finally, we sometimes see within the PYD an unjustified faith in academics.

Practical support comes from Kurdish communities in Europe and the PKK and its companion parties. The Peace and Democracy Party- People’s Democratic Party alliance and much of the Turkish left also do much to assist. International support has come from the FARC in Columbia, Irish Republicans, Basque revolutionaries and from Tamils. Rojava’s revolution increasingly inspires and influences these forces.

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